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November 19 2010

15:00

November 11 2010

16:00

The Newsonomics of journalist headcounts

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

We try to make sense of how much we’ve lost and how much we’ve gained through journalism’s massive upheaval. It’s a dizzying picture; our almost universal access to news and the ability of any writer to be her own publisher gives the appearance of lots more journalism being available. Simultaneously, the numbers of paid professional people practicing the craft has certainly lowered the output through traditional media.

It’s a paradox that we’re in the midst of wrestling with. We’re in the experimental phase of figuring out how much journalists, inside and out of branded media, are producing — and where the biggest gaps are. We know that numbers matter, but we don’t yet know how they play with that odd measure that no metrics can yet definitively tell us: quality.

I’ve used the number of 1,000,000 as a rough approximation of how many newspaper stories would go unwritten in 2010, as compared to 2005, based on staffing reduction. When I brought that up on panel in New York City in January, fellow panelist Jeff Jarvis asked: “But how many of those million stories do we need? How many are duplicated?” Good questions, and ones that of course there are no definitive answers for. We know that local communities are getting less branded news; unevenly, more blog-based news; and much more commentary, some of it produced by experienced journalists. There’s no equivalency between old and new, but we can get some comparative numbers to give us some guidelines.

For now, let’s look mainly at text-based media, though we’ll include public radio here, as it makes profound moves to digital-first and text. (Broadcast and cable news, of course, are a significant part of the news diet. U.S. Labor Department numbers show more than 30,000 people employed in the production of broadcast news, but it’s tough to divine how much of that effort so far has had an impact on text-based news. National broadcast numbers aren’t easily found, though we know there are more than 3,500 people (only a percentage of them in editorial) working in news divisions of the Big Four, NBC, ABC, Fox, and CBS — a total that’s dropped more than 25 percent in recent years.)

Let’s start our look at text-based media with the big dog: daily newspapers. ASNE’s annual count put the national daily newsroom number at 41,500 in 2010, down from 56,400 in 2001 (and 56,900 in 1990). Those numbers are approximations, bases on partial survey, and they are the best we have for the daily industry. So, let’s use 14,000 as the number of daily newsroom jobs gone in a decade. We don’t have numbers for community weekly newspapers, with no census done by either the National Newspaper Association or most state press associations. A good estimate looks to be in the 8,000-10,000 range for the 2,000 or so weeklies in the NNA membership, plus lots of stringers.

Importantly, wire services aren’t included in the ASNE numbers. Put together the Associated Press, Reuters, and Bloomberg (though some of those workforces are worldwide, not U.S.-based) and you’ve got about 7,500 editorial staffers.

Let’s look at some areas that are growing, starting with public radio. Public radio, on the road to becoming public media, has produced a steady drumbeat of news about its expansion lately (“The Newsonomics of public radio argonauts,” “Public Radio $100 Million Plan: 100 Journalist Per City,”), as Impact of Government, Project Argo, Local Journalism Centers add more several hundred journalists across the country. But how many journalists work in public broadcasting? Try 3,224, a number recently counted in a census conducted for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. That’s “professional journalists”, about 80% of them full-time. About 2,500 of them are in public radio, the rest in public TV. Should all the announced funding programs come to fruition, the number could rise to more than 4,000 by the end of 2011.

Let’s look at another kind of emerging, non-profit-based journalism numbers, categorized as the most interesting and credible nonprofit online publishers by Investigative Reporting Workshop’s iLab site. That recent census includes 60 sites, with the largest including Mother Jones magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, ProPublica, the Center for Investigative Reporting, and and the Center for Public Integrity. Also included are such newsworthy sites as Texas Tribune, Bay Citizen, Voice of San Diego, the New Haven Independent and the St. Louis Beacon. Their total full-time employment: 658. Additionally, there are high dozens, if not hundreds, of journalists operating their own hyperlocal blog sites around the country. Add in other for-profit start-ups, from Politico to Huffington Post to GlobalPost to TBD to Patch to a revived National Journal, and the journalists hired by Yahoo, MSN and AOL (beyond Patch), and you’ve got a number around another thousand.

How about the alternative press — though not often cited in online news, they’re improving their digital game, though unevenly. Though AAN — the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies — hasn’t done a formal census, we can get an educated guess from Mark Zusman, former president of AAN and long-time editor of Portland’s Willamette Week, winner of 2005 Pulitzer for investigative reporting. “The 132 papers together employ something in the range of 800 edit employees, and that’s probably down 20 or 25 percent from five years ago”.

Add in the business press, outside of daily newspapers. American City Business Journals itself employs about 600 journalists, spread over the USA. Figure that from the now-veteran Marketwatch to the upstart Business Insider and numerous other business news websites, we again approach 1,000 journalists here.

What about sports journalists working outside of dailies? ESPN alone probably can count somewhere between 500 and 1000, of its total 5,000-plus workforce. Comcast is hiring by the dozens and publications like Sporting News are ramping up as well (“The Newsonomics of sports avidity“). So, we’re on the way to a thousand.

How about newsmagazine journalists? Figure about 500, though that number seems to slip by the day, as U.S. News finally puts its print to bed.

So let’s look broadly at those numbers. Count them all up — and undoubtedly, numerous ones are missing — and you’ve got something more than 65,000 journalists, working for brands of one kind or another. What interim conclusions can we draw?

  • Daily newspaper employment is still the big dog, responsible for a little less than two-thirds of the journalistic output, though down from levels of 80 percent or more. When someone tells you that the loss of newspaper reporting isn’t a big deal, don’t believe it. While lots of new jobs are being created — that 14,000 loss in a decade is still a big number. We’re still not close to replacing that number of jobs, even if some of the journalism being created outside of dailies is better than what some of what used to be created within them.
  • If we look at areas growing fastest (public radio’s push, online-only growth, niche growth in business and sports), we see a number approaching 7,500. That’s a little less than 20 percent of daily newspaper totals, but a number far higher than most people would believe.
  • When we define journalism, we have to define it — and count it — far more widely than we have. The ASNE number has long been the annual, depressing marker of what’s lost — a necrology for the business as we knew it — not suggesting what’s being gained. An index of journalism employment overall gives us a truer and more nuanced picture.
  • Full-time equivalent counts only go so far in a pro-am world, where the machines of Demand, Seed, Associated Content, Helium and the like harness all kinds of content, some of it from well-pedigreed reporters. While all these operations raise lots of questions on pay, value and quality, they are part of the mix going forward.

In a sense, technologies and growing audiences have built out a huge capacity for news, and that new capacity is only now being filled in. It’s a Sim City of journalism, with population trends in upheaval and the urban map sure to look much different by 2015.

Photo by Steve Crane used under a Creative Commons license.

September 23 2010

09:42

August 27 2010

14:30

This Week in Review: ‘Mosques’ and SEO, Google’s search and social troubles, and a stateless WikiLeaks

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

Maintaining accuracy in an SEO-driven world: Apparently the future-of-news world isn’t immune to the inevitable dog days of August, because this week was one of the slowest in this corner of the web in the past year. There were still some interesting discussions simmering, so let’s take a look, starting with the political controversy du jour: The proposed construction of a Muslim community center in downtown Manhattan near the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center. I’m not going to delve into the politics of the issue, or even the complaints that this story is symptomatic of a shallow news media more concerned about drummed-up controversy than substantive issues. Instead, I want to focus on the decisions that news organizations have been making about what to call the project.

It has predominantly been called the “ground zero mosque,” though beginning about two weeks ago, some attention began being trained on news organizations — led most vocally by The New York Times and The Associated Press, which changed its internal label for the story — that wouldn’t use that phrase out of a concern for accuracy. The Village Voice used some Google searches to find that while there’s been an uptick in news sources’ use of the project’s proper names (Park51 and the Cordoba Center), “ground zero mosque” is still far and away the most common designation.

What’s most interesting about this discussion are the ideas about why a factually inaccurate term has taken such a deep root in coverage of the issue, despite efforts to refute it: The Village Voice pointed a finger at cable news, which has devoted the most time to the story, while the Online Journalism Review’s Brian McDermott pinpointed our news consumption patterns driven by “warp-speed skimming” and smart-phone headlines that make easy labels more natural for readers and editors.” Watery qualifiers like ‘near’ or ’so-called’ don’t stick in our brains as much, nor do they help a website climb the SEO ladder.”

Poynter ethicist Kelly McBride zeroed in on that idea of search-engine optimization, noting that the AP is being punished for their stand against the term “ground zero mosque” by not appearing very highly on the all-important news searches for that phrase. In order to stay relevant to search engines, news organizations have to continue using an inaccurate term once it’s taken hold, she concluded. In response, McBride suggested pre-emptively using factchecking resources to nip misconceptions in the bud. “Now that Google makes it impossible to move beyond our distortions — even when we know better — we should be prepared,” she said.

Google’s search and social takes shots: Google takes more than few potshots every week on any number of subjects, but this week, several of them were related to some intriguing future-of-news issues we’ve been talking about regularly here at the Lab, so I thought I’d highlight them a bit. Ex-Salon editor Scott Rosenberg took Google News to task for its placement of an Associated Content article at the top of search results on last week’s Dr. Laura Schlessinger controversy. Associated Content is the giant “content farm” bought earlier this year by Yahoo, and its Dr. Laura article appears to be a particularly mediocre constructed article cynically designed solely to top Google’s ranking for “Dr. Laura n-word.”

Rosenberg takes the incident as a sign that reliability of Google News’ search results has begun to be eclipsed by content producers’ guile: “When Google tells me that this drivel is the most relevant result, I can’t help thinking, the game’s up.” The Lab’s Jim Barnett also questioned Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s recent articulation of the company’s idea of automating online serendipity, wondering how a “serendipity algorithm” might shape or limit our worldviews as Google prefers.

Google’s social-media efforts also took a few more hits, with Slate’s Farhad Manjoo conducting a postmortem on Google Wave, homing in on its ill-defined purpose and unnecessary complexity. Google should have positioned Wave as an advanced tool for sophisticated users, Manjoo argued, but the company instead clumsily billed it as the possible widespread successor to email and instant messenging. Meanwhile, Adam Rifkin of GigaOM criticized the company’s acquisition of the social app company Slide (and its social-media attempts in general), advising Google to buy companies whose products fit well into its current offerings, rather than chasing after the social-gaming industry — which he said “feels like it’s about to collapse on itself.”

WikiLeaks, stateless news and transparency: The saga of the open-source leaking website WikiLeaks took a very brief, bizarre turn this weekend, when reports emerged early Saturday that founder Julian Assange was wanted by Swedish authorities for rape, then later that day prosecutors announced he was no longer a suspect. The New York Times provided some great background on Assange’s cat-and-mouse games with various world governments, including the United States, which is reportedly considering charging him under the Espionage Act for WikiLeaks’ release last month of 92,000 pages of documents regarding the war in Afghanistan.

No one really had any idea what to make of this episode, and few were bold enough to make any strong speculations publicly. Two bloggers explored the (possible) inner workings of the situation, with Nicholas Mead using it to argue that catching Assange isn’t exactly going to stop WikiLeaks — as NYU professor Jay Rosen noted last month, WikiLeaks is the first truly stateless news organization, something only permitted by the structure of the web.

That slippery, stateless nature extends to WikiLeaks’ funding, which The Wall Street Journal focused on this week in a fine feature. Unlike the wide majority of news organizations, there is virtually no transparency to WikiLeaks’ funding, though the Journal did piece together a few bits of information: The site has raised $1 million this year, much of its financial network is tied to Germany’s Wau Holland Foundation, and two unnamed American nonprofits serve as fronts for the site.

Hyperlocal news and notes: A few hyperlocal news-related ideas and developments worth passing along: Sarah Hartley, who works on The Guardian’s hyperlocal news efforts, wrote a thoughtful post attempting to define “hyperlocal” in 10 characteristics. Hyperlocal, she argues, is no longer defined by a tight geographical area, but by an attitude. She follows with a list of defining aspects, such as obsessiveness, fact/opinion blending, linking and community participation. It’s a great list, though it seems Hartley may be describing the overarching blogging ethos more so than hyperlocal news per se. (Steve Yelvington, for one, says the term is meaningless.)

Brad Flora at PBS MediaShift provided a helpful list of blogs for hyperlocal newsies to follow. (Disclosure: The Lab is one of them.) And two online media giants made concrete steps in long-expected moves toward hyperlocal news: Microsoft’s Bing launched its first hyperlocal product with a restaurant guide in Portland, and Yahoo began recruiting writers for a local news site in the San Francisco area.

Reading roundup: Despite the slow news week, there’s no shortage of thoughtful pieces on stray subjects that are worth your time. Here’s a quick rundown:

— Spot.Us founder David Cohn wrote an illuminating post comparing journalists’ (particularly young ones’) current search for a way forward in journalism to the ancient Israelites’ 40 years of wandering in the desert. TBD’s Steve Buttry, a self-described “old guy,” responded that it may not take a generation to find the next iteration of journalism but said his generation has been responsible for holding innovation back: “We might make it out of the desert, but I think our generation has blown our chance to lead the way.”

— A couple of interesting looks at developing stories online: Terry Heaton posited that one reason for declining trust in news organizations is their focus on their own editorial voice to the detriment of the public’s understanding (something audiences see in stark relief when comparing coverage of developing news), and Poynter’s Steve Myers used the Steven Slater story to examine how news spreads online.

— At The Atlantic, Tim Carmody wrote a fantastic overview of the pre-web history of reading.

— In an argument that mirrors the discussions about the values of the new news ecosystem, former ESPN.com writer Dan Shanoff gave a case for optimism about the current diffused, democratized state of sports media.

— Another glass-half-full post: Mike Mandel broke down journalism job statistics and was encouraged by what he found.

— Finally, for all the students headed back to class right now, the Online Journalism Review’s Robert Niles has some of the best journalism-related advice you’ll read all year.

July 23 2010

23:05

4 Minute Roundup: The Problem with Content Farms

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4MR is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

In this week's 4MR podcast I give an overview of "content farms," sites such as those from Demand Media, Yahoo's Associated Content and AOL Seed that produce massive amounts of content for low pay. While there have been issues with the quality of content from these sites, they often provide "good enough" how-to information for people searching for it online. Blogger/journalist Jason Fry has been a critic of content farms in the past, but now takes a more nuanced view of them, saying he's more worried about how they affect readers and searchers than the journalism business.

Check it out:

4mrbareaudio72310.mp3

>>> Subscribe to 4MR <<<

>>> Subscribe to 4MR via iTunes <<<

Listen to my entire interview with Jason Fry:

fry full.mp3

Background music is "What the World Needs" by the The Ukelele Hipster Kings via PodSafe Music Network.

Here are some links to related sites and stories mentioned in the podcast:

Writers Explain What It's Like Toiling on the Content Farms at MediaShift

Your Guide to Next Generation 'Content Farms' at MediaShift

Beyond Content Farms series at MediaShift

Hey, Demand Media! Get Off My Lawn! at Reinventing the Newsroom

Comment by Demand Media writer about getting $100 per day at MediaShift

The 'Craigslist Effect' Spreads to Content as Free Work Fills Supply at AdAge


Content 'Farms' - Killing Journalism, While Making a Killing at The Wrap

Also, be sure to vote in our poll about what you think about content farms:




What do you think about "content farms"?Market Research

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

news21 small.jpg

4MR is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

July 22 2010

17:37

How Content Farms Train Their Writers to Write for the Web

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Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

At the core of every content farm's success is an ability to rapidly recruit and integrate new writers. Publishers like Demand Media, Examiner.com, Suite 101 and others are always hiring, always looking to expand their ranks and replace talent that churns out.

These operations rely on abundance: of contributors, of content, of traffic. More contributors means more content, which means more traffic -- but the constant influx of new people means their product could vary widely in terms of the quality of writing, and the ability of the writers to promote their work and drive traffic, among other key factors.

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Examiner.com has proven adept at bringing new writers into the fold. The site, which is in 250 cities in Canada and the U.S., has over 42,000 "Examiners" -- what the site calls its writers -- and is adding over 3,500 new ones each month. (Read our post from earlier this week to get an overview of what Examiner.com does.)

That's a huge amount of people to integrate, especially considering the fact that Examiners range from experienced writers to relative newbies who may have an area of interest but no writing experience. In other cases, an experienced writer may have little or no knowledge about search engine optimization and the best ways to promote their work online. Examiner.com deals with this by offering a variety of training and support resources to get people producing quickly, and within a set of guidelines.

Forums, Guides, Feedback

Sites such as Associated Content and Demand offer discussion forums where writers can exchange information and search for previously answered questions. They also provide access to editors or support staff. For its copy editors, Demand offers "forums, blogs, newsletters and other channels for you to communicate with and learn from your fellow editors." These editors, in turn, help ensure that all written materials adhere to the very specific guidelines established for each Demand property or client.

Suite101 offers a range of resources, including text-based tutorials, on-on-one coaching, and discussion forums. "We have created concise tutorials to help writers better understand how to implement white hat SEO strategies and to better understand the overall process of web writing," said Lima Al-Azzeh, the site's associate editor.

Examiner.com offers support services and discussion forms, but it has also been aggressive, and unique, in creating online, self-directed interactive tutorials. The site has created Examiner University, a standalone section of its site that offers Flash-based classes and other forms of training content that help get Examiners up to speed.

Inside Examiner U

Jason Stone joined Examiner.com six months after the site's April 2008 launch. Initially hired to be a channel manager overseeing writers in a specific topic area, he soon found himself spending time helping his Examiners understand search engine optimization, video embedding, social media and other necessary skills and tools.

"I would write emails to Examiners and it eventually occurred to me that I was spending a lot of time addressing the same issues over and over," Stone said. "I thought that there had to be a more efficient way to do this. So I started making documents and videos and distributing them to Examiners."

His training materials caught on and he was soon asked to take on this work as a full-time job. The result is Examiner University. Part of the core curriculum of Examiner University are its "101"-level courses that offer instruction in four key areas.

"Early on we decided there would be four pillars of types of courses which will be reflected in 101 courses: editorial; marketing to a growing audience; technical skills, because publishing online means putting tools in the writers' hands; and then information that is specific to Examiner.com, such as how our referral program works," Stone said. "If any one of those -- especially the first three -- fail then it's an overall failure."

There are currently 25 courses offered on the site, and the company expects to launch more after a new version of the Exmainer.com website goes live soon. (Examiner University is also home to a video guide to the new website.) The core courses are delivered using a combination of audio, video and text. Other course topics include "grammar considerations," "plagiarism," "finding photos online," "proofreading," "writing locally," and "SEO considerations," to name just a few. The "finding photos" and "writing locally" courses are among the most popular.

examinerlocalcourse.jpg

"Obviously, we have varying degrees of skill sets coming in the door," says Justin Jimenez, Examiner.com's director of marketing and PR. "A seasoned journalist might come in and skip over the editorial section but could be very interested in the marketing and social media component. The large value for us is continuing to enhance that quality and have offerings for different levels of skill sets."

Overall, executives at Examiner.com feel the courses are working, even though the company isn't permitted to require its writers to attend Examiner U. (Examiners are independent contractors and not employees, so the company can't tmake Examiner University a requirement.)

"Measuring success is kind of difficult in that it's not easy to quantify the effect that the courses are having," Stone said. "We look at the metrics and we now average about 4,000 course launches per week, and that number keeps going up."

Stone added that the average Examiner spends roughly seven or eight minutes per course. Though many courses are longer than that, each lesson includes a table of contents that enables people to skip to the parts they find most useful.

Feedback From Examiners

I spoke with a few current Examiners to see what they had to say about both Examiner University and their fellow Examiners. Here's a selection of their responses:

Sharon K. West, current Haunted Places Examiner and American History Examiner and a former writer for Suite101.com and Associated Content:

I've gone completely through the Examiner University, twice. I wanted to make sure that I understood their policies and how to upload articles and pictures.

I was also searching for information on current styles. During the time that I wrote for Suite101.com, the new style of Internet writing started coming into play. Things like SEO, keywords, and putting the most important points at the beginning of the article, rather than the old style of gradually working up to the mighty conclusion at the end. In some cases, in the old way, you told people what you wanted to tell them and then told them at the end what you already told them. Everything has changed for the Internet.

I made it a point to go through Examiner University before I did anything else, and in the process, it finally clicked in my head how to write in chunks, start out with the important things, and get those keywords in lots of times, as well as using headings and lists inside the article.

Brad Sylvester, current Manchester Bird Watching Examiner, Maritime Headlines Examiner, and Manchester Green Living Examiner; a corporate writer and a former writer for Associated Content:

Generally, when I ran into problems I'd go to their site and see the tutorial. As far as the 101s, I did go through all of those maybe two months in to see if there was a better way of doing things.

The most helpful were the ones that walked me through their publishing tool and told you what to expect and how it works. Also, there is a community where you can talk with other Examiners and I found that to be helpful as well. People would share best practices.

There are two camps [of Examiners]. There are some that are very experienced and some that have no experience -- and almost nobody in between.

Angele Sionna, current Early Childhood Parenting Examiner and Western U.S. Travel Examiner; contributor to eHow; former television news producer and a professional journalist for more than 15 years:

Initially, there was a feeling of a "workplace" and you got to "know" co-workers, most of whom were other professional journalists who write for a bunch of media...like myself. They used Examiner.com to write about their passions, whereas at some other jobs they'd write on other topics. I'm much the same way. Many of those journalists are still with Examiner like I am... but unfortunately there are also people with Examiner who really don't know how to write or even what to write about. They've tried to crack down on people who would report things just from other sites just to get page views. I was glad to see that, but some of those folks with no original content are still around and that part is frustrating to me...Though I have seen articles from people that do not have a journalistic background that are very well done, well researched and enjoyable to read. So it is really a mixed bag.

You know, I haven't checked what their current class offerings are lately, as previously I felt there wasn't anything of real benefit for me at the Examiner University. That's fine with me though. It is good they have tools for people who may be experienced writers or experts that need more help figuring out the ways of the web. Not everyone feels comfortable with the web or knows how it works.

To read more stories in the Beyond Content Farms series go here.

Craig Silverman is an award-winning journalist and author, and the managing editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He is founder and editor of Regret the Error, the author of Regret the Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech, and a weekly columnist for Columbia Journalism Review. He also serves as digital journalism director of OpenFile, a new collaborative news site for Canada. Follow him on Twitter at @CraigSilverman.

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Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

July 21 2010

19:22

How to Gauge Success Using New Metrics

Last week, I met with two people from a non-profit in Phoenix that looks at progressive policies to balance economic development with the environment. Land use and livable communities are two of their key talking points, so it seems logical that they should be aware of a service that encourages and enables people to use light rail to get around the inner city, right? For those unaware, that describes our Knight Foundation-funded project, CityCircles.

As we discussed CityCircles during the meeting, the inevitable question arose: How much traffic are you getting?

The answer, in all honesty, is not much at the moment.

But "hits" -- or page views, or unique visits, or whatever traditional web metric you choose to use here -- is not what we're looking for at CityCircles.

Our project is less about "how many" people are using the service and more about "how" people are using it: How they are interacting with it, with each other, and with the light rail community at-large as a result of our existence. I bring this up because it will inevitably be part of any early discussion you may have about your own startup.

The Battle For the Top of Search Results

Your answer will obviously be critical to how the project is perceived. For us, we do our best to follow how web usage is developing as new startups go live. One particularly interesting development is the mile-wide content creators like Demand Media, Associated Content and other related sites. (See the ongoing feature on these kind of content farms being published this week at MediaShift.)

In general, these companies pay writers of a general skill level to write about almost every topic under the sun for an extremely, ahem, modest fee. They are essentially choosing quantity over quality as their business model. (However, that is in the eye of the beholder, as any piece of content is capable of being high-quality to a particular user if it's exactly what they're looking for at exactly the right time. It just tends to be something that won't win any major journalism accolades.)

A really great story on this topic -- with a really great volley of thoughtful comments -- came out earlier this month on The Wrap.

There's a lot there to contemplate, but what I prefer to ponder is a post written by FoundingDulcinea's Mark Moran in December 2009.

He argues -- successfully, in my mind -- that sites like Associated Content and others will, over time, kill search engines' usefulness (if the search companies don't address this issue). The deluge of content from thousands of writers on multiple topics will come to dominate the top search rankings, thus diminishing the utility each user gets from that search. As some have noted, certain searches require you to wade through posts to get to the deeper results on a topic you are interested in, and this equates to being invisible in search because few users click past the first page or two of search results.

Metrics to Consider

Why do I bring this up for potential startups?

The impact these sort of sites can have may force you to re-think your own metrics. If page views work for you (and you should think beyond that), then that's great. Just remember to follow developments that impact search engines, because that is where validation for your project will come from as you talk to potential stakeholders.

If you'd like to consider other options, here are a few metrics we are tracking under our grant:

  • Number of registered users
  • Number of posts
  • Number of comments on those posts
  • Number of community improvement projects completed
  • Most frequently visited landing pages for light rail stops
  • Length of time spent on our mobile website (train schedules)
  • Interviews with users at our light rail events (anecdotal stories about light rail use)
  • Number and type of merchants participating in our light rail events

Food for thought -- especially at a time when startups have to score millions of page views to attract a whiff of advertising money, if that's your business model. Our model is based on a deeper experience of use, not just information consumption.

Start thinking ahead to answer that inevitable question.

16:05

Writers Explain What It's Like Toiling on the Content Farm

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"We are going to be the largest net hirer of journalists in the world next year," AOL's media and studios division president David Yun said last month in an interview with Michael Learmonth of Ad Age. Yun suggested that AOL could double its existing stable of 500 full-time editorial staffers in addition to expanding its network of 40,000 freelance contributors. Many of the jobs will be added to its hyper-local venture, Patch, while the majority of AOL's freelancers will work for the company's content farms -- Seed and the recently acquired video production operation, Studio One.

These two areas into which AOL is ambitiously expanding are the fastest growing sectors of the journalism market. Hyper-local networks like Outside.in and content farms such as Demand Media are flourishing. As Yun's bold prediction indicates, more and more journalists will end up working for new online content producers. What will these new gigs be like? To better understand, I reached out to people who have already worked with some of the big players.

Life of a 'Content Creator'

"A lot of my friends did it and we had a lot of fun with it," said one graduate of a top journalism graduate program when asked about her work for Demand Media. "We just made fun of whatever we wrote."

The former "content creator" -- that's what Demand CEO Richard Rosenblatt calls his freelance contributors -- asked to be identified only as a working journalist for fear of "embarrassing" her current employer with her content farm-hand past. She began working for Demand in 2008, a year after graduating with honors from a prestigious journalism program. It was simply a way for her to make some easy money. In addition to working as a barista and freelance journalist, she wrote two or three posts a week for Demand on "anything that I could remotely punch out quickly."

The articles she wrote -- all of which were selected from an algorithmically generated list -- included How to Wear a Sweater Vest" and How to Massage a Dog That Is Emotionally Stressed," even though she would never willingly don a sweater vest and has never owned a dog.

eHow.jpg

"I was completely aware that I was writing crap," she said. "I was like, 'I hope to God people don't read my advice on how to make gin at home because they'll probably poison themselves.'

"Never trust anything you read on eHow.com," she said, referring to one of Demand Media's high-traffic websites, on which most of her clips appeared.

Although chief revenue officer Joanne Bradford has touted Demand's ability to give freelancers a byline and get their pieces published to "a great place on the web," the successful writers I interviewed made great efforts to conceal their identities while working for the content farm.

The prospect of seeing their names in the travel section of USAToday.com or the small business page of the Houston Chronicle's website -- two newspaper sites where Demand now contributes content -- did not interest them. The working journalist who previously wrote for Demand is only listed as "an eHow Contributing Writer" on her pieces while Christopher, another Demand freelancer I spoke with who asked to only be identified by his first name, chooses to write under a pen name.

(Note: MediaShift tried multiple times to get Demand Media to talk to us on the record for this series, but they declined, saying they were not doing media interviews due to competitive reasons.)

Churning it Out

Like the working journalist, Christopher cited Demand's compensation as his primary reason for working with the company. For the past two years he has written for the company to supplement the salary he earns as an adjunct professor at a mid-sized Midwestern university. Although Demand pays only a meager $15 or so per piece, by choosing easy prompts and writing them up very quickly, Christopher managed to collect a tidy sum for his time and effort. Christopher forces himself to pump out a minimum of three per hour for three hours a day. "For me it's always the hourly rate," he said. "I won't [write for Demand] if I feel I can make money doing something else."

Christopher has tried other content farms but keeps coming back to Demand Studios. Lured by higher per-article pay rates from AOL's Seed, he wrote three pieces, only one of which was published. Unlike at Demand or Yahoo's Associated Content, which pays as little as $0.05 a piece, Seed freelancers cannot claim a given topic. So even though this actual story request for a thousand word piece on post-traumatic stress disorder among doctors and nurses in the military might earn a freelance journalist $205, they could also earn absolutely nothing for their labor.

Seed of Hope?

As Yolander Prinzel of the blog All Freelance Writing explained, to freelance for Seed, you must create "content on spec, without any real direction and cross your fingers hoping you didn't just waste your time ... You and goodness knows how many other writers all rush to find that magical, mystical voice that will satisfy the faceless editors."

Unable to determine what had caused Seed to buy one of his pieces for $30 and reject the other two without any substantial feedback, Christopher told me he "just said screw it. It's so random."

waletpop.jpg

Other AOL contributors have had better luck with Seed. Since February, Megan Cottrell has been a regular contributor to Wallet Pop, a consumer finance site owned by AOL.

Although Cottrell uses the Seed system to post and edit stories, her clips owe less to a mastery of SEO alchemy than to old fashioned networking: She began working with Seed after she met one of Wallet Pop's editors.

"I haven't done Seed the way it's set up [to work for most writers]," she told me. "I've pitched stories to [the Wallet Pop blog] Money College and had stories assigned to me."

Although Cottrell's experience is likely very different from that of most Seed freelancers, AOL's use of her writing is indicative of how the company aims to leverage the work produced from the content farm. A story she wrote about student loan debt was featured in the slidebar at the top of AOL's home page. Homegrown content from Seed can be featured or linked to on multiple platforms, all of which can earn the company valuable page views and the corresponding ad dollars.

According to a MediaShift interview with Brian Farnham, the editor-in-chief of AOL's hyper-local venture Patch, using content from Seed "is something we're testing and exploring, to exploit if we can, and enhance the local professionally done journalism that we're doing."

In an upcoming story this week, I will take a look at what it's like to work at Patch, as well as other hyper-local ventures.

*****

Have you worked for a content farm? Would you consider doing so? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

To read more stories in the Beyond Content Farms series go here.

MediaShift Editorial Intern Davis Shaver contributed to this article.

Corbin Hiar is the DC-based editorial assistant at MediaShift. He is a regular contributor to More Intelligent Life, an online arts and culture publication of the Economist Group, and has also written about environmental issues on Economist.com and the website of The New Republic. Before Corbin moved to the Capital to join the Ben Bagdikian Fellowship Program at Mother Jones, he worked a web internship at The Nation in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @CorbinHiar.

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July 09 2010

14:00

This Week in Review: Time’s non-pay paywall, free vs. pay in Britain and what to do with content farms

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

A Time quasi-paywall discovered: Thanks to some collaborative online sleuthing — OK, basically just wandering around on a website and asking some simple questions — we found out that Time magazine is planning an online paywall. Reuters’ Felix Salmon ran into the wall first a few weeks ago, but saw that it had disappeared by the next day. Then on Tuesday, the Lab’s Joshua Benton noticed it again, pointing out that this was an odd kind of paywall — one without any sort of way to pay online (“a paywall without a door,” in his words).

All Things Digital’s Peter Kafka got word the next day that the paywall is part of a company-wide strategy at Time Inc. to separate its print and iPad content from its online material. The Lab found out that Time does indeed have a plan to give that paywall a door and provide a way to purchase articles online, and The New York Times reported that this paywall sans pay is part of a gradual effort to retrain readers to pay for content online and noted that not everything from the magazine is gone from the website.

PaidContent’s Staci Kramer called the move not a paywall, but “the magazine equivalent of a condom” — a way to separate online readers from its print content. She noted that the move limits non-print access to Time to a very select group of people — namely, iPad owners. Essentially, it’s a hardware requirement to read Time magazine, something Publish2’s Scott Karp asked whether we’re going to start to seeing more of.

All Things Digital’s Kafka wondered why Time wouldn’t just offer its print articles for free if the magazine’s print and online audiences were as separate as they’re typically said to be. New York’s Chris Rovsar posited that the new wall is about protecting its $4.99 iPad app: If all your print stuff is available through the iPad browser for free, why buy the app? DailyFinance media critic Jeff Bercovici made the same point and argued that while Time may appear forward-thinking here, this move is really a regression. Newsweek’s Mark Coatney, a former Time staffer, was ruthless in his assessment of the strategy, saying that it all comes back to value, and Time hasn’t articulated why its print content is worth paying for, but its online stuff isn’t.

A paid-content contrast in Britain: Time was far from the only paywall news this past week: Three relatively small Gannett papers put up a $9.95-a-month paywall last Thursday, and the most important new paywall may have been at The Times of London and The Sunday Times, two of Britain’s oldest and most respected publications, which began charging for everything on their site last Friday. That development is particularly important because it’s the first move in the paid-content crusade that Rupert Murdoch has been gearing up for since last summer.

Steve Outing and Poynter’s Bill Mitchell noted that the Times’ paywall is among the most impenetrable we’ve seen yet in newspapers: All non-subscribers can see is the homepage, and even the headlines are blocked from online news aggregators. New York’s Chris Rovsar took stock of what The New York Times (planning its own paid-content system next year) could learn from how the Times rolled out its paywall, and basically, it boils down to, “Whatever they did, just don’t do it.” He and the Press Gazette’s Dominic Ponsford ripped the Times’ paid-content strategy, criticizing it for not being RSS-compatible, not linking, and giving away desperate-looking freebies. (Rovsar and Ponsford do acknowledge that the site is cheap and pretty, respectively.) British journalist Kevin Anderson used the Times’ paywall as an opportunity to light into the thinking that leads newspapers to charge for content online in the first place.

Meanwhile, the Guardian, another prominent British paper that is staunchly in favor of free online content, released a Wordpress plugin that allows blogs and websites to embed the full text of Guardian stories for free. (Steve Outing demonstrated with a post on the iPad.) It’s an unprecedented move, and one that made for a pretty easy contrast with the Times’ protectionist strategy online. Outing did it most explicitly in two posts, arguing that the Guardian’s strategy taps into a worldwide revenue potential, while the Times relies on its brand-loyal British readers. Murdoch “apparently still doesn’t understand that this whole pay-for-news-online thing is not about the needs of publishers like him. It’s about what the audience for news is willing to do and willing to pay for,” he wrote.

Learning from (and fighting with) content farms: Since acquiring the online content provider Associated Content in May, Yahoo has become the latest online media company to begin producing articles based on a calculation of search terms, including for its new news blog, The Upshot. The Wrap’s Dylan Stableford took a look at these “content farms,” focusing on why journalists hate them and what news organizations might be able to learn from them. (On the latter point, Stableford’s sources said content farms’ acute attentiveness to what people are interested in reading could be particularly instructive.)

One of the people Stableford quotes, NYU professor Jay Rosen, gets some extended time on the subject, and another, Jason Fry, posted some additional thoughts, too. Fry, who is quoted in the article as saying, “If you want to know how our profession ends, look at Demand Media,” clarified his stance a bit, saying that what bugs him is not the low pay, but the lack of quality. Still, he acknowledged that because of cost-cutting, many small- and medium-sized newspapers’ content is just as mediocre. Peter Berger, a CEO of Suite101.com, one of those content generators, said the concern from news organizations is a red herring, and his industry really presents the biggest threat to non-fiction books.

Canadian writer Liz Metcalfe voiced some similar thoughts, arguing that the problem with the “demand content” model isn’t the model itself, but the poor quality of what gets produced. Newspapers should find a way to incorporate the model while producing high-quality material, and beat the content farms at their own game, she said. On the other hand, Harvard prof Ethan Zuckerman said dictating content based on search would be a bad way to run a newspaper: “You’d give up the critical ability to push topics and parts of the world that readers might not be interested in, but need to know about to be an engaged, informed citizen.”

A private group called the Internet Content Syndication Council wants to do something about these dastardly villains, and they’re exploring a few options, including drafting a set of content-quality guidelines, licensing content syndicators and asking Google to tweak its search formula. CNET’s Caroline McCarthy wondered what a guideline or licensing system would do with bloggers.

Chronicling an accelerating shift to mobile: The Pew Internet & American Life Project released a couple of fascinating studies in the past week, the first on the future of social relations online and the second a survey of Americans’ mobile use. The latter study in particular turned up a raft of interesting statistics, led by the finding that 59 percent of adults go online wirelessly, including 47 percent of Americans with their laptops and 40 percent with their cell phones.

Poynter’s Mobile Media focused on the rise in “non-voice” uses for cell phones over the past year (Silicon Alley Insider has it in graphical form). The New York Times and Washington Post centered on the survey’s finding that African-Americans, Hispanics, young people and poorer Americans are among the heaviest mobile media users, with the Times stating that “the image of the affluent and white cellphone owner as the prototypical mobile Web user seems to be a mistaken one.”

Here at the Lab, Laura McGann seized on another tidbit from the study indicating that about a fifth of young adults have made a donation via their cell phone. She tied that finding to the public radio station WBUR’s attempt to find a way to allow users to donate via an iPhone app, something Apple doesn’t allow, asking how nonprofit news orgs might be able to find a way to tap into that willingness to give through their cell phones.

Reading roundup: Lots of really thoughtful stuff this week that’s well worth your time (I assume it is, anyway — maybe your time’s much more valuable than mine):

— The debate over objectivity and journalism raged on this week, fueled by the firing of CNN’s Octavia Nasr over a remark she made on Twitter. Many of the arguments circled around to the same ground we’ve covered with the Gen. McChrystal and Dave Weigel flare-ups, but I wanted to highlight three takes that stand out: Salon’s Dan Gillmor on America’s “technically good subservient press,” Jay Rosen on “objectivity as a form of persuasion,” and Mediaite’s Philip Bump on a journalism of individuals.

— Many new media folks have been following the fate of the nonprofit Texas Tribune, and the Columbia Journalism Review has a pretty definitive account of where they stand.

— ReadWriteWeb has a handy resource for zooming out and taking a look at the big picture — a summary of five key web trends so far at 2010’s halfway point.

— Spot.Us’ David Cohn takes a look at the short-lived journalism startup NewsTilt and comes away with some helpful lessons.

— Finally, Google researcher Paul Adams has a presentation on the problems with the way social media is designed that’s been making its way around the web. It’s a whopping 216 slides, but it’s a simple yet insightful glance at what feels just a little bit wrong about our social interactions online and why.

May 21 2010

14:30

This Week in Review: Facebook circles the wagons, leaky paywalls, and digital publishing immersion

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

Should Facebook be regulated?: It’s been almost a month since Facebook’s expansion of Open Graph and Instant Personalization, and the concerns about the company’s invasion of privacy continue to roll in. This week’s telling example of how much Facebook information is public comes courtesy of Openbook, a new site that uses Facebook’s API to allow you to search all public Facebook updates. (Of course, you’ll find similarly embarrassing revelations via a Twitter search, but the point is that many of these people don’t know that what they’re posting is public.)

We also got another anti-Facebook diatribe (two, actually) from a web luminary: danah boyd, the Microsoft researcher and social media expert. Boyd, who spends a lot of time talking to young people about social media, noted two observations in her first post: Many users’ mental model of who can see their information doesn’t match up with reality, and people have invested so much time and resources into Facebook that they feel trapped by its changes. In the second post, Boyd proposes that if Facebook is going to refer to itself as a “social utility” (and it’s becoming a utility like water, power or the Internet, she argues), then it needs to be ready to be regulated like other utilities.

The social media blog Mashable has chimed in with a couple of defenses of Facebook (the web is all about sharing information; Facebook has normalized sharing in a way that users want to embrace), but the din has reached Facebook’s ears. The Wall Street Journal reported that the issue has prompted deep disagreements and several days of discussions at Facebook headquarters, and a Facebook spokesman said the company is going to simplify privacy controls soon.

Meanwhile, tech investor and entrepreneur Chris Dixon posited that Facebook is going to use its web-wide Like button to corner the market on online display ads, similar to the way Google did with text ads. Facebook also launched 0.facebook.com, a simple mobile-only site that’s free on some carriers — leading Poynter’s Steve Myers to wonder whether it’s going to become the default mobile web for feature phones (a.k.a. “dumb” phones). But The New York Times argued that when it comes to social data, Facebook still can’t hold a candle to the good, old-fashioned open web.

Are iPad apps worth it?: The iPad’s sales haven’t slowed down yet — it’s been projected to outsell the Mac, and one in five Americans say they might get one — but there are still conflicting opinions over how deeply publishers should get involved with it. Slate Group head Jacob Weisberg was the latest to weigh in, arguing that iPad apps won’t help magazines and newspapers like they think it will. He makes a couple of arguments we’ve seen several times over the past month or two: App producers are entering an Apple-controlled marketplace that’s been characterized by censorship, and apps are retrograde attempts to replicate the print experience.

“They’re claustrophobic walled gardens within Apple’s walled garden, lacking the basic functionality we now expect with electronic journalism: the opportunity to comment, the integration of social media, the ability to select text and paste it elsewhere, and finally the most basic function of all: links to other sources,” Weisberg says. GQ magazine didn’t get off to a particularly encouraging start with its iPad offerings, selling just 365 copies of its $2.99 Men of the Year iPad issue.

A few other folks are saying that the iPad is ushering in fundamental changes in the way we consume personal media: At Ars Technica, Forrester analyst Sarah Rotman Epps notes that the iPad is radically different from what people say they want in a PC, but they’re still more than willing to buy it because it makes complex computing simple. (The term Forrester is using to describe the tablet era, curated computing, seems like a stretch, though.) Norwegian digital journalist John Einar Sandvand offers a similar take, saying that tablets’ distinctive convenience will further weaken print newspapers’ position. And the Lab’s Josh Benton says the iPad could have an effect on the way we write, too.

Slipping through the Times’ and WSJ’s paywalls: New York Times editor Bill Keller gave an update late last week on the plans for his paper’s much-anticipated paywall — he didn’t really tell us anything new, but did indicate the Times’ solidified plans for the wall’s implementation. In reiterating the fact that he wasn’t breaking any news, though, Keller gave Media Matters’ Joe Strupp a bit of a clearer picture about how loose the Times’ metered model will be: “Those who mainly come to the website via search engines or links from blogs, and those who only come sporadically — in short, the bulk of our traffic — may never be asked to pay at all,” Keller wrote.

In the meantime, digital media consultant Mark Potts found another leaky paywall at The Wall Street Journal. Potts canceled his WSJ.com subscription (after 15 years!) and found that he’s still able to access for free almost everything he had previously paid for with only a few URL changes and the most basic of Google skills. And even much of that information, he argues, is readily available from other sources for free, damaging the value of the venerable Journal paywall. “Even the Journal can’t enforce the kind of exclusivity that would make it worth paying for — it’s too easy to look elsewhere,” Potts writes.

Another Times-related story to note: The paper’s managing editor for news, Jill Abramson, will leave her position for six months to become immersed in the digital side of the Times’ operation. The New York Observer tries out a few possible explanations for the move.

Going all-in on digital publishing: Speaking of immersion, two publishers in the past two weeks have tried a fascinating experiment: producing an issue entirely through new-media tools. The first was 48 Hour, a new San Francisco-based magazine that puts together each issue from beginning to end in two days. The magazine’s editors announced a theme, solicited submissions via email and Twitter, received 1,500 submissions, then put together the magazine, all in 48 hours. Several who saw the finished product were fairly impressed, but CBS’s lawyers were a little less pleased about the whole ‘48 Hour’ name. Gizmodo had a Q&A with the mag’s editors (all webzine vets) and PBS MediaShift and the BBC took a closer look at the editorial process.

Second, the Journal Register Company newspaper chain finished the Ben Franklin Project, an experiment in producing a daily and weekly newspaper and website using only free, web-based tools. Two small Ohio newspapers accomplished the feat this week, and Poynter’s Mallary Jean Tenore took a look inside the effort. What she uncovered should be an inspiration for people looking to implement change in newsrooms, especially ones that might be resistant to digital media. A quote from the daily paper’s managing editor sums it up: “When we started out, we said, ‘We’re going to do what? How are we going to do this?’ Now we’re showing ourselves that we can operate in a world that, even six months ago, used to be foreign to us.”

Reading roundup: This week, I’ve got two developments and a handful of other pieces to think on:

— Yahoo bought the online content producer Associated Content for $100 million this week. News business analyst Ken Doctor examined what this deal means for Yahoo (it’s big, he says), and considers the demand-and-advertising-driven model employed by Associated Content and others like Demand Media.

— If you follow NYU professor Jay Rosen on Twitter, you’ve heard a ton about fact-checking over the past couple of months. A couple more interesting tidbits on the subject this week: Fact-checks are consistently the AP’s most popular pieces online, and Minnesota Public Radio has unveiled PoliGraph, its own fact-checking effort.

— Poynter’s Rick Edmonds compares two of the more talked-about local news startups launching this summer, Washington D.C.’s TBD and Hawaii’s Honolulu Civil Beat. He’s got some great details on both. Poynter also put together a list of 200 moments over the last decade that transformed journalism.

— If you’re up for a quick, deep thought, the Lab’s Josh Benton muses on the need for news to structure and shrink its users’ world. “I think it’s journalists who need to take up that challenge,” he says, “to learn how to spin something coherent and absorbing and contained and in-the-moment and satisfying from the chaos of the world around us.”

— And once you’re done with that, head into the weekend laughing at The Onion’s parody of newspapers’ coverage of social media startups.

May 20 2010

14:00

The Newsonomics of content at the margins

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

Yahoo’s purchase of Associated Content, for over $100 million, seemed to come out of the blue. Actually, though, it didn’t. Yahoo made a foray at buying Demand Media two years ago, but the parties couldn’t come to terms. At that point, Demand’s model seemed to make sense, but hadn’t matured to a point of conventional-wisdom validation.

We’re now at that point: The well-dissected, advertising-drives-content Demand model is at the center of Demand Media, AOL’s Seed, Examiner.com and Associated Content. The Newsonomics of content arbitrage that I wrote about for the Lab a month ago is a certified phenomenon; the conventional wisdom is that these algorithm-driven, user-gen-aggregated, SEO-augmented, metrics-monitored businesses are at the center of a new way to produce “content.” Not news, mind you, but newsy content, some of it wonderfully useful, some of it wince-worthy. News content is far too costly to produce, doesn’t produce enough of a long-tail and doesn’t link that easily to commerce — the buying of stuff that fuels advertising.

The newsy stuff, though, is an annuity. That’s an interesting term, used by Associated Content CEO Patrick Keane, when I interviewed him a couple of weeks ago. An annuity. That’s a business made from the long tail. Pay for something once — and not much; in the case of Associated Content, $5 to $30 per piece — and monetize it forever. That’s why the evergreen content encouraged by the Associateds and Demands runs to “How to Teach Your Dog Sign Language,” and “10 Surefire Tips on Selling Your House at a Competitive Price.

It’s content written for search engine optimization (good piece on SEO ascendancy Monday by the Times’ David Carr). It’s also, to put it simply and directly, ad bait. Ad bait of the kind that newspaper ad directors could only dream about over the decades, the kind they gained with advertorial sections (wedding guides, personal finance sections) as journalists — can you imagine! — wrote stories about what they thought was newsworthy. The hubris — and sometimes, good news judgment.

It’s those algorithms and deepening technology under content, under advertising and under the matching of the two, that drives this Yahoo/Associated Content deal. Over the last several years, Yahoo has built an advertising targeting platform on acquisitions (Right Media, BlueLithium) and its own development, leaving the paid search business to Google and Microsoft. That platform is all about matching up content, web users, and advertising messaging. Yahoo has fine-tuned it, though it’s always a work in progress. It’s brought in partners (including half of U.S. newspaper companies) to gain more inventory and identified its future along those user/content/advertising lines.

The next step: Gain lots more content to sell ads against. Yahoo can do that several ways: organic growth; more partnerships; bringing more content under its own brands, on its own site. The Associated Content buy meets that third goal. The $100 million purchase price buys the annuity, lots of ad-bait content to feed the ever-smarter ad engine.

Here’s the best part: margins. When I asked Patrick Keane, who will apparently be joining Yahoo as part of the deal, how much of Associated’s revenue derived from selling ads on its own site and how much from partner sites to which it licensed the cheap user-gen content it aggregated, he didn’t want to talk percentages. He did acknowledge that more than half, though, came from the Associated site. And Keane liked it that way. Why? “The margins are a lot better,” he told me.

That’s a simple statement, but one driving much of the new digital business. Revenue and profit growth are going to get tougher for such big companies as Yahoo and Google, and it’s a big challenge for the new independent AOL. One way to boost dollars is to boost margins. That means transacting more business on your own site — where you don’t have to share revenues with other sites, other content owners.

I’ve tracked Google’s progression along those lines. Go back to 2004. Then, Google reported that 49 percent of its revenues were coming from affiliate sites, as it offered its technologies to help affiliates make a few bucks. That was the high-water mark of affiliate earnings, by percentage. In 2009, the affiliate percentage was down to 30 percent; 66 percent of revenues come from Google’s own sites. Over time, it has smartly directed more and more traffic to stay at its owned websites — its time-on-site has increased consistently — and monetized that traffic, without having to share revenues. In part, that’s contributed to its amazing profit growth, a banner $6.5 billion in profit, up $2 billion year-over-year, in the terrible-for-everyone-else 2009.

Yahoo breaks down its revenue into “owned and operated” sites and “affiliate” sites, though its trend lines are less easy to see. Clearly, though, the push toward O&O revenue is a key one, and one that the Associated purchase reinforces.

What might that push mean for Yahoo’s affiliates, especially those in the Newspaper Consortium, which have gladly used Yahoo ad technology to better their ad rates in selected topical areas? It’s hard to see how it is good news. The Associated content aims at many of same topical categories that newspaper sites target; so the industry looks like it has gained new competition — competition owned by its partner.

Maybe more significantly, Associated is welcomed on the Yahoo site by Matt Ledma, Yahoo VP for local. “We feel that a contributor-driven model is absolutely part of the future of media,” Idema told Reuters. User-gen content can be topical — travel, health, pets, you name it — and it can be local. Local user-gen is the territory voraciously being chased by Examiner.com. Looks like Examiner may have a new competitor in the pro/am, user-gen local space: Yahoo.

These — Yahoo, Associated, Examiner, Demand — are the companies showing aggressiveness today, leaving one question for the moment: Where are the legacy news-producing companies, those who have long created the features-like content in this picture — and why haven’t they bought these startups or built similar models?

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