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July 27 2010

22:47

5Across: Beyond Content Farms

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5Across 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.

What are content farms? If you've been reading our special series at MediaShift on the subject, you'd know that content farms or mills churn out massive amounts of content tailored to Google searches. But the approach to churning out that content varies from how-to articles (Demand Media), vertical topics (High Gear Media), hyper-local (Patch.com) and sports (Bleacher Report, SB Nation). And at some sites, writers get paid a small amount, while at others they toil for free.

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We convened a group of people to discuss the highs and lows of content farms, how they are changing journalism, bringing down pay rates for writers and possibly polluting Google searches with poor quality content. Is there harm in sites like eHow creating huge amounts of content at low pay? Some panel members believe Demand Media is simply fulfilling a need, while others believe there are possibly dangerous repercussions from the proliferation of these low-cost articles across the web. Check it out!

5Across: Beyond Content Farms

contentfarms.mp4

>>> Subscribe to 5Across video podcast <<<

>>> Subscribe to 5Across via iTunes <<<

Guest Biographies

Andrew Brining is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report and has been writing on the site for two years. During this time, he has been credentialed by Strikeforce, the UFC, the Oakland Athletics, and the Laureus World Sports Academy to cover its award ceremony in Abu Dhabi. Additionally, his work has appeared on SportsIllustrated.com, FOXSports.com, CBSSports.com, AskMen.com, and the San Francisco Chronicle's website. His homepage at B/R can be found here and you can follow him via Facebook or Twitter.

Shelley Frost writes about dogs for San Francisco Examiner.com and about animal issues for AnimalBeat.org. She is the author of two books, "Throw Like a Girl" (Beyond Words Publishing, 2000) and "Your Adopted Dog," co-authored with Katerina Lorenzatos Makris (The Lyons Press, 2007). Shelley has been a guest on Oprah, Dateline NBC, Evening Magazine, The Tammy Faye Show, Crook & Chase, Caryl & Marilyn (The Mommies), and The Gayle King Show. People Magazine did a feature story on Shelley and her best selling children's video, Babymugs.

Matt Heist is responsible for day-to-day operations as well as general
corporate strategy at High Gear Media. Prior to joining High Gear Media, Heist was senior vice president and general manager of Sidestep.com, where he was responsible for the company's core vertical search product. Sidestep was acquired by Kayak in December 2007. Prior to Sidestep, Heist was vice president of business operations at Yahoo, responsible for driving strategy and operations for Yahoo's vertical search and commerce listings properties, including Yahoo Autos, Shopping, Travel, Real Estate and Local.

Ari Soglin is Northern California regional editor for Patch.com and is responsible for a cluster of sites in the East Bay. Before joining Patch in December 2009, he was assistant managing editor for online content for the Bay Area News Group-East Bay. He is an award-winning journalist with 27 years of experience, much of it focused on community news and the last 10 on the online side of the business. He was the founding editor of GetLocalNews.com, one of the first online community news and citizen journalism networks. He also wrote the blog Citizen Paine on citizen journalism.

Andrew Susman co-founded Studio One Networks in 1998 with Bob Blackmore, and is the active CEO. He is in charge of the organization's quality, productivity, and competitive position. Previously, Susman was an executive at Time Warner and Young & Rubicam. Susman is the founding chairman of the Internet Content Syndication Council, which functions as the central resource for the industry on a variety of issues including quality standards in online content. Susman also serves on the board of the Advertising Educational Foundation and Business for Diplomatic Action.

If you'd prefer to watch sections of the show rather than the entire show, I've broken them down by topic below.

Pay Rates Sinking

An Issue of Quality

Push and Pull Content

Generating Story Ideas

The Local Angle

Credits

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Mark Glaser, executive producer and host
Corbin Hiar, research assistant

Charlotte Buchen, camera

Julie Caine, audio

Location: Vega Project & Kennerly Architecture office space in San Francisco

Special thanks to: PBS and the Knight Foundation

Music by AJ the DJ

*****

What do you think? Are content farms a danger to the public trust? What do you think about sites like Bleacher Report and High Gear Media that depend on contributions from amateur writers? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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

5Across 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.

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July 26 2010

17:54

Don't Blame the Content Farms

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From a business perspective, traditional journalism is rather inefficient.

Stories are chosen by a small group whose members often have similar experiences and outlooks. With little knowledge of true market demand, they assign the stories to a limited pool of writers and reporters who may not have the knowledge or contacts to quickly do a top-notch job. The stories are then produced and put out to consumers who may or may not like them. The process is repeated, daily or weekly or otherwise, often with little hard data on what, exactly, made a given story or feature popular.

But despite the inefficiencies, publishers have been able to survive, even thrive, because of other inefficiencies and barriers to competition, such as costly printing presses, advertisers with few other viable outlets and controlled distribution.

Enter the Internet. The "content farms" that MediaShft has focused on this week are exploiting new digital information technologies and systems to turn the model on its head, remove the friction caused by the inefficiencies, and reap the economic rewards. Rather than a small group of editors surmising what a community might want, algorithms from Demand Media, AOL and others process search queries and social media, glean what's wanted, then use other pieces of technology to calculate the likely value; they then quickly find writers or producers at a profitable price, assign and produce the content, attach money-making ads, and pay the "content creators" in a streamlined way.

Some in the industry may bemoan what's produced as "dreck," a term AllThingsD's Kara Swisher used while interviewing Demand CEO Richard Rosenblatt, but it does seem to satisfy a significant number of media consumers.

"Whenever you do stuff at scale and it's disruptive, people immediately think it's not good," Rosenblatt told Swisher, saying Demand produces some 6,000 pieces per day. "We're trying to prove that our content is good."

It's not as if the content farms invented the idea of producing work that's just good enough to sell. Just scan the racks at your local newsstand. As for complaints about the amount the content creators are paid, anyone producing the content is doing so voluntarily. By definition, they're being paid a market rate.

Not All Content Creators are Content Farms

Not every company trying new media business models can be put into one "content farm" bucket. Organizations like Politico, Patch and MainStreetConnect (a recent client of my company) are hiring reporters according to a more traditional model and focusing them by subject matter, geography, or both, while also using technology to keep costs down and drive new efficiencies that allow them to become, they hope, profitable with lower revenue than is required by traditional news organizations.

It's the classic case of a disrupted industry: The newcomers can do what's required to make a profit without having to support legacy processes responsible for a majority of current profits.

"It's hard to do something for future gain that is costly in present revenue and margin," publishing industry expert Mike Schatzkin told me in an interview. "If you don't have present revenue or margin, you have nothing to lose."

Writer James Fallows, in a recent Atlantic Monthly article, suggests that those bemoaning the fate of journalism might take a page from the engineers at Google, and instead try new processes, test and iterate, to discover how to derive enough revenue from what they make to sustain its production.

"Find out what [consumers] really want and value, and try to give them that, instead of what you've been making (which they may or may not want to buy, but which you've wanted to sell)," Alan Webber, who co-founded Fast Company magazine, told me in an email. "Find ways to cut costs. Find ways to cut waste. Find ways to test new ideas, new products and services faster, cheaper, and better."

That's more productive than fretting that the old ways of doing business are no longer working. And it sounds like what the content farms are doing.

Transformation of the Media Industry

About a century ago, as Americans were switching from horses-and-buggies and trains to cars, there were said to be more than a thousand companies producing automobiles in the United States. After a vigorous era of foment and entrepreneurialism, a handful survived, often incorporating the lessons learned from some of the other players that they bought out. Eventually, a thriving industry supplying millions and millions of consumers was born.

Entrepreneurial journalism -- an increasingly popular topic at journalism schools and institutes around the U.S. -- is just that, entrepreneurial. Amid the ordered disarray of startups and growth, different models are being tried. Some will succeed, and more will fail. New standards will be created.

Those upset that their skills can't get them more from the market might do well to bolster those skills. No longer is it enough to be able to report and write; hiring managers are looking for the ability to template, shoot, mic and perhaps even write a bit of code. If you don't know how to use Twitter these days, you're nowhere near the cutting edge.

Think of the power the new tools give journalists, including ones working for such venerated institutions as the New York Times, to reach beyond the confines of their publications and personally assemble communities of readers, viewers and participants around the journalism they create, while also developing leads and sources. That's more traffic for the publication, more influence and voice for the journalists. The tools also give people working for the content farms, also known as content mills, the ability to quickly get their work done and in some cases earn an hourly wage well beyond journalists' typical starting salaries.

"Yes, Demand Studios is a content mill. A new business model well adapted to the way consumers demand information. Get over it already," writes a commenter on a previous story in our series. "Why do I work for Demand Studios? The hourly pay is worth it and the independence fits my lifestyle."

A former managing editor at ABCNews.com and an MBA, Dorian Benkoil has devised and executed marketing and sales strategies for MediaShift. He is SVP at Teeming Media, a strategic media consultancy focused on attracting, engaging, retaining and monetizing audiences. He tweets at @dbenk.

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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 ».

21:01

Writers Talk About Working the Hyper-Local Beat

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In my first article for our special Beyond Content Farms series, I examined the opportunities available to writers at some of the biggest content farms. Today, I look at jobs covering hyper-local news.

What hyper-local news organizations are aiming for is nothing short of revolutionary: AOL's two-year-old Patch network and established players like Examiner.com are attempting to recreate a profitable business model for professionally produced local journalism in the digital age. Unlike companies like Demand Media that pump out largely face-less content, the hyper-local sites allow writers to build a name for themselves on one geographic or subject area.

These companies are hiring a lot of journalists in communities all over the U.S., which means more and more people will find jobs in hyper-local news. So what's it like to work in the new hyper-local journalism space? I spoke with a few writers and editors to learn more.

Going Through a Rough Patch

Jennifer Connic works as editor of the Millburn-Short Hills, N.J. site that's part of Patch's expanding hyper-local network. But she bristled at the hyper-local tag. "I think it belittles in some ways the journalism people like me are doing," she said.

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No matter what you call it, the job she is doing is not an easy one, as Connic readily admits. Patch editors are all basically one-woman news organizations. "You're really the only person who's running the site," Connic said. When people have a news tip or there's breaking news, she said, "I'm the one who gets contacted, I'm the one who has to be on top of that."

Nearly two years into the job, Connic is still putting in long hours. She had a very difficult spring where, Connic said, "I had a lot of days where I'd get up in the morning and start working and I wouldn't be done until after midnight."

Most of that time was spent providing invaluable coverage of how the New Jersey state budget crisis was impacting the Millburn public school system. Well-known media industry reporter Joe Strupp highlighted some other great reporting from Cecelia Smith, the former editor for Darien, CT. She broke a story revealing the criminal history of a candidate running for the town's First Selectman (similar to the mayor). Smith discovered the candidate had an attempted murder conviction, and he eventually lost the race.

Like most Patch editors, Connic has a degree in journalism and her pay is likely relatively modest (although she declined to give any hard figures for her salary). As Andria Krewson reported on MediaShift, Patch competitor MainStreetConnect pays editors a salary of roughly $40,000 a year. "It is what it is," sighed the New Jersey transplant, doing her best to adopt the local patois.

Connic was more forthcoming about the pay rates offered her freelancers: They can make between $50 and $100 per article from Patch, depending on their experience and their pitch. Connic generally features only one freelance piece a day on her site, so it would be difficult for writers to support themselves by contributing to Patch alone. But these contributors play a vital role in easing her burden. In particular, she relies on a few trusted freelancers to cover for her when she takes time off.

Connic also uses high school interns to run her site. Although the positions are unpaid, the internship can lead to a "full paying freelance job for these kids if they prove themselves," she told me.

If they come to terms with the long hours and meager salary, successful freelancers can even aspire to a full-time position with Patch. Connic pointed out that Mary Mann and Sasha Brown-Worsham both freelanced for Patch before being hired as local site editors.

Examining the Examiners

The barriers to entry are lower at Examiner.com, an established hyper-local network with a much wider reach (and millions more page views) than Patch. Examiner has local sites in over 200 cities in the U.S. and Canada. While it's easier to become a writer (or "examiner") for the company, it has less to offer writers aspiring to a full-time reporting or steady freelance gig.

Examiner.com recruits writers to cover beats generated by search engine demand. Here are just a few of the odd openings that are in my local area: Washington D.C. Movie Locations Travel Examiner, D.C. English Springer Spaniel Examiner, and Bethesda Holistic Family Health Examiner. The company then pumps out as much cheap local content on those topics as its writers can produce.

While motivated examiners have access to a full range of videos and tutorials on blogging and search engine optimization, after their first submission, they are often offered little substantive feedback on their writing from experienced editors. If their blogging does not include enough local search terms, examiners can expect to receive an automatically generated email encouraging them to make their content more relevant to the community.

Complaints from examiners about the paltry and opaque compensation rates are also surprisingly common around the web. The Welcome Handbook given to new Examiners offers little clarification: "Examiner pay is based on a rating that considers a number of factors, including revenue and the quality of your audience, which includes things like subscriptions, page view traffic and session length. Pay may fluctuate depending on any of these and other factors."

The lack of any minimum rate left some contributors to this Writers Weekly survey of examiners recalling their content farm assignments fondly. "I have plenty of paid writing work, none of it all that well paid, true, but I'd rather get $15 per article (or even $10) than zip. Duh," said one former examiner, who only identified himself as "Mario."

Even more irritating to some examiners is the $25 minimum threshold the company requires before it will deposit money in a writer's PayPal account. Washington City Paper highlighted a cautionary tale from one disgruntled former examiner, who very nearly failed to reach that figure before parting ways with the company. After being reprimanded by an Examiner.com editor for using Sarah Palin as SEO bait to attract attention to his beat, which was ostensibly about local music, Ben Westhoff wrote:

I silently vowed to get over the threshold as quickly as possible, and to entertain myself in the process. And so I began to blog about nothing but Lil Wayne and boobs -- Katy Perry's, mostly -- in as absurd a manner as possible. Oh, and I still talked about Sarah Palin via ridiculous musical tie-ins. 'Katy Perry and Sarah Palin to wrestle in Jello?' one was titled.

Westhoff's tale may not be all that uncommon. As TV Examiner Rick Ellis noted in the comments of a MinnPost story on the company, "the last number I saw was that about 1/3 of their examiners make enough to reach the $25 payment minimum each month."

Yet, as with other content farms, the Examiner network has its supporters. Among them are Ellis and some of the commentors on my previous piece.

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It certainly can provide a platform for writers hoping to have their voices heard, those looking to build up a portfolio, or make a little bit of pocket money. But can it be a good career move? Dianne Walker, the D.C. Job Search and Career Examiner, thinks it has been for her.

"It keeps me in tune with what's going on in my career," Walker told me. She has worked as an HR manager in the Prince William County public library system since 2005.

Walker hopes to publish a career advice book and has used her examiner positions to market herself. In the two years Walker has written for Examiner.com, she has had some limited success: Local television show "Let's Talk Live" asked her to come on and discuss her story about unemployment in D.C.

Would she recommend Examiner.com to people looking to make a career in writing? After a long pause, Walker said, "I have recommended people that I know that just need a couple extra dollars." (She also noted that Examiner.com pays its writers $50 for each new examiner they recruit.)

For now, however, Walker continues to pursue her own editorial ambitions as only a part-time examiner. Even after two years of building up her audience, she's not quite ready to quit her day job.

*****

Have you worked for a hyper-local news organization? 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 hyper-local correspondent Andria Krewson 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 21 2010

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.

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"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."

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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 20 2010

21:05

AOL Patch and MainStreetConnect Expand Hyper-Local News

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It's difficult for media people to search any job site these days without running into an ad for AOL's Patch. It seems equally difficult to read media news sites without finding a feature story about Connecticut's MainStreetConnect. MainStreetConnect has appeared in recent days in both Columbia Journalism Review and Journalism.co.uk. Like Patch, the community news organization is hiring, though on a smaller scale as it expands from four sites to 10.

The attention being paid to them isn't surprising: These two companies are leading the charge to create a new, sustainable model for hyper-local, online community news. Both are pursuing a strategy based on scale and local reporting, both are still experimenting and looking for ways to generate revenue -- and both have big national ambitions.

"We've sort of built the car and now we're tweaking it," said Carll Tucker, founder of MainStreetConnect.

Strategy and Some Local News History

For Tucker and AOL's Patch, which now has 83 sites, the goal is to attract advertising aimed at local audiences. They hope to do this by providing content generated by an inexpensive workforce that has been grouped strategically to leverage resources. In that respect, the methods echo the techniques traditional newspapers used during the suburban wars of the 1980s and early 1990s.

In those days, metro dailies fought smaller newspapers in the suburbs for advertising supremacy by providing local news through targeted zones. One of the bloodiest battles happened in Atlanta, when the New York Times bought the suburban Gwinnett Daily News and went head-to-head with the Atlanta Constitution.

The preferred tactic at the time was to flood the zone with inexpensive local content. But in the years since, metro dailies have scaled back circulation and news coverage, leaving a vacuum of under-served businesses and local readers. Those are the advertising and reader markets that Patch and MainStreetConnect are targeting.

"Community business is the worst-served market in America," Tucker said in a May interview I conducted with him. He noted that, "This company could not have been started five years ago" because the vacuum in the local advertising market was not as large as it is now.

Patch executives say that local readers also feel under-served.

"People are way more hungry for news at their local level than even we imagined," said Brian Farnham, editor in chief of Patch. "There's a lot of good sources for news existing at the national level and beyond, but at the local level the cohesive experience is missing."

Site Design and Sharing

Tucker has built his sites with colorful tabs that reflect the vertical advertising markets that were the mainstays of traditional newspapers: "Wheels," "Real Estate, "Food, "Wellness," and "Home and Garden." Those pages hold feature stories that almost always include a local businessperson. These stories are often shared between contiguous sites. The pages also hold business directories for advertisers. The "Wheels" sections at MainStreetConnect sites also display large auto ads.

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Tucker has a deep newspaper background with The Patent Trader, which he said covered 90,000 people over 10 towns before Gannett bought it in 1999. His company, which plans to have eventual affiliates across the country, began with the core of four Connecticut sites, with the flagship, TheDailyNorwalk.com, in Norwalk, Conn. Since mid-May, it has added six sites:

The other three original sites are:

The company's current goal is to expand to 50 sites by the end of the year, with 12 in Fairfield County, Conn. When we spoke in May, Tucker downplayed any competition with Patch, even though Patch is in some of the same territory in relatively wealthy Connecticut. Norwalk had an estimated median household income in 2007 of $70,672, and the national average was $50,233 for that year, according to the U.S. Census. Patch also has sites in Fairfield and Westport, just like MainStreetConnect.

"In no way do we compete with them," Tucker had said. When we spoke again this month, he explained that his company's focus is on covering local people, including local business owners, with the goal of attracting "Main Street moms."

Patch's sites have more subtle design and more social-networking features, such as "boards," which are like Facebook walls and are where readers can send feedback to specific writers. Those writers have profiles that list their current stories and sometimes recent tweets, as well as bio information and a statement of political and religious beliefs.
Patch's focus appears to be more on hard news.

For example, a fire in early July in White Plains, N.Y., injured 33 people and destroyed seven businesses. The Patch news story ran in clustered New York Patch sites: The Rye Patch, the Harrison Patch, the Yorktown Patch, the Scarsdale Patch, and likely others, with local sidebars, video and photos.

Advertising and Visibility Packages

MainStreetConnect's ads are sold as "annual visibility packages." In May, Tucker said the smallest "visibility package" the company aimed to sell cost between $5,000 to $6,000.
In our recent interview, he said the company has found ways to accommodate smaller businesses with less immediately available funds. Some advertising can cost as little as $60 to $70 a week.

"We've widened our net for our smaller advertisers," he said, noting that the company has had local success with real estate ads, hospital ads and banks.

"It's not about a price; it's about what you get for the money," he said.

Tucker explained that the company's visibility packages include extra service, such as a salute to advertisers' customers in the upper right of site pages, in a feature called "Our customer comes first!" These include the company name and a photo and name of a customer.

patch.jpgAt Patch, Farnham said the advertising focus goes beyond banner ads to directories and self-service ads as well.

"We think the applications that are most interesting are around our listings operation," he said. "We're sending teams to communities who will go door to door and collect data about those places, structure it in our templates, and have a really rich Yellow Pages."

Yes, They Have Job Openings

AOL's Patch continues to recruit editors and open sites across the country, with sites up in California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York. New sites are promised soon in Illinois, Rhode Island and Maryland. The company was recruiting in early July for more than 20 editor positions in the suburbs of Atlanta and Los Angeles. Farnham, the Patch editor in chief, said the company is looking for tomorrow's journalists.

"It's basically one full-time professional editor, who is the reporter and editor and curator of that site, and they also hire local contributors and freelancers to round out that coverage," he said. "You're not thinking about column inches, you're trying to get up-to-the-minute information out there. Should this be a video or a slideshow or some other sort of multimedia?"

MainStreetConnect is also hiring, on a smaller scale, with ads on Mediabistro and Indeed.com. It is seeking experienced news reporters with five to 10 years of experience, preferably in local newspapers and with local knowledge.

Top staffers get a salary of about $40,000 a year, and rookies get less, Tucker said. His wife, personal finance writer Jane Bryant Quinn, serves as editorial director and coaches journalists on writing skills and headline writing. Twenty newsroom employees produce content for the 10 sites. The stories focus on local people, and the company currently does not rely on user-generated content.

"News gathering is a real profession," Tucker said. "Citizen journalism is a completely false rabbit. It's simply not going to succeed."

Patch, by contrast, solicits citizen contributions for news tips, feedback and announcements and calendars.

What Happens Next?

Both Farnham and Tucker spoke about the move into hyper-local online sites as experimental, with adjustments along the way.

"We're learning as fast as we can," said Tucker, mentioning his local advisory boards and social media.

Farnham acknowledged that Patch is moving into some territory where local online ecosystems are already well formed.

"What we do when we come into a market is certainly not just announce, 'Hey we're the only game in town,' " he said. "What we want to offer is a cohesive comprehensive experience. There is that ecosystem."

Farnham said the company is open to working with others.

"We are always open to exploring ways we can work with existing media outlets in communities where we are launching a Patch site. No option is closed off."

Tucker's company was formed with the idea of franchises or affiliates, and he said partners aren't out of the question. "We have had interesting conversations with many of the major players," he said.

For both, the focus is finding a way to make money to sustain local journalism. "There's no free press unless it's a profitable press," Tucker said.

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

MediaShift editorial intern Davis Shaver contributed to this article.

Andria Krewson is editor for two community sections of the McClatchy-owned Charlotte Observer in Charlotte, N.C. She posts at Global Vue and is @underoak on Twitter.

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