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3 Reasons Why The Content Mill Debate May Be Important

wanted posterI’ve watched in utter amazement as writers I know at least from the ‘net spend a great deal of time and effort disagreeing with other writers who are defending to so-called content mills.

T.W. Anderson who wrote the guest post for me Assessing Writing Projects points out one fact that can’t be denied and that is the writing game is changing. With the development of the ‘net which makes it possible for T.W. to live in Europe and write for me who lives in San Diego has tremendous implications.

I’m old enough to remember when you truly had to have a book agent in New York. I also remember when I first started posting writing gigs I had to scramble to find four.

Research is easier; it’s also easier to information that looks like its factual and to discover it isn’t. Some folks on the net lie; most don’t.

Much to my amazement Angela Hoy asks Are Content Mills Lowering the Quality of “News” on the Internet? While she makes a case that there is lots of poor writing out there, she doesn’t make the case that there has every been ‘quality’ writing on the ‘net. In my opinion there has always been a ton of dreck of  one kind or another on the net – even long before what she calls content mills existed.  She also complains that fluff articles (my term, not her’s) show up in google news. That’s google’s problem, not the content mills’.

Carson Brackney also questions her in his entry called Content Mills, Angela Hoy, Search Engines and the Quality of Online Writing. His title also reminds us that a lot of what’s going on in content mills is trying to attract search engines which in turn drives traffic which in turn drives income.

Deb Ng who does a great job over at FreelanceWritingGigs.com has been almost savaged in her partnership of Demand Studios – but only by a few.

John Hewitt wrote a moderate article called Is Demand Studios the new Associated Press?

The debate continues. I think it may be important for the following reasons:

  1. Search engine marketing has created a whole new type of writing. Believe me, SEO (search engine optimization) is wildly different than say an article in The Atlantic. Both (many websites and most magazines) survive on advertising revenue which is justified by circulation and readership.
  2. The web has opened up all sorts of new markets. Hundreds, even thousands of them. Not all those new markets are content mills or sites driven by SEO, although most sites do pay some attention to the search engines. They have to.
  3. The ‘net has made it possible for all of us to work world ’round if we want. While before the ‘net and the web it was theoretically possible for me to do writing work in some other country, it was terribly difficult. It was difficult to find markets or for markets to find me. We had to mail or fax. It wasn’t pretty.

And it isn’t necessarily pretty today. The ‘net has opened what we in America might call a new wild west.

What I think is actually going on in these often heated discussions is all of us exploring and finding our way in this new era. Those of us, like me, who have been writing for years have been startled by the changes – back when I was with b5media I actually refused to post ads for articles that paid less than $10. What arrogance on my part.

The goal of this site is to help freelance writers, and that includes the woman who wrote me back then telling me what a huge and positive difference being able to earn $2 or $3 an article made to her and her family.

I sort of imagine a whole group of readers out there who follow these discussions because they don’t know what their options are. When the read all sides of the issue around content mills, article marketing, seo, and who knows what they go away better informed and in a much better position to decide exactly what they want to try when it comes to freelance writing.

Sure, people who begin in the content mills may choose to work at earning more per word or per article or per hour. Or they may not. With these debates they at least have the opportunity to see how the commenter’s view their own work and pay opportunities.

Wonder what the big controversy will be in a year or two or five or ten?

What do you think?

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Image from http://www.sxc.hu

{ 16 comments… add one }
  • I wanted to ask… what’s the problem?

    People have been writing for ages, some have definable qualities and others do not. What about the bloggers who review the news? Or the small website owner who loves gardening and shares her secrets? They post ads as well, is it taking away from the article in the New York Times about gardening or the news?

    Some could say those who are writing about what they love without selling out at all are the quality writers, not the ones working at $1000 an article, the same article sharing space with provocative advertising.

    But honestly, what is the problem? Are “quality” writers upset that there’s a place out there paying for writing that aren’t the rates they would accept? If that’s the case, why are they giving it the time of day? Are they complaining that writers are underpaid? What defines underpaid? Some swear they earn less than minimum wage at content mills, but perhaps they’re slow writers. (And last time I checked, most who worked at content mills earned an average of $10 an hour or more, above minimum wage. And slave wages are an inaccurate term, as slaves weren’t paid.)

    Are they mad that when they write an article, that article is five pages below on Google from the number one spot, a blogger post?

    Does it mean “goodbye to quality” or is it redefining quality? I think readers determine quality, not the writers. They vote with their views and subscriptions.

    If traditional journalism folks aren’t happy because they aren’t getting the readership as their “less than elite” fellows, maybe it’s the readership redefining what they want, not the content providers or the writers.

    On a side note, I find the “elite writers” rather amusing. They always talk about skill, and how hard it is to write an article of quality. I just think of all the crap I’ve read about “walk the pounds away” in Women’s World magazine or the fluff I read from the newspaper about “raising your kids”, the same fluff I wrote when I worked in the newspaper industry, and comparing it to someone online who blogged about something they loved and put ample more research and real data into the post.

    I honestly don’t think I’ll miss elite writers complaining about lack of quality over reading something totally from the heart from a blogger.

    But that’s my choice in what I choose to read, I guess.

    • Bob

      I appreciate your honesty. But my honest reaction is that you’re missing the point. That you’d rather read writing from the heart than something by an “elite writer” is curious. That you didn’t mention once the idea that beautiful, clear, evocative, powerful, and poetic writing is an integral part of our country’s own art history, and a longstanding tradition going back centuries. And it’s now being dismantled, blog by “from the heart” blog, because everyone now feels like they can write and damn the technicalities of grammar, syntax, logic, and clarity. Ever think about what happens to books and ebooks when everyone thinks they can be a writer? Same thing that happens to photography when everyone thinks they can take pictures, and to music when everyone thinks they can sing. (Thank you American Idol.)

      To people who actually care about the art and soul of good writing, this dismantling is a brutal disappointment. Then again, if you are amused, as you say, by real writers bemoaning the decline of writing, perhaps you are amused by people losing their jobs, species extinction, degraded self-esteem, and a loss of artistic integrity on a national scale. Or maybe you’re just easily amused. Perhaps this is why you read all those blogs?

      • I’ll request you to reveal your true self “Bob”, before I choose to encourage any more left handed comments from you. When I hear from someone who would try to tell other people that they can’t write, it just makes me shake my head a little and go on reading the passionate, the skilled, the wonderful world of writers that are out there, thankfully encouraged by others to write their little hearts out.

        Because the world would be an ugly place without the seven-year-old girl writing poetry in a blog, or the 70-year-old woman writing a column for a tiny website about her crochet.

        I’ll let readers decide what they want to read.

        A troll by any other name…

  • Now here I am one of the “content mill” babies who cut their teeth being introduced to online writing via those companies. While I do admit their are a wide range of people writing for those sites because it is one of, or the only, ways to feed and house themselves – the problem isn’t the writers. The problem is that the content mills promote themselves as a path to being a real writer.

    Another problem is that most content writers get stuck in these mills and don’t see that there is a way to work themselves up to higher and better work with effort. As with any occupation writing involves consistent learning to grow and gain a higher position. Many believe that they can be happy working for lower rates because they don’t see the need to improve. The ‘elite’ writers consider this either lazy or unprofessional; what if there is just no need to get better? Content mill writers don’t have a boss, nor do they have the hassle of regular jobs but they do have regular pay – this is the allure of content mills. You don’t have to look for work because you already have it.

    The content mills have become the Walmarts of the writing world. They have created the 21st Century version of the early 20th Century piece-work factory. As long as you turn out work that meets requirements, you get paid. You quickly learn what level of work is needed and what expectations are in relation to the pay scale. And how to match your work to those factors. That is how you get the generic content spewing out now.

    It’s not the writers, it’s the business model.
    Bill recently posted..WelcomeMy Profile

    • Yes, Bill the mills or farms can be a place to start, but if you get reasonably good there jump out as fast as possible.

  • I agree with Angela. Content mills are not only contributing to, even encouraging poor writing but they are devaluing what we do. They not only make writing clients think we should give it away but making many beginners think that they have to. Reminds me of when my father cautioned me that there was “no need to buy the cow if she would give milk for free.”

    I remember when my sole writing goal was to make $500 for a single article. It’s much harder now and unless I am much mistaken the cost of living has gone up and not down.

    It’s true that not everyone should be a writer, and I have seen writing on the web and in print that is worth about what these content mills pay. Professionals just cannot crank out crap; we have standards. However, not everyone who wants to call themselves a publisher be in the business of buying writing either.

    A newspaper editor I knew (and newspapers are notoriously cheap when it comes to pay) told me roughly 30 years ago that if I couldn’t make $20/hour on a writing gig, it was a waste of my time.

  • Alex

    As someone who would like to work from home and be a freelancer I enjoy content sites like demand studios. However as someone who does the majority of his research (for hobbies and just general things not work) I despise content mills. Type a question into a search engine and the first page is filled with content mill sites. Well the question might be what is the big deal? The big deal is the quality. I firsthand know of the poor quality that a lot of the articles are (not all) . When doing research I often come across an article where it was clearly written by someone who knows less than me on the subject. So I do like the work from content mills but really hate their flood the search engine results effect.

    What’s even more funny is lately I have been noticing that people who read content mill sites will later try to argue a point by saying they read it in an article. When I find out what article and where it was published :facepalm:.

  • Bob

    Hey Gina,
    Your question, even if rhetorical, is a good one. There is no real value, only a perceived one. When Content Providers fill up cyberspace with their words, they are basically doing just that. They generally have no credentials, no particular skill, and no real aspiration of becoming an artist. They are carrying out the act of writing as if it were an assembly line job, not an art, which you and I feel it is. I am sorry it is this way, and fear that it will not ever be the way it used to be, at least for most of us. The quality filter is gone, and now we are left with millions and millions of words online that, like you said, “waste our mindless time.”

    • Anne

      Gina and Bob, yes there’s a seemingly infinite amount of useless words on the ‘net – but there is an amazing amount of good stuff too. And I find it usually not to difficult to locate with a thoughtful search on google. I have to be my own quality filter, but that was true before the net as well. The volume of stuff was less.

  • gina

    We need a balance. From threshing machines to over-industrialization, there is now a fierce monopoly on our food supply and health. I would travel half the world to eat a pie off a small farm than be forced to choke one down from Walmart.

    I am tired of being forced-fed contrived, redundant, recycled “articles” on the Internet. Is that liberty? Is that what we are creating with our freedom? A bunch of wasted mindless time? Must I keep seeing claims from “writers” who brag about churning out at least three researched articles per hour? Come on. Where is the real value?

  • The year was 1830. For centuries, crops had been harvested manually by laborers whose specialty was coming in during the harvest season and taking care of the job for the farmers. Then, a Scottish engineer by the name of Andrew Meikle created this amazing new invention that renovated harvesting. Suddenly, instead of the weeks-long, back-breaking way that had been the norm for centuries, farmers were able to use technology to harvest their crops. Naturally, this upset the laborers. After all, for centuries they had gotten used to being the ONLY people capable of harvesting those crops. With the advent of the threshing machine only people trained to use the threshing machine were allowed to harvest the crops. The threshing machine was faster, more efficient, and removed the tedium from harvesting crops. The laborers rioted during what became known as the Swing Riots. They stamped their feet, they shouted, they burned down barns, burned down machines, and tried everything in their power to stop humanity from evolving.

    Here we are, nearly 200 years later. We still eat grains as a species. Crops still need to be harvested. We still use threshing machines. The same “quality” of harvesting is still there…it’s just become streamlined over the years. The Internet is the threshing machine. The writers who use the threshing machine (the Internet) and take advantage of the global pool of clients and resources at our fingertips have helped streamline writing into the new generation. The quality is still there, it’s simply been refined, with the fat trimmed away.

    During the Swing Riots, the lamenters were the laborers, holding their torches in the field and claiming that the end was nigh. Meanwhile, there was a new breed of laborers who were receiving certification to use the threshing machine. They went on to become the new generation of laborers. They took the old-fashioned process and they streamlined it, made it better, and they got rich in the process, as well as helping humanity evolve into the next step in our technological evolution. Many of the old-fashioned laborers were bitter until the day they died over what they saw as a dilution of the industry. They could have chosen to adapt their skillsets to the new generation of farming, but they stamped their feet and held their smoldering torches and lamented the loss of the “old ways”.

    It is a natural reaction to be upset about how much things have changed since the “good old days” when the old-fashioned way of doing things was the norm. After all, it’s what the old laborers are comfortable with. They see change as bad, and they are naturally fearful of it. It’s a human reaction to change. It’s also a natural reaction when the status quo is challenged. For years, old-fashioned journalists were the kings of content, and everything went through them. Now, the threshing machine has ruined their monopoly. Personally, I embrace change, and I encourage people on a daily basis to step on board the new wave of writing and help spread the sharing of information through a global pool of writers. Quality is still king…it’s just shared between many writers now, instead of a handful.
    .-= T.W. Anderson´s last blog ..What is success, and how do I achieve it? =-.

  • And the lament of the farm laborers rose high above the sound of the threshing machines as they moved humanity forward into the future.

    Quality content hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s simply that the lofty position held prominently by writers only in America is now being passed to global writers. Writers who have the same qualifications, but can write from any corner of the globe.

    Lament the death of the old as much as you want. I’m sure there were plenty of people who shed a tear when the printing press was replaced by the printing machine, but it didn’t change the fact that the printing machine was better, faster, and produced the same quality of print. Now that writers on a global basis are able to write content–not just a select few before the advent of global Internet–it’s the same principle we’ve seen multiple times in the course of humanity.

    Welcome to the 21st century. Lament all you want…but the quality hasn’t gone anywhere…it’s simply available on a global basis rather than from a handful of people who were able to wear the veil for so many years.
    .-= T.W. Anderson´s last blog ..What is success, and how do I achieve it? =-.

    • Bob

      TW,

      Yes, I will lament all I want, and thanks for letting me do so! Some people leave the past in a cloud of dust and don’t feel a tinge of sadness. I, for one, value the work that has come before, and I owe genuinely skilled writers and hardcore journalists a debt of gratitude for setting a standard I tried throughout my life to meet. With you jet-setting into the future with your income targets and click through rates and content churning, you don’t have time to look in your own rearview mirror. And so you go about your business with nothing to compare your own work to, and virtually no attention to quality writing standards. Please don’t tell me that the quality is still there. That’s ridiculous. It’s like saying your polyester suit is as comfortable as my wool one. You may not have to spend too much time caring for yours, as you speed through your content generation, but it will never look as good.

      And then, when there are no real journalists left, what examples do we show our children? What can we expect out of them as writers? More e-How articles?

      Bob

  • We are at a fairly interesting crossroads for humanity in terms of technological evolution. I liken the Internet to the importance of the light bulb, the telephone, the personal computer, the automobile, and the airplane. All of these steps forward helped make the world a smaller place, allowing for communication as a species to occur on a global basis, rather than regional.

    The reason so many jobs in America and other Western countries are being outsourced is because there is no global currency. If you were a business owner and you were offered a list of potential employees from countries all around the world, and each and every one of them had the exact same qualifications and the exact same experience, which one would you choose? The person who wanted the most money, or the person who wanted the least amount of money?

    The answer to that question is a no-brainer. When faced with the prospect of hiring someone to perform a task the business owner will always go with the low bid if the qualifications of the individuals across the board are the same.

    Now, while experience is no doubt worth some extra coin in your purse (for example, my daily average in Colorado in my previous jobs was 500 dollars a day, with a minimum of 300), there comes a point when your rates have to be reflective of what the global worth of your product is. In the case of writing, local and regional projects still exist but they are becoming more rare. As more and more magazines and print publications move to the Internet, they are doing the same thing special effects companies, telemarketing companies, and other companies are doing: they are looking outwards for potential candidates because the qualifications of people across the globe match or exceed those of the writers who are regional and charge much, much more.

    That’s not to say that regional jobs don’t exist, but they are becoming more and more rare.

    Content sites are just another place to work. In the right hands they can be just as lucrative as other means of earning an income, just as much as owning a restaurant, driving a cross-country truck, or owning a sailboat and charging for tours. Writing is a business. The reason you see so much debate from the “old school” member is because they are in a panic over the fact that there is now competition on a global basis. Their decrying of content sites has little/nothing to do with benevolence in any way, shape, or form. It is self preservation, pure and simple.

    And who can blame them? When the illegal immigrants started flooding the market prior to the recession hitting America, my old business tactics had to change because I was suddenly competing with guys who were doing the same work I did for 5-6 dollars an hour…when my lowest-paid employee was making 33 dollars an hour. I was naturally upset. But you know what? Those immigrants have just as much of a right to make a living as I do, and if I was in there shoes you could bet your ass I would be doing everything in my power to make ends meet for my family, regardless of how other people might have viewed it.

    It’s only natural for this topic to cause debate, because the traditional writers don’t want to compete. You will see many of them talking about how they make 100 dollars an hour/80k+ a year, and how they are so much “better off” than people who work for content sites, but if that were really true…why do they care who works where? Notice you don’t see any of these “elite” writers talking about how much the guy flipping burgers at McDonalds is getting paid per hour, and they aren’t talking about how much the guy driving a truck across the country is getting paid. Why? Because it doesn’t pertain to their industry. It doesn’t affect their potential jobs. This in and of itself is just further proof that the writers who claim to be “fighting for the rights of writers” aren’t really fighting for the rights of their fellow writers at all…they are simply terrified of the growth spurt in competition, where writers from all over the world are competing.

    I saw one writer arrogantly claim recently that they were immune to the effects of globalization, and that whether or not a writer in a third world country was qualified had absolutely no impact on their job prospects whatsoever. If that is truly the case, writers like this would not be involved in debates against writers discussing the pros of content sites. If they were truly so aloof, truly so secure in their ivory towers, we would never hear a peep out of them because they would be so busy focusing on being elite and successful they wouldn’t have time to talk about what they consider “beneath” them.

    To quote Carson, Bobby Flay doesn’t care what the guy down at Denny’s is getting paid to make flapjacks at 2 a.m. in the morning, because it doesn’t affect him in the least. If these elite and supposedly so-successful writers were truly immune to the changes in the industry (as they claim), they wouldn’t be complaining about rates, or caring who works where.

    There is no benevolence from writers who decry content mills. There is only self preservation as a motivation. There is only fear. There is only E-Envy.

    I think the debate will continue for a couple more years. It’s no different than when the threshing machine first became available in England. The laborers (traditional elite writers who became accustomed to being the only people on the block doing the work) raised up and protested, burned farms, destroyed machines, and did everything in their power to stop technology from moving ahead and replacing their jobs, but in the end it was all for naught. The threshing machine replaced their traditional labor and humanity moved ahead. The digital age is upon us, and you can either adapt to survive, or you can continue holding a smoldering torch and screaming about how unfair it is.

    I’m not the one complaining about rates or a lack of work 🙂
    .-= T.W. Anderson´s last blog ..E-envy =-.

    • Anne

      A global currency is an interesting idea – although that would scare many people. This world ’round economy only works if we have the net and other communication forms… ships to ferry goods back and forth… and it’s actually pretty fragile.

      I wonder if humanity can redefine growth – so far it’s meant selling more stuff to more people, more or less. Suspect there’s an end to more in the way we think about it today. Sustainable is an interesting concept and a slippery one as well. Those of us who push electrons around would seem to be on the right side of sustainability at least until we try to dispose of our computer equipment.

      Many many questions, very few answers here.

    • Bob

      TW,

      I enjoy your posts, but not for the same reasons many of your “fans” seem to enjoy them. The fact is, we come at our profession from polar opposite angles. I suppose I am one of those “elite” writers you enjoy talking about and breathlessly taking down. I have written real books and written for real magazines that people actually paid real money for. It’s a boast I say with pride. I worked very hard to be able to say that, and have labored extensively on my work, both in the research and writing phases. I have been paid real money for my work, too. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case, partly because of what you and many other “content churners” do to devalue the written word. Please don’t consider this a complaint. I merely rue the death of real journalism, which every intelligent human should be doing right now, for it is being replaced by something more much base in value. In your voice, I hear you cheering for journalism’s demise, for whatever reason, as you tirelessly champion whatever it is you actually do.

      To us, and my “elitist” brethren, content mills are Walmart-styled writing sites. They provide the cheapest prices on the cheapest goods money can buy. Of course, many many people shop at Walmart, so this is not necessarily a bad thing. But it should be distinguished from writers who actually write with some degree of skill and provide a high quality product. Anyone can write for a content mill, provided they have a computer and low expectations for what their labor is worth. Scarce few writers can compose a feature for a magazine like, say, the one you mentioned, Atlantic Monthly.

      But you are right in describing how the landscape is changing. It is indeed the digital age, and writing services are being outsourced just like, for example, Chase Bank’s customer service departments, and there is nothing real writers can do about it.

      We are Writers, however, not Content Providers, and seeing our livelihoods snatched away is disturbing at the very least. Writers and CPers are two totally different things, like a paralegal and an attorney, or an intern and a doctor. That one writing nomenclature is being phased out–mine–and another is on its way in–yours–does not make old school writers happy.

      So where does that leave us? It leaves us to say goodbye to genuinely skilled composition and quality journalism, and hello to a horse of a very different color. One that’s available at Walmart.

      Bob

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