Are Content Aggregators Good for Writers?

Tim Beyers has achieved a comfortable level of success since swapping public relations for full-time freelance writing, covering stocks and personal finance for websites such as The Motley Fool (fool.com) and Quicken (quicken.com). Not satisfied with a handful of steady clients, the Littleton, Colo., writer wanted to diversify. So awhile back, he wrote a few stories for Helium (helium.com), one of a new generation of news and information Web platforms for user-generated content.

Over a short time, Beyers posted 13 articles to Helium on topics ranging from poker to personal finance software. How much did he make? A whopping $2.15. “It’s easy to get a published clip, but it’s anything but easy to earn an income doing this,” Beyers says. “And it’s anything but easy to convince an editor at Fast Company or BusinessWeek you’re a serious freelancer if all the clips you’ve put together are from helium.com.”

On the other hand, Rori Paul couldn’t be happier writing for Examiner.com, an online news and information hub started by the owner of The San Francisco Examiner. Paul, a businesswoman who’d never freelanced, has since written scores of articles on small business and travel subjects and recently became Examiner.com’s Chicago Road Trips beat writer after relocating there.

Paul’s freelance income is modest—somewhere north of $50 a month. But she’s getting interviews with experts and PR pitches that wouldn’t have been possible without Examiner.com’s backing. “Even though I didn’t go to journalism school, it’s given me the opportunity to prove I’m a capable writer who can play with the big boys,” Paul says.

That, in a nutshell, sums up the two sides of the controversy surrounding these new entities, commonly referred to as content aggregators because they compile material from a massive number of contributors onto a single category-rich website. The $64 question: Can skilled writers work the system to their advantage, or is it good only for amateurs and other so-called citizen journalists?

With magazines and newspapers getting skinnier by the week or folding outright, freelancers looking for other writing markets can’t help but consider Helium and Examiner.com, as well as sites such as Demand Studios (demandstudios.com), Associated Content (associatedcontent.com), Suite101.com, HubPages (hubpages.com), Squidoo (squidoo.com), About.com and new ones that seem to pop up every week.

Supporters say the sites are a great way to dip a toe into an entirely new publishing world, one that embraces online networking and rewards writers for knowing as much about what drives eyeballs to a story as how to tell it. “It teaches you how to write on the Web—where traffic comes from, about search engines and keywords,” says Ryan Hupfer, HubPages’ director of marketing, who puts theory into practice by also writing for the site. “I’m still going to write from my experience, but knowing how to tag it, that’s how you become a successful writer on HubPages.”

Skeptics argue the pay is dismal, the exposure isn’t worth it, and editorial standards aren’t on par with traditional publications. They argue the sites are making a tough market even tougher because they’re lowering the bar for what other Web-based publishers expect to pay. “It’s not worth my time to write serious articles that take hours to research and write. I made a grand total of $12.71 in ad click revenue for 195 articles last month—pennies,” says John McDevitt, a retired New Jersey architect turned Helium volunteer community manager who has ended his affiliation with the site. “Helium and the other content aggregators are perfect for the right audience. Freelancers are not that audience.”

Is writing for content aggregators right for you? If you’re considering it, here’s what you should know.

NOT ALL SITES ARE CREATED EQUAL.
To the uninitiated, content aggregators all look alike. But subtle differences exist between them. Sites such as Demand Studios and About.com put would-be contributors through an initial screening process where they submit materials such as clips and topics they want to cover. Some sites also run candidates through a test period where they may be asked to turn in articles on spec or for free. By contrast, sites such as HubPages or Helium do minimal screening and allow contributors to write whatever they want, excluding content such as spam and pornography. Other places, including Examiner.com, which has built a network of more than 100 markets, appoint contributors to specific city-centered or national beats.

HOW-TO STORIES RULE.
The bulk of the stories content aggregators put online are service articles (“10 ways to …”) or other evergreen pieces. How-to material is attractive to content aggregators because it can stay online forever—all the better to gain eyeballs and sell advertising. It’s also easy to crank out, especially for someone who has personal experience with a subject. And it’s short—300–500 words on average—and can be written without much reporting, so it’s conducive to turning out lots of copy very quickly. That emphasis on quantity over quality irks freelancers like Beyers. “I get the sense there’s no way to make a full-time living writing for a content aggregator without writing a minimum of 500 articles a month,” he says.

EDITORIAL OVERSIGHT IS HIT OR MISS.
Unlike magazines or newspapers, both of which run stories through a copy desk and check facts before printing them, content aggregators’ editorial grooming processes vary greatly.

Demand Studios, which operates eHow (ehow.com) and several other websites, does run completed stories by one of 1,000 freelance copy editors to check things like spelling and grammar, according to Jeremy Reed, senior vice president of content and editorial. But other aggregators provide little or no supervision. Freelancer L.J. Williamson decided to highlight the lack of editorial oversight she experienced on Examiner.com earlier this year by purposely writing parenting stories containing half-truths and exaggerations. Nobody caught on until lawyers for celebrities in one of the articles disputed Williamson’s claims. Examiner.com pulled the pieces and fired Williamson, who abandoned content aggregators. “I thought I was getting into an infrastructure that would help me,” Williamson says. “I wrote like maybe a half-dozen straight articles for them and realized it was a dead end.”

IT PAYS TO KNOW SEO.
Instead of paying for stories with a flat fee or by the word, many content aggregators make money from Internet click-through advertising, then share a percentage of it with their writers. Associated Content pays a minimum of $1.50 per 1,000 page views. HubPages pays 60 percent of click-through ad fees. The more writers understand how search engine optimization (SEO) works, and develop a knack for identifying keywords people use in Internet searches, the better they’ll do, HubPages’ Hupfer says.

YOUR STORIES COULD WIND UP ELSEWHERE ONLINE OR IN A LOCAL NEWSPAPER.
A number of content aggregators have arrangements to create or share material with newspapers or websites to maximize the investments they’ve made building their contributor community and content library. In one such pact, Hearst Newspapers in Connecticut are acquiring articles from Helium writers. Helium, which announced a partnership with the Society of Professional Journalists earlier this year, has similar arrangements with Community Newspaper Holdings and GateHouse Media. In another deal, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is paying Demand Studios for original stories for the paper’s Sunday travel section. At last count, Associated Content provided material for 33 mostly corporate partners, including LendingTree, Zappos.com and GoDaddy.com, the website hosting service.

YOUR RIGHTS WILL VARY.
Sites like Helium and Demand Studios that share content with online partners commonly pay writers flat fees up front in work-for-hire arrangements. Others, such as HubPages, operate like blogs: Contributors retain copyright and can remove material whenever they choose. Still others, such as Associated Content, give writers the option of granting exclusive, nonexclusive or display-only rights to their work, and scale payment accordingly.

YOU WILL NOT GET RICH—AT LEAST NOT TODAY.
By May, Helium writers had collectively earned more than $1 million. Demand Studios reports having paid out more than $10 million to writers and copy editors to date; in July, the top 10 writers on the site made $2,200–$5,000.

But executives at those companies admit most of their writers don’t make enough to cover groceries, let alone a mortgage. “This is a hobby for our members,” says Helium President Mark Ranalli. “People aren’t spending 40 hours a week on Helium.” But things are improving. In 2008, Helium’s highest-paid writer made $5,000, Ranalli says. “This year our top writer is on track to make close to $10,000. The money is becoming more interesting.”

There’s no denying content aggregators are gaining traction. At a time when the number of healthy newspapers has plummeted, freelance budgets have shriveled and some of the biggest media companies are on the brink of bankruptcy, content aggregators that are as savvy about technology as they are publishing have raised millions of dollars in venture funds to back the continued growth of their user-generated enterprises.

Time and the Internet-using public will no doubt sort out whether these sites become the next big thing or merely “content aggravators,” as one freelancer calls them. Meanwhile, Paul, the Examiner.com writer, is happy to be along for the ride. “This isn’t your mom and dad’s publishing world—it’s changing,” she says.

But Beyers, the Colorado freelancer, isn’t convinced. “As a business, they’re asking you to accept a lot of risk, but it’s not clear what the reward is,” he says. 


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