Content farms, news aggregators creating Walmart model of media content & shrinking the journalistic middle class

It is no doubt meant to be a breezy New Yorker article (yet with a few hard reportorial straw-man questions) on the development of Bustle.com, a new website for women. It is written by Lizzie Widdicombe in an insider-guide-to-trendy-new-restaurant tone suggesting that the owner, Bryan Goldberg, has insightfully blazed a game-changing trail in the brave new young world of digital media. But the story of Bustle.com is actually a stark example that highlights the financial pressures that are shaping a Walmart model of media content delivery, with the result of dangerously shrinking the journalistic middle class.

Goldberg, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, previously started the sports website bleacherreport.com and sold it to Turner Broadcasting in 2012 for over two hundred million dollars. Widdicombe admiringly notes that its success “was a striking example of the new economics of media: when it began, its articles were written by a network of two thousand unpaid sports fans”. Goldberg is using a similar content farm model – non-experts generating search-engine-optimized opinion-oriented content – to create the “female equivalent of ESPN.com, an advertiser-friendly Web site that appeals to just about all members of one sex”.

The staff consists of four female editors in their mid-twenties, who have been given equity in the company, and “a gaggle of interns—college students or recent graduates, all women”. (Editorial note to writer: “all women” is redundant because at no time in the history of humankind has any group of people that included men been referred to as a gaggle.) Most importantly,

“Goldberg plans to use writers from the group of young women that is Bustle’s intended readership, those aged eighteen to thirty-four. … Writers are paid, but only part-time rates. (Interns get fifty dollars a day, while more established freelancers receive a hundred.)”

That is the first similarity to the Walmart model: employ only a limited number of well-compensated staff; the vast majority of workers are paid minimal wages and are either freelance or part-time, which means no health or other employment benefits.

“One of the main criticisms of Bleacher Report’s business model was that Goldberg’s talk of “empowering” young writers was really a way to justify their exploitation. This may be true, but I had a hard time finding anyone among Bustle’s intern workforce who seemed concerned about it.”

Widdecombe then uses one example, a woman who is a senior in college and has “done a slew of internships”, to illustrate her point. I would have been highly surprised if she had found one who was concerned. The Bustle writers are a self-selected group: if they had been concerned about the exploitation of pittance pay and no benefits, they wouldn’t have applied.

“Alexandra Finkel, an editor, was going through a file of applications from potential interns, who came from schools such as Oxford, Barnard, and the University of Chicago. (Goldberg told me, “We have several Ivy League writers out of the gate.”)”

That is the second similarity to Walmart: the business model benefits from free-riding on the workers’ social network. Not being paid a living wage or provided health insurance benefits limits the pool of writers to those who can depend on others to house and feed them and cover them with insurance.

More from the article:

“To a large degree, the articles consist of aggregation: a Bustle writer finds a piece of news that interests her—from the Times, or from a blog she likes—and summarizes it for Bustle’s readers, perhaps making its contents into a list, or collecting some related tweets.”

and

“Soon after acquiring Bleacher Report, Turner made it the source of sports news at CNN.com, where it replaced Sports Illustrated. This changing of the guard was a reminder of how quickly, in the Internet age, a cost-effective business plan can overtake one built on a reputation for quality.”

Quoting Brian Morrissey, the editor of Digiday:

A well-researched exposé, such as the one Sports Illustrated recently ran about N.C.A.A. violations by the Oklahoma State football team, may take many months of work from a highly paid reporter and editor. But, in the end, Morrissey said, “it yields the same revenue as a ‘25 Sexiest Female Athletes Who Can Kick Your Ass’ post, which costs, like, two hundred dollars.”

And thus we have the third similarity to Walmart: flood the market with cheaply created content that will crowd out other sources of competition.

One could protest that the kind of content proposed is not journalism. Here is one definition of a journalist:

A journalist in the public interest is a free and independent communicator on essential public issues who uses substantial knowledge and critical skills and reliable methods of verification. This journalist is motivated by truth-telling for the public from the public’s perspective.

Could a writer for Bustle be considered a journalist?

A Senate panel recently approved a definition of a journalist, but did so only to define who would be protected from revealing confidential sources. One could say that using original sources of information distinguishes a journalist from, say, an analyst or commentator, which in turn would be distinct from someone who aggregates or summarizes other sources (such as, oh, let’s say, a blogger).

Original news gathering and news writing is obviously more expensive, from a business perspective, than merely summarizing the results of that work. Although journalistic and media content is shifting online, the revenue models are still the same as newspapers always have been: a combination of payment and advertising. Increasingly, content that would be considered in-depth journalism or expert analysis/commentary is gated behind a paywall, as ad clicks and eyeballs alone don’t generate sufficient revenue to cover costs and desired level of profitability.

The financial pressures are essentially taking out the “middle class” in journalism: many regional newspapers and media outlets are, if not outright folding, cutting staff along with aggregating and redistributing content from parent organizations and other, larger (well-financed) media outlets. They are also literally taking out the journalistic middle class, period: not many people can afford to go the route of unpaid internships to break into the profession. This opinion piece nicely summarizes the pressures that are making journalism the province of the privileged, and quotes journalist James Bloodworth: “And if they are the journalists of the future our media will probably resemble the establishment talking to itself….”

There is also a darker side to the trend toward low or no pay and content farming: the undisclosed subsidy. Edward Wasserman, dean, of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, writes:

“True, undisclosed subsidy is a longstanding issue. It popped up in the op-ed pages of traditional newspapers. There, articles written by outsiders for little or no pay offered policy perspectives under the guise of expert analysis, when they actually were sponsored by clients and paymasters who were rarely identified (and often weren’t even known.)”

“The arrangement opens vast areas of potential corruption. But now, with the continuing failure of online advertising and subscription payments to replace declining offline revenues, publishers have quietly installed invisible subsidy as a routine, and unacknowledged, element of their operations.”

The proliferation of websites like Bustle.com, even if they are not by definition journalistic, effectively create market pressures on those organizations that have had as their primary mission reporting as part of the fourth estate – or, now, the networked fourth estate.

Taken to an unchecked conclusion, without addressing the revenue models or the low pay barriers limiting entry into the field, we could end up having news and analysis created by the 1% for the 1% hidden behind the moat of a paywall, and content farms, aggregators, and “undisclosed subsidizers” picking through the scraps and editing (and slanting) the content to digest-size for the consumption of the 99%: let them eat soundbites. In that sense, the choice of the name Bustle could be unintentionally revealing, hearkening back to the poverty and poor labor conditions of the Victorian era.

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