Content farms: slave labour or green shoots of hope?

Several people have drawn my attention to this article on GigaOm talking about content farms as a democratising force for journalism.

Content farms have been criticised for turning content into a commodity, where quantity and optimisation matter more than quality. I think this is, to quite a large extent, right. Anyone can churn out articles and see them appear in various places as long as they’re prepared to write about whatever the algorithms say they should and accept very low remuneration.

The article highlights an interesting flip-side to this though. Content farms can lead to as what the article rather grandly calls “the democatisation” of journalism. Where talent shines through and is spotted, the content farms can act as a sort of talent pool.

To me this is what the media business has always done. In various ways it has found and promoted those with talent and rejected those without it. It has done so imperfectly and unfairly in many cases, but it’s obvious that the people who float to the top of the old-media ecosystem are there for a reason. It is an effective talent-filter.

However getting your foot on the first rung of the ladder is very very hard and many people give up before they have even done it. One hope we might all have for the internet is that it makes that first rung easier to reach. Another hope, so far thwarted, is that the rewards for reaching the very highest levels are greater too.

Surely that matters most. Without greater opportunity, which can support more professional creators. where will that first rung lead to? Where will Matt Miller, highlighted in the article as having been plucked from the ranks of zero experience would-be sports writers to a paid staff job, go next?

It would be great if the answer was that he could reasonably expect a long and lucrative career in online journalism which lasts as long as his talent and enthusiasm. Even better if the same could be said for thousands of other would-be writers. Better yet if a healthy and competitive marketplace made them valued superstars by their employers.

If that were true then the undoubted and hugely valuable potential the internet has to reduce the lowest rung of the ladder and allow talent to shine would be all the more exciting.

As it is, though, it’s hard to get excited about the “democratisation” of journalism. The article in GigaOm, in defending content farms, makes a good point about creating opportunity. But at the moment those opportunities are few and far between, and if democratising journalism means displacing overpaid old-guard journalists with newer, cheaper, version (however talented) it’s not a very compelling vision of the future.

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