Five years ago this week I began writing for AOL's blog network Weblogs Inc. I wrote 5 technology news stories each day and was paid a mere $5 per article. It was grueling, that was just one of 3 jobs I had at the time - and it was great.
AOL's secret internal plan to ramp up its online content business was leaked today to New York business blog Business Insider and people are saying it's got "content farm" written all over it. In-house writers are expected to write 5 to 10 blog posts per day and those stories are expected to go from an average of 1500 pageviews per post today to an amazing 7000 views per post in the future. How will stories be selected? The only thing that will matter, apparently, is search engine friendliness and monetization potential. That might sound terrible to outsiders, but having been there I want to say: Good luck AOL, I hope that strategy works wonderfully for you. I genuinely do.
The 58 page document titled The AOL Way: Content, Product, Media Engineering, and Revenue Management is worth a read to anyone in the media business, but the hardest pill to swallow is the relationship between quantity, quality and money.
David Carr at the New York Times tweets: "Must Read, Must Not Emulate: Fascinating Look Inside the Word Gulag at AOL." Tech journalist Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols says, "AOL expects its staff writers to write 5 to 10 stories per day! Yeah. Right. That's going to happen." Social media analyst Jessica Well says, "Yeah... quantity over quality... that's the spirit, AOL! :/"
I'm sure the writers filling those quotas are paid more than the $5 per post that I got paid 5 years ago. When I took the position the pay had just gone up from $4 per post!
At that time I was also writing 6 posts per day about international currency speculation, as a subcontractor for a CMS company. And doing 3 to 5 interviews per week with a nonprofit technology organization. I was producing roughly 10 to 12 posts per day. Having landed those three gigs, I quit my minimum wage job at a convenience store in my home town. (Thanks, AOL content farm!)
Techmeme launched, I had 8 headlines there in 8 weeks. Then one day Michael Arrington called and hired me at TechCrunch. "You keep beating us to stories," he told me. I was able to do that because I was getting RSS feeds from key vendors in our market delivered by IM and SMS. That's standard practice among tech bloggers now, but at the time no one else was doing it, so I was able to cover lots of news first. The fact that I was able to do it under the AOL banner, for any pay at all, was a great platform for me.Were those posts any good? They were good enough that when tech blog top story aggregator
Right: Barb Dybwad, then at AOL, took this picture of me showing her a blog I was working on for a local natural foods store when we met at the first tech industry event I attended, an unconference called Tag Camp. A few months later, Barb hired me to write for AOL. Today she's at a site called Tecca. Thanks, Barb!
Now I'm the co-editor of ReadWriteWeb and I'm happy to report that things are very different for me.
Here at ReadWriteWeb we pay our writers far better, but we do ask full timers to write 5 posts each day. We ask them to write smart, informed, quality posts. Preferably before anyone else does. It's very hard, but very enjoyable work.
You know what, though? We've got a full time news spot open right now and I'm having a hard time filling it. I think of AOL, big as it is, as a farm team in the minor leagues. I made a splash in the minors and then got called up to the major leagues. Where are the minor leagues now, though? Where are the tech bloggers who have toiled for too little pay, pumped out large quantities of content and proven themselves to have potential to work on a different level?
I don't know where those sites are anymore. If they appear again, though, I'm guessing they'll look like content farms.
The executives behind such outfits, publishing on mass scale, are inevitably going to treat writers and readers like worthless pawns in a chess game worth billions of dollars. It would be a mistake to expect them to do anything else.
But some of those people will demonstrate that they aren't just pawns, that they are writers, journalists and power-bloggers.
Big league bloggers and writers these days need to be able to write well, in large quantity and quickly. It's not easy, but who said writing for a living, in an era when anyone can publish with ease, was going to be easy?
So AOL, go build a giant content farm for mainstream readers. I'm sure some of the content will be worth reading, and though management's priorities are SEO and monetization, I'm sure many of the writers will sneak in some gems. While you've got them, give them a trial by fire, too. Then send them our way. Or don't - if they are capable of stepping up to the plate and hitting homeruns - hopefully we'll find them before our competitors do.