Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Guest Post: Why I Like Being a "Content Provider"

by Minda Zetlin

If you spend a lot of time around longtime journalists, you may have heard the term “content provider” used with something like a sneer—generally from what I think of as the old guard: venerable writers who built their careers writing great news stories for great news organizations and are aghast at the changes the Internet has wrought upon the world they thought they knew.
But “content provider” is a term many of us are embracing, because that old world of journalism is gone for good. I spent part of last week at a forward-looking conference where respected media guru Steve Rubel, executive vice president of global strategy and insights at PR giant Edelman, laid out, in a few minutes and a few slides, the forces that have changed media forever.

Content is infinite; time and attention are finite. We all know this as readers. I’ve often thought that I would like to read the New Yorker—if only it came out monthly instead of weekly. The days when people eagerly checked their mailboxes for that long-awaited magazine are over. These days, the magazine has a website where it publishes new articles or blog posts 20 times a day. All your friends have blogs they hope you’ll follow, and now that there are so many publishing venues, most have books out, too, that they’re waiting for you to get around to reading. Not to mention Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Digg, Flipboard, and StumbleUpon. There’s just too much good stuff out there for any of us to read everything we might like to.

Publishers can’t depend on subscription revenue. Right or wrong, most people assume that content on the Internet should be free, and very few companies have found a successful way to charge people for reading material online. As we’ve just seen, there’s enough good reading out there for free to make anyone wonder why they’d bother paying to read a website. As more and more people are turning away from paper, subscriptions just aren’t a great way for most publications to make money anymore.

Online ad revenues don’t amount to much. Advertising was supposed to be a viable business model for online publications, just as it’s always provided much of the revenue for print publications. Rubel notes that most online advertising is sold using automated networks rather than person-to-person, and at very low prices. Late least year, Forrester Research estimated the average cost per thousand page views of an online ad at just $2.66. The Atlantic reported that newspapers lost $16 in print ad revenue for every $1 they had gained in digital ad revenue in 2012, one reason why total newspaper employment in the United States fell below 40,000 for the first time since 1978.

This is all terrible news for traditional media, for the state of American journalism in general, and for writers determined to make their livings from pure journalism. When some of the biggest names in media are faltering, and all of them are scrambling to compete in an increasingly overloaded market for readers’ attention—well, that’s not a good thing.

I wish I could say that pay for good writing is going up, but it isn’t. I wish I could say that all the writing I do is meticulously researched and fact-checked, but it isn’t. I wish real news and media outlets were still willing and able to pay for serious investigative journalism, but they aren’t, which is why we need nonprofits like Pro Publica to support it instead.

Amid these grim developments, Rubel sees a big silver lining for public relations, because struggling media outlets are desperate for other revenue, and that’s created an opportunity for companies like Edelman to place “sponsored content” on their websites. Meantime, companies are more comfortable than ever creating their own content, because most have been doing it already, aiming for the content-rich, frequently updated websites that Google’s ranking algorithms favor.

That’s where we come in, those of us who make our livings writing—if we’re willing to be content providers as well as journalists. There’s an immense hunger for fresh material to be posted on traditional media sites, corporate sites, and hybrids of both. If you’re already full up with work or committed to never writing anything but purely journalistic stories, that may not much matter to you. But if you’re looking for ways to create easy revenue and gain regular clients, then the Web’s endless appetite for content is definitely a good thing.

Rubel stressed in his talk that effective custom content must be high quality and journalistic. This is one way custom content can offer an advantage over some of the low-rent Web-writing opportunities out there. Content mills may offer laughably low payments for laughably bad articles and have little to lose if what they publish is poorly researched or written. A company trying to build up its brand, however, will think twice about putting its name on pieces like those. It’s the brand-conscious companies that are more likely to hire professional writers and offer pay professionals will accept.

How do you get into the custom content market? One place to start is ASJA’s Content Connections conference taking place November 7 and 8 at Columbia College in Chicago. We’re bringing writers together with experts in content creation and also hosting an event called Client Connections. It’s similar to Personal Pitch (meetings with agents) that is a regular feature of our annual conference in April, with two big differences: the short meetings are with content buyers who may represent corporations, advertising, or PR agencies. And it’s open to all writers, not just ASJA members.

I, myself, have included sponsored or custom content in the mix of how I make my living for the past dozen years. Most (but not all) of the time, the material I write for these corporate clients is highly similar to what I’d be writing as a journalist. It’s always some of the easiest and best-paid work I do and usually provides regular income. And in the uncertain world of a freelance writer, regular, steady, easy, well-paid work is a very nice thing.

Minda Zetlin is president of ASJA, a columnist for the Inc. magazine website and author of several books, including The Geek Gap: Why Business and Technology Professionals Don’t Understand Each Other and Why They Need Each Other to Survive (Prometheus Books, 2006), co-authored with her husband, Bill Pfleging. Connect with her on twitter at @MindaZetlin.

This article original appeared in the November 2013 issue of the ASJA magazine, and online here.

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