Confessions of a former content farmer

Last August, as a staff writer for a well-known online news outlet, I committed the following act of journalism: I took an animation that had been produced by someone else, added some snarky commentary to it, and posted it online under the headline, “This video demonstrates how rats can swim up your toilet bowl and will turn you into a life-long squatter.” The article received 5,000 “likes” on Facebook. I quit my media job soon after.

In my new role at a journalism school, I suddenly find myself surrounded by undergraduate students who, like myself only a few years ago, can hardly wait to get out there and start writing for their favorite blogs and news sites.

If they only knew, I sometimes think, just how much writing they’ll be doing–and how little of it will be based on their own reporting.

This assumption is based on my own experience. My first full-time job in journalism was at the aforementioned news and commentary site, where I was hired to churn out eight articles per day. Hitting such a high quota required blogging at near-constant pace, along with rethinking what I considered news to be. The “articles” I was writing were mostly sourced from other reporters, and in fact often consisted of multiple paragraphs lifted (with credit) from competing news sites, my contribution being only to add some context and a killer headline. My new “spin” on the story often felt like little more than a variation on a theme, competing for readers’ attention with the dozens of other blogs that had done the same, not to mention the original news site itself. The title I was given, “assistant editor,” conveyed nothing of my actual role, unless you consider the fact that, as no one else had time to read my work before I posted it online, I was effectively editing myself. A better term for what I was doing would be “aggregator,” or, to use more embittered language, “content farmer.”

But for a while, I was happy enough with the arrangement: I was a bright, motivated, extremely young professional determined to break into journalism, who had been persuaded to accept a frightfully low salary and this eight-article-per-day quota in exchange for the nebulous benefits of a “platform.” It was never a question of whether I’d manage to live up to my end of the deal.

To be sure, I took my work seriously. I strove to keep my readers up-to-date on the news I found important; I made efforts to call sources and find new angles on big stories; I carved out a few hours each week to write longer, somewhat reported pieces. But it was impossible to deny that the demand for content for readers to click on was the force driving our work. It was a mandate communicated to us through praise when an article got lots of attention on social media or, even more effectively, by our higher ups’ panic when the number of readers on our site dipped even slightly from our baseline. We’d respond by bringing out our best tricks: headlines engineered to cause outrage, aggressive amounts of hyperbole and, when all else failed, animal videos.

At times like these, the concept of “news value,” the question of whether an article deserved to be published, seemed to fly out the window. And even when I’d been promoted to staff writer, with a far more reasonable two-post per day quota, the ethos of aggregation prevailed. The metrics that seemed to be guiding the newsroom rarely correlated with what I would consider to be quality journalism. When a story of mine did well, it often felt as if it did so despite its shortcomings. And when something I’d taken care with failed to find readers, it only furthered my suspicion that the model we were following didn’t leave any room for good work.

The unease I felt was eventually enough to make me reconsider my desire to be a journalist. After two years of racing to keep up with the breakneck pace of the Internet, I knew I at least needed a break. That’s how I ended up in the somewhat ironic position of working with students who have yet to confront any of the realities I’d been dealing with–although some do seem wary of what they’re in for.

Tamar Lapin, who graduated this spring from the Journalism + Design program after serving as the Editor-in-Chief of the New School Free Press, is one such student. And she already shares many of my concerns. Lapin has a somewhat romantic vision for her journalism career. She harbors ambitions to report hard-hitting stories, and she longs for the days when a journalist would get her start at a local daily. And she was skeptical of a Journalism + Design workshop lead this fall by Drake Baer, then the ideas editor at Tech Insider, that aimed to teach students “how to cover meaningful, complex topics in a clickable, consumable and shareable fashion.”

Lapin’s problem, she told me, was mainly with the economic model that appears to drive much of Internet publishing, what Baer described as “clicks equal currency.” That model, she worries, “may cause us to forgo writing about issues that really matter in an attempt to spoon-feed readers the content we except they will click on.”

While that isn’t the case for every news organization, I agreed with her that the temptation is certainly there, and that it doesn’t always make sense to resist it.

Yet Baer has an entirely different take on what it means to write for the Internet. “Something that’s handed down to us is that the most sacred form of journalism, and the only worthwhile form, is the longform, investigative news feature,” he said in a phone conversation, “and I think that speaks of a sort of elitism, and a little bit of naïveté, even.”

People don’t necessarily have time or desire to read more than a short blog post, Baer argued, and rather than fight that, journalists should be writing articles that are optimized for the time they do have.

“If you’re not writing to be read,” he said, “then you’re not really communicating.”

Of course, when you’re fresh out of college and writing multiple articles per day from your living room sofa–as many entry-level jobs demand–it’s not a given that you’re churning out anything that’s worth communicating (again: toilet rats).

With the benefits of some distance, though, I can admit that every short, “snackable” article posted to the Internet isn’t without value, and that writing what mostly amounts to fluff can still be a valuable learning experience for early-stage journalists. Approached in the right way, Baer said, blog posts are a good way to practice the skills needed to engage readers, which, he stressed again, every reporter now needs.

The trick to mastering Internet writing without getting swallowed by a clickhole, said Baer, is in “being very determined about getting better and experimenting, and being relentless about improvement.” I’d agree, and I’d tell new journalists like Lapin that it’s up to her to resist the temptation of the cheap click. But I’d add that it’s up to the sites she’ll soon be working for to invest in, and choose to reward, quality work–regardless of word count.

Photo Credit: Mike Licht, Flickr