NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- After Andrew Brining took the bar exam two years ago, he had plenty of time on his hands, and he made a habit of perusing sports news online as he awaited the results. The 31-year-old San Francisco Giants fan, however, found the predictably captious nature of sports coverage frustrating. "It's perversely counterintuitive," he said. "You're interested in this to be entertained, right?"
On the hunt for more positive fare he stumbled onto BleacherReport.com, where anybody can apply to post an original sports article. So he contributed a post. Then another. And another. In the past two years, Mr. Brining has written more than 500 articles for Bleacher, a prolific output that is more stunning for another fact: He wrote them all for free. He is one of more than 3,600 Bleacher authors who willingly write without remuneration, and their gratis efforts suggest there's a major adjustment going on in the economics of content. Despite the attention around search specialists such as Demand Media, Associated Content and Examiner, a growing group of sites is betting on something better than cheap content: free content.
Huffington Post is, perhaps, the mother of the model now with more than 6,000 unpaid bloggers bringing in an audience of 23 million people each month, according to ComScore. Not all of Huffington's content is produced without cost, of course. The company employs around 53 editorial staffers who edit and produce original writing. (The company employs a total of 124 people.) But its overwhelming army of bloggers renders a bulk of the pages, thus lightening the cost. After five years in operation, CEO Eric Hippeau said the company will make profit this year. "We're very confident that online news can be a profitable business," he said. "Advertisers are very interested in reaching our audience -- a very high-level, educated audience."
Though such a claim may draw its detractors -- where would the site be without source material for example -- there's little question an article on Huffington outshines an article from a low-cost purveyor like Demand, which does pay its writers. The average time a reader spends on Huffington is almost 15 minutes each month, according to ComScore. By comparison, the average time on a Demand property is just under six minutes.
Christopher N. Curtin, VP-digital strategy for Hewlett-Packard, says Huffington is considered a higher-end buy among marketers. "Their audience is a pretty attractive one," he said, "and it's the content that's drawing that audience."
It also underscores an emerging but difficult truth for professional writers. Free content can just as easily draw a higher-profile readership as expensive content, as well as high-end advertisers. Wikia, Jimmy Wales' for-profit venture, also harvests page views from freely contributing members, and the company has already proclaimed its profitability. The site functions much like Wikipedia but centers on entertainment -- for example, the "Twilight" Wiki. Mr. Wales said the site will continue to be profitable this quarter. Wikia has a monthly audience of 11 million, according to ComScore, who on average spend roughly 25 minutes on the site.
Despite a widespread jingoism among media watchers favoring new forms of journalism, some observers say no-cost writing is a disquieting trend. "I wonder whether we're seeing the 'Craigslist effect,' but for content," Newsonomics author Ken Doctor said, referring to how the free-listings site has vitiated the classifieds business. "You make the cost of content creation so much cheaper, but in so doing you are ruining the economics of traditional news publishing."
Indeed, publishers have caught on to this changing tide. Bleacher Report has inked content deals with major media companies, including Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, Houston Chronicle, SI.com, CBSSports.com, FoxSports.com and the ailing Philly.com, a property of the Philadelphia Inquirer, which, along with Philadelphia Daily News, was bought out of bankruptcy in April for $135 million. Bleacher publishes a page for each partner, which has the look and feel of the publisher's content but which entirely features Bleacher writers. The site splits ad revenue. An insider says Bleacher will be profitable this year. The company just appointed a new CEO, Brian Grey of Polaris Venture Partners and the former senior VP of Fox Sports Interactive.
"I'm sensitive to writers who say, 'What are you doing giving your writing away for free?'" said Mr. Brining, who after failing the bar three times decided writing was more than a hobby. He is supported by his family. "Yes, Bleacher Report is reaping the financial rewards of my work, but it's also helping me achieve my career. If I am good at this, the compensation will come."