NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- More major media companies are looking for ways to find cheap content. Thomson Reuters, Cox Newspapers and Hachette Filipacchi have run articles supplied by Associated Content, one of several companies, such as Demand Media and AOL's SEED, that mines reporting from masses of freelancers for as little as $5 a story.
Hachette is using Associated to supply some content for its Woman's Day site. Thomson Reuters experimented with Associated for a limited period of time last year but plans to ink similar deals in the future, whether with Associated or another content provider. And Cox's Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a handful of articles from Associated last summer; it is now running regular articles supplied by Demand Media.
Such partnerships further the ongoing shift among established news operations to capitalize on the availability of cheap content, such as USA Today's recent deal with Demand Media, which is using its network of freelancers to supply pieces for a new Travel Tips section on USA Today's website.
Associated's contributions to professional publishers, however, sometimes look more like "serious" journalism. Reuters.com, for example, has published Associated stories on the economy .
"This is part of a series of personal accounts about small business and the recession," a label on the Associated stories for Reuters said, suggesting that the pieces within or near the domain of citizen reporting. "The writers are contributors to Associated Content." But some pieces in this section make a clear attempt at traditional journalism, including one that interviews the president of a local GM dealership in Idaho and tries to parse sales figures for other dealerships that GM shut down.
"This was not a business decision, but entirely an editorial one," said Keith McAllister, global online editor for Thomson Reuters. "We want to fill out the online offering as much as possible. We're building Thomson Reuters to be a content candy store."
"In the case where we're going more niche content, it makes sense to do these kinds of partnerships," he added.
Niche or not, there is now a move toward outsourcing stories traditionally done by professional reporters -- or at least freelancers directed and edited by in-house editors. "It's an interesting shift and a good one," Mr. McAllister said of the overall trend toward buying third-party news.
Associated Content boasts more than 350,000 freelance contributors who have supplied, at current count, more than 2 million articles. By contrast, Thomson Reuters employs 2,800 journalists worldwide.
Associated pays its contributors anywhere from $5 to $30 per article, sometimes upfront -- and in some cases pays a performance fee of up to $2 for every 1,000 impressions the story generates within Associated Content's site. Though Mr. Keane and his media partners declined to provide details, an executive with knowledge of these deals indicates the media partners have paid anywhere from $75 to $120 per article as well as a share of any related ad revenue. Full-time staffers or even traditional freelancers working directly with publishers cost considerably more.
"The evolution of the content cycle has cheapened," said Associated's CEO Patrick Keane.
That kind of economy of content may be part of Associated's appeal to editors managing decimated newsrooms. Cox's Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which cut its newsroom staff by 30% in March 2009, ran a handful of articles supplied by Associated last year and is currently running one article a week from Demand Media. A spokeswoman confirmed that the paper did a "trial test" with Associated last year but declined to elaborate.
Exploring the option
At Hachette, Woman's Day magazine is using and experimenting with outside contributions from Associated but also CafeMom.com and Savings.com, said Woman's Day online editor Heidi Cho. It is currently evaluating its deal with Associated.
"The vast majority of the content on the site is written by in-house editors," Ms. Cho said. "But for about the other 10%, we have room to explore other options. We're constantly evaluating, and the beauty of digital is we're able to track the numbers."
In its agreement with Associated, Ms. Cho sends assignments to the company, which in turn culls submissions from its members. Ms. Cho decides which ones to publish. Examples include one titled, "Interesting Animal Facts: All About Insects" and another on retirement planning.
Though some in journalism may see the trend toward using outsiders' content as disheartening, at least one media observer said the industry bristles less over quality concerns than their own diminished importance. "These companies present a challenge to a certain arrogance in the profession that says we know best," New York University professor Jay Rosen said. "So now the work of interpreting these signals from the 'live web' are going to these other companies that don't have the same editorial standards, frankly."