Content Farms Compete With Book Publishers, Not News Sites

Suite101 CEO on the Online Journalism Debate and News Organizations' Red Herring

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Peter Berger
Peter Berger
The debate about online content has spiked in recent weeks, particularly around journalism, with Demand Media providing content to news sites such as USA Today, Yahoo purchasing Associated Content to offer consumers "personalized news" and AOL announcing that they want to hire "hundreds of journalists" in the next year.

We need to remember that content-generation sites such as Demand Media and my own,, offer something very different than the news media does, and that the reason for that lies in fundamental differences in their respective audiences.

Consumers like news sites for their ability to simplify the day's noteworthy events into a digestible and well-researched selection of reads -- ideally, in today's environment, with editorial edge and a clear angle. Consumer trust is built by the focus and predictability of those qualities.

New content publishers excel at advice and evergreen stories -- "How to choose guitar picks based on shape, thickness, and material" and "How to negotiate a job offer that requires relocation," for example.

Suddenly plastering news sites with large quantities of advice content would dilute news sites' value proposition -- and, if it's just an attempt to save on editorial costs, might actually accelerate a news site's decline. As with any business, the only way for a news site to survive is to focus on its key strengths and then excel at them.

When readers are looking for advice and how-to articles, on the other hand, they aren't racing to news sites, but rather to search engines that are powered by quality content sites, the way they'd go to a book store rather than a specific book publisher's catalog.

What is happening on the web is that the medium's efficiencies simply make many of the traditional news distribution models much weaker. Right now, there is almost no capital needed to start up a local-facing or topic-specific news outlet. Consumers have the ability to go online and find all kinds of stories, at no direct cost, and it's hard to defend the traditional audience model with all of the accessible content choices and without clear differentiation.

There will be two main types of successful news organizations: some very big, trusted brand names, which -- despite the current pressures they face -- will be able to bind a sufficiently large, loyal user base to survive; and niche, grassroots news sites that excel through their nimbleness.

New content publishers like Demand Media, Associated Content and don't compete with traditional news content. We have some news content, like this article on the Tour de France or this report on U.S. exports development, but it's not our bread and butter.

It's non-fiction book publishers that we really compete with.

In the past, consumers would buy a book to learn how to interpret a particular piece of music or when to plant specific bulbs. Now consumers can go online and find this information with no direct charge. The value we are offering is not the timely editorial "nose" of a newspaper, but rather an identification of the search demand for content and writers and guidance to assure quality at scale.

So while being named a "competitor" by news journalists is creating curiosity about our space, it is not a correct characterization. Our real competitors have to wake up to the seismic shifts we are seeing online and see that they are already at grave risk of becoming marginalized in the digital age. We're still waiting for the McGraw-Hills, the Random Houses, Harper Collins' and Simon & Schusters of the world to get active serving their traditional audiences online and entering the marketplace.

Peter Berger is CEO at, an online content platform ranked in the top 100 sites by Quantcast with more than 10,000 writers and editors.
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