Content mills for UK freelance writers
The Miller's Tale
At the start of 2011, my freelance writing for newspapers and magazines was running dry. It had slowed to a trickle some time earlier, but now it was time to face up to the inevitable and pitch for work writing online content.
The initial culture shock took a week or two to absorb. It's about adjusting the mindset. Online content pays on average about a tenth of what you would earn for print journalism. You can choose to rail against the injustice, or you can make the quick realisation that content is not journalism. Most of it is essentially connecting words in an efficient but unspectacular manner, a form of digital labouring.
Make that leap of expectations quickly, and there is still room to be surprised by the occasional online content job that allows a little creativity, some verbal flourishes or imagination, and is paid at an acceptable rate. They don't come along very often, but these jobs can breathe a little life into the dying embers of your work ethic.
The following is a brief and necessarily subjective overview of a year spent grinding for the content mills. As many will be aware, the glory days of the content mills, when there was plentiful, easy work, understanding editors and fast turnaround times are long gone. My experience was of companies struggling to cope with changing Google search criteria, casting around for an effective business model, treating writers with varying degrees of disdain, inconsistency or inefficiency.
Populis was among my first ports of call, and for a while it was a good gig, paying rather above the content mill average, with a lot of interesting and easy titles on offer. They had something of a crisis in late 2011 when they shed a lot of writers, drastically reduced their content needs, and received an understandable amount of flak on the freelance writer forums.
My impression was that the company was a little naïve rather than duplicitous. They seemed to have taken on far too many writers, some of them unashamed of exploiting the loopholes the newish business had left in their editorial system. I saw a lot of substandard or unoriginal articles sneak through the editorial process, and can understand the company's decision to completely overhaul their approach to content creation. There are scant titles available at present, and the company seems to be repositioning itself in the content market.
Textbroker UK is a late entrant to the UK market, although American writers seem to have generally positive experiences of working for the company. Its business model is astute, matching clients to writers. Inevitably there are glitches along the way, often the result of clients failing to be explicit about their requirements, or, in some cases, not really knowing what they want until they see what they don't.
The downside of this approach is that professional writers cannot afford to waste time writing articles on spec. You thus end up dodging a lot of assignments where the instructions are not clear, or the clients don't inspire confidence.
Working as a four-star writer on this site (sure I'm a published novelist and I've won awards as a professional journalist, but, as I mentioned, we aren't talking about journalism here) means that the fees on offer are rarely worth devoting much time to the articles. Anything that requires anything more than cursory research simply isn't worth the effort. Textbroker's problem seems to be this gap between their admirable desire for quality and the paltry rates they offer for said quality.
Interact Media adopt the same business model, but seem to have some clients who will actually pay respectable rates. Perhaps the difference is that I'm a five star writer with this site, but there do seem to be clients who will reward writers for effective copy.
Interact also have a wide variety of clients, so you can write copy for a private detective one day, then a piece for a travel agent the next. The downside is that, in the current economic climate, the drift is towards clients who want to pay the minimum. Regrettably there is no shortage of writers prepared to work for a cent a word, and trying to maintain some worker solidarity in a global business is futile.
Pure Content is an intriguing outfit. They are actually based in the UK, in Norfolk. Their recruitment process seems rigorous (or maybe it's just slow) and their stringent editorial guidelines seem to indicate a company that puts the accent on quality content. Unfortunately the rates they pay, from my experience at least, would require very quick turnaround with minimal research to make them even worth considering.
Their editorial system is also a little unwieldy. Their editors send writers a batch of assignments which you have the choice of accepting or declining. It's a hit-and-miss affair that seems to make no provision for a writer's aptitudes, knowledge areas or preferences. You either say yes or no. With the very low rates of pay, a professional writer would only accept those assignments that they could write off the top of their head.
I also signed on at Demand Studios but there were no titles on offer, or only abstruse technical articles. Reading the forms and feedback on Demand, my impression is that it's hardly the easiest place to work.
Trouble At The Mill
Thanks to the all-powerful Google, web content is in a constant state of flux. There may be a new emphasis on quality, but the fact remains that search engines can make only rudimentary assessments of the value of content. The very concept of SEO relies on bypassing the need for original and attractive writing when judicious sprinklings of keywords will obtain superior results.
There is still a demand for web content but the over-production of web pabulum by the mills in recent years has devalued the market. Writers with experience and qualifications have been effectively de-skilled and will continue to struggle to attract a decent wage for their work.
The future seems to be drifting towards what are essentially job agencies like Textbroker and Interact, where they take a cut for introducing clients to writers. Their difficulties lie in stopping writers and clients from cutting out the middleman, and in assessing a percentage fee that keeps them in business without slashing the rates on offer to writers.
For writers in the UK, the options are limited. Private clients are often the best option, but the problem is that many clients are now being influenced by the rates being paid by the mills. Cost-cutting accountants will always ask the creatives why they are paying £20 for an article, when they could get the same word-count for £5. For many companies, quality has simply become a luxury they can't afford.