A content mill, if you aren't familiar with the term, is a website that aggregates huge numbers of articles on a constantly-updated basis, written by freelancers who are paid by page views or ad clicks rather than wages or fees. A few examples: Examiner, Suite101, eHow, Triond, Associated Content, Helium.
I've written on this blog about a number of content mills, focusing mainly on their Terms and Conditions and the implications for writers of the legal language contained therein. But are content mills worth writing for? Can you make money? Will they help you start or build a freelance writing career?
This week I'm hosting two guest posts that address these questions (both originally posted at The WM Freelance Writers Connection). The first is by journalist Carol Tice, who argues that content mills are not a good way for aspiring writers to establish a sustainable writing career.
As many WM readers and readers of my Make a Living Writing Blog may already know, I am not a fan of content mills. I advise the writers I mentor to avoid them, and many of my mentees approach me with the specific goal of kicking their mill-writing habit.
I think there are many types of people for whom these sites are a superb option -- but in my opinion, those types don't include writers who're serious about building a good-paying, sustainable writing career. To clarify, I mean people who want to earn $50,000 a year and up from their writing. People who ultimately want to have unlimited earning capability from writing.
Let me explain why I'm down on content mills. In my experience, here are the career problems writers may experience who rely mostly on content-site assignments:
1. It does not teach you to report. Most of the stories on content sites are written with light Internet research or off the top of your head. They don't help you develop newsgathering abilities, which are a bedrock skill needed for most good-paying byline reporting and corporate writing work. You don't develop interviewing skills since you generally aren't conducting interviews. If you dream of earning $800-$1500 for a single article, mill writing is not helping you get there.
2. It does not teach you to research. A lot of good-paying writing assignments call for extensive research. I recently wrote a $650 article for a regional magazine about all the stimulus money our state got and how it was spent. I wrote a $1,500 article about where Seattle's trash goes and what happens to it. I'm doubtful that anyone cutting their teeth on mill stories will ever be able to write stories like these. Writing for mills does not teach you how to do investigative reporting, how to dig deep into documents, understand them, interpret them, or synthesize complex information. Copywriting as well can demand a decent amount of research and ability to dive in-depth into a topic.
3. It does not give you nurturing editor relationships. I would be nowhere today without two or three amazing editors I worked with earlier in my career. Editing at mills is usually cursory at best, and not the kind of close, one-on-one relationship you want where someone will really take you under their wing and take the time to show you exactly what you need to do to improve.
4. It does not teach you to market. Many mill writers have spoken in ecstatic terms of how much they love never having to market their writing. But marketing your writing is a key skill for those who want to earn big. Generally, you go out and find the really lucrative magazine connections and corporate clients yourself...they do not fall in your lap. Every week you write for mills is a week you don't learn this critical skill.
5. It does not enhance your reputation. While some mill writers have reported they were able to parlay their clips into better-paying assignments...I usually find when I nail them down that their definition of "better paying" and mine are very different. They often mean something like they've worked their way to $50 an article. Know that many editors at quality publications discard outright the queries of anyone who offers clips from mill sites, so this work can slam a lot of doors for you.
6. It's a model that may disappear. There's been much discussion online of the possibility that Google may soon find a way to screen out mill sites in its search results. If that happens, the entire article-aggregator industry, which sprung up to serve Google's ranking analytics, will disappear overnight. As it is, mill sites go out of business on a regular basis, taking any promised "lifetime" residuals they owe writers along with them.
If you write for mills, ask yourself how you would replace that income if this model goes away? What other client types could you find work with?
There's already signs that even if it survives, the content-site model is changing -- check out ProVoices, the new site that wants professionally reported articles for up to $250. The trend is toward rates going up, and more work being demanded of mill writers as these sites seek to differentiate themselves in the marketplace.
Carol Tice is a business journalist, copywriter, blogger and Web-content author. A contributor to the WM Freelance Writers Connection, she also blogs about small business for Entrepreneur magazine's Daily Dose, and about the business of freelance writing at her Make a Living Writing blog. In addition, she mentors writers on how to find better-paying markets and increase their earnings. She has three children ages 7, 8 and 17.