The New York Times, the Content Farm, and the Power of the Brand


It was timing that was either ironic or fitting: Less than 24 hours after Facebook filed for its big IPO, The New York Times Company announced its earnings for the last quarter of 2011 and for the previous year as a whole. While the company isn't doing great, it's not doing terribly, either. The Times itself, along with the International Herald Tribune and the The Boston Globe, now gives the company over 400,000 subscribers to its digital products -- not a landslide, but a definite rebuke to the many who predicted that the paywalls would fail. And while digital revenues are down overall, digital revenues at the Times and other core properties -- isolated out from the company's other holdings -- actually grew by 10 percent between 2010 and 2011.

What's doing notably badly, though -- and making the earnings report seem worse overall than it actually is -- is, the web portal-meets-content farm that the Times Company bought in 2005 for $410 million. In 2011, digital revenues for the unit fell by 25 percent -- and overall profit fell by, yikes, 67 percent.

The decline was due in part to Google's recent update to its search algorithm, which punished About, Demand Media, Associated Content, and other purveyors of SEO-driven churnalism by lowering those sites' content in its search rankings. (The algo-tweak was nicknamed the "Farmer Update.") But the plummet, I think, is also related to a more atomized problem, and one that's particular to content farms as a journalistic strain. The sites, the now-ex-Times writer Virginia Heffernan has put it, create a kind of "sci-fi universe in which every letter, word and sentence is a commodity. Companies make money off chunks of language. Bosses drive writers to make more words faster and for less pay. Readers then pay for exposure to these cheaply made words in the precious currency of their attention."

Content farms and their products are, essentially, words without brands. They float, aimlessly, in the ether, waiting and hoping for just the right search query to make them, suddenly, relevant. They operate in the fickle world of eyeballs and clicks. They cling, because they must, to the whim and whimsy of human curiosity.

If I search for "get red wine stain out of carpeting," and Demand Media can deliver me an article titled "How to Remove Red Wine Stains from a Carpet," then Demand Media wins -- not because it's produced good content, but because it's produced relevant content. The article itself could tell me not to panic about the wine spill and then stop there, with nary a mention of sodas club or baking. What does it care? Either way, it'd get my click, and the meager amount of advertising money that comes with it.

That's not, implicitly, a bad thing. There's room for lots of species in the web ecosystem. The real question is whether the content farm approach, ultimately, is symbiotic ... or parasitic.

Google seems to have decided that it's the latter. And the farms are now feeling the financial pain of that conviction. Where do you go when your host rejects you?

So, back to the Times. What the paper, as a media business, has going for it is the fact that it, itself, is a host. It, itself, is a brand. The Times has a recognition and a loyalty and a cultural relevance and a social significance that both transcend and amplify the content it produces. It is anchored not to Google, but to itself -- even as that "self" becomes increasingly amorphous and atomized. And that gives it, as a media business, power to convert loyal readers into subscribers, and to pitch those subscribers to advertisers.  The Times has a strong brand; it has only to be strategic about how it converts that brand into a commercial community., on the other hand, has none of that. All it has is fickle, fickle SEO.

So the Times numbers are kind of a metaphor in miniature, a reminder that, as much as things are changing in the media business and in the way it makes its money, some things remain the same. Branding matters. Loyalty matters. Love matters. There's a reason why uber-branded Facebook is worth $75 billion or more, while the comparatively brand-poor Yahoo -- which actually pulls in more revenue -- is worth less than $20 billion. Your community is part of your brand. In a very real sense, it is your brand. Content, floating in the ether, risks matching its attitude to its worth: easy, yes, but also free.

Image: Holly Kuchera/Shutterstock.