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 About.com, 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."