Content farms and the decline of long form

by H.G. Watson


Want to get hits on your website? Easy. Just feature a list. “Here are the Best Dumb Things Ryan Lochte Said on His Reality Show,” or “10 Reasons Duke the Corgi Has the Potential To Be One of America’s Next Top Corgis” are actual articles you can find on the sites Gawker and BuzzFeed, respectively, right now.

It’s likely that most writers didn’t get into the business to write lists about corgis and hunky athletes – though if you did, all the more power to you. A majority of freelance journalists often hope to pursue passion projects.  Yet according to communications instructor Nicole Cohen at a recent talk at Wilfrid Laurier University, the new focus on up to the minute, entertainment news is detracting from having a robust media system and hurting the careers of freelance writers.

Cohen certainly understands the struggles of freelance work. After graduating from Ryerson Journalism School, Cohen embarked on a freelance career hoping to focus on social justice issues. But as work was hard to come by, she moved into a slightly more lucrative field: academia.

Now an instructor at Wilfrid Laurier’s Brantford campus, Cohen has dedicated herself to studying the rise of precarious work in culture industries. In early March, she came to Laurier’s Waterloo campus to talk about her research with students who are getting ready to enter the work force themselves. As part of the communications studies class “Work and Cultural Industries,” students learn about the rise of precarious work for people like journalists.

“Culture industries have always had freelancers,” said Cohen. It’s normal for magazine, newspapers and all other sorts of media to outsource work in order to fill space and ensure a diversity of voices – which is why many people decide to become freelancers to begin with.

But for writers, the impact of this new, fast-paced digital journalism means there is less demand for the long form pieces that traditionally pay well and can bring accolades. That’s not just an issue for writers losing pay. It’s an issue for society. “Problems are ignored when you don’t have time for people to take sustained looks at them,” said Cohen. “That’s what the role of the journalist is in society [traditionally].”

The short, list-length articles that go viral are often provided by what Cohen calls “content farms” – people that provide cheap, piecework articles that can be done anywhere. “Work is farmed out and you work from home for pennies,” she added. Similar work models can now be found in research and translation industries. It’s one of the major issues plaguing an already embattled industry.

The good news for many of the students listening to Cohen’s talk is that there is still hope for long form pieces that will support working freelancers. “The decline of long form means there’s a push back to find it in other ways,” said Cohen. She cites outlets like ProPublica, a non-profit investigative journalism organization that frequently partners with large media outlets to work on far reaching stories and self-publishing tools as giving writers more control over their employment. It’s one of way of pursuing the work that you love, list or no-list.


HG Watson is the Editor-in-Chief of the Cord Community Edition in Waterloo, On.

Posted on April 24, 2013 at 9:20 am by editor · · Tagged with: , , ,

2 Responses

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  1. Written by Ella
    on May 14, 2013 at 12:13 am
    Reply · Permalink

    Great piece. Short, though. Makes me think it was created by a content farm 😉

    • Written by editor
      on May 14, 2013 at 10:38 am
      Reply · Permalink


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