As century-old newspapers such as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer fold and literary touchstones like the Los Angeles Times file for bankruptcy, one media outlet is turning cheap content into a booming business.
In the past two years, Suite101.com, a Vancouver-based content provider, has doubled its readership, launched three foreign editions, and achieved double-digit revenue growth. But neither Pulitzer Prize-winning features nor a shrewd media czar are to thank for its 28 million visitors a month (the Economist Online draws just 3.5 million). Rather, Suite101.com relies on a vast network of primarily amateur writers to churn out hundreds of stories a week, including “Why is my dog vomiting?” and “Nachos to feed a crowd.”
Every day, 45 editors scattered across Vancouver, Paris, Madrid and Munich shape nearly 500 articles to attract optimal web traffic and then post them to Suite.com and its three foreign-language sites. Running alongside these stories are scores of ads that are managed by Google’s AdSense program. Every time a reader clicks on an ad, Google shares an undisclosed percentage of the cost of that click with Suite101.com – a fraction of which Suite101.com then shares with its nearly 4,000 active writers. Contributors earn revenue for as long as the content is on the site, and Suite101.com retains exclusive copyright to the work for one year.
Suite101.com – owned by German publishing giant Hubert Burda Media and Vancouver-based venture capitalist Boris Wertz – pays an average of $3.90 per 1,000 impressions, and while CEO Peter Berger says that contributors can earn as much as $3,000 a month, wages such as Karen Stephenson’s are far more common. A full-time writer based in Newmarket, Ont., Stephenson makes about $90 a month writing for Suite101.com – pay that “has slowly crept forward” now that she has banked more than 145 articles on the site.
Pumping out copy to attract eyeballs-for-earnings “isn’t journalism,” warns John Miller, a professor emeritus at Ryerson University and a former Toronto Star editor. “They’re information hookers.”
But Berger resents accusations that Suite101.com is nothing more than a content mill that exploits wannabe writers. “If you write a book that no one wants to read, you don’t make any money,” he says. “But no one goes back to the publisher and accuses them of being a book mill. It’s really shared risk and reward.”
Christopher Waddell, director of Carleton University’s school of journalism, doesn’t see a problem either. “Trying to use people’s work and pay as little for it as possible is a long-standing tradition in lots of industries,” he says.
Berger says that while Suite101.com’s articles aren’t fact-checked for veracity or correctness, editors rely on readers to alert them to errors. He points to the time a relative of Henry Heimlich contacted Suite101.com to point out that an article on the Heimlich manoeuvre contained outdated information that is “now actually considered dangerous.”