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Confessions of a Movie Website Owner: Rich Content Man, Poor Site Owner

Posted by Patrick Sauriol on Tuesday, February 8, 2011

It’s been six months since my first Confessions of a Movie Website Owner editorial and I’ve been feeling the need to do another one. Yesterday’s announcement that The Huffington Post got bought up by AOL for $315 million dollars has got me thinking about what that might mean to the movie/geek corner of the online universe.

I suspect that for nearly everyone in the online content biz, running a content site in 2011 is proving to be an exercise in frustration. You hear about the big wins like HuffPost or Demand Media raising a billion dollars and change with their IPO but for every one of those I’m guessing there are 100,000 sites struggling along on meager Adsense earnings. I’m also taking a guess that nobody that owns a movie content website, or writes for one not backed by big business, is making a decent living wage.

My belief is that, for a content producing website to be a success in the long-term, it has to make enough revenue to pay for its overhead. This is basic Business 101. In the world of the web, producing content can be pretty easy and low cost, if you quantify the time you put into it as low cost. This is why in the past five to seven years there has been an explosion of websites that are news aggregators: sites that repurpose stories that first appeared on other websites. The problem arises that some sites are less ethical than other sites in how their approach content aggregation.

I'm not just talking about websites that report what news breaks on Variety or The Hollywood Reporter. There are sites that will cut and paste articles or press releases and publish them with minimal or even no original content. Other sites, like those in the infamous Gawker network, exist as content vampires: they aggregate news from other sites but will also use defensive SEO (search engine optimization) to try and keep their readers from clicking on links to other sites by burying links at the bottom of articles. The idea is, "Who's going to click on a link and read the original article when all the really interesting information has already been mentioned in our news story?" Like I said, the Gawker empire has built its entire brand on this strategy and been very successful, at least from a cold hard cash perspective. There are a couple of movie websites that follow this model too.

These kinds of content aggregator websites can produce a lot of content because they don’t require the investment of time that other sites that create original content. Let’s stick within our movie website community and do a thought experiment: Site A does an interview with a movie star. The reporter puts in one to two hours to research, set up the interview and conduct it, then spends another hour or two to transcribe the interview and place it on the site with an image or two. Maybe they spend 15 minutes to spread it via social media. Total time to create that original piece of content: let’s say 4 hours, not counting the time to build the site up to be in a position to line up that interview.

Site B is a content aggregator. They see the news feed for Site A’s story, read it, and then Site B’s report starts to write up their story about Site A’s scoop. They could have their own piece up in as little as 15 minutes, if they write their own original content around that story, or as little as a couple of minutes if they cut and paste most of Site A’s content.

Every day I have to make editorial decisions about how much material I’ll use from the original site that breaks the story. Sometimes you can’t help but steal their thunder if it’s a piece of casting news or mention of something of a singular nature. But most times you I can build a story that uses a couple of pieces of news from Site A and then leave my readers to discover more through a link. At least, that is my intention every time I put finger to keyboard.

With other sites out there I’m certain that their primary intention is how much money they can make on their content. Reporting the news most likely isn’t even secondary or third on their list.

Consider Deadline Hollywood, Nikki Finke’s Hollywood news site. In the last year it’s emerged as the number one place online for breaking news stories, and in that regard Finke is to be commended for dethroning the kings of this field, Variety and the Reporter. But Finke is also proving to be as vain as the trades were in their day; she doesn’t want to share the spotlight and hand out links to her competitors, some of whom have reported on Deadline’s "exclusive" days before her site broke the news. In the past seven days this has happened to Devin Faraci and the site he writes for, Badass Digest, over the Warner Bros. vampire movie being developed called Harker. This hasn’t been the first time that Finke and her Deadline site have done this; it’s been an ongoing trend and put a dark smear of dishonesty on her accomplishment to break exclusive news.

If the problem were as simple as being a occasional nuisance then I’d recommend to let it be. Unfortunately, every time an aggregator becomes a content vampire or worse yet, a content swiper, the problem grows worse for the other sites trying to produce original content or walk on the good guy side of the ethical line. Ad rates get lower so websites need to pump out more content to keep up their revenue streams, making it more tempting for site owners to play looser with what’s right and what’s wrong.

Which brings us back to The Huffington Post and its $315 million dollar payday. Arianna’s site has been called out for stealing other sites’ content and even a “parasite” by one critic. Is this going to be the future of journalism? Will there gradually be less and less original content being created because, just like a giant star locked in close to a black hole, more and more of its substance is being stripped away and eaten up by the other’s very nature? And as she’s about to take the editorial reigns at AOL, do you think Arianna Huffington even cares about her role in the shape of things present and to come?

I might not have the answer to the long-term question but at least I can use this site to give voice to the problem as well as how it’s playing out in my tiny corner of the Internet.

tstone
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Posted: 8 years 43 weeks ago

Good column, Patrick.

In a universe of infinite possibilities, there indeed may be someplace where you don't SUCK. Fear the LURKING ASS
The Swollen Goi...
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Posted: 8 years 43 weeks ago

You ought to give Variety credit for writing this article.  Just for the hell of it.