The newspaper publisher formerly known as Tribune Publishing has rebranded itself "Tronc" as part of an ambitious plan to reinvent itself as an online news organization. A key plank of its new strategy: producing 2,000 videos per day.
You might think that sounds unrealistic — the Vox.com video team, for example, has produced only a few hundred videos in its two-year history — but a New York Times article explains how Tronc expects to accomplish the goal: automation. Tronc is going to deemphasize the traditional, labor-intensive process for producing video content in favor of software tools that allow it to churn out hundreds of videos per day with minimal human involvement.
Tronc’s business logic is straightforward: Advertisers pay top dollar to run ads before videos. So if Tronc can produce a lot of videos, it will be able to sell a lot of high-dollars ads and make a lot of money.
"Video is video," Tronc’s chief technology officer, Malcolm CasSelle, told the Times. "We’re producing it because it’s strategic and important."
The strategy Tronc is pursuing here isn’t really new. For at least a decade, some media companies have churned out text-based articles in a process known as "content farming." Tronc appears to be updating this strategy for the video age. The problem is that content farming has been a total disaster for companies that have tried it.
Churning out content isn’t necessarily a winning strategy
A company called Demand Media provides an object lesson in the dangers of this strategy. Starting in 2006, it produced a huge amount of content optimized for prominent placement in search engine results.
Demand Media paid writers a fraction of what more traditional outlets would pay — one writer reported making between $7.50 and $15 per article in 2010, a rate that hadn’t changed significantly by 2015. Obviously, the only way to make a living at this is to write extremely quickly, churning out one or more articles per hour. These articles would appear on Demand-owned websites like eHow.
Articles written this quickly aren’t very likely to be good. But Demand Media was betting this wouldn’t matter very much. Demand Media’s goal was to rank highly in Google, and Google’s search algorithms can’t tell the difference between a well-reported, in-depth article and one dashed off in an hour.
Traditionalists wrung their hands, but for a while it looked like Demand Content’s model was working. The company even signed a syndication deal with Hearst Newspapers in 2010 to provide some content for the San Francisco Chronicle and the Houston Chronicle. Demand was briefly worth more than $1 billion after its 2011 IPO.
But then disaster struck. Or, more specifically, Google’s search quality engineers struck. Because while Google’s algorithms couldn’t tell the difference between a bad article and a good one, its human programmers sure could. A few weeks after Demand Media’s IPO, those engineers tweaked Google’s algorithm to downgrade spammy sites. Within days, Demand Media’s eHow site lost more than 50 percent of its traffic, and other content farming sites saw even more severe traffic declines.
Demand Media never really recovered. The company is still around, but its stock has plummeted, and nobody thinks its business model represents the future of online content.
Quality actually matters for online content
The broader lesson here isn’t just that media companies should stay on Google’s good side. It’s that quality actually matters — even if it doesn’t look like it in the short run.
For a little while, you can generate traffic by stuffing garbage articles full of relevant keywords. If you’d looked at Demand Media’s traffic and revenue data around 2009, you could have fooled yourself into believing the company had found a new model for producing content profitably.
But people aren’t stupid. They gradually realized that articles on sites like eHow were no good. Google realized that its users didn’t want to be shown a bunch of garbage articles when they searched, so it changed its algorithm to show people articles they were more likely to actually enjoy and value.
Tronc’s "video is video" strategy appears to be updating the Demand Media business strategy for the video age. And it’s probably true that in the short run, a low-quality video with a catchy title and cover image will generate as many clicks as a high-quality one.
But as with Demand Media’s content, you can’t fool people for very long. If Tronc videos aren’t good, Tronc’s audience will figure it out and stop clicking on them. Facebook will figure it out and stop putting them in people's newsfeeds. Advertisers will figure it out and take their money elsewhere.
And while Demand Media started from scratch, Tronc is starting with high-quality brands like the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune. Stuffing their articles full of low-quality video isn’t just going to fail to produce a sustainable business model — this spammy video business model is likely to tarnish these newspaper brands for years to come.