A certain young lady who used to live in Seattle and now lives in Another City wrote me a couple of days ago. She works for "a soul-sucking (but well-paying) media company" that makes money off original, online-only content.

I asked her for the secret, since it might save journalism and all.

She answered with a thousand-word email: "It is the industrialization of the written word. It is very Theodore Dreiser. And it is terribly depressing."

The first few paragraphs are here, the rest are below the jump—because a thousand words is too long for the internet—but the whole thing is required reading: a tour of the factory where media companies, which she works for and fears, are learning how to turn words into money.

The secret ingredient? The blood of fact checkers, journalists, and intelligent readers.

I work in editorial at an online media company; a company you probably haven’t heard of. My job has no resemblance to a newspaper or magazine editor. Instead of finding good pieces of content and assigning people to write them well, my time is spent figuring out how to create many stories at little cost that will make money. I’ve always wanted to be a professional writer. I’m afraid that isn’t going to be an avenue open to me in the future.

You asked me how media companies made money on the internet, and it took me a few days to write you back because I didn’t know how to answer the question. The answer is, I’m afraid, really fucking depressing.

As far as I can gather, making money with content on the internet is about reaching a sweet spot between good SEO practices and scalability. (SEO = Search Engine Optimization, the practice of littering internet copy with keywords with high search volume, thus driving traffic — and revenue — to your site.) So good SEO practices means that you are molding your content based on what people are searching for and the phrases they are searching with (people dumber than you; people who can’t spell or form a sentence to save their lives).

Half-assed SEO practices — like using the keyword “car” instead of “auto” occasionally or something — are middling at best. You have to commit to all or nothing, and you have to commit to doing it a lot, over and over and over, until you have tens of thousands of pages rich with hundreds of thousands of keywords. Then (and, I'm afraid, only then) will the model start working for you.

Just imagine every search you make on google on a given day — you, a professional journalist, who probably uses shitty grammar and sometimes misspells things — and THOSE HALF-PHRASES becoming the backbone for the content of the future. It horrifies me to even imagine.

The problem is, articles based on SEO and little else monetize like crazy, because they get great pageviews… and because the pay is insultingly low for them on sites like Associated Content and Suite 101, the ROI (return-on-investment) is very high. If all the metrics are working out, the one thing you can’t quantitatively measure — quality — falls completely by the wayside. When you’re hitting and exceeding your numbers every month, suddenly, an article can be “better” than another in a lot of different ways (better monetization? better pageviews? better… grammar? you see where I’m going here).

Obviously this kind of thing has been tried before, and failed, because The People still wanted well-researched, well-written articles to read. But. Newspapers are closing every week because people, it seems, no longer put the most value on quality. People are freaked out about paying the mortgage and losing their jobs and at a time when they need newspapers the most, they don’t give a shit. Now the journalists who are losing their jobs, who have no money and no skills except writing, are turning to these soulless content-factory sites because making a little money per shitty article is better than working at McDonald’s.

So suddenly these sites have legitimate writers willing to accept next to nothing for articles, which they write as fast as they can, with as little research as they can get away with, in order to make money. Often, research is being conducted on sites like wikipedia, and rewritten slightly, using synonyms that slightly skew the meaning, like a giant game of telephone. Fact-checkers are as arcane as telephone operators. And I’m talking about the writing practices of trained journalists. Most of the people who are writing content for the internet have never published an article in their lives.

It is the industrialization of the written word. It is very Theodore Dreiser. And it is terribly depressing.

I don’t have a solution. Moreover, as part of the system, I have to tell myself that I’m learning these Dark Arts to work for the greater good somewhere down the line. I can’t shake the nagging feeling, however, that I am contributing to the extinction of everything I believe in. I’ve heard writers say that we just Shouldn’t Stand For It, and stop writing for less money, but that kind of seems to me, and it might be totally cynical and offbase, like college sophomores boycotting classes to protest the government (“then they’ll really see!”). So many more people want to write who can write, and their relative skill level no longer matters. In this model, mediocrity is rewarded.

I know this is all gloom and doom, and it might come off sounding part-crazy. But I’ve seen it working, man! My entire life I’ve assumed that people will always push back, that they will always choose quality in the end. But what is happening on the internet frightens me. It frightens me because professionalism is being reduced every day to the role of the quirky “expert” on websites, and even then, those people are usually just users who have maybe read a book on the subject. Context, deep knowledge, multiple points of view, reliable research — these are all being lost, and rapidly, because they are rarified and do not monetize. Good writing, especially if you like to use metaphors and complex sentence structures, is antithetical to what search engines stand for.

Anyway. Like I said, gloom and doom. If you have thoughts in the opposite direction, I would love love love to hear them, because generally I am in despair. (When I am not in despair, I am usually of this school: "Well, if I am acing myself out of a career as a professional writer, I will just go live in a cabin and write novels only for me. And THEN THEY'LL SEE").

Ummm, on the other hand, it's almost the weekend and I get paid tomorrow?