In 2007, I sat on the patio at the Driskill Hotel with a reporter for the SF Chron. He was writing a story on what print could learn from the scrappy ‘web 2.0′ world filled with amateur writers, film makers and personalities. I told him straight up, “Want to save newspapers? Become the world’s best curators. Stop creating original content – you can’t compete. Start finding the best original content and amplifying it. Your power is distribution. Use it before you lose it.”
Little did I know I’d grow to hate that advice. Years later sites like Buzzfeed and Reddit dominate the way people are getting their news – most making a killing on advertising revenue – and newspapers are still struggling with their business models. Unfortunately, this struggle is shared with the creators: the writers, photographers, videographers and artists who make the original content.
When Content was King
I became a creator on the web when curation was still largely unheard of. Today when you read an article you agree with, you share it to Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, LinkedIN…wherever you have an audience that may appreciate it. You may append that article with a short, pithy explanation or highlight an essential quote, but you are merely spotlighting it. You weren’t the one who took the time to sit down, research and write the article. You just enjoyed it and spread it.
Back in the day, however, that wasn’t really what you did. If you read a great article, you would sit down and craft your own great article with your own words and research and link back to the original one. You couldn’t just spread it, you needed to add value to it. That was how early bloggers grew their audience.
There are still content creators today and I am incredibly grateful for them. Creating consistent, interesting, engaging content takes a boatload of time and talent. One minute of video takes hours of planning, shooting and editing (though some concepts are simpler than others). One 500-word blog post takes a day of research and writing (not to mention the inspiration). One amazing photograph requires great timing and über patience to capture that perfect moment. Even an original tweet that people gravitate towards has years of experience, the right moment and the ability to capture that idea in less than 140 characters behind it.
The Shift to Curation as King
But while creators are necessary and amazing, curators are the ones raking in the dough. I was alerted today by a friend that a video that Carlos and I made for Vine that had become super popular (over 118,000 likes + 77,000 Re-vines) was featured on a Facebook page called Best Vines and making its way around (with over 230,000 likes + 46,000 shares). The page owner lifted the content off of Vine and reposted it on his own page (no credit back to the original). This page has over 6.2M likes. At first I didn’t think much of it until Carlos informed me there is an underground market for selling of popular fan pages like this.
Now, this video of Ridley took us all of 30 seconds to make and we had no idea it would ‘go viral’, but for people like Will Sasso who appears to make it his full-time gig to make entertaining, engaging content on Vine and other places, this would probably be a bit of a violation. The curator is getting more cred for recognizing good content than the creator is for making good content.
Don’t get me wrong, being a great curator takes time and talent, too. There is so much content on the web that it’s a full-time job to sift through it and pull out the gems. If you aren’t ahead of it, your Uncle Bob will have already posted the good stuff to his Facebook timeline and your efforts will be useless. But I do think we need to create a balance where the Will Sassos of this world get compensated properly for their time and talent as much if not more than the Best Vines. (My favorites are still his lemon ones)
YouTube and Creators
YouTube is still the best bet for creators getting compensated for their efforts and it was a great decision for YouTube to go down the path of revenue sharing years ago. While money is rarely the core incentive for creativity, it certainly helps the artist focus on their creations. The estimate is that for every 1 Million video views, the YouTube artist makes $2500-3000. So Will’s Lemon video which is now at just over 4 Million views could have made him over $10,000. Judging from the composition, he made a tidy profit off of it (which makes me happy).
Another amazing feature that YouTube has for creators is the ability to claim content that is yours. In this way, curators can upload other people’s content to their heart’s content, but the original creators get to monetize it. This allows curators to build their audience while the creators get their due from the content. It was a super smart move on YouTube’s part. It allows for curators, mashup artists and other value adding members of the ecosystem without taking away from original artists.
But saying that YouTube is one of the best of breed for creators to make money from their content efforts online doesn’t say much for the opportunities for creators online. At the end of the day, the worst offenders of all are the big networks who are making the lion’s share of money ‘crowd-curating’ our creative efforts. Of course they require compensation for providing the networks and bandwidth for us to reach larger audiences, but anywhere we are posting original content that drives more traffic to increase their ad revenue, we should be getting compensated.
After all of these years, we still haven’t solved the “How to make a living as a full-time blogger” question (for great insight into the enormous struggle even the most popular bloggers face, NPR On the Media covered this in May - talk about great original content). The fact is that the decline of print is a direct reflection of a changing consumer attitude to content. Unless you are a creator and trying to make a living at it, you just don’t think about the mechanics (time and talent) that go into it. And as much as I’d love to change that attitude, it’s just not going to happen overnight.
So What is a Creator To Do?
Good question. If I knew the answer to this, I would be creating original content full-time (instead of getting paid to create content for others) – I think many would. The web does allow more opportunities for the Will Sassos of this world, so there is that. And platforms like YouTube (for photography there is iStockPhoto, Photodune, 123RF, etc – for music iTunes…from what I know SoundCloud is working on it – and there are oodles of opportunities for creators of goods like Etsy, StoreEnvy, etc) provide a great way for creators to get compensated so they can create more content. Perhaps newer platforms like Medium will step up for the writers. Any others?
Until then I hope that I can just help people think about the mechanics that go into the creation of original content and how valuable it is to have people who keep us entertained for little to no compensation.