The end of Yahoo’s contributor network

For over two years, I’ve written for Yahoo News, penning breaking news stories and features through the media company’s contributor network. I’ve sparked a lot of conversation. And, although I was still considered an amateur reporter in the grand perspective, my stories have been featured right next to some of the most well-known professional staff writers in the business. But come tomorrow, all of my Yahoo News content will be gone without a trace.

Those who didn’t see the Yahoo Contributor Network shutdown coming probably weren’t paying much attention. In many ways, the company’s approach to crowd-sourced content seemed doomed from the start.

Before the Yahoo Contributor Network, there was Associated Content, which launched in 2005. Their business model was simple– jam as many popular search terms into an article, even if that meant compromising basic editorial standards, and collect ad revenue. This tactic didn’t lead to a very esteemed reputation, but it did earn them enough steady cash flow to catch the attention of Yahoo, who purchased Associated Content for roughly $100 million in 2009.

“Combining our world-class editorial team with Associated Content’s makes this a game-changer,” said Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz about the buyout. “Together, we’ll create more content around what we know our users care about, and open up new and creative avenues for advertisers to engage with consumers across our network.”

This approach to new media journalism was profitable until February 2011, when Google tweaked their search results ranking algorithm to lower the rank of “low-quality sites” and return higher-quality sites near the top of the search results pages. This resulted in more attention going to sites that provided thoughtful, in-depth, original content.

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A screenshot of what Yahoo Voices looked like at launch.

Associated Content didn’t qualify. And by the end of 2011, Associated Content was discontinued and replaced with Yahoo Voices. All content was transferred to this new domain, which ranked higher in the eyes of Google’s new standards, and a new structure was put into place that aimed to refocus to content with substance.

By early 2012, determined to improve their reputation as a credible news source, Yahoo began reaching out to reporters who could craft quality news content and engage readers, which meant consistent page views.

That’s where I came in. When the 2012 Democratic National Convention was announced to take place in Charlotte, Yahoo advertised on journalism forums for solid reporters in Charlotte to cover the convention for the publication. I applied one morning in March and by the end of the day, I was hired and given several carte blanches to write about any news story in my area.

I wrote as many stories as I could with a part-time job and a full-time college course schedule. I frequently received constructive feedback from my editor, Tim Skillern, who helped me develop my skills writing, promoting and finding unique angles. It was like taking a free college-level journalism course.

By the end of my two years, I had developed a respectable portfolio of work, including many of my favorite stories to-date: my feature on the growing movement to bring the Hornet’s NBA brand back to Charlotte, a Q&A with an award-winning iPhone app developer and a story on a group of North Carolina musicians who used their talents to create a historic protest album.

To me, it was like a dream job. There were many other freelance writers within the contributor network who’d consistently produce original, engaging content. However, the majority of stories that came from the Yahoo Contributor Network mirrored the fluff that Associated Content was churning out seven years prior. At least that’s what it seemed like to me.

At the time, I had frequently received offers to write articles with a broad audience for small upfront payments plus extra payment based on performance.

Naturally, I dabbled with these assignments. Stories like: recommendations for Netflix movie bingers or tips for spring cleaning a tiny apartment. To me, it seemed a harmless experiment in a web exploitation. The angle for the piece would be given to me, as well as some tags that, according to Google Trends, would get me the page views that would, in turn, bring in ad revenue.

I wrote some pieces in thirty minutes and had the article read over, published and paid for within hours. With a few, I even found myself spamming social forums in hopes of watching those page views grow and blossom into cash. It felt wrong– for a lot of reasons.

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One of the many features in the Yahoo contributor dashboard was the page view report.

Nevertheless, I certainly have no moral objections to creating content for the sole purpose of making a quick dime, nor do I discount this method as a legitimate business practice. Not everyone shares my perspective when it comes to creating web content; it would be unreasonable for me to expect otherwise. But there was something spiritually daunting about writing stories for page views that left a bitter taste in my mouth.

More and more evidence began to emerge that the contributor network wasn’t performing well. In 2013, Yahoo Voices announced it was cancelling their beat writer program, which gave talented, consistent writers more writing assignments with better pay. Across the board, the assignment desk offered fewer and fewer assignments and offered less and less upfront payments for them.

Like I said, contributors who didn’t see the shutdown coming weren’t paying much attention.

That still doesn’t make it any easier to accept. With only about 30 articles written under the Yahoo News umbrella (and some under Yahoo Voices), I wasn’t exactly cashing any consistent, substantial pay checks. But many contributors wrote enough articles on a daily basis to make the Yahoo Contributor Network a full-time job.

The biggest loss for me is that my detachment from the big media brand will weaken the value of my resume for publication and potential graduate school applications. My work will command less money, and my writing opportunities might wane.

Still, my experience with the network was invaluable. I had the opportunity to experiment with a lot of different topics and writing styles. I learned a lot from my editors about effective writing and how to craft an engaging feature, how to follow up with a story and seek out worthwhile interviews.

But ultimately, I learned the most from the failures of the Yahoo Contributor Network as a provider of new media content. Firstly, never put all of your time and resources into content that you think will be successful over a long span of time, because information-sharing changes too frequently to predict what tactics will be successful in the long term.

If you want to garner web traffic and attention, simply create original, thoughtful content that brings value to the reader. Period.

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With less than 50 articles published with Yahoo, I was paid $1,317.54 for the content including upfront payments and performance payments. The most popular story was called “N.C. School Teacher: Gov. Pat McCrory, Walk a Day in My Shoes,” which received over 30,000 page views. 

My editor, Tim Skillern left Yahoo News at the end of February 2014– five months before contributor network was terminated. Skillern played a major role in Yahoos buyout of Associated Content. He was the director of news-editorial for Yahoo News. Currently, he works as a web editor at CBS.

At the end of today, everything that I wrote under the Yahoo umbrella will be erased, and the exclusive publishing rights to those pieces will be given back to me.

I have brought all of my work with Yahoo News right here to My Vinyl Muse