Mommy, Where Does Content Come From?

Content drives the web. Or so would writers like us have you believe.

In a previous article called Context Is King, we talked about not the content ruling the web universe, but rather the relationships between content and e-commerce being the key to success. While there seem to be no fortunes to be made from originating the content, there are ample opportunities for packaging it.

The same holds true for TV news. The producer is the one who reads 10 newspapers before the sun rises, makes the calls and hunts down the stories. The poofy-do’d news anchor is the one who makes six figures for reading it with feeling.

On the web, there’s a lot of poofy-do.

The Emperor Has No Content

But where does web content come from? The content fairy? There must be at least one Holy Grail of original content from which the multi-million dollar sites siphon.

Armed with a web browser, compass, and magnifying glass (to read all the fine print), we went on an expedition to find the ultimate source of content.

If that sounds simple, just try to find the original source for an article or news item you see on the web. If you’re on any of the major portals (e.g., Yahoo, Snap) chances are that content comes from a contracted provider. And there’s a good chance that provider is really just a broker for the actual source of the content.

Trying to find the origin of content on the web is a lot like trying to identify patient zero in an Ebola outbreak.

“…And they’ll tell to friends…and so on…”

Companies that started out as content companies are now paring down that part of the business and simply buying content from providers and re-packaging it for our consumption. CNET’s NEWS.COM does still generate the majority of its own news content. But it also gets some of its news items from sources like Bloomberg News.

While Yahoo may call itself a media company, it’s really a packager, rather than publisher, of content. Visit the Yahoo site to get your ski report and you’ll learn that Times Mirror (publishers of Popular Science, Field & Stream and other publications that underprivileged youth try to sell door to door) provides that through SkiNet (a.k.a. Freeze).

Go to the SkiNet site and you’ll see they get their snow reports, along with their five-day forecast, from The Weather Channel. They, in turn, get their weather from the same place every TV weatherman gets it: The National Weather Service. Ultimate source: The National Weather Service.

“Back with more of someone else’s news, weather, and sports after these messages…”

Click on nearly any sports related headline on the web and you’re likely to get the latest from either ESPN (a division of Disney/Capital Cities/ABC), The Los Angeles Times (owned by Times Mirror), or The Sporting News (also owned by Times Mirror).

This information inbreeding continues at Infoseek (now part of Disney’s GO Network). You’ll see the source is — once again, and not surprisingly — ESPN. However, click on a headline and you’re more likely to see an Associated Press byline than an ESPN one. The Associated Press, by the way, is a not-for-profit cooperative, which means it is owned by its 1,550 US daily newspaper members.

Passing The Buck

Say you want information about finance. You visit CNNfn, a subsidiary of CNN, which is owned by Time-Warner. Scroll to the bottom of the page and click on “terms under which this content is presented to you.” There you will learn that CNNfn is a “distributor (and not a publisher) of content supplied by third parties. CNNfn has no more editorial control than does a public library, bookstore, or newsstand.”

CNNfn is to be congratulated for being up front about their arrangements. Many of the other sites were not so forthcoming about the source of their information, dressing it up with their logos and branding to make it look like their own.

The notion that CNNfn does not have editorial control over the content on its own site does give pause. Luckily, some of those content providers are reliable sources such as Associated Press and Reuters — as opposed to, say, Three-Fingered Eddie’s Stock Market Rumor-rama.

We visited iVillage to find financial information specific to women’s issues. Click on stock quotes and you learn they get them from Standard & Poor’s Comstock. This page is also co-branded with Quicken. We followed the link to and then clicked on a financial news headline which took us to an interesting article written by a writer for CBS MarketWatch. (CBS, like NBC, is owned by an electric company).

The Content Pyramid Scheme

In the financial industry, many marvel at how mutual funds significantly outnumber the very securities that they prepackage. Yet this pales in comparison to the number of financial services web sites that repurpose the same financial content.

We came to find Reuters and The Associated Press have a wide distribution among many web sites. Reuters provides news and information to over 170 Internet sites and reaches an estimated 10.9 million viewers per month — generating approximately 100 million pageviews via four of the biggest web portals (i.e., Yahoo, Lycos, Excite, and Infoseek).

Yet even Reuter’s has gotten into the distribution business, announcing a few months ago that it will now distribute business news from Time Inc.’s Fortune and Money magazines.

Here’s Looking At Me, Kid

Maybe this whole information overload thing is really overblown. Spend enough time on the web, and pretty soon you start to see the same information over and over again. Once you look past how it’s all dressed up and branded differently from one site to the next, ultimately you discover just a few prime sources: Reuter’s, The Associated Press, two electric companies, and a mouse.

If content is at the bottom of the food chain, then where do we fit in as consumers of the news? Perhaps the answer lies in Yahoo paying over a third of the Israeli defense budget to purchase two-thirds of GeoCities. Why get quality content when you can instead lure everyone into looking at their own home page?

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