Shane Snow might not be a typical New Yorker — in that he’s from Idaho and spent time after college at BYU-Idaho “finding himself” in Hawaii. Though he had a knack for technology and Web design, his deeper interest was in writing. (Insert stereotypical, oft-seen “run away to New York” story here.) A master’s from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism helped him merge his writing and business minds. He approached his time at Columbia with wanting to build something new and entrepreneurial in the journalism field. Teaming with a friend from Idaho, Snow co-founded what is now Contently, billed as “a technology company,” but really a place to bring journalists and publishers together and encourage high-quality freelance exchanges.
OK, first things first: What the heck is Contently?
Contently is a technology platform that empowers storytellers to tell their stories. You could say we’re like Match.com for journalists and publishers.
Comedian Lewis Black has this bit about Enron from when it collapsed, essentially if a company can’t explain in one sentence what it does, it’s illegal. So, in one sentence, what does Contently do and how do you make money?
We broker work between publishers and journalists and take a transaction fee. We help publishers and writers connect.
I assume you’re familiar with the term “content farm.” I’m not accusing you of being one. But you can see how your name might lead a passive observer to think that. So, how are you not a content farm?
Originally we wanted “contently” for content (as in material or filling). But now it’s more for “content” (as in satisfied or peaceful). One of the reasons we started Contently was because we were sick of content farms. The games content farms are playing is made (to play on search engine optimization).
How are you not Demand Media, one of the biggest content farms out there?
I have said publicly that we would never sell our company to Demand Media. Quality storytelling conveys something that is more powerful and more human. People want good stories, they want to get on the Internet to see stories that make them happy and enrich their lives. That’s our stance. Content is such a broad thing. We don’t just limit ourselves to writing. Our “take over the world plan” is to have editorial cartoonists and videographers.
I spoke once for “10” to David Cohn, founder of crowd-source funding platform Spot. Us and now editor of Circa. His line on journalism that I often quote: “Content is king, but collaboration is queen.” You say in Contently’s online manifesto, “Quality is king, freelance is the future.” How do you ensure quality content that isn’t just click bait?
We are trying to build a company that is to be the plumbing that underlies all great stories on the Web. And that’s a fairly lofty goal. At this point, Contently is not part of the editorial process for the companies that come to look for the on-boarding process. Our job to ensure quality is to lay the groundwork for the ecosystem that encourages quality. We built this tool where anyone can get a portfolio to showcase your work. To get into our professional marketplace where publishers can search, we actually screen your work beforehand. What we do now is your portfolio becomes our screening mechanism. We know if you’ve written for content farms. We’ve built this huge data profile around each journalist to weed out. Basically our criteria is have you written multiple times for outlets that have high editorial standards. We don’t let any publisher sign up. We don’t let SEO companies sign up. Content is so broad, that some people want to have someone live tweet an event for an hour, others want someone to write a 5,000-word investigative story. By and large the ecosystem is very high quality.
Cohn talked about crowd-funded reporting platforms like Spot.Us (and now Kickstarter) being part of a “raft” that is being built to help the future of journalism’s business model. Is the Contently idea part of that raft? How big is it?
Yeah. To get back to journalism school, professors talked about the business model that will “save” journalism. And they talked about it in the singular sense, as if we’ll just swap out banner ads. There’s two things. One, every media company is cutting costs. But what is fortunate is that with the Internet you’re not just limited to the staff in your office. So freelance becomes this very flexible term for doing what you love without dealing with the crap of being an entrepreneur. The other part that is extremely interesting is that we’re doing sponsored content. (Businesses) come to Contently to help them figure out how to do it. Also, there’s a lot of legal paperwork to deal with every time you deal with a freelancer. Contently does all of that.
You pitch Contently as very beneficial to freelancers trying to make a real living off of their work. How?
We help journalists showcase their work on the Web, giving them an easy-to-create portfolio website that they can use any way they like. Also, for a limited number of professional journalists, we offer opportunities to work directly from vetted publishers who come to Contently for tools and talent. We take care of invoicing and payments, and a freelancer who files a story to a client via Contently gets paid the day his or her work is approved by the client — not 30 to 60 days later, as is standard in freelance invoicing. For brokering the work and immediate payments, Contently takes a 15 percent commission. But what a writer sees is what he or she gets paid.
You wrote for Harvard’s Nieman Lab about the missteps of The Atlantic doing a much-panned “sponsored content” deal with the Church of Scientology. The advertorial was just Scientology marketing and propaganda. So if news outlets do sponsored content, how do you suggest it’s done right?
I think fortunately the best practices line up with good ethics. (See Contently.com/ethics.) I interviewed a bunch of editors and a couple of ethicists. I say to always be transparent, and The Atlantic is a customer of ours. When reading that Atlantic thing, it was hard to read through it and then at the end realize it was sponsored. You don’t ever want to betray the reader and not let them know what’s going on.
The best sponsored content is those that people will share with their friends. No one wants to be the person sharing marketing with their friends and be seen as a shill. For example, BMW. They don’t talk about cars, they talk about innovation on Mashable and sponsor that. Don’t talk about yourself, and disclose what’s behind it.
And what about ethical considerations? For example, the SPJ Code of Ethics implores journalists to “Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two.” Is sponsored content, even if labeled as such, blurring the lines?
That’s super interesting. First, blurring the lines can be very subjective. We’re not in this to make a quick buck. We give pause to some of these questions. The lines gets blurred when motivations are unclear. As a business and non-independent company, your motivation is profit. If Wal-Mart is doing sponsored content, everyone knows that Wal-Mart is trying to sell stuff.
I interviewed (journalism ethicist) Bob Steele for a Poynter story about how to do sponsored content ethically. And he said you have to own the fact that it’s not journalism. There’s journalism that is telling true stories and minimizing harm and keeping government accountable. And then there’s entertainment and lifestyle content. And media companies do both.
I’m curious of your news-consumption routine. What does it look like?
I subscribe to print and digital New York Times. I read it every day on the subway. I subscribe to a surprising number of print publications. I get Fast Company and the New Yorker. I look a lot on Twitter. We have an internal company instant messaging system and share links with each other there. I probably get 90 percent of my daily news from “dark social” (internal messaging and email that is shared with friends and not on Twitter or Facebook or other public, measurable social media).