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Last Updated: March 7, 2008: 10:09 AM EST
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Firms that actually pay bloggers (a bit)

Increasingly, Web content sites are finding ways to organize and syndicate writers' content - one even sends them a check up front.

By Richard Siklos, editor at large

(Fortune) -- Moliere once wrote - ironically, one supposes - that writing is like prostitution. "First you do it for love," he wrote, "and then for a few close friends, and then for money." I read this quote in an article by a woman named Ashley Sinatra - a self-described fourth cousin of Old Blue Eyes who goes to college in California.

I've never met Ms. Sinatra, but was perusing her nearly 300 freelance writing and blog entries for a series of Web sites including Associated Content, Helium, and Gather that are increasingly bridging the gap between professional and amateur in online content.

People like Sinatra are writing countless articles for the Web each day, driven by a simultaneous mix of Moliere's motivations: self-expression, connection with others and, now, a few extra dollars. The range of subject matter is as wide open and often banal as the Web itself, from pumpkin-carving techniques to medical advice to resume-honing tips to exploring the finer plot nuances of this season's "Lost."

These kinds of sites typify an evolving new model for publishing and one of the raging debates of the digital age: finding the right balance between sharing information for the common good and - as more and more advertising dollars flow online - sharing the wealth. The debate is a wrinkle on the wisdom of crowds versus madness of crowds issue that has been going on since search engines turned online information into a sort of gigantic popularity contest.

One way that a Google search works, for instance, is that it measures the number of links to a piece of information on the Web, and assigns it a rating. This is based on the logical idea that the more people are linking to something, the more relevant and useful it is. Meanwhile, some of the most popular sites on the Web - Yahoo (YHOO, Fortune 500) and YouTube, just to name the world's top two - are repositories of massive amounts of user-generated content that people have posted just in the spirit of sharing and connecting, and without any expectation of getting paid.

The idea behind these newer sites is that by kicking in a few dollars and tying those fees to how many people look at what you write, the caliber of user-generated content can only get better. Usually, the way this works is that the Web site promises to split with you advertising revenue generated by your article.

How they pay

One of the more intriguing approaches to this model is Associated Content, a site backed by Google's (GOOG, Fortune 500) North American advertising chief Tim Armstrong and hatched by his former college roommate, Luke Beatty. What sets three-year-old Associated apart is that in addition to promising to share revenues with its contributor community, it gives writers an up-front payment based on a nifty Google-like algorithm to assess the potential popularity of submission.

Once an article is run through Associated's "yield management system," the company then sends the writer a one-time up-front fee that typically ranges from $4 to $20.00 (although most of the payments are closer to the low end). Additionally, Associated pays contributors $1.50 for every 1,000 page views their article, which usually run in the 600-word-count range, generates.

Associated then distributes content directly to specific Web sites that are in its network, but also on its own site where it is organized by subject matter (and which looks like countless other news aggregation web sites). In addition to taking unsolicited articles on any subject, the site issues a "call for content" based on subjects it has identified as timely, such as upcoming holidays. A well-read article can generate its creator a few hundred dollars, but most submissions are geared toward a more limited audience with a specific interest that traditional media companies wouldn't produce an article about, says Geoff Reiss, the company's chief executive.

So far, the site has "published" 380,000 articles, and is adding 1,000 a day. Among its current list of most popular stories this week: "Are you an impulse buyer?," "Disney World's Top 10 Scary Rides" and "Water myths that can kill you."

In a sense, Associated automates the front-end story-generation process in publishing the same way that Google, Yahoo and other online giants have attempted to automate the back-end process of advertising online. Traditionally, publications spend a lot of effort vetting potential contributions and setting editorial budgets to attract the appropriate level of talent to write for them.

Reiss is quick to caution, however, that Associated's business is geared toward giving casual bloggers or first-time writers a way to get paid and have their work more widely read - but it's not (yet) seen as a replacement for mainstream media. Being a big-name writer already gets you no points, nor does Associated's computer give marks for good writing.

"The system is designed to reflect a certain flavor of content," he says. "I don't know what would happen if Ms. Rowling changed her mind and produced a new Harry Potter book and we ran it through our system." Reiss says. "I suspect it would not compute."

Search engines are key

Indeed, among the attributes Associated's software analyzes are popular key words that entice search engines, and whether the author already has a track record within the system. If the system deems an article unsuitable for print, a content editor will send it back with some thought on how it can be made ready for distribution. This happens with about 30% of submissions, Reiss said, noting that nothing is "spiked" in the traditional media sense, but rather held until the system says it is ready.

Reiss, a former ESPN executive who oversaw a range of the sports channel's businesses including its magazine, joined Associated last year as its CEO. He was an interesting choice because he brings with him the literary élan of having cut his teeth on the business side of Spy, the now legendary satire magazine that chronicled 1980s Manhattan. One of Associated's rivals told me that the rub against them is that they are filling the Internet with sub-par material that is geared toward gaming search engines - a claim that Reiss rejects.

"We absolutely aspire to find ways of continually improving the quality of the product," Reiss says. "At the end of the day, we're trying to build a system where it's going to be really hard for mediocre content to be rewarded."

As far as Sinatra is concerned, Associated's system does have its quirks and perks. She has written on everything from the benefits of raw pet food to makeup tips and advice for aspiring writers, all for "basically minimum wage". But, she says, her most widely-read article was one she submitted last May -about celebrities baring their breasts in public. Apparently Associated did not offer her an advance payment for that piece, but it was her most lucrative work to date, yielding around $30. "They usually don't pay up front for celebrity things but those get the most page views," Sinatra, 18, told me over the phone. "It's weird, their system: You can write an article about something really boring but somebody will want it."  To top of page