Media Startups Look to Unpaid Student Writers

Austen Hufford reported this week at The Wall Street Journal Online that, “As head editor for the local chapter of an online food-culture publication, Brogan Dearinger spent most mornings last fall coming up with story ideas, editing submissions and checking the performance of articles.

“But there was no money in it—at least not for her.

“Ms. Dearinger, then a senior at Indiana University Bloomington, was among about 8,000 unpaid college students working for local chapters of Spoon University Inc., a for-profit media company.”

The Journal item explained that, “Spoon is among a group of for-profit media startups—including Her Campus Media LLC, focused on college women, and millennial-centric Odyssey Media Group Inc.—that have popped up across college markets in recent years.”

Mr. Hufford noted that, “Originally founded by undergraduates, these sites rely on students to produce localized content for free, in exchange for training and experience. Groups provide a community environment for students, with weekly meetings and social events similar to campus clubs, but members have article quotas—typically one a week—and work to increase the page views and engagement that help their for-profit parent companies succeed.

“The companies, which don’t disclose financial information, have attracted millions of dollars in funding for their ability to cheaply generate large amounts of content and traffic. Spoon, until recently backed by venture capital, was purchased in May for an undisclosed amount by Scripps Networks Interactive Inc., the owner of HGTV and part owner of Cooking Channel and Food Network.

“As more traditional media companies move to ramp up digital revenue and cover costs as print advertising declines, these student-based sites have a lower-cost model to produce articles and make revenue from advertising and sponsored posts. The startups run franchise-like microsites, with local chapters led, written and edited by students and overseen by a small group of paid employees. Spoon has 200 chapters, Her Campus has 340 and Odyssey has 1,200.”

The Journal item added that, “Ms. Dearinger, who juggled her work at Spoon with a restaurant job and journalism classes, says the unpaid experience was more relevant than the student newspaper for becoming a professional food writer.”

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