A few weeks ago, I wrote about our decision here at Pajiba to end our partnership with Salon.com, after the outlet rewrote one of my headlines and essentially turned me into an Internet troll. I don’t have any desire to revisit that, but for other publishers who might be considering partnering with similar sites and are looking for counsel, my advice based on our experience is this: Don’t do it.
We’re a mid-sized, independently owned site with no real affiliations and terrible management (me!), so sites like ours are ideal for other, bigger content providers to prey upon with promises of more exposure and some illusory prestige in exchange for free content. Over the years, several outlets have approached us about similar deals: Business Insider, Alternet, and HuffPo, among others, and I never had much desire to enter into an agreement until Salon came along. That’s because I hadn’t read Salon.com in many years, and I still had the illusion that it was the same site that I loved in the early aughts with Andy Greenwald, Heather Havrilesky, Stephanie Zacharek, and Cintra Wilson, who is probably my all-time favorite pop-culture writer. Salon is not that intelligent, progressive, thoughtful site anymore. What I learned over the course of our year-long partnership is that they’re mostly an ultra-liberal, wordier content farm far more interested in provocative, trolling headlines than actual, thought-provoking piece. I get it, though: It’s a business, and page views are necessary to keep it running, and they have a very large staff (though, I suspect that their many interns also work for free exposure rather than money).
Still, after they republished our first piece — the truly miraculous story about the birth of my twin daughters — I was elated because it meant that a tale that I was incredibly proud of would be seen by a bigger audience, and selfishly, I liked that extended friends and family members who might not visit Pajiba would feel more comfortable reading it on Salon. For the writers on the site, having a story picked up by Salon was also kind of a neat feather in the cap that they could humblebrag about: Look, ma! I’m in Salon!
It was neat.
The relationship with the site was also collegial and informal: It mostly amounted to an intern sending us an email once or twice a week asking if they could run a post, and me saying “yes.” The folks over at Salon all seemed like very nice people, and though organizationally they have a certain brand that I found increasingly disagreeable — Internet outrage fueled by humorlessness — the individuals we dealt with all seemed very nice and polite, though I really hated that our site’s personality was being conflated with Salon’s by association.
As a year passed, however, it became apparent that we were not accruing any real benefit from the relationship, while Salon was getting free content that was often very popular on their site, particularly when they ginned it up with a new, provocative headline, which were also occasionally misleading. This was a good deal for them: Free popular content in exchange for … mostly nothing.
What did we get in return? Mostly small nuisances. We write for a particular audience here, and often our style and sense of humor doesn’t translate as well on other sites, so I’d often get tweets or emails taking issue with something we wrote here that didn’t sit well with one of their readers. It also hurt our traffic if, say, we wrote a popular piece that they ran on their site that would then overtake the original piece on social media and in Google searches. In fact, after they ran a few pieces without asking for permission first, I endeavored to end the relationship because we were getting nothing out of it and, worse, they had taken traffic away from us by essentially cock-blocking us in search engines. However, they talked me into staying on with the promise that they’d stick the original agreement — always ask first — and that they’d send us more traffic, which admittedly did increase, but only marginally.
After a year, what did we gain from that partnership? All told, we provided them with 55 articles (or about one a week), and in return, we received a grand total of 28,000 referral page views, or a fraction of our daily traffic. We saw no uptick in social media followers, no added search traffic, and no new readers. Worse, the idea that one of our writers might be able to pitch to Salon for paid work was ludicrous, because why would they pay someone here to write something for them when they could just get it for free?
Basically, we received little from the relationship except for a few headaches, the occasional loss of traffic, and a lot of spiteful, angry tweets and Internet comments (their comments section is, uh, well, typical of most on the Internet, which is to say: Mean). We did, however, learn a valuable lesson that other publishers can take away from the experience, which is this: It’s not worth it. It may seem cool in the beginning to see your work on a bigger site, but those other sites — despite getting content for free — do not have your back. They do not have your best interests in mind. All they have in mind is soaking up as much traffic as possible without having to pay someone for content.
In the end, though it didn’t really help or harm us in any meaningful way, we kind of ended up feeling used and exploited, although that’s not Salon’s fault. They took what they could get. It was 100 percent my fault for letting it happen and not being savvy enough to more immediately recognize the downside.