Over the weekend, Megh Wright did what any good journalist would do and started chasing a lead after a Hans Moleman Vulture article was blatantly plagiarized by TVOvermind. After some digging, Wright discovered that TVOVermind and its sister sites have a habit of lifting work from numerous publications including a Screen Rant piece from Pajiba’s own Kayleigh Donaldson. If it’s not immediately clear why this is a huge deal, writers are out here busting our asses just to get by in this hellscape of an industry, and this guy is kneecapping people’s careers by siphoning off search traffic with their own work. There are writers who probably could’ve gotten salaried positions, promotions, or not fired, but they were just a few clicks shy. Guess where those clicks went.
Below is Wright’s thread, which I encourage you to check out because it is some staggering shit. The evidence of plagiarism is undeniable thanks to Wright’s diligence, and what’s even more incredible is that TVOvermind kept publishing articles even as its entire operation was being exposed. But why would its owner Nat Berman stop when the SEO is still pouring in? His game is all about making easy money as cheap as possible. I know because he told me as much.
After the whole saga with @TVOvermind ripping off one of our posts yesterday, I started poking around there and have yet to find a single post that links to any sources. Which is weird because they aggregate a lot of news.— Megh Wright (@megh_wright) March 29, 2019
For close to 10 years, I wrote and managed The Superficial, a modestly popular, celebrity snark blog that found itself stripped for parts and eventually wiped off the internet after my parent company imploded like so many venture capital-backed media companies before and after it. Did I mention this happened two days before Christmas? It happened two days before Christmas.
Long story short, I entered the increasingly overcrowded gauntlet of trying to find steady work and getting kicks in the teeth instead. (Go to trade school, kids.) One of those times involved Berman, who runs TVOvermind and several other sites under the Uncoached umbrella. After writing a Medium post updating fans of The Superficial on my current writing status, Berman reached out to me in early December 2018.
There were red flags starting with his very first email:
There’s 100% opportunity to make money on the web these days. Don’t be intimidated by what happened to Mic or anyone else for that matter. These companies are all retarded. That’s what you get when you raise millions of dollars, hire hundreds of writers and then wonder how the fuck you’re going to cover all of those costs. Banner ads? Good luck assholes.
In fairness, Berman is not wrong. Mass layoffs are still a routine occurrence thanks to the VC bubble bursting. Digital media companies pissed away capital to give off the illusion of growth, but none of them planned for sustainability, so they turfed it hard when the investors stopped cutting checks. Toss in the collateral damage from Facebook walling off users in its ecosystem, and it’s a goddamn nightmare.
As for Berman’s choice of words, I’m not exactly a choirboy, and frankly, this is how way too many cocky, always-pitching wannabe-CEOs talk in this business. So I took a call with him to hear him out. It was the holidays, so I’m watching even more money fly out the door than usual, and again, I need work. (Flattery also did the trick.)
Obviously, plagiarism never came up during any of our talks. It’s not like the guy was going to come right out and say, “Oh, by the way, my content strategy is straight-up ripping off work from other sites and milking it for SEO.” As for the few articles that I clicked on to get a feel for the Uncoached network, they looked like mundane listicles riddled with oddly-formed sentences that I assumed were either churned out by a bot or some poor kid in Croatia for pennies. Which jibed with the very weird flex that Nat dropped during our one and only phone call.
“No one gets content cheaper than I do.”
Pro-tip: These are words you should never say to a writer you’re trying to hire. Let it be a fun surprise down the road that you don’t value their work and would replace them with slave labor if you could. Not to mention, yes, content is very cheap when you’re f*cking stealing it.
Anyway, Berman’s pitch to me is that he has the SEO game down to a science, which tracks. Search traffic is making or breaking sites right now, so it stands to reason that he could be profitable, especially with very little overhead. His plan for me was to boost his direct traffic by bringing in an organic audience like I did for The Superficial. Granted, I’d still be writing listicles, but in my own “style.” Not the worst idea, and I’m open to anything at this point. I’m also fully expecting things to get weird when it comes to the money talk, and yup, it sure did.
Right up front, Berman offers me a 50/50 split of whatever ad revenue I bring in. While this sounds generous, this is a very large red flag because these types of offers almost always involve a dry period before the “real money” starts pouring in. There was also a pyramid scheme vibe where Berman kept talking about how little I would have to work once the ball was rolling, and if I wanted to, I could subcontract someone underneath me down the road and work even less. He doesn’t care as long as the revenue is coming in. For the record, this is not how conversations usually go when someone wants to hire me as a writer.
At this point, I’m not about to take time away from paying freelance work for something that might make money down the road. Essentially, I’d be churning out content for Berman to profit from immediately while hoping I don’t get dicked over waiting for a check that never arrives. So I try my best to nail him down on a monthly income, and finally, a moment comes when I realize I’m walking into a shit show.
From the last email he sent me (emphasis mine):
One note I would stress in all of this is speed and quality. You might not believe this but there was a time I was cranking out 40 articles a day myself, just me. Each being around 500 words plus. At some point you need to morph into a speedier writer. I’m not saying to nix the quality and what makes you you but there’s a balance between quality and quantity when playing the search game that’s important. For us I’d want to do the direct traffic goal and search goal so again, it’s a balance. For example, to do an entire article, format it, photos, start to finish, I could usually bang out 750 words in about 20 minutes. That’s probably not something you’re used to.
After that, I ghosted. Obviously, in light of Berman’s site network being exposed as a plagiarism mill, that “40 articles a day myself” comment really clicks into place, doesn’t it? At the time, it signaled to me that I was going to be whipped like a mule to produce an absurd amount of copy in hopes of getting a “piece” of every keyword on Google, which was Berman’s game. And if we didn’t hit that goal because I can’t write a Russian novel every day — or more likely, take part in an unscrupulous shortcut to do so — guess who isn’t getting paid. That’s a nope from me, chief. What’s even more bullshit is I was supposed to be impressed by Berman’s “hustle” when it’s now very clear that the only thing he was crushing was copy and paste.
Even now, I can’t figure out what Berman expected me to do. Was I supposed to be a credible front for his scheme? “Hey, look, we hire actual writers and are a legit operation. Did someone accidentally plagiarize something? Whoops. Not how we operate. Sorry!” Or did he honestly expect me to run this bullshit ring for him and not care about an ungodly amount of plagiarism as long as the money was there? If it was the latter, he barked up the wrong tree because I’m not about to get sued for some asshole’s listicle farm. (Apparently, I came off as a sucker who would? So that’s neat.) But if Berman had paid attention to my work, he would’ve noticed that I don’t f*ck around when it comes to attribution. Despite a career built on Kim Kardashian butt jokes, I do know how journalism works and have a sliver of integrity. Just because I can write like a dick that doesn’t mean I am one.
Header Image Source: 20th Century Fox