In 2011, the Media Standards Trust (a British organization) posed an interesting question: How much of our “news” is literally copied and pasted from external sources?
To find out, they launched the now-defunct tool churnalism.com which showed how much text from editorial articles matched press releases. (For the uninitiated, churnalism is a portmanteau of “churn” and “journalism”).
The results were damning.
Outlets like The Telegraph, The Independent, and even the BBC repurposed up to 97% of their content from press releases in their stories, essentially copying and pasting their way to ad revenue.
In his scathing book, Flat Earth News, Nick Davies noted that churnalism comes from “journalists who are no longer gathering news but are reduced instead to passive processors of whatever material comes their way.”
If you’re in the business of content marketing and this feels like déjà vu, your instincts are spot on.
Writers (and brands that hire them) are under immense pressure to create massive amounts of articles that rank well on Google—but as competition increases, that’s becoming harder by the day. As a result, many content marketers are less inclined to take risks and more inclined to replicate what’s already claimed the #1 SERP.
Here’s how churnalism usually works in content marketing
Years of this nasty habit has left us with millions of boring, irrelevant, and potentially plagiarized articles floating around the web. It’s also created a puzzling paradox: the more we try to make content that stands out, the less original it becomes.
Can churnalism get you a few articles thank rank on the first page of Google? Sure, especially if you’re writing for an authoritative site.
Is it a sustainable strategy to grow a brand? Forget about it.
For starters, there’s no incentive to read or share articles that have nothing new to say, much less buy from the brand that published them. It’s also a poor SEO game plan, considering Google rewards original, thoughtful articles over duplicate, keyword-stuffed ones.
Bottom line: Churnalism creates a race to the bottom where brands, agencies, and readers all lose.
The way out of this mess is to prioritize creation over curation. Instead of summarizing what’s already been said, you have to find a gap and fill it. Maybe that means interviewing a subject matter expert to get a fresh perspective, surveying your audience for new insights, or digging past the first page of Google to find a piece of data nobody’s talking about.
Combatting churnalism doesn’t mean ignoring algorithms, abandoning keyword research, or disregarding your competitors. It means adding something new to the conversation.
“If you're creating blog posts that are a simulacrum of all the other articles that rank for your keyword, you're not gonna make it,” says Michael Tunney, an LA-based content strategist. “However, if you're willing to do the thinking (and the work) to create content that people might actually read or share with a friend, you've got a chance.”
The bright side about churnalism is that it sets the bar low for content marketers who can look past the present moment and create stuff worth reading. Easier said than done, of course. But as competition heats up, that will separate the winners from the losers.