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Mass Media vs. Blogs: What Makes Quality Content?

2011 March 29

Here we go again…

The NY Times’ new paywall has ignited once again the rancor between mass media and bloggers.  I’m a blogger, but have spent a career in media and gained enormous respect for journalists, so I am sensitive to the merits and passions of both sides of the argument.

At the heart of the debate is one of the central questions of the Internet era:  What makes quality content?  That’s a tough one, but I’m gonna take a stab at it.

Reporting the News

Reporting is central to journalism.  It has two main components:  observing and verifying.

Observing is what drives newsroom costs.  It takes a lot of money to send people to go where the news happens, whether that is to a war zone or to a city council meeting.  Ironically, it is also a job that we can all do and Web 2.0 technologies are enabling citizen journalism as never before.

Verification is what separates professional reporters from the rest of us. They spend their careers building up sources.  It takes countless hours meeting people and working the phone to confirm facts and tie up loose ends.  It’s not glamorous, but it’s what makes news we can trust.  Editorial scandals, thankfully rare, happen when verification breaks down.

So is reporting news a commodity as Cory Doctorow argues?  Well, it is and it isn’t.  Events happen.  It rains or it doesn’t.  Somebody is shot or they weren’t.  Once facts are verified there is little utility in seeing them twice.

However, unearthing truths in a complex world is never simple or easy and those who do the hard work and put themselves in harm’s way deserve our respect.

Commentary and Analysis

I used to manage a very prominent editor who is an important voice in Ukrainian politics.  He’s hardworking, intelligent and has a gift for language (and languages, he speaks four of them).  He likes to tell his journalists, “write so that the sales and marketing guys can understand it.”

Before I got into senior management, I came up through sales and marketing and so was somewhat offended (which, I’m sure is one reason why he liked to repeat the phrase so often during our long whiskey drinking sessions).  Now that my blog has gained a following among journalists, I take no small pleasure in telling him, “See?  Anybody can write!”

Everybody, of course, has opinions and most people have expertise in one area or another. Top quality publications have a long history of soliciting content from non-journalists through columns and op-eds.  So, in that sense, analysis is something anyone can do.

However, again, I would not be so quick to dismiss professional journalists.  There is a wealth of tacit knowledge in newsrooms and a lot to be said for the accumulated wisdom gained devoting your life to a craft.  I very much doubt that my blog would be nearly as successful without the years of exposure I’ve had to so many fine professionals.

There’s more to writing than typing.

Curation

“Curation” is fairly new to the media lexicon.  So much so that when I mentioned it to an editor over a beer the other night he was prompted to blurt out, “Oh, is that what they’re calling aggregation these days?”

Yet, curation isn’t new.  In fact, it’s been a core competency of editors for ages.  It’s been their job to decide what gets printed, what’s important enough to make the front page of a newspaper or the cover lines on a magazine.  They commission stories, hand out assignments and so on.  All of that is curation.

Bloggers curate by choosing which sources to link to, algorithms curate by filtering which content has authority and influence.  Editorial curation on the web, such as Real Clear Politics and the Atlantic Wire, has become an art unto itself.

The loss of their monopoly on curation is one of the things that scares professional editors the most. In the past, it was the source of their power and self esteem.  They got to choose what we saw and heard.  Now it’s a classic battle between man and machine.  The humans are winning at present, but they’re understandably nervous.

User Experience

User experience is probably the greatest challenge for traditional journalists.  They don’t have their own term for it, but they’ve practiced it for a long time.  Structuring publications, writing headlines and cover lines and choosing design elements are all examples of how print editors craft user experience.

However, it is their wealth of traditional expertise that blinds editors to new realities.  They are used to working in a world of hard and fast rules.  Web usability, on the other hand, is an emerging science. We learning quickly, but still have a long way to go.  The only certainty is false certainty.

A complete paradigm shift in editorial operations is required. The time honored convention of the Chinese wall needs to be rethought and reengineered.    Traditional editors will have to learn to collaborate with others and integrate expertise from multiple domains to a much greater extent than they ever have before.

As much as I respect editors, this is a control issue.  They need to get over it.

Nostalgia for the Craft

Another lament of editors is the decline of journalistic technique.  With greater competition, newsrooms are being pared down.  There are fewer reporters and skills passed down for generations are atrophying.  Old timers shudder to think that the hard won competenciess they honed in pursuit of their craft are falling into irrelevance.

Well, nobody cares.  The world changes and skills need to change too. We don’t kill our own food anymore and haven’t for a long time..  Very few of us could survive in the wilderness for a week without supplies from a grocery store.  Microsoft Word and Excel have demolished our ability to spell and do basic arithmetic.

As some skills decline, others are coming to the fore.  Editors need to learn how to effectively work with search engines to uncover sources, use Google Insights to understand the zeitgeist and utilize real-time audience data in order to serve their audience better.

Whining never solves anything.  Keep the old skills that are still valuable.  Learn the new ones you need to be successful.  Get on with it.

Running a Meme Business

The debate between blogs and mass media is an important one.  The reliability and quality of our information is far from inconsequential.  However, histrionic rantings like this one in Ad Age don’t do anyone a service.

The simple fact is that successful media depends on successful memes.  It shouldn’t be a surprise that digital memes travel differently than analog ones and it is illogical for editors to cheer mentions on the evening news while they decry links on web sites.  You have to succeed in the world you live in, not one that you yearn for.

Media is, after all a business.  Professional journalists need to be paid.  It is therefore publishers’ primary responsibility to ensure that they learn how to generate revenue in a new digital reality.  Unfortunately, as I’ve argued before, the NY Times paywall is a step backwards.

There is no worse betrayal to quality journalism than running a media business poorly.

- Greg

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Stuart Nicholson permalink
    March 29, 2011

    Dear Greg,

    I think this post covers one of the most important change issues that we face both as consumers of the output of journalists and as marketing professionals, where access and synergy with quality content remains an important part of what we do for our clients.

    I find myself agreeing with much of what you have said.I also find myself on both sides of the fence as regards being very sympathetic to the the views of the Journalism community but also feeling, as you do, that we might bemoan the “dumbing down” of good writing, that it is happening and we cant do a great deal to stop it.

    As regards paywalls, i am not sure that News Group has made a mistake longterm, although in the short-term it clearly isnt a success.

    Its a little bit like condemning the music business for shutting down kazaar and Napster a few years ago.The effect they had was to give rise to a feeling among consumers that music should actually be free, but the long term effect would have been to have probably restricted the supply of music by making a distribution channel unprofitable and therefore less worth participating in the industry by the major players.

    News Group are losing out becuase other publishers are still letting consumers access free content.

    If major publishers all went down the premium content route then eventually consumers will get used to the idea that some things are worth paying for.It might take a little while, but eventually they would succeed.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Stuart,

    I understand your point, but disagree with your central premises, which I interpret as (tell me if I’m wrong):

    - Consumers historically have paid for content
    - In the beginning, before they understood what was going on, publishers gave away content for free.

    This, understandably leads to the conclusion that the path to profitability lies in weening consumers off of free content and getting them to get used to paying again.

    My objection is that I disagree with the central premise, that consumers have been paying for content all along. In fact, publishers have a history of subsidizing production and distribution costs just so they can sell advertising. In the US, it is not unusual for magazines subscriptions to be subsidized by up to 90%.

    In that light, “free” is a big step up.

    The notion that publishers can enter a new medium with increased competition and all of the sudden start making money on distribution is a fantasy. The sooner they give it up, the better off they will be.

    - Greg

    P.S. These points only hold for developed markets. In emerging markets, where TV is much stronger, print often does price distribution so that they make a small margin. Ironically, in these markets they are not even attempting to get users to pay for web content.

    - Greg

    [Reply]

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