Some time ago I came across this comment from BoingBoing blogger Cory Doctorow that inspires both shock and awe: “As a co-parenting new father who writes at least a book per year, half-a-dozen columns a month, ten or more blog posts a day, plus assorted novellas and stories and speeches, I know just how short time can be and how dangerous distraction is.” Doctorow’s intent, I think, is to inspire, but his example is just as likely to depress.
Doctorow is just one of a relatively new breed of writers and reporters who, as digital natives working predominantly online, produce as much in one day as many print writers used to come up with in a month. To the traditional print journalist, their new ethos of digital productivity is not just foreign, it’s al-Qaeda foreign. They are publishing terrorists, threatening the placid print way of life.
From the print perspective, digital media and excessive workloads go hand in hand. Commenting on a Folio: magazine blog last week, an anonymous “Exhausted Editor” bemoaned an increasing digital workload: “I’ve got enough junk to write/post/cover. . . I’m tired of writing the stories, cooking the meals, flying the corporate digital jet and waxing the furniture—figuratively, of course.” And yesterday, B2B editorial consultant (and—full disclosure—my long-time mentor) Howard Rauch tweeted that “continuously overloading B2B editors with digital responsibilities undoubtedly is key reason why original content is dying a slow death.”
As a bred-in-the-bone print editor, I sympathize. And yet I wonder. Is it just our old print ways, our preconceptions and work habits, that make digital workloads look so extreme? We say that quality will invariably suffer with increased output. But does it? The content farms may be spewing out tons of junk, but there’s another digital press corps, found in news sites like Mashable, Engadget, TechCrunch, and ReadWriteWeb, that match high productivity with high quality.
The prodigious output of some of these writers is inconceivable to most old-guard print people. Earlier this week, ReadWriteWeb co-editor Marshall Kirkpatrick wrote on Twitter (post now deleted) that he was looking to hire a writer “to produce 5 solid web tech news articles a day, 5 days a week.” Was this an unreasonable expectation? Maybe so. Fellow twitterer @Alex replied that few could meet this standard: “turns out the number of people who can do that is around 20. And we all have jobs.”
In a subsequent article on ReadWriteWeb, “I Worked on the AOL Content Farm & It Changed My Life,” Kirkpatrick acknowledged that he has indeed been having trouble filling the position. But his title suggests that he sees productivity not as a rare natural talent, but as the product of training. As he recounts in this article and another, he began his career blogging for AOL and two other sites, producing 10 to 12 posts a day. “It was grueling,” he writes, “and it was great.”
What is notably missing from Kirkpatrick’s career path is any exposure to print journalism. There was simply no one to tell him that his productivity was unreasonable.
It is—or was—quite otherwise in print. In my experience, the working environment of a print operation, particularly for monthly publications, was rarely conducive to what now passes for productivity. Yet we were exactly as productive as we needed to be. The deadlines were met, the pages were filled, and our readers were satisfied.
Now, though, digital media have set the bar much higher. There is no longer a limited number of pages to fill, but an infinite amount of cyberspace. Print veterans will have to reset their expectations and definitions of productivity. If not, they will simply fade away along with their medium.
Although it may be messy, the transition to digital does not have to be painful. As a first step, print editors might consider Kirkpatrick’s implied advice about digital workloads: to see them not as a threat, but an opportunity.