A Lesson from the Digital Productivity Terrorists

Portrait by Joi Ito (joi.ito.com), licensed CC-BY

Doctorow: Productivity Terrorist?

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.

Marshall Kirkpatrick

Kirkpatrick: Workload grueling but great

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.

6 thoughts on “A Lesson from the Digital Productivity Terrorists

  1. And exactly what is your definition of quality writing and reporting?

    When I was in graduate school working two 10-12 hours days a week as a reporter for a weekly newspaper, I’d write 10 stories in the two days. This included going to city council and hospital board meetings and other out-of-office, and face-to-face events, and researching stories, making sure I spoke to all stakeholders of a given story.

    But that is all I did in those two days. I did not lay out the paper, copy edit, worry about twitter and other social media, struggle with content management systems not built properly for editorial needs, learn the new features of every digital application that currently exists, let alone those new ones that come along, or travel to conferences or meet readers (Is this still being done? Or do we not have the time or money?), hold the hands of every sales or marketing person in the company, and do THEIR work for them.

    Despite numerous anecdotes such as the one contained here of people spewing out volumes, let’s do a hard content analysis before we say that 99% or 75% or 50% of the stuff posted out there is quality. And let’s also take a hard look at the methodology used for this analysis. The research I’ve seen confirms the decline in quality view. But more research is probably needed.

    Anecdotally, I’ve heard too many horror stories about posted content that doesn’t even get edited for grammar. Heck, you can read that bad stuff yourself almost every where you look.

    Now I shall apologize if my writing is poor. I don’t have time to read it over before I submit it. I’ve got to start a joomla tutorial now at 6 pm.

  2. Thanks, Robin, for taking the time to comment.

    I don’t think it requires rigorous scientific analysis to see that the typical Mashable or ReadWriteWeb post is much better than the typical eHow post. Is the typical Mashable post a match in quality for a New Yorker article? No, of course not. The thing about quality is that it is not binary, but subject to infinite gradations. Varying levels of quality are appropriate to different contexts and needs. Blog posts don’t need the same level of research and backgrounding as feature articles in magazines, and a tweet doesn’t need as much preparation as a blog post. The problem print editors often face is that they tend to feel they must put the same level of effort and time into composing a blog post as writing a cover story. But such heavy lifting isn’t needed. The real-time web is more like sharing your notes or speaking out loud. It really isn’t as time consuming as many print people fear it will be.

    That said, you’re right to bring up the responsibilities print editors have to lay out copy, proofread, deal with sales staff, and so on. The print culture is not really compatible with the digital one, and management rarely understands that in asking editors to do more social media. Unfortunately, that doesn’t bode well for print editors.

    And finally, you sly dog, you know perfectly well that your writing is superb, despite your busy schedule. No need for re-reading!

  3. Hi John,

    The only thing better than your post is your response to Robin’s comment. I’m particularly pleased to see this: “The thing about quality is that it is not binary, but subject to infinite gradations.”

    As an industry, we’ve sunk into a seemingly endless series of arguments in which we compare apples to oranges. We argue over the quality levels that can be achieved with Twitter versus what is possible in long-form narrative. That’s as ridiculous as comparing the works of Shakespeare to a newspaper headline. The truth is that there are great plays and there are great hedes. There are great stories and there are great tweets. There are epics and sonnets and there is also haiku. There are wonderful stories written on the fly. And there are magnificent works that consume a lifetime.

    All of us know this.

    Thus it seems to me that the arguments about the quality of a journalist’s work seem to have very little to do with the work. Rather, it seems we’re really arguing about the journalists themselves. It’s as if we can’t accept that someone who does things differently can be as “good” as us.

    Or, as you put it far better than I: “The print culture is not really compatible with the digital one.”

  4. Hi John:

    Great discussion. As somebody who is constantly in the middle of quality vs. quantity evaluations, I have to weigh in. To a certain extent, your other astute commentators have said it all. So I will be quick (maybe).

    Quality is a product of dedication!! If you have the drive to deliver the best, you get it done no matter how much quantity is involved!

    But even the most dedicated B2B journalists will poop out at some point. Why? Because as my buddy Robin Sherman (ask him about his hilarious talking dog video) correctly noted, unlike newspaper reporters, most B2Bers don’t have the luxury of a job description where writing is the sole occupation. With digital for instance, we have new job drudgery that never worried us in print-only environments).

    Just a few weeks ago while coaching an e-news writer, I learned that she spent half of every week on an archiving project. When that albatross was delegated to a non-editorial person, the quality of her work soared immediately!

    Last year, I ran a mini-study focusing on digital workload simplification. When asked to identify their most time-consuming projects, respondents cited e-news because of out-of-control quantity requirements. Many were unhappy about the resultant quality produced.

    Anyway, to make a long story short (at last), if higher quality level is a goal, the amount of grunt work attached to digital must be redistributed. Further, if we are going to get carried away with generating daily and twice-daily e-newsletters, we better staff up appropriately. Or somehow inspire a higher level of dedication in talented but swamped editors than realistically can be delivered in the face of existing conditions.

    Howard Rauch
    Editorial Solutions, Inc.

  5. Thanks for weighing in, Howard. Your point is well taken.

    A big part of the problem with digital workloads, I suspect, is that traditional publishers just don’t get digital. Take e-newsletters, for instance. That now-antiquated format is really just a print concept carried out via electrons rather than paper. It’s a lot of work for relatively little value, which justifies words like drudgery and grunt work.

    The situation is different with social media like blogging, Twitter, and Facebook. They are designed for timely observations and reactions to industry events and reader comments. Anyone who sees these formats as drudgery is, I fear, doomed.

    I’d love to think that traditional publishers will some day “staff up appropriately,” but I won’t hold my breath. The only way they can really address the types of workload problems you point out is to completely rethink their approach to digital. Alas, that outcome seems only slightly more likely than hiring more editors.

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