Digital Drudgery and Second-Stage Shovelware

In a post earlier this month, I raised the sensitive question of whether legacy print journalists might be unduly worried about the workload involved in social media. It spurred a substantial number of comments, and even played a small role in that all-too rara avis, a blog post by Paul Conley.

In the most recent comment yesterday, my friend and mentor Howard Rauch argued that excessive digital workloads are very real phenomena for B2B editors. He’s right, of course. But in my reply, I struggled to make the case that the problem is not inherent in online media, but that it lies instead in the tendency of legacy publishers to treat digital media like print.

I didn’t put it very well. But today, without knowing he was doing it, blogger Adam Tinworth rode to my rescue. The problem, he explains, is second-stage shovelware.

The occasion for Tinworth’s observations was his desire to defend liveblogging as a journalistic undertaking. He argues that the criticisms being slung at The Guardian’s liveblog coverage of the Christchurch earthquake are based in a confusion of print and digital media. The journalists who object to liveblogging, he suggests, don’t understand that it is process-driven rather than product-driven:

“Most journalists think in a goal-driven way. It is the finished product that matters; the 350-word inverted pyramid that captures the essence of the story; the 3,000 words, 3 DPS feature on a certain topic. That, though, is a product of the historic fact that a magazine or newspaper was finished. The page was set, the presses rolled, the story concluded. Sure, you could follow it up in the next issue, but the original story was done.

“The internet does not possess this quality. Nothing on the internet has to be finished. . . . Websites never go to press. The medium is a different one, and allows different forms of journalism.”

The problem for many journalists and publishers is that they don’t see the full extent of this difference. While, as Tinworth notes, they have advanced beyond simply shoveling previously published print copy online, they are stuck in a second stage of shovelware: “where you’ve accepted that internet is a viable medium of first publication, but you’re still using nothing but print formats.”

When Rauch points to e-mail newsletters as a key villain in digital drudgery, he’s underscoring the failure of legacy publishers to understand digital media. All they’re doing is stuffing a print-era product into an e-mail skin. In Tinworth’s terminology, they are stuck in the second stage of shovelware.

It’s a shame on at least two counts. First, these publishers are failing to exploit the unique journalistic advantages of the Web. Second, they are taking an exciting new medium for journalists and making it look like drudgery and grunt work.

It’s understandable that those who work for such publishers are upset. The digital workloads many journalists and editors are being handed are indeed excessive. But the real cause for complaint is this: It’s not just too much work, it’s the wrong work.