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.

No Monopoly on Lousy Content

Are content farms just convenient whipping boys for bloggers and mainstream media alike? When the likes of Demand Media and Associated Content aren’t being flayed for underpaying writers, they are criticized for producing lousy content. But bad writing and reporting are readily found both on and off the Internet, from personal blogs to city papers. Could it be that the content farms are just symptoms of a wider problem that’s endemic both on the Web and, increasingly, in mainstream journalism?

In a piece on Demand Media’s popularity with investors, Gavin Dunaway suggests that content farms have no monopoly on crap content:

“But I’ll argue again the problem isn’t just with content farms — content on the web is growing increasingly crappier because it’s just churned out. Increasingly the Internet is a gigantic content farm. There’s little editing, no quality control — it’d be understandable if this was user-generated content, but the junk is coming from major media companies, ones with paid content producers. They’re throwing any crap they can online to get those treasured pageviews.”

Dunaway’s assertion might not have stuck with me if I hadn’t come across the following passage an hour later. In a New Yorker article on Darryl Issa, author Ryan Lizza describes how Issa’s spokesman, Kurt Bardella, manages the congressman’s image. Bardella suggests that his job is much easier than it should be:

“‘Some people in the press, I think, are just lazy as hell. There are times when I pitch a story and they do it word for word. That’s just embarrassing. They’re adjusting to a time that demands less quality and more quantity. And it works to my advantage most of the time, because I think most reporters have liked me packaging things for them. Most people will opt for what’s easier, so they can move on to the next thing. Reporters are measured by how often their stuff gets on Drudge. It’s a bad way to be, but it’s reality.’”

Even allowing for political cynicism, there’s a discomfiting wad of truth in Bardella’s spitball. Manipulation of the press is nothing new, but it’s much easier in an era that “demands less quality and more quantity.” Low-grade writing, editing, and reporting are harder to avoid when you’re expected to publish a lot of copy quickly and at low cost.

So maybe it’s true, as I said yesterday, that Demand Media needs to fix its quality problem. But let’s not fool ourselves. It’s our problem too.

Commodity Content, Demand Media, and Quality

Demand Media LogoAre commodity content and quality incompatible? That seems to be the underlying assumption of most discussions of  Demand Media’s “frothy” IPO successfully concluded yesterday. Ominously, perhaps, that event was preceded by Google’s promise last week to clamp down on high-ranking content-farm sites with “shallow or low-quality content.”

The terms content farm and content factory are meant to be disparaging, as if content is worthless if it isn’t lovingly crafted by hand. Even Demand Media’s CEO is insulted by the label. But the choice of metaphors is odd. Do we really think farms and factories are bad things? Or that the commodities they produce are worthless? Far from it. Their output is essential to modern life.

Likewise, commodity content is essential to publishing, especially B2B publishing and content marketing. Yes, there are unique and exciting developments to cover in any B2B industry, but most B2B media are built on a platform of commodity content.

This is not a new development. Early in my career I was the editor of an industrial product tabloid magazine. Consisting almost entirely of brief descriptions of new products, it was scarcely a glamorous publication. Though now and then it did cover some new, breakthrough technology, the bulk of it was pure, boring commodity content.

Yet through most the 1990s, it prospered. Readers and advertisers alike loved it because it fulfilled an essential need: the discovery of new materials, components, and services.

But the key reason for the magazine’s early success, I believe, was the premium it put on editorial quality. Though many of the products we wrote about were mundane, we made sure the descriptions were readable, accurate, pertinent, and objective. For us, there was nothing about commodity content that was incompatible with quality.

By 2000, of course, the die was cast, and the magazine began a long decline. The Internet is vastly more efficient than print as a tool of discovery.

Demand Media is all about the discovery of commodity content.  It is brilliantly geared towards identifying basic information needs on the Internet and fashioning content that meets those needs efficiently. The element it lacks so far is quality.

That isn’t to say the company is not aiming for quality, or not at least claiming to. CEO Richard Rosenblatt told the L. A. Times yesterday that Demand Media has put in place a “rigorous quality process,” in which each article is “touched by 14 humans, titling, writing, fact checking and copy editing.” The argument would be more compelling if it weren’t so easy to find failures of the quality process (evidently the titler on this one was having a bad day).

The weirdly fascinating thing for me about Demand Media is how it wants to build a high-growth business on commodity content. I’m not convinced it’s possible.

Private equity investors tried to do something similar in the last decade by betting big on B2B publishing as a platform for rapid growth. For most of them, it was a bad bet. The commodity content that B2B publications are built on is essential, but plentiful, and therefore cheap. Quality, the one thing that can distinguish commodity content, is expensive. So the only clear high-growth strategy is to cut expenses, which means cutting quality. As private equity investors discovered, that strategy is not sustainable.

Demand Media has done a brilliant job of recognizing the value of commodity content and making it easily discoverable.  But if it can’t match that brilliance in finding a low-cost way to improve the quality of its content, it may be doomed. Commodity content without editorial quality is a loser’s game.

UPDATE: Really, Demand Media, it doesn’t have to be this bad.

The Lure of a Dying Profession

I saw pale kings and princes too / Pale warriors, death-pale were they all

On his Guardian blog today, Roy Greenslade noted a curious phenomenon involving current journalism students. Though they don’t actually read newspapers or use other traditional media, nearly all want to work for these declining mainstream outlets rather than pursue new-media and entrepreneurial opportunities. Never mind, as Greenslade notes, that “they know the risks” and “have been told there will be few job openings.” For them, “mainstream media remains a lure.”

Though it sounds irrational, I understand it. For these acolytes, the morbid state of the print profession is a large part of its appeal.

I should know. Years ago, I applied not to journalism schools but the even less promising career route of graduate English programs. My college professors were encouraging (“follow your bliss!”) but cautionary (“of course, don’t expect to find a job”). Later, when the application packets started to arrive, they all included an emphatic word or two about the weak job market and how post-doctorate employment was not guaranteed.

Were they really trying to scare me off? I think not. If anything, those warnings simply increased the appeal of graduate school. It wasn’t impossible to get a job, just really, really difficult, and I, (like all my fellow applicants, I imagine) was way above average. If only one in ten got jobs, why, I would be that one. The message my future profession was sending was not “don’t apply,” but “only special people like you will be accepted into our fold.”

Greenslade writes of those journalism students that “they may be digital natives, but their ambition is to work for others rather than themselves.”  The reason, I think, is the need for confirmation, to believe that you, perhaps alone among all those others in the lecture hall, will be taken into the elite society of journalists. That society is still defined by the old-media professionals, not the new-media entrepreneurs. Journalism schools, it seems, are, consciously or not, complicit in maintaining this mystique.

Will journalism students be sucked in by this mystique, only to have their hopes dashed and end up alone and palely loitering?

I don’t think so. We’re all entitled to some romance in our career plans, and I have no regrets about mine or how they turned out. Those students may not be thinking about entrepreneurial, new-media careers now, but I bet many of them end up there anyway.

Still, why not inject a little romance into achievable careers? There may be few alternatives to traditional jobs for graduate English programs, but those for journalism schools are both numerous and exciting. It’s time to make the future just as romantic as the past.

Will the Web Have A Past?

Stone Tablet

Photo by Jennifer Dickert

Though Wired has declared it dead, I think the Web has a future. I’m not so sure it will have a past.

A while back, I spent a few idle hours trying to explore the archives of Jeff Jarvis’s BuzzMachine blog, in search of some legendary Dell Hell and early insights from the master. As you pass backward through the abysm of time, all’s well until July 2005, when the monthly navigational links give out, and you have to keep pressing “older” over and over. (I know, Jeff, we’re all aging, but do you have to remind us so remorselessly?) And then you bang up against the immovable doors of July 1, 2005, and there’s no going further.

Unless you happen to have the key that opens them.

But then, as you dig downward in time, things start to get pretty ugly. The surprisingly bad design has a charm of sorts, but the spam links at the end of every paragraph do not. And when you get to the very bottom, there’s no design at all—just raw code.

When he switched to WordPress in July 2005, Jarvis promised he would preserve his site’s past:

“I plan to leave the old Buzzmachine (ugly design, extra colons, and all) in place just as it is, though I’ll cut off the ability to post comments there in a few days. From June 2005 back to the beginning, the old site and its permalinks will stay intact.”

True to his word so far, the BuzzMachine past is still there—but it’s fading.  Would anyone be surprised if one day it just quietly disappeared?

Last month there was a flurry of declarations from the likes of Paul Carr and Leo Laporte that microblogging on the ephemeral canvases of Twitter and Buzz was robbing them of their pasts. As Laporte put it, and Carr quoted sympathetically,

“I should have been posting [on his blog] all along. Had I been doing so I’d have something to show for it. A record of my life for the last few years at the very least. But I ignored my blog and ran off with the sexy, shiny microblogs.”

Both have resolved to go back to their blogs, with the expectation that all will be preserved for posterity. But can even blogs reliably preserve the past? It all depends on the owners, and while they may remain steadfast until death, what happens then?

And all this assumes that someone who cares is in charge of your history, and not some corporate entity with no interest in remembering its past. I once worked for such a corporation, and to my dismay, though for no doubt perfectly valid reasons, it recently zapped the pioneering Web site I cofounded and spent years building.

Now, my patient and clever reader, I know you’ve been restlessly bouncing up and down on your chair for the last few minutes, interjecting, “What about the Internet Archive?”

You are correct. It is an extraordinary resource we should all be grateful for. You can find there clean, well-lighted versions of BuzzMachine and my late lamented site. But the Web is still a teenager, and this is a slender reed on which to rest the coming century of Web content. Can we count on the Internet Archive to grow and prosper, and keep our pasts intact? I hope so, but I lack some, if not all, conviction.

Perhaps this is why, as Dwight Silverman noted on Laporte’s This Week in Tech a few weeks ago, the digerati love to see their names in print:

“What’s funny is digital people who are really into using the Web and apps to get their news, when their name appears in the newspaper, they go crazy!  So print still carries some power.”

As fellow panelist Robert Scoble added, it’s the permanence of print that gives it such power:

“It’s still fun to have a newspaper with your name in it and keep that for your family. It’s something permanent. In fact, when I was [quoted] in The Economist, I had it framed up here.”

This heartfelt appreciation for the durability of print on paper is ironic in the context of the history of media formats. As Tim Carmody wrote last month in The Atlantic in an article on “10 Reading Revolutions Before E-Books,” paper has not always seemed so permanent.

“Communications legend Harold Innis suggested that the history of culture itself was characterized by a balance between media that persisted in time—think stone inscriptions and heavy parchment books—and those offering the greatest portability across space, like paper, radio, and television. Not only does this offer a grand scheme to think about media, it also suggested (for Innis at least) that modernity, for good or ill, had tipped the balance toward the ephemeral-but-portable.”

But in the aftermath of the Web, it seems, paper has become the new stone.

Let’s face it, the Internet is all about currency, not permanency; about now, not then.

Maybe that’s one reason why Jarvis is hard at work on his second book. And I don’t know about you, but personally, I have my chisel in hand, and am off to find a nice slab of granite for next week’s post.

UPDATE April 16, 2012: Though it’s broken several of the links above, I’m happy to say that Jarvis not only finished his book, but as of today, rescued his blog’s past.