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.

Is a Blog Just a Container?

Photo courtesy Haags Uitburo

Today I came across a comment from Adam Tinworth on the reignited debate, in certain UK circles at least, over whether bloggers can be legitimate journalists. This debate—fairly one-sided in favor of blogs—was set off by the probably unscripted speechifying of British journalisthistorian Andrew Marr.

In reflecting on this latest blogger brushoff, Adam Smith approvingly quoted Tinworth’s comment on Twitter that “you can do journalism on a blog” and that Marr is “making a massive category error.” A blog, Tinworth said, is a container, not an activity. As he put it elsewhere on Twitter, Marr’s criticism of blogs as fine things for certain purposes but inadequate to the task of journalism is like saying that “magazines are fantastic, but won’t replace journalism.”

I agree wholeheartedly with Tinworth’s position in this context—you absolutely can practice high-quality journalism in a blog. (And prior to indulging in what might appear like criticism, let me state for the record that Tinworth is one of my favorite and most respected bloggers.)

However, to dwell for a moment on the metaphor of container vs. content,  can we really say that the blog format doesn’t influence its content? Would we say that blogging and other forms of social media have not in fact altered the practice of journalism? Or that journalism as we knew it a decade ago can simply be ported into social media without undergoing some degree of transformation?

I don’t think so (and, again, I’m not saying that Tinworth thinks so either).

Now to some extent, your position on this matter will be determined by how you define a blog. If you think, as Mark Schaeffer put it in the course of  the  “great ghost-blogging debate,” that a blog is just a mechanism for publishing, you’ll argue that it can be used for any kind of content.  If, on the other hand you think, like Schaeffer’s opponent, Mitch Joel, that blogs imply a certain attitude and voice, you’ll have a more restrictive view of appropriate blog content.

Of course, no matter what you as the blogger think, your audience has the final call. A few years ago, when a magazine I worked with started its first blog, one of the first commenters called us to task for not being bloggy enough. The content we were posting, he said, was just like what we put in the magazine. That was fine, but it wasn’t, to his mind, what we should do in a blog. He wanted a little more liveliness, spontaneity, and opinion. I’d like to say that we immediately agreed and changed our ways, but, in those days at least, we thought that view of blogging was incompatible with journalism.

Look, though I won’t try to prove it here, the fact is that blogging has influenced the way we practice journalism, just as it has changed the attitudes and expectations of the consumers of journalism. Readers expect more immediacy, more transparency, more injection of the self, and more interactivity in their news content. I don’t think that means you can’t practice journalism in a blog.  But it does mean that a blog is not simply a sterile, inert container that has no effect on its content. And I, for one, think that’s a good thing.

What B2B Publishers Don’t Get: You Can’t Own the Conversation

Although there may be a few exceptions, Stephen Saunders got it right this week  when he wrote on Folio:‘s web site that most B2B publishers are miserable failures at social networking.  He argues that you can’t build and maintain an online business community unless you produce lots of your own content to support it.

There’s some truth to that, as I’ll suggest. But he omits the bigger point. B2B networks usually fail because publishers expect to control them. Publishers have a product focus, and to them, a social network is just another product. They don’t realize that social networking is instead a conversation. And you can’t own a conversation.

Saunders draws a distinction between consumer and business networking. Consumer networks on any subject can pretty much take off by themselves, he argues, because there will be a “large potential audience of enthusiasts who will be interested in plopping themselves on your site and talking.”

By contrast, business networks, which generally focus on narrow topics of interest, will likely appeal to only a comparatively small group of people:

“But things are rather different if your site is about VOIP-based integrated multimedia applications designed to run over DSL last mile networks. First, there are only 300 people in the U.S. who know about said topic. Second, they are probably not interested in talking to other people about this subject on a public Web site.”

Though he doesn’t say this explicitly, his argument is that in smaller networks you need some kind of catalyst to get the conversation going. In the consumer network, there will be enough motivated people to provide content that others can respond to. But in the B2B network, the publisher has to provide that content, and lots of it:

“What is the answer? It’s quite simple. And it’s the same answer to pretty much all questions in business publishing. (No, not alcohol.) It’s content. In order to convince important people to talk about important things you need to lure them to your social network, and keep them pinned there, with large amounts of proprietary information. Produced by, like, editors and stuff.”

But, Saunders says, publishers don’t want to pay for the editors they need: “In our industry, money talks, and copy walks.”

I won’t argue with him on this point. You can’t be part of the conversation if you don’t contribute to it, and that means producing content.

But the bigger problem lies with the attitude of most publishers toward the social networks they want to build. It’s an attitude reflected in Saunders’s argument that you need to “lure” people to your community and “keep them pinned there.” This is the language of control, and that doesn’t build communities, it kills them.

As Jeff Jarvis has argued for years, you can’t own communities, and you can’t build them; you can only enable them. Being a responsive and generous participant in the conversation (i.e., producing lots of copy) is an important part of enabling a community. But if you expect to be in charge of that community, it ain’t gonna happen.

There’s a Reason They Don’t Call It Mobsourcing

An article published today by Michael Masnick on his Techdirt blog takes on a Forbe’s opinion piece that tries to debunk the “myth” of crowdsourcing. The Forbes contributor, Dan Woods, claims that the commonly cited triumphs of crowdsourcing like Wikipedia (the supplier of this definition of crowdsourcing) are in fact the products largely of individuals, not groups.

Masnick’s reaction is basically, “Well, duh!” As he says, “of course there are individuals, and the point of crowdsourcing isn’t that everyone in the crowd is equal, but that they each get to contribute their own special talents, and something better comes out of it.”

The mistake Woods makes in his Forbes piece is in confusing the prolific diversity of crowds with the monolithic single-mindedness of mobs. The one is productive, the other, destructive. Woods’s error is one publishers climbing up the new-media learning curve should strive to avoid.

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What B2B Can Learn from Jeff Jarvis, Part 3

How the Shift to Process Journalism Affects Ethics

What Would Google Do? By Jeff Jarvis. HarperBusiness, 2009.

Scenes from an editor’s desk, circa 1989:

Copy arrives in the mail. You do a first read-through, do some fact checking, call the writer for clarifications, edit, and send it off to the type setter.

Galleys come back from type. You read through quickly for major errors and send it off to proofreading.

Galleys come back from proofreaders with changes. You send marked galleys back to type setter for corrections.

Corrected galleys come back. You check the changes. If copy is clean enough, you send it to production for layout; if not, it goes back to type for another round.

Boards with layouts come from production. You check them over and send to proofreading for a final read.

Corrections to boards come from proofreaders. You type up a list of line changes and send to type setting.

Line changes come back from type; if correct, you send to production for line stripping; if not, you send back to type.

You get the line-stripped boards back from production, review them, and sign them off for printing. You’re done (except for the blueline, but enough of all this. . .).

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