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Summary:

Fans of Groupon note that it has more than 100 writers, editors and fact-checkers on staff — more than a lot of medium-sized newspapers — and is continuing to hire and train writers, many of whom are (or were) journalists. But is that really something worth celebrating?

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Group-buying service Groupon continues to get a lot of attention, in part because it recently turned down a staggering $6-billion acquisition offer from Google. But while the popularity of group-powered buying accounts for a large part of the company’s growth, many supporters say that a key strength is the writing talent Groupon displays in its email offers. A piece in The Atlantic entitled “Forget Journalism School and Enroll in Groupon Academy” notes that the company has more than 100 writers, editors and fact-checkers on staff — more than a lot of medium-sized newspapers — and adds that “journalism majors should rejoice” because the company is hiring and training writers. But is that really worth celebrating?

The Atlantic piece goes on to note that some observers have credited Groupon with being one of the top “alternative storytellers” in the media industry, thanks in part to the company’s dedication to teaching its writers how to create engaging and often hilarious copy for the group discounts it sends out to subscribers. And the Groupon handbook of writing tips does have a number of helpful suggestions for making your writing more interesting, such as using the active voice and not resorting to clichés, or employing comedic mechanisms such as absurd comparisons or “fake history”.

That said, however, what Groupon does isn’t even remotely close to what journalists — either the offline or the online kind — are supposed to be doing. The idea behind Groupon’s offers is to convince the person receiving the email to buy something, so that the offer gets accepted by enough people to trigger the discount, and the company gets paid by the retailer who offered it. In other words, it’s advertising — just like writing brochures or marketing campaigns. This obviously requires some writing talent, but the purpose of the writing is very different, since journalism isn’t usually aimed at selling something (other than maybe an idea or a way of looking at a particular issue).

There’s no question that online media is becoming more marketing-oriented — with writers for outlets such as Gawker Media having to worry about “selling” their posts and drawing as much traffic as possible so they can get on the Big Board. The ability to write engaging and witty prose is obviously something that comes in handy in traditional journalism as well as Groupon-style copywriting. But does that mean we should celebrate the fact that aspiring journalists are taking jobs at Groupon instead of doing journalism? The Atlantic piece makes much of the fact that writers at the company — 40 percent of whom have journalism experience — have joined because they are “eager to churn out prose and study the craft.”

But is writing eight to 10 blurbs about cupcakes and clothing for sale really great training for journalism? Maybe it seems like a worthwhile opportunity when most traditional news outlets are cutting back on staff, and one of the only other entities hiring is AOL’s Patch.com — where writers can expect to share a similar workload writing about local news, but get paid $50 a piece if they are freelancers and might make $40,000 a year if they are editors. If you simply want to get paid for writing, Groupon probably looks like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow compared to that.

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  1. And here’s the editorializing…

    I didn’t take The Atlantic piece in the same way you did; I took it to mean blow off J-school altogether.

    Let’s face it: journalism is a dying art. The people I know with journalism degrees who are actually working IN journalism per se are few and far between. The money isn’t there, and that’s one of the key tenets: You have to do it because you love it, not because you are going to get rich doing it.

    Even in journalism, there are grunt jobs: obits, crime blotter, etc. Patch pays $50 per piece? You could have signed me up, because a lot of freelance gigs out there pay far less, and as a freelancer, you usually find yourself competing with writing mills out of non-English speaking countries, where you can’t underbid them and still put food on the table.

    I’m celebrating ANY time a writer can make money just writing, whether it’s writing witty copy for Groupon or getting a book published or even working as a copy editor for a tech blog. It’s getting harder and harder to do. If my kids were to ask me if they should go to school for journalism or, god forbid, English, I’d tell them to minor in it and try for something practical, like computer science or underwater basketweaving. I think studying writing as a profession without the business behind it (and that includes everything from writing catalog copy (yep, done that) to something to fall back on) is becoming as impractical in this day and age as studying drama. It’s a beautiful art, no matter what form it takes, but the odds of you making a living at it are getting slimmer.

    1. Thanks, Cyndy — I agree that writing for Groupon is better than not writing at all, and that for many people who love writing it could be a good outlet. I just don’t see how it is an alternative to journalism — although I know that journalism doesn’t pay much any more. And every person who gives up on journalism and writes copy for Groupon is another person who could be trying to reinvent journalism for a digital age, although God knows that doesn’t pay well either.

  2. Most of the people with whom I went to Journalism school (1972-1976) went on to work in non-journalism jobs — but jobs that required or benefited from the skills they learned in J school. I spent the beginning of my career working for newspapers, but transitioned to corporate communications and PR. I believe my journalism background served me better than a degree in communications would have. Journalism school can prepare you for a broad range of jobs that aren’t journalism. The Atlantic’s point, I think, was that, given the shrinking number of real journalism jobs, journalism school graduates can rejoice that there are jobs out there where they can use their skills and get paid. Not that these jobs are what these students had in mind when they entered J school. But it pays the rent.

    There are other examples of non-journalism jobs that tap what they teach in journalism school: http://www.siliconvalleywatcher.com/mt/archives/2010/05/ecmc_-_embedded.php

    1. Thanks for the comment, Shel.

  3. Actually, I think Groupon is paying writers about $30-40k per year, as well. At least, that’s what I think I saw somewhere. With this huge supply of writing talent, you really can pay what you want.

  4. Right on. It’s not that tough to differentiate journalism — finding out what’s happening and reporting it as accurately as you can, with or without analysis — from writing. God love Groupon for giving writers money. What those writers are doing is what the newspaper industry long called advertorial, writing ad-friendly copy to sell stuff. They just have a better formula — and lots more fun.

  5. Great piece, Mathew – couldn’t agree with you more. Groupon has snappy writing, but it’s still copywriting for an advertising company. So what does that have to do with journalism?

    Also noticed that Brandon Copple from Groupon weighed in with a comment on the Atlantic article, to “clarify a few things,” and he agrees with you, too. An excerpt: “Second, while we love a good headline, we can’t endorse The Atlantic’s admonition to skip journalism school. Our approach has elements of journalism, but it’s obviously not journalism.”

  6. RE: “This obviously requires some writing talent, but the purpose of the writing is very different, since journalism isn’t usually aimed at selling something.”

    Ah, yes, that is true in college but once you get out of school and into the real world,its a whole new game. Yes journalism is aimed at selling something, the magazine, newspaper you are writing for. Same goes with TV news. ITs all “sell sell sell, how can I get the viewer to watch my newscast over the others, how can I get readers to turn to my newspaper to get their news, etc!”

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