Ben Elowitz (@elowitz) is co-founder and CEO of Wetpaint, a platform for social web sites, and author of the Digital Quarters blog. Prior to Wetpaint, Elowitz co-founded Blue Nile, the online retailer of luxury goods. He is also an angel investor in various media and e-commerce companies.
If old-media traditionalists can be relied on for one thing as the world digitizes, it’s to bemoan the loss of what they call “quality.” In fact, the quality of published content has never been better. So why does traditional media get it wrong here? Because they’re using a definition of quality that made sense for the world of Publishing 1.0, from Gutenberg until 1995. But for Publishing 2.0, it’s about as useful as the cubit is in modern architecture.
The traditional-media definition of quality is based on four key criteria – and all of them have fundamentally changed and become invalid. Here they are, along with an explanation of why they’re no longer useful. Next week, I’ll do a follow-up piece on how quality should be defined in the digital era.
1) Credential: The most important marker of quality used to be the name on the content, the institutional reputation, and the standards, processes, and heritage it has established. Let’s face it: a rose of an article in the New York Times (NYSE: NYT) would not smell as sweet in any other place — at least not to old media.
The Change: The audience doesn’t care where the content comes from as long as it meets their needs. Decisions of what content is trustworthy are made by referral endorsements from our friends and colleagues on the social networks, and by the algorithms of search that help weigh authority vs. relevance. In the abundant world of content, consumers know to apply their own sniff tests – and with myriad sources, they develop their own loyalties and reputations. The brand’s stamp isn’t the point anymore – the consumer’s nose is. Without a staff of old-school journalists, Gawker has managed to rack up over 10 million visitors a month who come because the rumors and snark meet their definition of quality – without any of the institutional qualities of old media.
2) Correctness: The old rules of quality prize correctness and are unforgivingly intolerant of errors in reporting. They are deeply invested in rigorous fact-checking; multiple source corroboration; and correct spelling of proper nouns. I’ve given interviews to old-media outlets where I’ve spent more time on the phone with the fact checker than with the reporter.
The Change: The sensitivity to correctness is based on the idea that it’s the editor’s duty to protect the reader. But protect the reader from what? In the old world, content was scarce and immutable, and the audience frequently consulted only one outlet – so it had better be right. Today, publishers can update stories multiple times an hour with no hard costs. The world changes fast now — and readers have come to accept that the facts will too. Publishing rumors and single-sourced stories (disclosed for what they are) is fair game for winning audiences. The audience can supply the suspicion directly without the publisher doing so as proxy; and the audience values timeliness more than correctness. Too many editors care far more about being accurate than they do being useful; and they will find themselves out of business soon if they don’t start measuring themselves more by relevance than by accuracy.
3) Objectivity: High on the values list of old-school publishing are fairness and impartiality. The assumption is that including multiple sides of a story is necessary to make it worthy of publishing – as though that objectivity can create greatness.
The Change: Digital audiences are not relying on any one piece as the sole source. In fact, the average U.S. internet user tunes in 83 different domains per month and a staggering 2,600 web pages per month, and goes to Google (NSDQ: GOOG) 13 times per day just to decide where to go. The old model that presumes consumers make one choice in any category – one daily newspaper; one business weekly; one gossip column – is absurd. The audience doesn’t want a singular objective piece on a topic; the reality is a no-brainer that people utilize the natural multiplicity online.
4) Craftsmanship: This is not just one of old media’s top measures of quality, but probably one of its deepest – and most anachronistic – values. Lengthy feature formats put the focus on the content, not the audience. The now lavish-seeming deadlines of monthlies and weeklies create a culture that allows plenty of room for indulgence in art over commerce. The resulting chasm: old media wants to win Pulitzer Prizes; new media wants to win audiences.
The Change: When media was scarce and paper, presses, equipment and airtime were expensive, it made sense to maximize craftsmanship and get the most out of every dollar of publishing costs. But in digital media, without the hard costs of paper and printing, physical distribution, and capital equipment, the only major cost of content production is the creators’ time. The only limit on great content is the creators’ productivity. In this environment, by and large more content benefits the audience far more than higher-grade art. For the vast majority of categories, well-crafted content is consumed disposably by the audience, and investments in craftsmanship are more an indulgence in the creators’ egos than an investment in differentiation that will win audience.
Just to be clear: It’s not that these four criteria are entirely dead: Regular errors, lapses of disclosure, and sloppy storytelling are all bound to negatively impact a publisher’s reputation, inasmuch as they negatively impact the audience. But they are no longer the relevant yardsticks for “quality,” in the sense that scoring fantastically high on them is no recipe for success. That’s because they are all in the eye of the wrong beholder. Looking at these four old criteria for quality, they all share the same source: they are based on the belief that a publisher controls the audience’s experience; and the audience’s access to content is scarce. Sure, this was true 10 years ago, but today it’s absolutely false.
Next week: The new rules of quality in Publishing 2.0: The four dimensions of quality publishers need to succeed in the digital era.