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Traditional Ways Of Judging ‘Quality’ In Published Content Are Now Useless

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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.

41 Responses to “Traditional Ways Of Judging ‘Quality’ In Published Content Are Now Useless”

  1. Strictly Guest

    Well done, Ben. You’ve definitely got it down. Preach (or rant) to the choir, generate lots of clicks, plenty of responses. Share, oh please share. And sniff on as many sites as possible. All the stuff advertisers are looking for. That’s Media 2.0 at it’s finest.

    And at the risk of offending with the use of the “q” word, this really is quality Colbert stuff. Very tongue in cheek.

    Excellent quote, “The world changes fast now—and readers have come to accept that the facts will too.” Nice irony, since facts are facts and don’t change.”

    And the idea to not worry about spelling, grammar, accuracy. It’ll get fixed. Smart since it will get clicks and responses in the process. More errors, please.

    Oh, and I especially loved your line, “The audience doesn’t care where the content comes from as long as it meets their needs.” A lot like the criteria of the site itself. And since your needs are “clicks” and if possible, profiles and user info you can sell, you’re on the cusp.

    Let’s see, Bookmark site to “Humor” folder.

  2. Ryan Love

    Interesting…thank you for the quality piece.
    I’m wondering if credentials might have a place in the world of publishing 2.0 because of their social value. You state that consumers will develop their own “sniff tests” for news. Problems can result, however, when people assume that their own standards of quality match those of others. My sniff test suffices for my own purposes, and it might be good enough for people who know and respect me enough to accept my sniff test. But when I encounter others with differing views, or need to communicate with strangers, citing sources with authority can help to bridge a gap. This has limits, of course. Tracing information to a feature story in The New York Times will do me little good in a discussion with a Tea Party enthusiast. Nontheless, credentials of organizations can give me greater authority in my communications. People don’t have to trust my nose: they can trust that of the Times. .
    Authority does not necessarily need to be based on institutional credentials. Still, having such credentials attached to information can enhance that information’s social value for people who need to use it outside of their usual spheres.

  3. David, thanks for your feedback. Brands are still powerful as destinations; but increasingly, the brand is standing for the collection of content, more than the authorship. N.B. this has been true for years with respect to content from the wire services, for example. Now, savvy branded publishers are increasingly incorporating third-party content, as USA Today did with “McContent” provider Demand Media, combining the best of “good enough” content with a valuable branded masthead.

    Additionally, I believe that recent trends in social sharing, most notably the recent Facebook Open Graph innovations where “Like” buttons are already a fixture of most publishers sites, will reduce the amount of search / pull consumption and increase the amount of consumption where content is effectively pushed to us from our friends. If you’re interested, I wrote a post on the topic and the reemergence of serendipity last week on my blog (

  4. David Graves

    I agree with you to a point Ben, although I (and probably most people) would still prefer to read a piece without grammatical or factual errors in it and appreciate being able to hold a recognisable body like the New York times accountable in some degree for what they’ve written. I also think that (as many other commenters have noted) we as social media users can sometimes forget that not everyone sits around all day browsing the internet for news content or keeping up with independent bloggers or e-zines etc- many will have the Daily Mail, the Guardian or the BBC as their source of news in the ten minutes of journalism catch-up they do at their desks before starting their ‘proper jobs’. I know many people who will, when Googling a topic, disregard all sources of news or comment which do not have a recognisable masthead. That said, I think you raise a lot of valid points about the rapidly changing online journalism landscape.

  5. Fannick, I absolutely agree that quality is important (particularly with the proliferation of content sources), but my argument is that the primary criteria for quality have changed. The importance of accuracy is obviously much greater when it’s a matter of life and death, which is to say that in 99% of cases, Boeing is a horrifyingly bad role model for media.

    Tom, great point that publishers should not simply pander to audiences. However, we also need to give more credit to readers – some of the most successful (viral, “popular”) examples of content online have been extremely controversial. Indeed, this (biased) article has resulted in active discussion and is “popular” today (according to the paidContent home page) despite the fact that clearly not everyone agrees with my perspectives.

  6. Robert, wikipedia is a very interesting example, though not a typical publisher in the sense that reference content that is intended to be evergreen needs a greater focus on accuracy. But at the same time, this crowd-sourced information (what credentials do the authors/contributors really have?) is a great example of how iterations on content – corrections/expansion over time – is increasingly the norm for consumers.

    mala bhargava, old school media won’t survive. Every week we read about media companies laying off staff or shutting down due to declining audiences and ad revenue. The old media model and the associated high production costs simply aren’t sustainable, even if there is an audience (in the case of print, still rapidly declining with no obvious end in sight). Moreover, when news is personally, directly or immediately relevant, it is precisely then when consumers don’t have the patience to wait for the highly produced, fact-checked version. In today’s world, if a consumer hears gunshots and sees police cars racing to a nearby business, she’s not going to wait until the next morning’s paper to find out what happened. More and more, consumers tune into social media and local blogs to get information, which is why many online news sites are partnering with or acquiring neighborhood blogs.

    milesgalliford & Ed, you’re right, the consumer is ultimately the judge rather than the old media approach where editors dictate what they believe is appropriate for their captive audience.

  7. “I like mass entertainment, I’ve written mass entertainment. But it’s the opposite of art because the job of mass entertainment is to cajole, seduce and flatter consumers to let them know that what they thought was right is right, and that their tastes and their immediate gratification are of the utmost concern of the purveyor. The job of the artist, on the other hand, is to say, wait a second, to the contrary, everything that we have thought is wrong. Let’s reexamine it.” – David Mamet

    Good journalism is art, what you are proposing is entertainment.

  8. fannick

    Working in new media for an old media company, my perspective is that Mr. Elowitz doesn’t get it. High quality, high standards, ethics and responsibility all matter as much in the new media world as they did in the old media world. The medium doesn’t change that. Yes, we all get content from many sources now. That’s great. But do you really want more and more sources giving you less and less acurate information?

    I hope you don’t want Boeing to see “quality” as archaic when the bolt that engine into your plane.

  9. Some of the “critical” comments above don’t seem to get it.

    I, the reader get to determine quality, you don’t…that is this article is trying to tell you.

    Many of you are trying to see quality as a better publication when I see quality as the overall information gathering experience with no care for any single source..

  10. Dan/Bennyblanx, Popularity can be a nice side effect of delivering something qualified as meaningful to your audience.

    Christoph, increasingly as publishers face the new realities of how consumers use media (and how much less advertisers pay), they will need to confront that the old formula isn’t working.

    Kagemtibaijuka, Great point that a great measure of value for the audience is what the collection covers. I agree with this view, as you’ll see more in my post next week.

  11. VoxPop, I agree with your aspirational direction that this full marketplace of content in fact can raise the bar for great content. That will happen faster for publishers who start thinking in new directions, not just holding to the old traditions.

    Steffen, sites like the Huffington Post can get nearly all their content from third parties and be highly valuable and qualified destinations for their audience. I would bet they have a fact-checking department of zero, and don’t need one. Being a publisher can be about more than writing original journalistic content. The point is to get above these four outdated ways of thinking about quality; they simply aren’t the ones that will make a publisher successful anymore.

  12. Stephen V, thanks. You are right that revenues are falling. The old ways of content creation are just too expensive for the new normal revenues of publishers.

    But it’s not just because of ad pricing – it’s also because consumers are turning their attention from a few pubs per month to a ton of dispersed sources. Hence the declines in ad pages of offline media, for example.

    It’s not an ‘either/or’. Serving the audience — instead of our own editorial egos — is the most important way to ensure a healthy financial future for the industry.


  13. All points journalists should think about, Ben. Isn’t it possible though, even in this age of the democratization of content, that 1.0 and 2.0 will coexist, at least for many years to come? There could be two reasons for this: One, there are still many generations of readers who are shaped by 1.0 values and standards and won’t completely switch to relying 100% on the overwhelming sea of tweets, blogs, opinions etc for facts. Two, there are times when we read news that is personally, directly or even immediately relevant. At such times, we need that credibility, know-how and depth. So, perhaps the old and new will find an uneasy relationship with one another for the foreseeable future.

  14. milesgalliford

    A good article which proves the very point it is trying to highlight.

    This article is free content by an individual expert, not a traditional journalist via a traditional media channel. Is it a quality article? I think so. Does it raise a valid point of view? Yes. Does the writer speak with authority and credibility? Absolutely.

    Today quality is in the eye of the beholder. It is not determined by brand or source. This is the same for online music, ebooks and videos. Traditional media needs to embrace this change rather than pour scorn on ‘amateur’ bloggers. I read PaidContent, Publishing 2.0, ReadWriteWeb and Techcrunch for my news before thinking about looking in any traditional media papers or magazines.

  15. Stephen G Veith

    Ben, you have made some good observations here with regard to information consumption habits of readers (or visitors) today versus 10 years ago. I feel obligated to point out though, that your assessment of why traditional media has changed dramatically is a bit off the mark. It is not as you say that the journalistic values are still the same in the hearts and mind of the editorial teams as they were years ago, as it is the plain and simple state of the advertising market. Traditional publishers continue to collapse under the weight of their present infrastructures and cultures strictly because of rapidly declining advertising revenues over the past decade. Especially so in the print space. In turn, the introduction of performance based marketing techniques during this time has caused many traditional publishers to actually compromise that “quality” you refer to in order to just stay viable.

    There is no question that you are spot on in terms of the massive “sea change” we are in the midst of in the media and information consumption world. At the end of it all though, the outlets and properties that will thrive or survive will be those that focus only on serving the needs of their audience(s) and not the needs of their own balance sheets.

  16. robert

    Credentials, correctness and objectivity are what define a good news organisation. Indeed, consumers will ignore news sources that they don’t trust.

    Correctness is essential to enable a user to evaluate the quality of a news source or commentary quickly and efficiently. For example, consistent accuracy of basic facts is the reason why wikipedia is so popular and trusted. Similarly, objectivity is the reason why most people prefer to avoid the fringe views of extremist websites or conspiracy theorist blogs.

    Nevertheless, popularity does not equal quality. Gawker is just a popular website that spreads rumour. Ten million users a month does not mean Gawker is of the same quality as By Elowitz’s reasoning the viral youtube video of an afro ninja knocking himself out would count as high quality content. In terms of entertainment perhaps, but in terms of newsworthiness; it’s value is nil.

  17. jettorre

    This is just plain silly. You have a lot to learn about publishing and the media. Why don’t you try to learn all that before you spout nonsense such as this?

  18. Just a thought as well to illustrate my point. I read the Paid Content M&A feed because I like to knowing what the deal movements in the media world are.

    I of course could read Reuters which covers M&A for lots of markets, but I choose PaidContent over Reuters for M&A because I know, that PC will report more effectively on it due to their focus on media.

    I am not saying I am the norm for every reader in the world, but definitely readers of specialised information care where they get their news/information from because it affects their knowledge base.

  19. This was a spirited piece, but misguided in my view.

    I wholly disagree that the audience does not care where it gets its’ content from. Just because a reader takes in multiple sources for news, information or content, does not mean automatically that they see all sources as being the same in terms of value.

    In my mind, the huge amount of content websites online is going to in fact make standards for audiences higher. Sure you can go on website X for its’ quick news, but if website Y is made better to suit your needs, you will have little need for website X.

    Agree with Steffen a lot here.

  20. Sorry to say that Ben, but I think your article is simply missing the point.

    Although I have been working in digital media since more than 10 years also in leading positions, the core of the “old” values is still valid.

    (1) “The audience doesn’t care where the content comes from” – they still take care and they still seek “the truth”

    (2) “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. ” – Accuracy is a must and relevancy a requirement of the market. Why should editors write something no one is interested in but also why should an editor write something which is simply not true. So again: your argument is nonsense.

    (3) “Digital audiences are not relying on any one piece as the sole source.” and “The audience doesn’t want a singular objective piece on a topic” are no contradiction. In fact they say the same thing. Since stealing content or plagiarism has become a virtue people are clicking around to find a valid source. They STILL seek a multiple facets view on a topic to make up their mind. The media is no longer THE source to check for validity. Again: there’s no evidence for your argument.

    (4) “old media wants to win Pulitzer Prizes; new media wants to win audiences” but what’s the price for winning an audience? This question has to be answered in both contexts: old and new media. The current startup scene faces content “manufacturers” who solemnly rely on SEO metrics. But that’s still not what’s needed when it comes to news. It is only appropriate for general topics.

    I still believe that quality journalism will make its way and the current challenges will be supportive.
    Best, Steffen

  21. Christoph Borer

    Great Article. Working as an online manager in a print media environment myself, I observed the critiqued qualities several times. Productivity is seen as an attack of the pursuit of quality. Time is scarce, as productivity is low. Therefore, there is no time left to do other things, besides, e.g. develop online skills. Still, speaking of Switzerland/ Europe, structural changes in media consumptions have hit less hard on weeky and bymonthly titles, so they do not yet face an absolut urge to change. Unfortunately, but it’s a luxury not having to change, yet. But it might be better to start with…

  22. bennyblanx

    I agree with Dan. Although it is could be considered a luxury in this day and age, a trusted old-school “quality” source saves me time and is more pleasantly digested besides.

  23. Dennis, sounds like you are far ahead of the curve. In the old rules, many don’t take any true “measurements” at all – especially in offline media where the data you’re talking about just aren’t available at a granular level. I have a friend who writes occasionally for the New York Times. What metrics does she receive from the NYT about her articles? None at all. Good to see you are thinking forward. More next week :)

  24. Chris, one of the best things about how information travels online is that not only do consumers use multiple sources (a recent Pew study: “46% of Americans say they get their news from four to six media platforms on a typical day”), but on top of that the real-time flow of information comes from 360 degrees. So even when I post something controversial, say in a piece in PaidContent, people like you can call it into question.

    Great writing certainly *can* be a means of differentiation, but whereas that was the presumption before for almost all publishing, now more and more it is less and less true. TMZ and I Can Has Cheezburger for example blow the tradition away. It’s not that great writing is a bad thing — it’s just no longer the most important thing.

  25. Hey Ben,

    I tend to apply my own KPI litmus test to “metrics” like the above – metrics which are all rational, when first told by a traditional media person. But imagine for a second, that one would actually collect data points such as, say, Correctness or Objectivity (which is plausible) and trend them along Visitors, Time Spent or Engagement. I don’t necessarily think they are aligned, as you so correctly indicate, to the extent people imagine. I do think they have an impact though.

    Looking forward to your version of how to calculate a metric for “Quality”.


  26. Chris Wood

    There’s no question the rules of the game have changed, but I doubt whether they’ve changed that much. Points 3 and 4 seem especially questionable. Some people may pore over multiple political blogs, but I suspect many people just want to get “the news” and go on about their days. And when there is an incredible glut of sources providing the same information, good writing is certainly an important means of differentiation.