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 Comments

Damario Gray

Hii nice post, Its really very informative for us yes u rare right. The purpose of journalism in the peculiar American culture and its
individuality is to inform the populace such that they can make
intelligent decisions about those choices that impact on their lives.

Dana Blankenhorn

This is not hard, although everyone in the online world has pretended it is for over 15 years now.

Journalism is about creating a market. Define a place, an industry, a lifestyle, and serve those buyers with compelling information relevant to their interests. Then seek out the folks who sell to these groups. Make connections, generate sales. Wash, rinse, repeat.

What’s this crap about “quality.” It’s in the eye of the beholder. What matters is whether it’s compelling, whether it serves the market, whether they come back and share things with you (like their information).

Everyone in this business goes about it back-asswards. It’s the business model that counts. Define that and you define your audience. Serve your audience, get a big share of that audience dedicated to you, and then getting big bucks for “ads” becomes easy, because you’re no longer selling “ads,” but the chance to sell your stuff to the people you want to sell it to.

blockhead

Let blockheads read what blockheads write (Chesterton)

Emeri Gent [Em]

If content is becoming more personalized in a digitized world then quality is still personal. What then must be changing isn’t quality but LCD – Lowest Common Denominator.

Those quality characteristics are things I see in comments, people do care about reputation because new media is all about reputation metrics, people care about correctness because I see people calling other people out. In terms of objectivity I see lots of comments that value it and in terms of craftsmanship, there is a lot of creative effort that goes into new media also.

When it comes to habits however, the push for readership is a push for lowest hanging fruit, so if this is a media race for lowest common denominator then the long-term sea of change is self-perpetuating, because that very same audience that sways to a short-term trend, will question the value of their own media consumption.

When those questions begin to permeate the life of the media user, then the question will become about what the purpose of news really is – and that could lead to a further shrinking of the market. There is money to be made in the mass middle, this is a no brainer – but in terms of quality, what is changing right now is expediency rather than quality and to me that is a short-term win with long-term consequences that have not yet so far registered, or at least may serve as the next sea of change.

[Em]

glennfannick

Mr. Elowitz.
While my Boeing example might seem extreme, my point is that truth to a society is just as important as physical safety.

While Wikipedia is a fascinating example of gathering the collected knowledge of the group, I fear a world where its truthiness will stand in for well-researched information from people and companies who have developed reputations based on their desire to be as objective as possible. Colbert’s experiment where he has updated Wiki pages to his liking is art-imitating-life. We’ve all read things on Wikipedia that we either know not to be true. How many of us take the time to research and correct them?

Crowdsourcing cannot replace investagative reporting. Most bloggers are commentators, not reporters. Who do you suggest will find and report the news? Will non-paid bloggers be embedded with troops during war? If society places no value on professional journalism, we’re all worse off for it.

And wasn’t the “consumers’ nose” always been the controlling factor? Haven’t they always been the ones deciding which paper to buy or network to watch?

New Media Maven

What a load of horsefeathers. This could have been written by Dr Goebbels.

E.D. Mitchell

If Mr. Elowitz would take the time to learn about the history of American journalism and its purpose he would know that the standard is not the NY Times as THE example of credentials. His analysis of the change only leads journalism in his world to be “Propaganda. Rumors are juicy and sometimes they have credibility but many times they are wrong and many in the public will continue to circulate then long after they have been challenged.

The purpose of journalism in the peculiar American culture and its individuality is to inform the populace such that they can make intelligent decisions about those choices that impact on their lives.

In his Correctness he fails to mention that getting information for many sources is not the same as original sources. Passing on wrong information because you can update it with new information does not address the credibility of the new information.

In Objectivity, Yes it is important to have different interpretations of the same facts. Sometimes the facts change because of as additional information. Then it is necessary to get different interpretations on the new information.

In Craftsmanship, there is a lot of bovine excrement here. This is the most dangerous part of his Quad. “Winning audiences rather than having good content. If one is only interested in “Propaganda” then this is fine. Some audiences already have their biases and giving them what they want runs counter to providing the public with good and accurate information to help them make intelligent decisions about their lives.

Rupert Murdoc has turned American journalism away from the ideals that began with John Peter Zenger through some of the best in Edward R. Murrow along with Ralph McGill of the Atlanta Constitution. There are qualities of the past that are still important today – even though the speed of information is quite different. Mr Elowitz is correct in his analysis of the speed of information.

Mr Elowitz has it wrong. He needs to walk the beat.

Bob Scheier

Interesting points, but you’re treating all readers, and all information, the same. If a reader just found out they have a rare form of cancer, how do you propose they “choose for themselves” what quality information is? If there’s a water main break in Boston and I need to know if the water’s safe to drink, do I visit 22 Web sites repeating and commenting on rumors from other Web sites, or tune to my local trusted “old” radio station and get an answer in 30 seconds? As with others, interested to see how you would judge the quality of content in the new environment, as I’m working on the same project myself.

mala bhargava

On Huffington Post not needing a fact checking department: what do people think now after the Faisal Shahzad photo mix up?

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