Blog Post

The New Rules For Judging ‘Quality’ In Published Content

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.

Last week, I explained why the traditional ways of judging “quality” in published content are useless in the digital age. Judging by readers response to that piece, those dated values (which I labeled credential, correctness, objectivity and craftsmanship) are still sacred to many people. But here’s the problem: They simply aren’t enough to win audiences, drive financial success, or, for that matter, ensure viability. The demise of institutions like Newsweek proves that — and shows that publishers that don

12 Responses to “The New Rules For Judging ‘Quality’ In Published Content”

  1. Very good post.  There is a finesse to storytelling, story building and ultimately creating story waves.  There is also  an underlying need for consistency in that relevancy, POV and distribution.  While it always seems to obvious, it isn’t executed well by all that many.  

  2. I too enjoyed this post. This post has brought new quality parameters for judging the content. I have bookmarked this! and will surely work according to this. Personally i like to write blogs. Now keeping these issues in mind, I ll write for my audience. Thanks for this post. These days audience don’t want content but a practical experience to learn from!

  3. binoojohn

    Very relevant article. But with questionable conclusions drawn. Quality is one which gives the reader perpetual enrichment.Like reading a Marquez novel.Transitory points of engagement like Twitter etc dont last in public memory. How many of your own tweets do you remember? You need to read just one of the many classic New Yorker and Time articles written many years back to know what quality means. A tweet may be relevant to the moment. An article of quality from New Yorkers’ Remnick for instance is relevant for a decade.

  4. mattframpton

    Ben, enjoyed the piece, but what I find frustrating about it is that almost all of the attributes you say are important for quality in publishing 2.0 have always been just as important for publishing 1.0, especially POV and Relevance. The Economist, The New Yorker and many others provide these in spades to their readers. In terms of “experience,” you give two non-publishing examples, Google Maps, which isn’t in the publishing business and is only tangentially in the content business, and Twitter, which isn’t either. These are technologies used by both publishers and users alike, but they aren’t publishers or content creators.

    More important, one of your key examples of the wonders of publishing 2.0 highlights just how limited it is. Yes, the tweet of the photo of Sully’s flight on the Hudson did indeed help spread that story wide and quickly, and that’s an amazing thing. But here’s what it didn’t do: the real job of publishing, or, better word choice, reporting, which is answering the following questions. Questions we as citizens MUST know the answers for, and seek the answers for, particularly if we had any loved ones flying that day.

    Where was the plane coming from? Where was it going? What was the flight number? Was anyone killed? Was anyone injured? What caused the crash? And, then, later, How do we prevent similar incidents in the future? Was there a safety issue here? How big a threat are bird strikes? What can be done to prevent them? Should the rest of us be concerned about the safety of future flights?

    This is called reporting. This is called journalism. And this is what publishing 1.0 does very, very well. It’s what Huffington Post doesn’t even pretend to do (though Politico does it). Sure, the Twitter photo beat traditional outlets to the punch. But it beat them by all of about three minutes. So what? It didn’t answer any of the questions we needed to know, the questions publishing 1.0 is in the business of answering. I have a hard time seeing how that’s so revolutionary, or, more important, how it provides business models for publishers to follow.

    The question that needs to be answered is how do publishers in the business of creating quality content build new business models around it. After all, if no one was making quality content based on the “old” standards you cite, then Huffington Post wouldn’t have any articles to link to, and most certainly wouldn’t have 40 million uniques, which I guess means users still care about the those old standards after all.

  5. To paraphrase Truman Capote, a fair bit of the content on the web today is “typing” vs. writing. Michael says it best above, your rules are marketing rules, not quality rules. There has always been crap in publishing. Now it’s just easier to produce and distribute.

    In the end, the strong will survive. Sites like TMZ, not unlike the National Enquirer, will have a place. Print will survive too for those who want depth and prefer deep-dives vs. ADD snacking of the barrage of information coming at them. The outdated values you reference will have a place; otherwise we’ll be stuck with writers who think that “cats who don’t spell so good” is grammatically correct.

  6. Michael Alex

    These are marketing guidelines (and valuable as such), not a list of rules for judging quality of content. There is nothing here to distinguish what separates a brilliant piece of video or text from some third rate item that the audience does not read through or watch through or pass on.

    BTW Quality has ALWAYS been in the eye of the beholder.

  7. Scott, good point. I think of packaging as being a component of experience. The experience that publishers provide needs to be readily consumable (which also implies being device-aware). The digital consumption model is clearly quite different than offline based on how quickly content is scanned.

  8. Kirby and Ian, no question these sites appeal to different audiences and are not directly competitive, including for advertising dollars. However, it’s important to consider their cost structures as well. Cheezburger will thrive as an ad-sponsored publisher because of their incredibly low cost of content “production” via UGC. Higher cost publishers will need to raise the bar for customer experience, and in all likelihood, charge for their content in some form or another. Even for ad-sponsored content, advertisers are willing to pay substantially higher CPMs for more interactive experiences. Tomorrow I’ll be posting on my blog ( with a much deeper look at the importance of break-through experiences.

  9. Ben, Good post. I would add packaging to your list. Speaking of which, packaging content in list format is very effective. In the B2B media space, where Focus plays, we are years behind the consumer side in terms of audience friendly packaging.

  10. Enjoyed reading your article Ben. I don’t think people view the quality of Newsweek or Huffington Post in the same category as ICanHasCheezburger. And just because one site gets more traffic than another doesn’t mean it is viewed as having better quality content. Quality is easy to define: The more in-depth the story, the better the pictures, the better the writing and grammar etc the higher quality the site will be viewed by readers – plain and simple.

    I think the argument shows that people are willing to view content of different quality standards. The opinions they form on each outlet will of course likely be different, but Google Analytics does not report that, so it is easy to ignore. ICanHasCheezburger has an entertainment value, Newsweek has value in informing people of current events. The question you should be asking is whether ICanHasCheezburger is good enough for people to actually pay for. That will easily show you the quality value that a person is willing to put on it.

  11. Hi Ben,

    I enjoyed this piece, I even buy much of it, if I am wearing my DM or my content producer hat. But you left out two big elephants in the room for “the new content” (especially from a premium advertiser perspective): audience quality and brand safety.

    On the audience side, demos for cat photo fanciers are typically unattractive. Even overlaying data/retargeting doesn’t solve that issue. Also, user intent is brutal to discern in the above mentioned channel, and often in the games or news channels you reference as well, which makes targeting tough and thus impacts performance and desirability. And like it or not, traditionally defined “quality” content draws traditionally defined “quality” audiences, which is what advertisers pay up for if they’re not paying for strict performance.

    Which leads to the brand safety side. To brands and their ad agencies, “quality” has a clear and undeniable definition, from an advertiser perspective; so much so that the Internet Advertising Bureau recently passed a spate of content classifications for ad networks and exchanges to abide by. Bascically, there is professionally produced content; UGC; and illegal content. Agencies structure almost all of their online buys around this definition. And we as an industry aren’t doing enough to ensure we deliver what advertisers need: a recent Winterberry Group white paper quantified the lost opportunity associated with low-quality or unsafe content at $2B.

    Bottom line: as long as advertisers are footing the bill, they own the definitions. All else is window dressing.


    Kirby Winfield