Reinventing the Newsroom

What Wired Left Out of Its Web Eulogy

Posted in Cultural Change, Digital Experiments, Fun With Metaphors, IPad, Social Search by reinventingthenewsroom on August 19, 2010

This post originally appeared at Nieman Journalism Lab.

Maybe you heard: The web has been declared dead, and everybody’s mad about it.

I’ll get to checking the web’s vital signs in a moment, but one thing is clear: The hype and hucksterism of packaging, promoting, and presenting magazine articles is very much alive. I found Chris Anderson’s Wired article and Michael Wolff’s sidebar pretty nuanced and consistently interesting, which made for an awkward fit with the blaring headlines and full-bore PR push.

But looking past this annoyance, Anderson’s article makes a number of solid points — some I hadn’t thought of and some that are useful reminders of how much things have changed in the past few years. (For further reading, The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal has a terrific take on why the model of continuous technological revolution and replacement isn’t really correct and doesn’t serve us well, and Boing Boing nails why the graphic included in the Wired package is misleading.)

Still, Anderson almost lost me at hello. Yes, I like to use my iPad for email — and I frequently check out Facebook, Twitter, and The New York Times on it. But for the latter three, I don’t use apps but the browser itself (in my case, AtomicWeb). As I’ve written before, so far the iPad’s killer app is the browser — more specifically, the chance to have a speedy, readable web experience that doesn’t require you to peer at a tiny screen or sit down in front of a laptop or desktop. So going by Anderson’s own opening examples, the web isn’t dead for me — better to say that apps are in the NICU.

But I couldn’t argue with this: “Over the past few years, one of the most important shifts in the digital world has been the move from the wide-open web to semi-closed platforms that use the Internet for transport but not the browser for display.” That’s absolutely correct, as is Anderson’s observation that this many-platform state of affairs is “the world that consumers are increasingly choosing, not because they’re rejecting the idea of the web but because these dedicated platforms often just work better or fit better into their lives (the screen comes to them, they don’t have to go to the screen).”

That not-going-to-the-screen is critical, and — again — a big reason that the iPad has been a hit. But as my iPad habits show, that doesn’t necessarily imply a substitution of apps for the web. Nor, as Anderson himself notes, are such substitutions really a rejection of the web. It would have been less compelling but more accurate to say that the web isn’t dying but being joined by a lot of other contact points between the user and the sea of digital information, with points emerging for different settings, situations, and times of day. Sometimes a contact point is a different presentation of the web, and sometimes it’s something else entirely.

It’s also interesting to ask whether users of various devices care — and whether they should. Anderson brings up push technology and, with it, PointCast, a name that made me shudder reflexively. A long time ago, (like most every media company of the time) became infatuated with push, going as far as to appoint a full-time editor for it. It was tedious and horrible, a technology in search of an audience, and our entire newsroom was thrilled when the spell was broken and the damn thing went away. But Anderson notes that while PointCast didn’t work, push sure did. Push is now so ubiquitous that we only notice its absence: When I’m outside the U.S. and have to turn off push notifications to my phone, I have the same in-limbo feeling I used to get when I was away from my computer for a couple of days.

The problem with the first incarnation of push was that the only contact point was the computer screen, meaning information often wasn’t pushed close enough to you, or was being pushed down the same pipe you were trying to use for something else. Now, information is pushed to the web — and to smartphones and tablets and game consoles and social networks and everything else — and push has vanished into the fabric of How Things Are.

Generally, I think the same is true of the web vs. other methods of digital interaction — which is why the over-hyped delivery of the Wired article seemed so unfortunate. There isn’t a zero-sum game between the web and other ways of presenting information to customers — they all have their role in consumers’ lives, and increasingly form a spectrum to be tapped into as people choose. Even if apps and other methods of accessing and presenting that information take more parts of that spectrum away from the open web, I doubt content companies, telcos, or anybody else will kill the open web or even do it much damage.

Frankly, both Anderson and Wolff do a good job of showing how adherence to the idea of the open web has calcified into dogma. Before the iPad appeared, there was a lot of chatter about closed systems that I found elitist and tiresome, with people who ought to know better dismissing those who don’t want to tinker with settings or create content as fools or sheep. Near the end of his article, Anderson seems to briefly fall into this same trap, writing that “an entire generation has grown up in front of a browser. The exploration of a new world has turned into business as usual. We get the web. It’s part of our life. And we just want to use the services that make our life better. Our appetite for discovery slows as our familiarity with the status quo grows. Blame human nature. As much as we intellectually appreciate openness, at the end of the day we favor the easiest path.”

That’s smart, except for the “blame human nature” part. Of course we favor the easiest path. The easiest path to doing something you want to do has a lot to recommend it — particularly if it’s something you do every day! I’m writing this blog post — creating something — using open web tools. Since this post is getting kinda long, I might prefer to read it on my iPad, closed system and all. The two co-exist perfectly happily. Ultimately, the web, mobile and otherwise, else will blend in consumers’ minds, with the distinction between the web and other ways of accessing digital information of interest only to those who remember when such distinctions mattered and/or who have to dig into systems’ technological guts. There’s nothing wrong with that blending at all — frankly, it would be a little disappointing if we stayed so technologically silo’ed that these things remained separate.

Even if “big content” flows through delivery methods that are less open and more controlled, anybody with bandwidth will still be able to create marvelous things on the open web using an amazing selection of free tools. As various technological kinks are worked out, traffic and attention will flow seamlessly among the various ways of accessing digital information. And social search and discovery will increasingly counteract industrial search and discovery, providing alternate ways of finding and sharing content through algorithms that reward popularity and scale. People who create good content (as well as a lot of content that’s ephemeral but amusing or diverting) will still find themselves with an audience, ensuring a steady flow of unlikely YouTube hits, Twitter phenomena, and hot blogs. The web isn’t dead — it’s just finding its niche. But that niche is pretty huge. The web will remain vigorous and important, while apps and mobile notifications and social networks grow in importance alongside it.


Just When I Thought I Was Out, Demand Media Pulls Me Back In

Posted in Content Farms by reinventingthenewsroom on August 3, 2010

I fear I’m being typecast as the guy who rants about content farms, which I never wanted. But every time I think it’s time to leave this debate alone, something happens that gets me worked up all over again.

A number of folks writing about content farms have asked me why Demand Media seems to have stopped responding to writers digging into what they do. I can’t speak for Demand, but my guess is they’ve decided it isn’t worth it — they’re doing just fine attracting new media partners and potential backers, so why get distracted duking it out with their critics? Which is pretty smart. But Demand hasn’t remained completely silent. Here’s a recent blog post from Jeremy Reed, Demand’s senior vice president for content and editorial, that answers his company’s critics. It’s a remarkable exercise in misdirection, one that is worth responding to.

Reed thanks the Demand writers who have answered the critics on various Web outposts, and says he’s unhappy that Demand’s writers are being attacked: “in spite of what people are writing about us, all of us here at Demand Media and the vast majority of you, do care about the writing craft and for the reader. The editorial rigor and process for creating content is just part of the equation; the other important piece is the pride in what we do and pride in the articles you touch.”

Reed adds that “tonight, I will read my new issues of the New Yorker and Texas Monthly that showed up in my mailbox and that I look to for inspiration. Our hope and intent is to fulfill the needs of our best writers, copy editors, titlers, and filmmakers. We hope to continue to improve the content in order to be the standard upon which other content is judged.” And near the end, he says that “when we’re being criticized, you’re being criticized as well.”

Well, actually no. When I criticize Demand Media and its ilk, I’m not criticizing the people who write or copy-edit for them. A lot of those people love to write, something I certainly understand. Some of them are people who have been laid off from jobs in journalism, just like I was. They’re trying to make ends meet, or keep their writing muscles toned, and those are worthy things. I’m not aiming my slings and arrows at them at all. Rather, I’m criticizing the people who created the business model those writers have to work within — a business model that hollows out caring about the craft of writing and undermines pride of authorship by making it very difficult for writers to do good work.

Your average Demand Media writer makes $15 an article. To make a semi-decent wage, that writer has to write an article in half an hour. Copy editors get paid $3.50 an article. To make a decent wage, they have about seven minutes per copy-edit. Unless you’re writing a very straightforward tutorial on a relatively simple process (an aspect of content farms that doesn’t bother me), it is not possible to write an article of any substance in half an hour. Nor is it possible to copy-edit such an article effectively in seven minutes.

Put these two things together and you compound the mess. You get articles that read like first drafts — haphazardly organized, superficial messes. You get things like this, and this, and this — all Demand content selected as Editor’s Picks for USA Today’s Travel Tips section. These are lousy articles, and USA Today editors should ask hard questions about what being associated with them is doing to their brand. But I’m not saying the writers of those pieces are lousy writers, because it’s not a fair test. Criticizing those writers for creating subpar content in such a situation would be like criticizing auto workers for creating a crummy car when the assembly line’s moving at 40 miles per hour. The poor quality of the writing isn’t the fault of the writers, but a predictable outcome of the business model.

Given this, Jeremy Reed looking for inspiration in the New Yorker and Texas Monthly is simultaneously infuriating and really funny. How much does Reed think a New Yorker copy editor gets paid? How long does he think it takes a Texas Monthly writer to craft an article? Does he ever stop to think what those magazines would be like if they were produced according to his own company’s business model?

Demand either needs to stick to just-the-facts tutorials or change its business model to support its ambitions. If it’s going to do the former, it should stop calling itself a media company, making high-minded references to storytelling, and invoking the name of magazines its business model could never produce. If it’s going to do the latter, well, it’s got its work cut out for it.

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