Monday, April 19, 2010

Will "content" kill "journalism"?

Ever since the term "content mills" was coined, and ever since there's been much hue, cry and discussion on Demand Media (what some considered the preeminent content mill) and their deal with USAToday's Travel section, I've been wondering: is "content" a form of journalism, or is it just website filler with little or no journalistic value?

Or is it really that cheap "content" on a news site becomes a great way for a news site to increase its revenue?

And is cheap "content" the new alternative to "expensive" journalism? (even when some of that journalism wasn't that expensive in the first place....)

A quick-and-short Google search on the topic of "is content journalism" didn't reveal much. Although, oddly enough, a misspelling of the word "journalism" did mine a great discussion on Mark Brigg's blog (cached copy only). Briggs asks some very important questions regarding content vs. journalism:

Journalists prefer their craft not be cheapened with a label like “content.” But what if that’s what’s been killing the business?

Do consumers (readers) differentiate between a product called journalism than one simply known as news or content? They pay for this content with their time and attention, which is why plenty of web sites that publish content are making plenty of money with advertising. Sites that focus on journalism, however, are still struggling with this basic economic model. . .

Is it just journalists who feel that the word "content" cheapens what they do? Maybe it's not just journalists. As a news consumer, I'm concerned about the connotation and evolution of the word "content" to describe what I'm reading. Here's why: not too long ago (and even currently) the term "user-generated content" was used to describe pretty much anything that was coming into a site, or was produced for a site (blog, etc) that was not produced by a professional journalist. What defined a professional journalist was debatable: is it whether or not someone has a degree? or writes for pay for a newspaper or other "journal"? or because they belong to a particular union? What defined "user-generated content" however, was pretty clear: stuff publishers got for free, from the general public; usually poorly written stuff that nobody would want to publish in print, but they'd be glad to publish, and not pay for, on the web.

In 2007, the owner of a Santa Rosa TV station said he wanted "harvest" user-generated content to fuel his station's evening news program....

User-generated content has been viewed by owners of media outlets as cheap, poor quality stuff that had as much a hope of getting legitimately published as journalism as a snowball has a chance of making it from one side of Hell to the other.

Removing the words "user-generated" from "content" doesn't make it much better. "Content" is still synonymous with lower quality writing than professionally produced journalism--even if the content is produced by journalists who are no longer working for newspapers or magazines due to staff cuts.

That's another part of the conundrum: if a journalist loses his/her job, is that person no longer a journalist? Does that person, who perhaps now works as a freelancer, become simply a "content producer" who toils for the highest-paying-of-the-low-wage content production houses? Does that person then switch fields to public relations or marketing simply to get a good paying job?

Which makes me wonder: "content mills" might be helping to prop up the failing business models of newspapers, but could the reliance on cheaply produced "content" end up lowering the standards and quality of "journalism". Or is "content" just another disruptor on the road to something new and better?

For further reading: Ken Doctor's post The Newsonomics of Content Arbitrage raises some points about content and curation and that editors may end up becoming "content brokers" (as in someone who buys content from a third party vs. content directly from an individual.) Listed also a a number of "brokerage" initiatives going on right now.

Also check out: "Seed's Goal Is To "Redefine Journalism For The Internet Age," Its Reality Is Untangling Cat Hair an interesting look into AOL's new content-on-the-cheap site.


Colin Mathews said...

Tish, you make good points but I believe there's a false set of alternatives between "journalism" and "content" (which seems to be, "everything that's not journalism").

What we traditionally read in newspapers is an aggregation of a whole lot of content, all with different production, cost, engagement and reader traits. The Pentagon Papers is not the same journalism/content as Dear Abby or the local church bazaar. It's definitely not the local travel section or sewing corner.

It seems to me that Demand is specifically and vocally avoiding "journalism" and instead going after features. They can write a broader, deeper and more specific travel section at a much lower cost than USA Today can; it might even be a lot better. It definitely doesn't compromise or debase capital-J journalism and might even subsidize it.

Tish Grier said...

Hi Colin,

thanks for stopping by...and definitely appreciate your comments.

IMO, we (as in a collective, societal we) should be thinking about how perhaps different understandings of what the two are, or aren't, impact those who are producing the writing. Are they being paid a fair wage? Will they be able to use what they produce for content houses (don't like the term "content mills") to further their careers?

I wonder, too, what the true differentiation is between evergreen content and journalism (as in small j). Is it a subjective judgment on the part of the publisher or is there something else that would make it journalism?

and I agree that USAT may be using Demand content in the Travel section, as well as Demand's ads, to generate revenue to support the big J types of journalism. Evergreen content on the web is truly evergreen--it has the potential to generate income from ads for years and years.