It’s not all about content and work

In his column complaining about Huffington Post and the new economics of content competition, I think David Carr makes two understandable but fundamentally fallacious assumptions about news and media: that the value in journalism is in content and that making content must be work. Because that’s the way it used to be.

In their op-ed the next day in The New York Times complaining about copyright losing its hardness, Scott Turow, Paul Aiken, and James Shapiro extend the error to entertainment, assuming that content is entertainment and content is what content makers make.

Not necessarily.

Pull back to view the true value of these things: information, knowledge, enlightenment, amusement, experience, engagement. Content can be and has been a vessel to deliver their worth. But it is not the only one. That is the lesson of the internet — indeed, of Huffington Post itself. I have argued that The New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, the BBC, and other media should have but never would have started the Huffington Post because they, like the gentlemen above, still see content as value in itself and further believe that content is their own franchise (granted by their control of the means of production and distribution). So the benefits of content cannot come from others — bloggers, commenters, citizens, amateurs — as new wine in new casks. They instead want to put their old wine in the new skins (witness The Daily).

That is why old media people are missing new opportunities. It’s not about the content (stupid). It’s about the value.

We can be informed now by many means: by our neighbors telling us what they know, enabled to do so by the net, at a marginal cost of zero, doing so not because it is work (and work must be paid) but because this is what neighbors do for each other. We can be entertained by many means: by clever people making songs and shows and telling stories because they love doing so and because they are compensated in attention rather than royalties (and that attention may well lead to money when they can finally detour around the gauntlet of old media’s closed ways to find audiences on their own).

Why do people write on Huffington Post? Because they can. Because they give a shit. Because they like the attention and conversation. Because they couldn’t before. Why do they sing their songs on YouTube? Same reasons.

Is there still a role for the journalist, the professional, the artist in this? Perhaps. I think so. That’s why I am teaching journalism school. But I’m not necessarily teaching them to make content. That is now only one of many, many ways to meet the goals of adding value to information, time, and society. Some of my entrepreneurial journalism students are, for example, creating businesses that will use data to impart information; they will add value by gathering and analyzing it and making it possible for you to find the intersecting points that matter to you. Other of my students are creating platforms for you to get more value out of your own data. Others are creating platforms for people to connect around interests and make and find their own value. Others are finding new ways to sustain reporting and the making of content. They are all valid if they bring value.

If you concentrate on the value, not the form — content — then the possibilities explode.

Turow et al shut down the idea that opening up information can yield greater value that protecting it. Sharers are…

… abetted by a handful of law professors and other experts who have made careers of fashioning counterintuitive arguments holding that copyright impedes creativity and progress. Their theory is that if we severely weaken copyright protections, innovation will truly flourish. It’s a seductive thought, but it ignores centuries of scientific and technological progress based on the principle that a creative person should have some assurance of being rewarded for his innovative work.

No, I’d say rather that there are more ways to open up value. If Wikipedia were copyrighted by a publisher, it never would have become Wikipedia because it would be owned, not shared. We now have a new means to collect value rather than merely to own content.

I remember at the DLD conference a few years ago when Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales defended himself from a ninja-knife-wielding Jason Calacanis over paying people to contribute to online resources. Calacanis, like Carr, called it work. Wales instead likened it to a pickup game of basketball. Viewed from a distance, basketball certainly looks like work; they sweat enough. So why don’t we demand that they be paid? Why aren’t we lamenting the loss of a marketplace for their value? Because that’s not where the value is. It’s in the fun.

Granted, what’s done with that fun — how it is exploited — is relevant. If I start charging admission to watch you play basketball — it is great content, after all — or if I put sponsors’ banners on the court — you did draw an audience — you might want a cut. If you can get it — if you can show that there aren’t a million competitors for court time in an open marketplace — great! But what if the gate or the ads merely support my ability to provide free court time to you or free uniforms to your town-team kids? The economics are not necessarily sweat = work = product = pay. Neither is it any longer true that owning the expensive means of production and distribution assures a return on that investment. There are other expressions of value.

The truth is that Huffington Post recognizes the value of professionalism. I’ve lately recalled Arianna Huffington talking with Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger in London a few years ago when he — with native irony, in front of his reporters — asked why the hell she was hiring reporters, who are a pain in the ass to manage and expensive to boot. Because their stories get more traffic, she said. They add value. That’s why she has editors and curators. They add value. That’s why she has technologists who make the Huffington Post such a social experience. They enable value.

That’s what I’m teaching my entrepreneurial students: add value. And be efficient: take advantage of the free exchange that is already happening — the free and open platforms and the information that now easily passes on them. Then put your precious resources where you most add value. Do that before you even think of extracting value. There are the new economics of what we used to think of as content.

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  • Stan Hogan

    Jeff, I wanted to counter your thinking with some predictable rant about your refusal to recognize the invaluable, world-changing difference journalists have made – and continue to make – with their professional skills. I could have gone on and on about the difference in what they do and what is being done by your posse.

    I wanted to write about how the mindless clutter of thought, opinion masked as news and the scavenging of value from legitimate “legacy” companies has gone from cottage industry to corporate strategy.

    I thought I could score points by pointing out the similarities of today’s online market to the dot-com boom of the ’90s, where money is thrown at perceived ideas with no tangible meaning or profit potential. Think “link economy.”

    I thought about calling you out personally for your well-cultivated rudeness and dismissive manner, as though channeling the millions of trolls you might refer to as content providers.

    I was even going to suggest your students are wasting their dollars and futures as pawns in your educational exercises in self-aggrandization.

    Then, it occurred to me that you have proven your own point. It isn’t about your content. Your content is like a bee buzzing around the head looking for a place to land. It’s about the value of your content.

    You have made your content, as shallow as it is, valuable. It has earned you book deals, TV appearances as the go-to guy for a 20-second flame, and a college gig that pays the bills.

    So, congratulations.

    • Whatever. ;-)

      Yes, there is value to be extracted. I got that value from working in public and sharing ideas — and posting them (for free! gasp!) on Huffington Post and Business Insider. There are more paths now and that’s one of many.

      Just one thing though Stan: for God’s sake, I don’t refuse to recognize the value journalists make. That’s downright slander. I’m trying to find new ways to have them concentrate on their highest value: reporting, curating, teaching, not repeating commodity news 12 hours old we already know!

      • SROZ

        Slander or libel?

        In Gatley on Libel and Slander:

        “Libel is committed when defamatory matter is published in permanent form or in a form which is deemed to be permanent. Defamation published by spoken word or in some other transitory form is slander.”

      • Stan Hogan

        I guess I was confused by this:

        “Is there still a role for the journalist, the professional, the artist in this? Perhaps. I think so.”

        Seems pretty dismissive of what journalists are bringing to the table. Perhaps. I think so.

        • Jeesh. Can you take no subtlety. Obviously, I think there’s a role as I am TEACHING IN JOURNALISM SCHOOL. Oof.

      • Noah Nelson


        The very next sentence is:
        “That’s why I am teaching journalism school. ”

        Seems to me that paragraph has a lot going on, and the emphasis you take away may have more to do with your perceptions than not.

        I took away the idea that the role of the professional journalist is changing as the old models of mass media are replaced by new models of distributed dialog.

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  • Which is why demand driven media will thrive. Not SEO-driven, like what we’ve seen, but sources (supply) responding to real communities of demand and either providing value to fulfill that demand, or failing to do so. Disclosure: I was a student of Jeff’s last semester. : ) Just strip everything down to its most efficient formula and you’ll know where we are headed.

  • Jeff, have you read Nate Silver’s piece on this subject? His take is not nearly as altruistic as yours, but comes to a similar conclusion. Those of us who have made blogging our business should intuitively understand his argument (the current “killer app” in the “pro blogging” world being “guest posting”).

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  • J.J. Jalopy

    It’s a shame that for all the social-media-guru blather about value and unique content, so few actually lead by example. Nick Carr may be a curmudgeon, but at least homeboy’s got a distinctive voice. Your stiff, tweedy prattle’s like the wracking echo of an apnea convention.

    • Well, that’s a contribution of substance and value. Thank you so very, very much.

      • J.J. Jalopy

        Hey, Jimmy. Sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to you, but I’ve been busy marketing your moribund prose as a suppository.

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  • Add value, be efficient. Excellent and clear. This is what is needed rather than the whining about work and the “profession” which always was a bit of a scam. Thank you.

  • When Jeff Jarvis says

    fundamentally fallacious assumptions about news and media: that the value in journalism is in content and that making content must be work.

    People may do short form work, as a Huffington blog, because they can knock it off in a couple of hours.

    One may create a long form work out of love or commitment, but that is still hard work to research, report, write and edit a major magazine article, a book, photo essay, a documentary. Quite often, if it is single freelancer or a small documentary team, it not only takes years of work but a lot of money before there is a reward, if any.

    If there is no money even for the basic research, and to pay the rent, during that time, no matter how passionate one is about the project, it is increasingly difficult to complete (especially these days) Yet is most often that these long term projects, if completed, that produce the most value for our neighbors and for society as a whole.

    Most journalists I know are frustrated by their employers who insist they repeat that news that is 12 hours old or more (and first broke on Twitter so everyone already knows it anyway). But you cannot add value if you aren’t given the resources to invest time and money. You may be able to blog but if you have to go out and drive a cab or wait on tables, then it is more difficult to do that long term project.

    Imparting information is fine, creating a platform is fine, but do these create value beyond a 24 hour news cycle?

    It may not be fair, but I do notice that most people who advocate this blogging working for love or commitment are those who have steady, well paying jobs that also give them the time to indulge in that kind of work, lawyers, professors and politicians.

    Also I take issue with the basketball analogy. Basketball and soccer are cheap, need little equipment or play space. Hockey and football are team sports that need equipment and money. So are many of the Olympic sports, summer and winter. People still play pick up games of hockey, go out to the football field, ski and ski jump for the fun of it. But they have to find a way to pay for that fun.

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  • Information x relevance = value. If somebody cares about content it’s valuable to them, and vice versa. That’s always been the case; however, ‘old media’ (hate that phrase – it smells of geek envy) have made themselves less relevant to more people by playing the mass-audience game. There’s much to like about traditional, well-crafted work, though. and Instapaper have proven that recently. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater…

    • I like that formula. Relevance is, indeed, the key value added by Google, et al.

    • Andy Freeman

      That formula doesn’t tell the whole story for a business. Costs matter as does substitution/competition/other sources.

      WRT the latter, the fact that someone cares about specific content doesn’t imply that they care about getting that content from you. If someone else can produce and deliver that content to me for less ….

  • @Calli

    Maybe the role of jounalists is evolving. Breaking news spreads on Twitter, how many newsrooms have Twitterfall ( Or whatever aggregator app for Twitter) on the walls?

    The next step is for the journalists to research and analyse and report in more depth on whatever event was making news. Perhaps it is not the function to ‘break’ news but to add value to the story by adding background and detail.

    Add to that the credibilty of the broadsheets earned through history.

    Channels of communication evolving and finding their niche roles.


  • What about “quality content”?

    Adding value is what any good professional does.

    Including, yes, good journalists.

    And not only them,

    I just returned from Cuba were “paladares” are run by private citizens versus the state restaurants.

    Nobody will say that only professional chefs know how to cook well (quality cooking) because there are plenty of us able to cook even better than many of them.

    So let’s not waste our time pontificating about the cooks but about “quality food” or “adding value” to raw food.

  • Nanker Phelge

    There’s LOTS of money to be made in open systems. Just look at how Jimmy Wales uses Wikipedia to drive his for-profit Wikia business – or how the head of the Knight Foundation’s got that sweet new gig on the AOL board of directors.

    Nice work if you can get it!

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  • Nanker Phelge

    >>>It’s fully transparent. He could just as easily be on the board of a newspaper company competing with local blogs, eh?

    Sure. But it gives him a direct financial interest in the success of low-cost, high-traffic models for news. Do the audiences he speaks to know that? If he comes to CUNY and advises your students to work for free, do they know he has a financial interest in them doing so?

  • P. W. Panza

    Jeff: I think the reason at least some people question the subtlety of your irate blasts against fusty, traditional journalism is that they seem to be undergirded by a highly personal sense of grievance: Forgive any presumptuousness here. I may be off base. But your apparent derision of quality content (or am I getting it wrong here?) and your bottomless contempt for the old school “media gate keepers” often comes off as intense resentment at . . . what? Being excluded from so-called “serious journalism” circles? The irony, of course, is that such defensiveness is absurd. You are one of the New Media “gatekeepers”! Arguing otherwise–hewing to a pious view that new information technology is ultimately leveling (access to Web portals makes all content equal)–strikes me as being either highly naive or pretty disingenuous about human nature; we humans always sort ourselves into tribes, into clubs. You’re just headlining the latest one.

    • I’m not deriding serious journalism. I’m trying to slap people into sense from thinking that they are entitled to continued support for it. They have to find sustainable business models. Wishing on a star that things won’t change is dangerous. I have watched the industry kill itself with its resistance to change and innovation. That’s where my derision is aimed, not at the content.

      • P.W. Panza

        Thanks for responding, Jeff. And do keep slapping away. In fact, use the defribillators. The biz has to innovate or die. I’m with you there . . . But consider this quibble: The very fact that some readers like myself may agree wholly with your premise, yet still question your tone (or confuse your targets, as you insist), may hint that the bitter polemics across the new/old media front lines have gotten to be counterproductive. And it goes both ways. I for one am baffled at the NYT’s stubborn, institutional arrogance about the value, say, of citizen journalism. (They’re paying dearly for that hubris.) But I’m equally tired of the reductionist, revival-tent sanctimony adopted by many new media apostles–that knee-jerk dismissal of professional reporters who do of course have a future, provided they’ve got talent and can adapt. (Shirky’s famous knock against Tolstoy–Tolstoy!–as passe, even trivial ‘content’ in the brave new online world, for example, makes me just sigh. I wonder what angry planet *he’s* living on.) Maybe all the hyperbole is needed, as you say, to jolt people awake. Count me as jolted. I’m ready for newer, more nuanced, less Manichean, and more sincere debates. Many thanks.

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  • Nanker Phelge

    Jeff, did you know that Huffington has had a few problems with plagiarism? She had to settle one with a settlement, one seemed like a clear problem, and another was on the line. Does that bother you?

  • The dirty little secret of our society, and something that the average person has been sheltered from, is that if you want to earn a living from whatever efforts you put in to something, then you have to convince someone to pay you for it willingly. There’s no such thing as entitlement.

    The problem publishers are having today stems from the fact that the average citizen doesn’t find enough value in what they do to willingly pay for it if given the choice.

    We’re returning to an economic system where the average person will once again be responsible for monetizing his or her efforts. Let’s face it, it’s a lot easier to simply get a job, collect a salary and not worry about creating value we can exploit out of our day-to-day efforts. Unfortunately for many, that structure is changing.

    Journalists are beginning to learn that the unholy alliance they’ve enjoyed with publishers over the decades, while providing a living for them, has also undermined the value of the work they do to the general public, and almost irreparably damaged the worth of that work in financial terms. Now that the publishers have lost control of distribution and production, and with it are losing their ability to continue to support the journalists, they are finding a far less than enthusiastic audience out there unwilling to pay them on an actual living scale. Choices are important, integrity even more so.

    Whether we want to admit it or not, the old ways are dead. A lot of the arguments being made about how certain industries or professions can survive, or how to transition certain industries from one platform to another, or how to monetize certain activities are all moot. We’re at the very earliest beginnings of the shift coming, and for those stuck in trying to cling to the past, it’s going to get a whole lot worse.

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