Content vs. service in media & education

Content is that which fills something. Service is that which accomplishes something.

Content starts with the desires of creators to make things. Service start with the needs of clients to achieve outcomes.

We think of media and news and content businesses. Education, too, runs as a content enterprise.

But shouldn’t both be seen as services?

“Now we can provide students with a course that mirrors our classroom experience,” the provost of Washington University, Edward S. Macias, said last week as 10 universities announced yet another consortium to provide online education. What struck me when I read that was how much it sounded like the early days of newspaper editors facing the web. They tried to replicate what they used to do, treating the net as merely a new means of distribution for their content.

Shovelware. Media did it. Education does it. Since those are the two fields I’m in, I’m finding parallels and lessons in both.

Education at least has some aptitude for thinking in outcomes, as that’s how we’re supposed to measure the success of programs: What should students learn and did they learn it? Still, to be honest, some of this process of determining outcomes is reverse-engineered, starting with the course and its content and backing into the results. (And one unfortunate side-effect of outcomes-thinking, I should add, is the teaching-to-the-test that now corrupts primary and high schools.)

Journalists are worse. I find a disease among students that continues into careers, starting a pitch for a story (or in my program, a business) with the phrase, “I want to…” Playing the curmudgeonly prof, I tell them no one, save perhaps their mothers, gives a damn what they want to do. The question they should be asking and answering is what the public needs them to do.


If journalists started with outcomes, they’d measure their success not by unique users or page views or other such “audience” metrics adapted from mass media. They’d measure their success by how informed the public becomes: Did the public find out what it wants or needs to know because of what we’ve done? Is the electorate better informed? (How’re we doin’ with that?) Do New Jerseyans know where to find gas in a crisis? Today when we do research about news “consumers,” we ask them what they think of our products. Shouldn’t we ask them instead what they didn’t know and now know? If we want to reverse-engineer journalism, we need to start with a standard for an informed public and then examine how best to achieve that goal. A more informed public will not always come as the result of articles — content. It will also come via platforms where the public shares what they know without mediators (i.e., media) as well as data and analysis of data, with journalists trying to add value where they’re most needed.

If education were truly constructed around outcomes, it would start with researching the skills and knowledge students need to meet their goals — whether that is a job or an expertise — and then determine the best ways to accomplish that. And that won’t always come from delivering content in the form of the lecture, time-honored though that may be from the days of teachers reading scarce, scribal texts. I’m beginning to rethink journalism education that way: starting with outcomes, curating curricular materials, making all that open, then adding value for some students in the forms of tutoring, certification, and providing context for how tools and skills are used: service.

When we think of ourselves as services, then we strive not to own products but instead to add value to a process. When we provide service, we become more accountable for the outcomes our clients achieve. (When a teacher gives every student in a class bad grades, it’s the teacher who’s failing. When a community is ignorant, it’s the journalists who are failing.) How much better it would be to architect these industries — and they are industries — in reverse, giving clients the ability to set goals and then providing marketplaces of competing means by which they can meet those goals.

I went to an unfortunately off-the-record conference recently at which I asked a long-time leader in education and the founder of an online education startup about the fate of degrees. The long-timer said that from the moment IBM starts hiring engineers when they can show certificates of completion for some set of online courses, the degree will fade.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think that is the way the new online startups are built, so far. They deliver courses: content. That’s understandable. It’s phase I of a process of transition: we take what we know and try it out in the new setting, as media have done. These education startups are also searching, as media have done (and still are), for a business model. Coursera is free but promotes its top-tier universities (and might sell a bunch of text books for profs). Udacity wants to make rock-star profs, I think. 2U is charging $4,000 a course for credit (!) in small classes; it’s the anti-MOOC. The University of the People has a mission to educate worldwide masses for free.

Just as I hope that education learns from the disruption of the news business, Clay Shirky hopes it learns from the disruption of music. For much of his post, Clay sees online education the way various of these enterprises do and the way I did when in What Would Google Do? I imagined a distributed Oxford/Cambridge system of international and digital lectures and in-person and local tutors.

But then, as is Clay’s habit, he noted what I think is a key question from these startups: “Meanwhile, they try to answer some new questions, questions that the traditional academy — me and my people — often don’t even recognize as legitimate, like ‘How do we spin up 10,000 competent programmers a year, all over the world, at a cost too cheap to meter?'” That was the same question put forward in what I still think of as a seminal meeting held by Union Square Ventures in 2009 called Hacking Education: They set the goal at making the marginal cost of education zero. That is what these MOOCs are trying to do. If they succeed, then education suddenly scales (and we stop bankrupting our children’s future).

Back again to the media parallel: The marginal cost of gathering and sharing information is already approaching zero. That’s what scares the media industry, built as it is on selling a scarcity called content. At that same off-the-record business conference last week, I heard one media executive say that his industry’s goal is soley to “protect the value of content.” That’s what the copyright wars are over. That is what is beginning to scare universities.

But what’s really scaring them is the the shifting value of content versus service. Google is a service. It delivers and extracts value through knowledge of its users. It doesn’t want to own content, only learn from it. Its highest aspiration is to intuit our intent and deliver what we want before we’ve even said it. Service. Media are factories. They gain value from selling content to customers they don’t know. Products. There’s the real conflict.

I ask us — in journalism and in education (and in journalism education) — to aspire to being services. That requires us to start by thinking of the ends.

  • Thomas Mauch

    I fully support the idea, as an educator and a writer. Just one thought: shouldn’t we replace “to provide a service” with “enable to learn”? Because that’s what Google does, too.

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  • Mike Salisbury

    I love this train of thought. Start with the goal and work backwards. It would be even more useful if the businesses would publish their goals and metrics to measure their performance against them so that customers could choose those providers whose goals they wish to take advantage of and who are doing well at them. At the least I would think this would raise the debate between competitors to one of goals and metrics rather than of products and means.

    Unfortunately, I don’t know how to get there from here. I would expect too many companies to have real goals that they don’t wish to share with their customers, and getting agreement upon the metrics sounds like a tricky prospect at best. But maybe it’s a start.

  • lws2012

    An interesting article, but one that confuses outcomes and outputs. Universities and education are more than imparting information. They are there to teach people to think. Critical thinking skills are in short supply, but information is in abundance.

    “They’d measure their success by how informed the public becomes: Did the public find out what it wants or needs to know because of what we’ve done? Is the electorate better informed? (How’re we doin’ with that?) Do New Jerseyans know where to find gas in a crisis?”

    You miss the point that the public may not want to be informed. Obtaining useful information, where is the gas station, is not the same thing as “being informed”. Most people search out that which confirms their opinions and their knowledge. Few use information to disconfirm what they know on a regular basis.

    if Universities or education are forced to see themselves as informing students, rather than teaching them to think, then we might was well supply with them access to Google. Even then, they would need to learn how to do effective searches on Google because natural language searches are sub-optimal because the semantic web does not yet exist.
    I like Clay Shirky’s work, but he is wrong about education becoming disrupted like music. Education was disrupted once the printing press began and people could learn for themselves and read what they wanted to read rather than what was prescribed. Music delivery is simply breaking open a distribution network. Education’s network is already distributed, it is called a library. :)

    Good points throughout and a lot to think about. Thanks for a stimulating, thoughtful, and thought provoking post.

  • Jesse

    I’d agree somewhat with lawrence serewicz but go one further: there’s a tendency to think of stuff in terms of it’s value to a market, but markets only give a very narrow kind of information.

    That’s why education (ideally) isn’t always structured around practical, certificate-type degrees. That may be what IBM needs, but it isn’t what a citizenry needs to have a functioning democracy.

    I also chafe when I am told that pageviews are a measure of whether I was effective. I mean, that’s great and I want people to read my stuff. But if we are going to measure value according to what sells — the service/ industry/ market model — then why have any education at all? We can all watch Keeping up with the Kardashians. That sells.

    Information is out there, technology is, but there are things that machines (so far) don’t do well. TO have an informed citizenry you need people, humans, to contextualize information, to tell stories. It’s what humans do all the time. Think of the difference between being presented with the four equations of Maxwell and being taught how to use them. Yeah, some kids are smart enough to just “get it” but even with a good google search you won’t know how to use them well or what they mean.

    That’s why we do all that low-tech, unsexy stuff like practice things, over and over again. It’s no unlike learning a physical skill, like karate or tennis. A google search isn’t all that helpful there either.

    The model you are talking about is ok for specific skills. If I want a programmer to do basic things, yes it works. But it doesn’t do well for someone who can think and engage. Why not? Because the outcome you want isn’t fixed. That is, you never know what bits of knowledge end up being useful. That’s why we have a liberal education — the idea is that you learn how to learn things, even when you are in situations where none of the information you have is necessarily useful. Knowing how to google search doesn’t tell you that at all, an even if Google could handle natural language questions it still would not.

    You can teach someone to be a programmer or engineer, but the guy who took pure mathematics or a good science class or even philosophy is going to be much better equipped to handle stuff he’s never seen before.

  • Great post, it’s hard to find anything here I disagree with. Interesting to note that service is not an alien word to journalism, I’m thinking of the BBC’s public service remit and PBS itself.

    My own take on journalism’s failings, in its execution and the teaching of it, is pretty similar to this line of thinking. Journalism’s base purpose is to be a public information service, one that gives people the information they need to understand how their lives are governed, to influence the process of government and even to change that process radically if it’s not working and that’s what people think is needed.

    We journalists like to talk of ourselves as speaking truth to power, which in any case happens only very rarely in the great flood of media stories published every day. Far more important is that we speak truth about power. In today’s chronically unrepresentative governance systems that would mean carrying a constant critique of the systems themselves as story context rather than slavishly repeating the speeches and spin from competing politicians without relentlessly comparing what they say with the realities of what they do.

    We should be providing a service to our publics, in the public interest, bringing people the means to build up true political insight rather than just passing on the propaganda of people who want their votes every now and again. Now that would be a service.

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  • Arno Laeven

    Sorry, but this is just semantics. The reason your journalism students say “I want…” is because they have never spent a day at a newsdesk or editorial team where everyday decisions are made about how to service readers with great journalism. The role of an Editor-in-Chief is to make sure journalists don’t ride their hobby horses too fanatically (although hobby horses make great content sometimes).

    Content is a mean to make a great newspaper or magazine which services readers in their need for information or entertainment. I think many many journalists, editors, editors-in-chief and publishers do understand this better than the execs of the media companies they work for and which you meet at conferences.

  • Andy Freeman

    > You can teach someone to be a programmer or engineer, but the guy who took pure mathematics or a good science class or even philosophy is going to be much better equipped to handle stuff he’s never seen before.
    (1) What kind of classes do you think that engineers and programmers take?
    (2) Engineers and programmers spend almost all of their time handling stuff they’ve never seen before.

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  • Cephas Atheos

    I enjoyed your point of view, but probably only because I agree with you!

    My concern is with people knowing the difference between information and knowledge. A huge proportion of the US population thinks FOX News is the only news. Many other people who should know better (especially respected TV journalists) genuinely think that googling will give you the correct answer to just about anything – the assumption being (I assume !!) that people will see a list of results from all aspects of the question. But as another commenter pointed out, we’re much more likely to click on the links that appeal to our biases.

    Still, as a non-journalist frustrated with the presentation of news as entertainment, and trying to find a reputable online university course, I agree that most traditional businesses affected by the Internet are treating it as the old saying goes : when their only tool is a hammer, all their problems look like nails. Or something like that.

    Thanks for thinking a bit deeper than the reflection on the surface. I’m subscribing, at least until you post something I disagree with! :) j/k….

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  • Becky

    Yes, and the best of stories make no difference, if the people haven’t heard it….I suppose it used to be a journalist’s job to write the story and management to move it out – today, journalists own both sides of that equation, in most markets.

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