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Wake up! You can’t crowdsource everything

A recent story in AdAge, entitled “The ‘Craigslist Effect’ Spreads to Content as Free Work Fills Supply”, is getting quite a lot of attention.

If you’re pathologically allergic to reading any more of these “OMFG! New Media is SOOOOO going to kick Traditional Media’s ASS because now we can totally CROWDSOURCE everything from awesome writers who do it for the LOVE of it” stories, stop reading now and head over to for something worthwhile.

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If you hate these kind of stories so much that you want to wallow in some New Media Hating, read on. In fact, read on anyway; writing this took me a fair amount of time.

So. The AdAge story is pretty stupid and even more credulous. Basically, it says that ( a crowdsourced sports news site), and Huffington Post (a crowdsourced politics and current events site) are now “high value” sites because of their wonderful-but-unpaid-for content, and are a serious threat to the status quo of publishing and paid journalists.

The money quote from the piece is:
“It … underscores an emerging but difficult truth for professional writers. Free content can just as easily draw a higher-profile readership as expensive content, as well as high-end advertisers.”

It is of course, complete bollocks. Or at least that’s my opinion, and it’s not only because I (sometimes) make money by writing. Old Media is not dead. More accurately, Professional Media is not dead.

Old Media is just a flavour of Professional Media – news gathering and analysis from organisations that pay journalists and editors to deliver quality content, whether on paper or pixels. Publishers are starting to staunch the sprays of arterial blood from their balance sheets, and some are even returning to profitability (see Economist article here) – although admittedly, the improvement is usually through massive cuts in newsroom staff.

But getting back to the AdAge piece. The comments are most illuminating. Go read them if you didn’t already. Mostly they’re saying “what a load of rubbish”, but my favourite was this one, commenting on the story’s central character, a failed lawyer who’s written 500+ posts for for free:

“After going to and reading a few of Mr. Brining’s posts, it’s fair to say he’s being accurately compensated for what he’s giving them.”

What the crowdsourcing-of-content people resolutely fail to get is that good writing takes effort. It takes talent. It takes times. It takes information sources.

Breaking news needs journos out on the road digging up stories. Analysis needs insight, experience and mutiple sources of contrasting viewpoints.

Take South Africa’s The Daily Maverick as an example. The small editorial team there does not often break news with specific investigative work or on-the-spot eyewitness reporting, which requires taking time to get into an actual car and drive a significant distance to an actual place to witness and then analyse first-hand the nature of actual events.

But what they do do well is to take broken news, and break it down, with added insight and commentary.

Being hardened journos, they do it in a way that is unlike most of the so-called “new media” like HuffPost, which adds very little apart from a great deal of expertise in gaming the search engines. SEO skills ≠ journalism (as Rolling Stone discovered to its chagrin by breaking the massive McChrystal story then losing control of it to other, ’Net-savvier online media).

As one of the commentators on AdAge says:
“Most HuffPo traffic comes from either soft-porny SEO bait, or from homepage stories they scrape from the NYT and other major news sources, slapping a web-friendly headline on top and linking to an interstitial that quickly draws hundreds of comments – worthy of discussion, since HuffPo is basically stealing content from major news sources, but not really dependent upon those poor unpaid bloggers.”

I religiously read the Daily Maverick, because its journalists “add value” (in businesspeak) to the stories, even the pure analysis ones. They have insight, massive brains full of background context, viewpoints from multiple sources, fact-checking while bringing a healthy dollop of actual good writing (you know: wit, wordplay, juxtaposition, irony, brassiness). They’re paid.

Find me someone with talent and time to spend doing the hard work of published writing for absolutely no compensation, and I’ll show you either a dangerous ideologue or an unbalanced crank.

So enjoy the party, HuffPost and the other scraper ilk, because right now you’re pulling content from news sources that spend time and money to gather and present the news. Enjoy the cash you’re making off advertisers chasing eyeballs of thousands of people who don’t see you for what you are – parasites riding on the back of true news organisations.

But eventually, the backward and luddite and leathery world of publishing will understand the Internet and its myriad information channels better, and beat you at your technocratic game of SEO-baiting, pseudo-aggregation and bite-sizing, and the balance of power will swing back to those that do the real, hard, risky work of actual journalism.

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