Does quality mean one thing for online and another for print?

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Ben Elowitz has a fascinating column over at PaidContent in which he argues that, thanks to the interwebs, there is now a new definition of what it means to provide quality information. Let’s call it Quality 2.0. He says Quality 1.0 is based around four things that are now out of date: Credentials, Correctness, Objectivity, Craftsmanship. 

What Mr. Elowitz calls credentials is what I think of as brand – the trust the audience has in content because of the name of the company publishing it. He says, with some accuracy, that “decisions of what content is trustworthy are made by referral endorsements from our friends and colleagues on the social networks, and by the algorithms of search that help weigh authority vs. relevance.” There’s no doubt we live in a world where we never know where the next great/important story may come from. And Mr. Elowitz is spot on when he says we all rely on friends, search engines, et al., because no one can hope to track it all. We’ve democratized the editor’s old job of sorting through the all the news for the best, most relevant stories. This system has its drawbacks but I still prefer it to the old way.

By correctness I think Mr. Elowitz means accuracy. He says the Quality 1.0 definition means being “unforgivingly intolerant of errors,” “rigorous fact-checking,” “multiple source corroboration; and correct spelling of proper nouns.” (By “correct spelling of proper nouns” I can only assume he means capitalization. I’m pretty sure calling it Wasington, C.D., is a mistake no matter where it takes place.)

Mr. Elowitz makes some rather bizarre assumptions about why the accuracy fetish exists. He says it “is based on the idea that it’s the editor’s duty to protect the reader.” Actually, it is based on the idea that it is important to get the story right. Without all that pesky accuracy stuff you may not know whether we’ve invaded Iraq or Iran. Accuracy also means the difference between naming Ben Q. Elowitz a convicted criminal when it was actually Ben R. Elowitz. Mr. Elowitz says this kind of trivial thing isn’t really important to today’s readers: “Publishing rumors and single-sourced stories (disclosed for what they are) is fair game for winning audiences.” I suspect this makes quite a bit of difference to B.Q. Elowitz, but why should I be worrying about him when there are audiences to build? Our Mr. Elowitz also seems to assume that putting out false information has no impact in the real world. The risk in publishing rumors – even when identified as such -- is that of shouting fire in a crowded theater. Thankfully, the crowd-sourcing from twitter, blogs and other news feeds makes it very hard for bogus rumors to last particularly long. However, until those rumors have been disproven, they can have a real impact as people make real decisions based on them.

Among Mr. Elowitz’s many sweeping generalizations is that in the dead-tree era we never covered a story in progress – i.e., one where all the facts weren’t already known. “Today, publishers can update stories multiple times an hour with no hard costs. The world changes fast now—and readers have come to accept that the facts will too.” It’s true that Newspapers have always been constrained in how many times they can update a story. Despite this papers update stories with new facts as soon they can. Further, TV and radio have always updated major stories as they were happening. Just think about the coverage of 9/11 or Katrina or any other major story. (While I’ve been writing this I’ve received multiple updates on the Times Sq. bombing story from old school CNN.) People have always known that facts change. What hasn’t changed is their expectation that you are giving them the best facts you have at the time.

Mr. Elowitz next faults the idea of Objectivity, as in -- “fairness and impartiality.” His argument here contains a sentence so rife with error I can only assume he is putting his definition of Quality 2.0 into action. “The assumption is that including multiple sides of a story is necessary to make it worthy of publishing – as though that objectivity can create greatness.” I give full credit to Mr. E for originality here. He doesn’t go anywhere near the usual argument against objectivity (Because we are all biased creatures it is impossible – and perhaps even fraudulent – to claim there’s any such thing). Instead he equates objectivity with multiple sources. Isn’t the ability to get multiple views on a topic one of the great things about the internet? Reporters use multiple sources in the hope that this will give them – and hence the audience – a better picture of what actually happened. Objectivity, by his definition, isn’t supposed to “create greatness” (whatever that means), it is supposed to create something akin to accuracy. Sorry, I meant to say correctness. Or maybe truthiness.

Finally, thank God, Mr. Elowitz winds up his screed by attacking “Craftsmanship.” He does not mean craftsmanship as the rest of us would define it: “Making something with great skill or expertise.” (“When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.” -- H. Dumpty.) For him craftsmanship means length, as in, “Lengthy feature formats put the focus on the content, not the audience.” I hate to disturb Mr. Elowitz’s sweeping, but the importance of length really depends on the medium. I’ve written news stories for radio and there you have so little time that it is akin to writing haiku. I’ve also written for tabloid newspapers and, believe me (a single source), craftsmanship there means the ability to get the most important part of the story into something roughly half the length of what you’ve already read.

I can’t find it on Google but someone somewhere once wrote that every American male thinks there are two things he can do even though he has no experience at them: Manage a baseball team and edit a newspaper. I dare Mr. Elowitz to cover an event and then report on it. It’s not as easy as it looks from the outside. Barring that I can only hope he tries his hand at managing the Yankees.

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