This week in media musings: The Demand Media invasion, and ‘objectivity’ trumps transparency

I started this post thinking it had been a slow week, but by the time I was done, I had the longest week in review yet. Enjoy it over a nice, tall glass of egg nog. (Want to know what I’m doing? It’s here.)

— The discussion about Demand Media has been simmering since NYU’s Jay Rosen made it (or, more specifically, calling attention to how “demonic” it is) his cause du jour following the publication of this Wired profile of the online content factory. Early this week it reached a boil after both TechCrunch and ReadWriteWeb sounded the alarm about the coming onslaught of cheap, superficial “content farms” or “fast food content” like Demand Media. Here are the highlights, the miscellaneous commentary and my take.

The highlights: Pioneering tech thinker Doc Searls tells TechCrunch to stop hyperventilating, arguing that “Nothing with real real value is dead, so long as it can be found on the Web and there are links to it.” Rosen interviews Demand’s founder and CEO, Richard Rosenblatt, and while Rosenblatt makes things sounds a lot less scary than Rosen does, his statements are so filled with corporate platitudes and empty CEO-speak that they’re tough to take at face value. Two people with experience working for Demand Media weigh in: Andria Krewson says the work is low-paying but well done, and in a thoughtful post, John Zhu says companies like Demand Media might be the inevitable outgrowth of all media’s marginalization of quality.

The other commentary: And common (and very salient) point among much of the commentary was best put by Fred Wilson, who wrote that our friends and other trusted sources will play a big role in helping us separate the good stuff from the crap. Cody Brown and others noted that it’s tougher to “game” social networks like Twitter than search algorithms. In a related point, a few others noted that Google seems to be losing its battle against SEO-gaming spammers. Meanwhile, Jeff Jarvis says news orgs might have something to learn from Demand.

My (very quick) take: I’m with Doc Searls on this one. The best way to keep crappy content from choking out good content? Keep creating and linking to good content. Google’s search dominance depends (at least in part) on its ability to lead users to the good stuff; makes sense to just produce quality stuff, link to it and pass it around, and let Google’s engineers do their jobs. As Scott Rosenberg points out, it’s not like people actually want to read empty, cynically produced search-bot fodder, anyway.

— We’ve talked about this “transparency is the new objectivity” idea a bit here before, and this week Paul Bradshaw at Poynter provided us with us an intriguing example of the clash between the old and new philosophies in this area. After an email interview with a reporter for a story, Bradshaw asked for permission to publish the exchange on his blog after the story ran. The reporter said no and eventually allowed Bradshaw to post only his side of the email conversation, not hers.

Bradshaw uses the case to ask the question, “Who owns the interview?” Steve Buttry says the reporter loses control over the interview as soon she hits the “send” guys and warns journalists not to put anything into writing that they’re not willing to see published. I largely agree with Buttry on this, though I don’t go as far as he does: The journalist was within her rights to ask Bradshaw not to publish her side of the conversation (and he obviously complied). That doesn’t mean it wasn’t an arrogant, controlling thing to do, though.

What I find most interesting about the case is the complete subjugation of transparency in the name of objectivity. In this case, the reporter is willing to go so far to avoid transparency that not only does she choose not to reveal to her readers anything about her news-gathering itself (nothing wrong with not doing that, don’t get me wrong), but she actually refuses to allow a source — who has no obligation to her in this manner at all — to disclose anything about her, either.

And why does she do this? Bradshaw gives us a pretty strong hint when he notes in passing that in her email “she gives her position on the issue.” Aha! This wasn’t about suppressing transparency for the sake of privacy or the final product or anything like that; this was about preserving the appearance of objectivity at all costs. What better way to illustrate the idea of transparency being the new objectivity than by this, its precise opposite?

— This being mid-December, we’re starting to see the inevitable end-of-year, end-of-decade, and preview-of-next-year lists. (I’ll admit it: I’m supposed to hate these kinds of lists, but I can’t stop reading them.) Here’s this week’s review of those lists:

End of year: Editor & Publisher’s Joe Strupp has the top 10 newspaper stories (40,000 jobs lost is appropriately #1); Lifehacker has a rather overwhelming list of all of Google’s developments in 2009; and though I mentioned it last week, C.W. Anderson still has the best year-end snapshot of media so far.

End of decade: The Austin (Texas) Statesman’s Robert Quigley has an insightful piece at Mediaite looking at how the Gawker media empire defined this decade; and About.com, not usually known as a font of quality media criticism, has a surprisingly solid roundup of the major developments in journalism this decade.

2010: Martin Langeveld, Adam Westbrook and Sean Blanda all have predictions for 2010 — Langeveld’s are more newspaper-centric, and Westbrook’s more optimistic and presented in spiffy video format; Save the News has 10 New Year’s resolutions for journalism organizations; and newspaper publishers think advertising will magically flatten next year after collapsing this year, prompting Alan Mutter to wonder, “What the heck are they thinking?”

— In tech-oriented news, Twitter’s API (the interface that allows it to interact with other programs) was added to WordPress last week and Tumblr this week. Combined with its integration with Facebook’s status API and tons of other programs over the past year or so, that effectively means that, as tech thinker Anil Dash puts it, Twitter’s API is complete. I don’t understand the implications of this quite well enough to summarize it, but fortunately, we have the renowned Dave Winer to explain it to us. So read what he has to say about Twitter’s API becoming a new Internet standard here and here and listen to him here.

— In the Los Angeles Times, Tim Rutten makes an interesting point regarding the ratings rise of MSNBC and Fox News and decline of CNN. He says that it’s not a sign that most Americans now want their news provided through an ideological lens, but that cable news instead attracts a relatively small niche of news junkies who follow news throughout the day. When evening rolls around, Rutten says, “they’re hungry for analysis rather than recycled reportage, and like most Americans today, they prefer interpretation that reinforces their own opinions.” I think the truth lies somewhere in between conventional wisdom and Rutten’s point of view, but it’s still a valuable corrective.

— I missed this one last week, but Jim Barnett of the Nieman Journalism Lab has a helpful quasi-scientific study of the finances of several significant local and national nonprofit news organizations. He finds a pattern, then looks at why Mother Jones might be an exception.

— Three social media-related links before I send you off for the holidays: 1) The Bivings Group’s study of newspapers’ use of Twitter (would like to see someone look at smaller newspapers, too, but I’m sure that’s coming from someone sometime), 2) A fun look at some reeeaaally early predecessors to modern social networking sites, and 3) Dan Schultz’s nifty survey and map of the participatory web, focusing on scope and individual vs. group focus. Enjoy.

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19. December 2009 by Mark
Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 6 comments

  • http://toughloveforxerox.blogspot.com Michael Josefowicz

    I think the notion of “objectivity” emerged as newspapers moved into the mass market as a way not to offend potential advertisers.

    The irony is that the value of the journalist on the ground is to bring a clear point of view. Exactly the attraction of columnists who are the draws to a newspaper.

    “Objectivity” and most recently “comity of the Senate” invoked by McCain against Franken is most often just a cover to keep the public discourse from being truly engaging.

    Consider the recent success of MSNBC with a clear “bias.” I think it would be useful to replace “objectivity” with authentic voice.

    Transparency tends to lead to emperor’s without clothes. In my opinion, that fact, not the venality of the actors, is what makes it so terribly hard to achieve.

  • http://contentious.com Amy Gahran

    RE: who owns the right to publish an interview:

    Over two years ago I posted to my blog my policy that I’d only do interviews that are on the record for both participants:

    http://www.contentious.com/2007/08/20/interviewing-a-blogger-youre-both-on-the-record/

    The irony is, the bigger the news org, the less open they are to this kind of transparency. Which says a lot about the hypocrisy of big journalism.

    - Amy Gahran

  • Mark Coddington

    That’s a great rule of thumb, Amy: In interviews, the on-the-record, off-the-record status needs to be reciprocal. If it’s off the record for the source, it can be off the record for the journalist. But if it’s on the record for the source, it’s got to be on the record for the journalist.

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  • Pingback: This Week in Review: Google’s Buzz buzz, Demand Media’s plans, and turning relationships into revenue » Nieman Journalism Lab

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