I’m the king of my castle, not a serf

David Carr recently wrote in The New York Times about the devaluing of professional content. He contends that sites like the Huffington Post, Facebook and Twitter have turned Americans into serfs.

Carr makes the mistake of associating low-cost and no-cost content with low-quality content. Yes, there is a lot of shit content out there created for free.  But some of the best content out there is also created for free.

Someone should ask Carr: why do sources talk to reporters for free? Are those sources also serfs?

The reasons people talk to reporters are some of the same reasons they participate in social media.

A little background on me before I continue: I went to the top journalism school in the country and launched one of the first online newspapers. I quickly left the business because it was too hard to change mindsets.

Carr talks about the bifurcation into two streams: professional and amateur. There are really more than that. I’ll simplify and say amateur, professional reporter and expert. The middle stream (where many reporters sit) is being squeezed on both sides.

In the amateur stream, you’ve got the likes of Demand Media and Associated Content with amateurs who write low-quality content for small amounts of money. This content has some monetary value, usually in the form of AdSense ads.

You also have people creating amateur content purely to share among their friends. These are the jokes, status updates, photos, etc. that litter Facebook and Twitter.  This content has pretty much no monetary value. The value is in the sharing with people that you care about. Unfortunately for the mainstream media, there are only 24 hours in a day. If I spend 15 minutes looking at pictures from a friend’s trip to Barcelona, that’s 15 minutes I’m not spending watching TV or reading the newspaper.

In the expert stream, you’ve got people who write high-quality content for a variety of other reasons.

At the risk of being immodest, I write high-quality content on Quora and my blogs about topics I’m passionate about. (The future of media being one of them.) I do this because I enjoy the intellectual challenge. I enjoy meeting like-minded people. It helps me flesh out my own thinking. It helps me with my business. And I do this for free because I’m (usually) gainfully employed and can afford to write for free.

My analysis of search, mobile, local and travel-related topics will be much better than what a NYT journalist will put out because I live and breathe this stuff. And I can create that content in a fraction of the time.

There are many people like me — and many who are much more prominent. Danny Sullivan writes about search. Fred Wilson writes about startups and entrepreneurship. Robert Reich writes about economics and politics.

These are people at the top of their fields. These are the same people that reporters seek out when they’re looking for experts to quote on a topic. I’ve never been able to get journalists to reconcile the fact that they bitch about the low quality of blogosphere and then often quote expert bloggers in their stories.

The quality of the average piece of content in the blogosphere is less than the quality of the average piece of content in The New York Times. But there are places to go for people who want the higher quality content.

This answer on Quora about why Borders in bankruptcy and Barnes & Noble isn’t is way better than anything I’ve seen in the mainstream media about Borders. It also points out one big benefit of social media versus mainstream media for experts: you don’t have to worry about about an ill-informed or malicious reporter taking what you said out of context or misinterpreting. What you write goes out as you wrote it.

There are more experts in the blogosphere than there are in newsrooms. That’s just a matter of numbers. Few people in newsrooms have formal training, expertise or experience in the areas they write cover. CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta is a rare exception. In addition to covering medical topics for CNN, he’s a practicing neurosurgeon. (Oddly, TV tends to have more topic experts than newspapers.)

The highest quality content will come from people who are deeply passionate about a space and live it, not from someone who writes about it for a paycheck. Yes, this brings up the issue of bias. But the media “solve” this issue by just quoting two people with opposite views and leaving the reader to decide. That’s no solution.

Many (though by no means all) journalists are stuck in the middle ground, where they’re paid a lot more than the amateurs but don’t have the knowledge or skills of the experts


About Rakesh Agrawal

Rakesh Agrawal is Senior Director of product at Amazon (Audible). Previously, he launched local and mobile products for Microsoft and AOL. He tweets at @rakeshlobster.
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