December 19, 2009

Growing Grumblings on Tech News Don't Address Incentives

If you are the subject of the news, people will judge your actions and how you react to being in the spotlight. If you are the distributor of the news, how you message that news, and how accurately you report that news, will also be dissected. On the Web, especially in our sliver of Silicon Valley, where real time is becoming the standard, analysis of said news is itself happening in real time. From many corners, often from the more technically-oriented folks on the Web, I am seeing discussion around the tech news industry's alleged failings, inaccuracies, and usefulness (or lack thereof). While some of the feedback no doubt has merit, it too comes in simplified form, without offering potential solutions, taking into account how the creators and publishers of this tech news blogosphere are incentivized and rewarded.

On Sunday, Mike Arrington of TechCrunch, as he often does, started a discussion around what he termed "fast food content", saying that "hand crafted content is dead", summarizing a piece that lamented sites which steal content without attribution, and more darkly, sites that employ people to rewrite others' content, without adding anything new or doing "real reporting", the kind one learns in journalism class, or is required to do when working for a "dead tree" newspaper or magazine.

Given Mike's focus, running one of the more widely read tech news sites on the Web, his concerns lie around those who borrow much of his and his writers' content and publish it as their own. But I have also given a lot of thought, especially of late, to the vast number of tech news sites and blogs that are out there covering the same stories, and are jostling amongst each other to beat their competition by a few minutes - opting not to win on quality, but instead, on time. In this case, it's often not another tech blog's news that is being borrowed, but official announcements from companies.

One of the easiest things for tech blogs to do is repeat updates from the official blogs of interesting companies, add a few internal links to previous coverage they have done on that topic, add a paragraph or two of analysis, and hit the post button. I've no doubt done it myself over the last few years, even with this self-awareness, but you can see the process unfold practically every day. Watch for phrases like "According to a post on the official Twitter blog..." or "In an update on Google's blog this morning"... as many of the better-known sites all post their own interpretations of the news that came from the top.

This, in my opinion, is the very definition of the "fast food news" Mike is talking about, and time spent both producing it and consuming it could be put to better use - as in these cases, links could serve just as well as full articles.

I am by no means an ombudsman for tech media and the tech news consumer. I am but one person who takes in a lot of content, and produces a little on my own. But I see a few other areas where the tech news engine is falling short for news consumers, news makers and the news authors themselves.

I believe "fast food news" also can refer to the mass hysteria over making sure every site posts the news that a major browser or a major operating system has issued a point release, or when a popular site has an outage, that the incident becomes front page news for every blog. At some point, given the vast multitude of interesting tech stories, individuals and companies out there, one must take a deep breath and realize that being the 10th site to report that Twitter got hacked last night didn't really add a lot of value to readers.

In fact, when Twitter did get hacked Thursday night, Mike (again) had a solid post that added information, and, as he gained more knowledge of the incident, he updated the same post multiple times throughout the night. Because he was the first to the scene, with real data, his post had meat, while many, many others that followed were just echoes of the obvious.

So why is this happening? There are a few reasons:

First, the advertising model that forces many sites to drive page views and social interactions, through Digg, StumbleUpon, and Twitter retweets, is turning many tech news sites into post mills, staffed largely by inexpensive writers and freelancers. Instead of deep analysis posts that require interviews, backgrounds, and research, these sites are instead home to excerpts from YouTube, polls, user surveys, and whatever happens to be trending on Twitter that day. Quality is exchanged for quantity.

Second, many of these sites operate under the guise that they are the only site their readers see. Just because one major tech site covered a story 30 minutes before doesn't mean they should assume their readers already know. That is why if you do subscribe to many technology blogs, as I do, you can expect the vast majority of them to report the same story around the same time - instead of choosing a specific focus that can set them apart from the competition.

Third, thanks to competition and personal interactions, not every site likes the others. Years of infighting and annoyances, thanks to individual posts, personalities, or business priorities means that some sites really dislike each other. They won't link to one another. They will ban the competition from their user conferences, and when they aren't taking potshots, they will act like the other doesn't exist. Thus, if the competition "breaks" a story, the other will post it anyway, or try to find a wrinkle that makes their own version of events "improved" or invalidating the other.

Fourth, the rise of aggregation sites makes piling on to the news something that is rewarded. If all competitive blogs have covered a major story, many others will follow suit, be it to get into "discussion" on Techmeme, to see TrackBacks on the originating posts, or to come up when the popular terms are searched for on Twitter, Google and other engines.

In essence, the incentives, for the most part, do not tilt in favor of writing unique stories or doing the required research necessary to get a full story, to get quotes from a source, or find data points that back up analysis.

That's why you see people like Alex Payne (of Twitter) complain, saying "Rarely does technology journalism produce informed, correct, relevant, and readable content. This is a sorry and damaging state of affairs." in his rant from March (Towards Better Technology Journalism), and why Marco Ament, the lead developer of Tumblr and Instapaper creator, this week, wrote: "Over the last few years, I have unsubscribed from nearly every tech-news feed. I have never regretted the decision afterward, and I haven’t missed anything important. Tech news needs help. Badly. It’s truly terrible."

Keep in mind that it's not unexpected for the more technical among us to dislike the way their works are interpreted. Engineering distrusting marketing is practically a requirement and a religion. But we know they are somewhat right. As much as we can complain about the public relations industry as a whole, many flaks often find that their offers for reporters to speak with the CEO or an official representative of the company go without interest, either due to time issues or a lacking skill set. It's always a lot easier just to ask for the press release ahead of time, and an embargo date.

In an ideal world, those who are acting as our news filters would take the extra time necessary to ferret out news before its time, would ask those making the news the questions they didn't want to answer, would understand competitive landscapes, and wouldn't worry about getting a post up in a few minutes to hit a quantity threshold, without it first passing a quality threshold.

Lest we think Alex and Marco are the lone cries for help, you can see other comments this week from The Angry Drunk, and from Google's DeWitt Clinton, who posted to Twitter, "Don't worry. Save some time. Your story doesn't need a shred of truth to it. It will be retweeted just the same." in response not to a tech blog story, but a mainstream media piece that had missed the mark. (He later, in contrast, praised Marshall Kirkpatrick of ReadWriteWeb for solid reporting)

Content producers need to make choices in terms of what it is they cover, and where their field of expertise lies. If not breaking the news, or having access to the technology elite, there are many other ways to make your voice heard, through analysis and personal use cases, as well as the option to find new stories. Content consumers too have the choice as to where they get their news. I would hope that those people who are being spoon fed repeats of others' original reporting, or are waiting, jaws agape, for recaps of company blog posts, recognize what it is they are really missing.

Given the low cost structure needed to create content, it doesn't look like there is going to be a painful consolidation any time soon. In the meantime, the system is set up to reward those who publish quickly and pile on - for extra effort doesn't bring home the page views. There are going to be pockets of the Web that harbor original ideas, a focus on quality and data, and there are going to be other places where copying, scraping, and shortcuts are going to rule the day. I know what I hope to be. The question is, can we do our part, as publishers and consumers, to somehow reward those that do things right?

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