A recent exchange I had with Philly's own Christopher Wink (of TechnicallyPhilly.com fame), brought to light some things I've felt very passionately for some time about with regard to content.
In case you haven't been a dedicated reader of my blog, aside from technology being one of the things I write about, I'm very passionate about good design - especially when it comes to content creation. Regardless whether you're entertaining readers, designing websites, user interfaces, or teaching a classroom full of children, there is a design behind the writing, coding, developing or lesson plan. There has to be, otherwise you're not creating valuable content for your audience - you're contributing noise.
Remember Rule No. 1
About a week ago, Chris tweeted:
Let me start by saying that I agree with this wholeheartedly. A reporter is only as good as the audience he attracts. Sources, skill, knowledge of a reporter's subject matter, all go in to determine (at least in part) their reputation. Reputation, in turn, directly affects audience. It's a cycle that's been around for ages and it's why certain people are attracted to read certain publications over others.
My reply to his was that if the audience is "unable to discern between factual and yellow journalism, the best intentions of the author be damned." What I meant in saying this was that if people aren't educated properly to know what does (and does not) constitute good journalism, it really doesn't matter how well an author writes, what skills or training he's had, who he's associated with, or what knowledge he may have of his subject matter. It's one of the reasons yellow journalism was so popular during the Spanish-American War, and this phenomenon isn't limited to print. Ever heard of the phrase, "if it bleeds, it leads?"
In my opinion, producing work that is pandering in nature, or caters to a human beings primal urges is worthless. You may disagree by saying it sells, but that's stressing exactly what I'm trying to prove: quantity versus quality. Quality should always be higher on the list than quantity and some publications do better than others and producing quality reporting. With the advent of the Internet (yes, I know it's a cliche phrase, but work with me here), it's become harder to tell what is and isn't good, factual information especially when it comes to blogging. Just because you have a blog doesn't mean you're credible writer. Just because you have a blog, doesn't automatically discount you're writing as unprofessional. It's all about what the author wants to make it and what audience they're trying to attract.
I'll cut to the quick here: it's about education. I'm not talking about literacy or knowing how to use a computer - I'm talking about plain old rudimentary education. If a person hasn't had the proper educational exposure to basic concepts such as critical thinking, logic and grasp of the English language, how can you expect them to understand past the nightly news? How many people go out seek more information about a topic on their own - ignoring what has been spoon fed to them by television and the newspaper? Doing your homework (aka, research) isn't something for students and thesis writers. It's something that we should be doing anytime something interests us. It's how educated adults learn in the modern age and it's one reason I'm so glad technology is prevalent in schools today. We are (and should be) educating our youth that you can do more than just play games and watch movies on an iPad. Critical thinking and all that revolve around it shouldn't stop just because the school bell rings.
Only Individuals Build Brands
To my reply, Chris wrote:
Moving the onus from publication to journalist isn't something new, albeit a standard that probably not been too 'enforced' throughout the industry. When I would sign on a new writer for IndyGeek.net, one of the things I would look for is a commitment to quality in writing. I felt the best way to drive the reputation of IG was through the individual reputations of the staff creating the content, rather than the reputation of the brand acquired through marketing. (Sidenote: when you're a fledging publication/startup, this is the only way to promote your product, regardless of your market).
Marketing is an artificial way to promote one's brand, and while it's not organic by nature, it can produce quicker results. Why worry about word of mouth which can take days or weeks to produce results, when in seconds, you can broadcast a 30 second television spot with flashy graphics and catchy jingles? To me, it's all about promotion with your core audience and the best way to reach that audience is to have people sit up and take notice on their own terms. It is the best way to stir your audience with a call to action, rather than invoke shock value to garner attention. Using primal human urges to mass-market your content is a vicious cycle of trying to reproduce the same result time after time, after the recipients of the shock value have grown numb to it's effects. When that happens you're forced to up the ante and create even more outrageous ways to attract your audience.
One of the most important things that publishers should take away from this is that they need to place more responsibility on the health of their publication with those that create their content, including those to which they sell ad space (since even advertising goes into the whole product which publishers are selling). Maybe then, we'll get away from the garbage of sound bytes, less-than-700-word "news" blog posts, and tasteless advertisements to which they subject their audience. We as the audience need to say that we are better than these cheap tactics to gain page views - and most importantly, we need to be teaching our youth to expect better of our media so that we're not breeding the next generation to follow in their predecessors footsteps both as producers and consumers of that content.