One Man’s Exploitation is Another Man’s Civic Engagement

Whenever I hear a black and white conversation I know the answer lay in the many shades of gray that reside in between.

Too often the new vs. old media debate falls into this trap. It is lazy thinking. I am reminded of a song by the poet/rapper AcyaloneBalance” – “One man’s enemy is another man’s friend, one man’s poison is another man’s medicine.”

At SXSW I wrote about Demand Media and Seed. As Nieman pointed out I concluded that “journalists shouldn’t be worried about [Demand Media] exploiting writers, but should be worried about their threat to the journalism industry as a whole.”

From my post

What this represents is yet another HUGE opening in the content/media space that is being overtaken by venture capital money and new companies. A Gannet, Hearst, etc, should be in this space.

Why does it matter what kind of company owns this space?

Simple: Old profits from classifieds and advertising used to be pumped back into the system to prop original reporting because that was something newspapers did. Newspapers were always really in the advertising classified business – but they would use their 30% profit margins on reporting.

If Demand Media starts making 30% profit margins, I don’t suspect they’ll start throwing that into investigative or original reporting. That’s not what they do. AOL’s Seed might – but that’s a hope, not a promise.

People love to point at Craigslist and blame it for the fall of newspapers. Aside from being economically questionable I often point out that the technology behind Craigslist wasn’t mind-blowing. Any newspaper company could have built that and today would own the classifieds business online. And who knows what they’d do with that profit? Fund some great reporting I suspect (and kudos to Craig Newmark who with his wealth has created the Craigslist Foundation).

With great power and money comes great responsibility. I’ll even give Demand Media and AOL the benefit of the doubt and say they’ll make charitable contributions to society with any new-found wealth. But will journalism be where they plant their flag? That’s a missed opportunity for newspaper companies.

Keep that in mind going forward: The real loss here is for the large newspaper companies dropping the ball again.

And yet whenever I find myself discussing these new content creators the issue of exploitation always comes to the forefront. Some go to extremes and call it “share crop journalism” or other nasty terms. This I automatically push back on. Everyone engaging in these sites is doing so out of their own free will. The next term that comes up is “exploitation.”

It’s ironic though because the people I speak with say that these writers are being exploited and in the next sentence they’ll claim the content is crap. If the content is crap, then the producer should be paid less and it isn’t exploitation – it’s a fair wage for crappy content. For somebody to be “exploited” their talents would have to be usurped without fair compensation. Sorry high-minded journalists – you gotta pick one. Either the content is crap or the writers are being exploited. I don’t think it can be both.

So what if we assume the content is “crap.” I patently disagree that we can paint a black/white picture of citizen journalism, content farms, etc – but for the sake of argument – let’s pretend it’s “all crap.” All of it. It’s unlikely but let’s say, as a thought experiment, that there will never ever be content from non-professionals of “journalistic credibility.”

The age-old question “can citizen journalism replace ‘us'” is answered – and the answer would be no.

Victory!?!?!?

Nope.

Citizen Journalism is not designed to fit “our” notion of investigative watchdog fourth estate journalism. (Note: I’m putting “us,” “our” and other signifiers of “otherness” in quotes for a reason).

An analogy I use: Asking if citizen journalists will replace professionals is kinda like asking “if major league baseball stopped tomorrow, could all the little leagues across the country replace them?” That’s a silly question. The role that little leagues’ play is inherently different (family values, childhood memories, community, etc). Conversely – if little leagues across the country shut down tomorrow could the major leagues fill the void? I highly doubt it.

It’s not a value judgment to say that one can’t replace the other. They are just different. And remember, in this thought experiment – all the content from “them” is crap. So the next question: If “they” aren’t seeking to replace “us” and their content is “crap” – what’s the point?

I am reminded of a talk by Clay Shirky where he points out that even LOL Cats, a silly meme where people add captions to photos of cats, is inherently more participatory than watching reruns of Gilligan’s Island.

Even if we assume the very worst of Demand Media – it is inherently active. It is a form of participation in the flow of information. I would much rather somebody produce crappy content and get paid very little by Demand Media than have that same person do nothing but watch reruns of I Love Lucy.

Last week I visited the Reynolds Institute and met up with my old colleague Jeff Howe who discussed crowdsourcing. Two things struck me. One his observation that everyone thinks “crowdsourcing” as a distrupter is treated by every industry as though it was unique to their situation. Designers think crowdsourcing is a design phenomena. Journalists think it is a journalism phenomena and still engineers think it is an engineering phenomena. And inherent to all them is the tension between professionals and amateurs.

Even more intriguing is that it is the professionals who tend to frame the conversation and in doing so insert words like “exploitation” “amateur” “crap quality” and more. For the labeled “amateurs” none of these words are relevant. For them – this “exploitation” is an act of participation.

Imagine if the Kings and Queens of old got wind of democracy in advance and decreed that “voting” would now be called “vomiting.”

Sure – you could vomit for the leader of your choice – but would you really want to partake in something so vile?

Some argue that the cult of amateur is destroying society – but I have to push back and believe that having people engaged, even if it’s something silly like LOL Cats, is a boon for society. That’s the positive side – but remember, nothing is black and white. I am confident there are downsides to all this as well. I will have to sit and ponder a follow up post on this.

6 thoughts on “One Man’s Exploitation is Another Man’s Civic Engagement

  1. One downside for readers, from content provided by the pros and ams:

    When content is given for free or for small pay, the temptation for all is to repurpose information for multiple sites and clients. That colors the content, because the real source or true financial support of the work becomes muddy.

    Example: Let’s say a national content mill, not Demand Media, wants political content. The pay cannot sustain such work alone. Thus, that content will come from someone who is repurposing it from a day job, or for another client, or from the research they do for free out of idealistic passion. Without absolute transparency from the content provider about *all* the providers’ other clients, the readers can’t quickly judge the source.

    All that is rather vague, I know, but it boils down to the idea that readers’ traditional bullsh*t meters need to be turned up way high, or they can turn to trusted brands. Consider the source, more carefully than ever.

  2. Agree with much of your post and certainly with Andrea.K comment.

    However, the baseball analogy surely requires that decent “professional” journalism – presumably away from celebrity pap that has given the trade such a bad name – still commands demand from its fans. The current state of traditional print media suggests that this is certainly not the case.

    Many of the writing gigs advertised by journalism sites are from content providers like Demand and Suite 101 – neither of which are capable of producing enough income to pay even the most meagre mortgage.

  3. I think you’re right about that baseball analogy, NW Sheffield. Like most analogies, reality is a bit more complicated.

    There are a lot of things only professional journalists can do: weighing competing claims about alternative energy, exposing corruption in City Hall, for which there continues to be demand, though the supply has become increasingly lacking.

    There are other things professional journalists have no business doing, but continue to waste time on. There are still other things that continue to be done by hand, even though they’re probably best left to machines, e.g. daily market summaries.

    At the end of the day, not all “political content” or even “sports content” is created equal, and if “we” are threatened by the Crowd then “we” probably need to rethink how “we” are spending our time. If anyone can do it, then anyone should (and will).

  4. I don’t know if the tension between claims of “crap” and “exploitation” is as significant as it might appear. Some people make one argument while others embrace the alternative. Some combine the two indicts in a non-contradictory manner. They maintain that so much of the mill content is crap that it it encourages the low, “oppressive” payments and reflects poorly on the good writers who work with the mills–sort of a “you’re judged by the company you keep” warning.

    Personally, I don’t really buy either of those arguments. I don’t think getting $15 for a fifteen minute simple how-to piece from Demand is on par with assembling tennis shoes for an evil MNC in a sweatshop for a nickel a day and a smart “millworker” doesn’t need to degrade his or her brand.

    Anyway, what often gets lost in these conversations is the reason *why* the mill model is profitable in the first place: The way search engines work. If Google didn’t reward mills in the search results and had a more reliable way of assessing actual content quality to replace its link-loving algorithm (one that’s far too open to manipulation) and a love of content quantity, the mills wouldn’t exist in the first place.

  5. A lot of the “crap” content contributed to sites like Demand, etc. is contributed by people with backgrounds in journalism. That’s been going on since newsroom downsizing started, yet no one seems to want to discuss this. So, to generalize everyone who writes for these sites as “citizen journalists” or “amateurs” is in some cases calling one’s peers amateurs simply because they’re not affiliated with a newspaper anymore.

    That’s in part why so many magazines and other outlets (CNN, Reuters, etc.) are willing to buy content from “content mills.”

    And the real damage in the long term will be to writers–whether journalists in the formal sense or not–who desire to earn a living wage from their writing. As I once discussed with Mark Ranalli of Helium, those days might be over for awhile.

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