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Jeff Israely: The line between “content” and “journalism,” and deciding which side I want to be on

[Jeff Israely, a Time magazine foreign correspondent in Europe, is in the planning stages of a news startup — a "new global news website." He details his experience as a new news entrepreneur at his site, but he'll occasionally be describing the startup process here at the Lab. Read his first, second, and third installments. —Josh]

The digital information revolution is changing both the meaning and value of words. By now, we know a “friend” isn’t always a friend, and clouds and graphs don’t bring rain and spreadsheets.

After years of resisting, I’ve thrown myself into the new-media verbiage with relative gusto as I attempt to conquer my own modest corner of the digital landscape. Still, my brain/language synapses can sometimes misfire: When I saw Robert Scoble’s link last week to “one of the social services I am using a lot more lately,” I expected to click open details of his favorite new welfare program or rehab center.

The fluidity of what we say and hear when we write and read on the web may prompt an ironic LOL (annoying acronym) or old-fashioned harrumph (cool grandpa). But stopping to listen to ourselves may also help us better understand both what we might want to create in the new realm of information, and how to make it economically viable. As for my efforts, and just for fun, let me start by trying to define this very piece in two sentences or less: “This is an unpaid monthly “public diary” of shared professional experiences and observations and self-promotion (not necessarily in that order), written in fits and starts over two days at my home in Paris, with more attitude and less grammar than the stuff I’m paid to do, sweating (always) every word, inserting links to some though not all of my sources/inspiration, to be edited and distributed — with the press of a “Publish” button in Cambridge, Mass. — as far and long as its tail will carry it via a high-profile nonprofit website founded to help the news industry figure out how to be economically sustainable. While doing good journalism.”

Does the bad grammar — at Harvard, no less!? — and poor pay make this a blog post? My smart-ass hack colleagues would say good pay and good grammar have never been part of the journalist’s profile. The new media gurus would say the distinction is ultimately irrelevant. But rather than directly tackling this running dialectic between the j-word and b-word, let’s cut straight to the c-word: content, which may help us understand where the current meaning and value (economic and otherwise) of words intersect.

I don’t know when I first uttered this term in its internet guise, but I now use it constantly in talking about the media business in general, and in pitching my particular project. There is actually a rather linear linguistic path from its original off-line meaning (something contained — usually used in plural [the jar's contents]; [the drawer's contents]). It is matter that occupies a certain space; its particular characteristics (and value) are left to be (or not to be) defined. In Cyberville, it can be conceived of as the opposite, or complement, of a platform. We’re either building platforms and applications or producing content, or some combination thereof. Declaring that “I provide content” in today’s news business advertises one of two characteristics, or both: (a) I am capable of working in all media, any form or length; or (b) I am focused most of all on speed and technological innovation and maximizing human efficiency, rather than seeking depth and quality. We have seen in just the past few days how much the current market likes this latter approach.

“Journalism” instead has the air of something weighty, belabored, and — most of all — expensive to produce. Others talk about “storytelling,” which has a nice sound to it, but apparently leaves optional the integral relationship with breaking news and events — the news cycle — that traditional journalistic outlets (and Twitter!) are expected to provide.

Though I always make sure to slap the adjectives “quality” or “branded” on what our project will offer, I too have tended to opt for the content catch-all word as a way of talking the talk. But to walk the walk — September beta launch!? — forces me to think and speak for myself. And that means listening harder than ever. And that goes not just for language for language’s sake, but also specifically for the purpose of business.

Two conversations I’ve had in the past two weeks have brought clarity to the project’s revenue model: the first was a Skype to Atlanta with veteran CNN producer David Clinch, another traditional-media dude breaking off and doing his own global news thing; the second was a Montmartre coffee with former Orange executive and France director of Ask.com Irene Toporkoff, who I am now busy trying to woo (here too!?) to become a co-founder on the project. Both from what David is aiming to do and from Irene’s most recent experience as director general at Angie Interactive — and considering the nature of our product — it has become clear that the way to launch this project is what is generically known as B2B, that is, selling directly to other businesses, in this case, other major brands or web portals. “B2B,” Irene kept repeating. “It is an interesting project. But it has to be B2B…” In France, they call it an agence, which is an all-encompassing term that includes the wires (AFP), but also smaller and more niche content providers. In the new digital world, it can mean many things.

What we must make clear is that our product’s professionalism, (i.e., the economic exchange and oversight that go with paying for time plus labor) comes at a cost, but offers real value. It also has a name, and “content” just doesn’t cut it. With all the old-world pomposity we can muster, let’s just agree to call it journalism, mes amis. That label will continue to scare off some investors…and even some journalists. But to take on-the-ground, informed reporting and toss it in with the rest of the, er, stuff that’s out there undersells our product, both to the platforms and readers we hope will buy/consume it.

Some digital mavens will find this entire post a conceit, or just wrong-headed. All bets -– I mean all bets -– may in fact be off. Fifteen or 50 years from now, the big media outlets may all be gone, basic journalistic practices might go the way of the Tridentine mass, and people could be getting and giving all their relevant news and data via some sort of solar-powered informatron. Or more modestly, “journalism” will simply and slowly devolve into the mix of “content.” I’m betting that’s not the case, even as I rapidly try to prepare for no less than the revolution that is coming in one form or another.

But enough of my high-falutin’ ramblings. Blogs and journalism and the content of our lives should always make room for some fun, which brings to my most entertaining digital exchange of the past month. Though I’m not apt to pick fights on the web, late one night I gave in to Twitter snark temptation. More tales of Gerald Posner’s alleged plagiarism were popping up, so I fired off the following tweet: Gerald Posner didnt plagiarize…. he AGGREGATED!

About 10 minutes later, I followed that up with a couple of jabby tweets aimed directly at hyper-sly aggregator Newser and flagged the site’s founder-provocateur Michael Wolff.

The truth is that, though I think Newser is basically cheating (though not plagiarizing), and Wolff can be more nasty than snarky, I like watching him call the bluff of big media companies that clearly don’t know which way is up. Most of all, I was engaging him that evening because he’s funny as hell, so why not see him take a snarky swing at me? And right on time came his short and tweet response, showing how much communication can occur well short of the 140-character limit: “you sound so old fart-ish.” Nice! I’m pretty sure that means the same thing on- and offline. And Twitter, regardless of which content prevails, is a platform for the ages.

                                   
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Joseph Lichterman    July 22, 2014
The site known for social media and tech coverage has hired nearly 30 more editorial staffers since October and, like BuzzFeed before it, is expanding into more general interest news.
  • Jason Fry

    Great post, Jeff.

    In my WSJ days I used to bitch at developers and business people for saying “content.” But eventually I gave up, and soon after that I found myself saying it too, at first to my horror.

    Part of the change was that I was blogging about baseball in my off-hours, and while I thought that writing was valuable, it wasn’t journalism. So the lines were getting blurred. And while the writing was fun no matter what I did, the assembled responsibilities did start to feel like digital jars that needed filling.

    Mostly, though, I think I just got tired of the fight.

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  • http://newslaunchdiary.wordpress.com Jeff Israely

    thanks Jason! as a relatively new new media guy and long lapsed met fan, means much getting feedback from you…(btw, the ump’s call last night…it’s gotta stick, eh?) … i remember getting to europe and being annoyed by the pompous use of the word journalism/journalist, not to mention the silly professional journalism “orders” and clubs. i was always a “reporter”. but i guess these days we gotta hang on to what we can…it may wind up that “journalism” becomes the exception that proves the rule of lowest common denominator content…ie,..now THAT’s journalism! in any case, agreed… its better (and reinvigorating) to not be consumed with fighting those fights….

  • Mario

    nice (and RIGHT) shot at the Italian “Ordine dei giornalisti”, Jeff. But I’m afraid nobody except Italians and “Italianated” foreing correspondents may understand it…

  • http://mariotedeschini.blog.kataweb.it Mario Tedeschini Lalli

    …as an old new media guy I forgot the full name and the link! :-)

  • http://newslaunchdiary.wordpress.com Jeff Israely

    thanks Mario! l’ordine dei giornalisti e’ giusto… here’s the link, via google translate. http://bit.ly/bs4O6k let’s see if it makes any more sense in mechanical english than in its italian reality?? by the way, mi piacerebbe di parlare con te del mio progetto…? ciao, grazie

  • http://metamorphblog.com Matt Mireles

    Dude, have you bought/read/madeloveto Steve Blank’s Four Steps to the Epiphany yet?

  • http://www.axonpublish.com/blog/ Paul Keers

    Why not try using the word “editorial”? We’re talking about a spectrum which stretches from serious news reporting and analysis at one end (which can only be described as journalism) to content farm junk at the other (which can NEVER be described as journalism!). Somewhere in between is feature writing etc. Surely the term “editorial” is better than content to describe what you’re talking about? It can even encompass visual material (as per the old Life) which has communicative value.

  • http://newslaunchdiary.wordpress.com Jeff Israely

    Paul, yup…”editorial” is good, and seems a good fit with your good looking company… though i imagine it often comes out as an adjective…editorial CONTENT/or product….which again is much better than just ‘content’…other terms swimming around are ‘publishing’, ‘media’. others? i went on this ‘journalism’ riff intentionally, self-consciously…as a kind of call to arms for a method/profession(?) in full identity et al crises…and yes, as a way to refine my own pitch…

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  • http://wordlywisdom.net Lucy

    I’ve seen technology come and go and journalism survives!

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