Content vs. journalism: the great debate

Journalists prefer their craft not be cheapened with a label like “content.” But what if that’s what’s been killing the business?

Do consumers (readers) differentiate between a product called journalism than one simply known as news or content? They pay for this content with their time and attention, which is why plenty of web sites that publish content are making plenty of money with advertising. Sites that focus on journalism, however, are still struggling with this basic economic model.

Supporters of pay walls or freemium pay models for news sites are making an argument that journalism is a type of premium content that consumers will (or should) pay for. The product is expensive to produce, the thinking goes, so the consumers need to bear some of the direct cost.

I think it’s more of a failure to execute successful online advertising strategies and has less to do with the content vs. journalism debate. But one of the first arguments pay-wallers make is the importance of journalism to our democracy, suggesting this will tip the economic scale in their direction and make consumers open their wallets. (I don’t have much faith in guilt as a business model.)

In this new information ecosystem, the lines between content and journalism are blurred. Journalism is a specialized type of content that attracts a certain type of audience. Consider the activity in the comments sections on many news sites and blogs, especially in the topics of politics, technology and sports. It suggests that the user generated content piled onto journalism is as much a draw for the audience as the journalism itself.

Is talk radio journalism? The host generally does some research to collect some facts to hang his or her opinion on, then plays off callers who offer their own take. Do listeners tune in to hear the facts (journalism) or the conversation (content)?

Journalism vs. content: Does it matter? I think it does, since many coverage decisions are  made every day in newsrooms based on this tacit struggle. There are journalism contests, after all, but none that I know of that celebrate “content.”

Except the ultimate contest, of course: The competition for audience and business viability. News sites that publish content based on what’s interesting and important to readers, and what will get the audience talking, seem to have a better business model than news sites aiming to produce the best journalism (and win the most awards). I haven’t seen a study on this, but it would make a fascinating master’s thesis.

Social media confuse the issue even further, with Facebook, Twitter and niche social networks like those featured on Beatblogging. While important elements of journalism in the digital age, journalists are trying to reconcile the difference between social networking for personal and professional motives.

On a recent Rebooting the News podcast, Jay Rosen talked about the curated group of 600 people he follows on Twitter for the topic of journalism and new media. He built it to share, so others could benefit from his research and decision-making. He then suggested that news organizations should do the same, cultivating a recommended list of people on Twitter to follow for other niche topics.

Is this journalism? Is it content? Or is it something else altogether? It doesn’t much matter what we call it as long as it adds value to what we’re publishing and is interesting and important enough to draw an audience. That’s the new contest.

Next: What should colleges do? Offer a content and community major with a special track for journalism? I’ll explore that in my next post.

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