But who actually answered the question: “What time does the Super Bowl start?”

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 2 June 2011

A link was doing the rounds today to a thought-provoking blog post by Donald Mahoney about journalism in a “post-content farm” world. Unfortunately, the thoughts it mostly provoked in me were: “You’ve missed the point”.

Take the example of the mojito article. Donald seems to make the mistake that since all news is content, it follows that all content must be news. A recipe book with instructions for making the perfect mojito is a great tool for making mojitos. It isn’t a great tool for staying informed about the world. The two things can happily co-exist on the internet. I’ll buy into the argument if he can show me the crucial world news I’ve missed out on when I searched for mojito and didn’t get “NY Times: Spain's Mediterranean Beaches Offer a Different Kind of Paradise ...”, “Telegraph: Royal Wedding: The party hasn't stopped for Pippa Middleton” and “Guardian: Where to eat, sleep and have fun in Marseille”, which is what I get when I ask their search engines about mojitos.

Elsewhere Donald Mahoney says:

“I freelanced at the Metro in Dublin at the peak of the 2008 global financial crisis and wrote front-page economic stories every day, though I did not have the slightest grasp of how a bond market operated or what a credit default swap was. I didn’t bother schooling myself”

And that is surely the nub of the problem with trying to preserve an old journalism model in the connected 21st century. The journalist didn’t bother to school himself in the topic he was covering. Other people in the audience who cared more about the subject no doubt did, and they now have access to the means of publishing. I don’t think the world was a better informed place when the only people with access to a near monopoly of the publishing chain felt happy bluffing their way through complex subject matter because they were the only voices that could get heard.

Content farms aren’t the death of journalism, just as Twitter isn’t and live blogging isn’t and blogging wasn’t and USENET wasn’t. The central tenets of journalistic enterprise haven’t changed. When Donald describes the US News & World Report churning out poor articles about Oslo that don’t rank in Google, he isn’t talking about journalism losing the plot, he is talking about that individual business making a choice to try and compete directly with content farms from a much higher cost base, and making a really bad job of it.

The saddest bit for me, when I think of people lamenting about how search and digital publishing have changed the way things used to be, is in Donald’s opening paragraph. Sure, the Huffington Post Super Bowl story was blatant SEO bait. But he omits one crucial fact.

Huffington Post answered the audience’s question.

They didn’t bury it in paragraph five of a profile of the coach.

Or tuck it in the small print of the sports listings.

Or expect the user to flick through to the TV guide and find the start time listed in the “pick of the week”.

They answered the question their potential audience were asking.

If the old news industry doesn’t have the smarts to actually address the information needs their audiences have, then as businesses they will have deserved to fail.

We obsess over the words that go on the little billboards to entice people into newsagents to part with their cash. The search box is the newsagent of the 21st century. Why wouldn’t you write your headlines online in a way that both gets them displayed in search and attracts people to view your pages?

And as a news and information service, why wouldn’t you want to provide the answer to a question that you can see thousands of people are asking?

See also: Is Guardian live blogging really the “death of journalism”?
Chris Moran explaining SEO at The Guardian

3 Comments

I'm surprised it hasn't caught on in the UK. Google "carling cup final 2011 time" and you get, ahem, me copying the HuffPo article word for word but with the sport changed to see if I could do the same. Google "carling cup final time" and after Carling.com you get the version of my post that I ran through Google translate a few times so that it didn't look exactly the same. You dont' get anything useful apart from those.

And as with the Carling Cup, so with the FA Cup recently. It's actually really hard to find results telling you these simple facts - I guess one reason why the HuffPo did it. If you can spend 2 minutes answering several thousand people's question, why wouldn't you? It's surely got to be better than that story about a cat getting in van that circulated on twitter, or the "dog bumps other dog" non stories for last year.

"why wouldn’t you want to provide the answer to a question that you can see thousands of people are asking?"

I get that you are trying to get traffic, which is an important part of HuffPo's business model. However I can't see a major benefit for those of us outside of the news/traffic field. You will get a few people coming to your site, sure, and you may get one or two links, but I can't see you getting customers out of it.

Robert - depends on your site model, yes. But you can also use this approach to earn links even if traffic volume isn't important to you. I was thinking of getting a countdown clock built so I could build some pages for "What time is X" and then I can answer the question and have a live time-left counter. I bet that would earn links from forums, blogs etc. It's in my to-do list.
So even if traffic isn't important to you, you could do something like that to earn links which would benefit your wider site.

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