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Dec 8 / King Kaufman

News as a “product”: What does that mean? No, really: What does “product” mean?

You may have been following the story of the bloodbath at The New Republic in the last week.

Here’s a Huffington Post lede to get you up to speed if not:

NEW YORK—Dozens of staff members and contributing editors at The New Republic resigned en masse Friday morning, less than 24 hours after top editors Franklin Foer and Leon Wieseltier quit over a dispute with management over the magazine’s direction.

New Republic owner Chris Hughes and newly installed CEO Guy Vidra announced Thursday they were repositioning the 100-year-old magazine to become a “vertically integrated digital media company.” They hired Gabriel Snyder, who previously ran Gawker and The Wire, and was most recently at Bloomberg Media, to be its new editor-in-chief.

We don’t need to get into the guts of the dispute between Hughes, a Facebook founder who says TNR must modernize to become a sustainable business, and the old-school journalists who quit as a group, accusing Hughes of replacing journalism values with, in the words of a person quoted by the Daily Beast, “Silicon Valley jargon.”

But it’s worth reading two pieces that get into the use of the word “product,” which we talked about on the B/R Blog recently.

Jay Rosen of NYU created a Storify around some tweets that he says shows a disconnect between how journalists and technologists understand that word. I’ll stitch four of Rosen’s own tweets together to show his central argument:

Technologists tend to ask what the “product” should be, and they know what they mean by that. Product = “what the users interact with.” To technologists, “product” is always changing because tech changes, platforms rise and fall, user habits shift, what works evolves, etc. For journalists, “what should the product be?” is an EASY question to answer. Should be great journalism! Big stories. Brilliant writing. Because of this disconnect around “product,” technologists and journalists talk past one another. Result: “dinosaurs denounce buzzwords.”

Dave Winer, a pioneering software developer and writer who used to do a podcast with Rosen called “Rebooting the News,” writes that as a technologist, he thinks about “product” exactly how Rosen says technologists think about it. Addressing “news people,” Winer writes:

Maybe The New Republic editors were a little hasty? Maybe it was just a language disconnect. I think perhaps you guys just realized there is a world out there that doesn’t think the way you do. Is that really so bad?? For all of our lunacy tech really has produced some good stuff, over the years.

I can’t tell you whether you should embrace a so-called Silicon Valley approach to journalism or stand and fight for old-school journalism. But whichever side you’re on, I think it’s worthwhile to work hard at understanding what everyone involved is really saying, and, as Winer suggests, considering the possibility that someone else’s way of looking at the world might be valid.

Innovation is the dominant theme in the media business in the last decade or two, and innovation always starts with someone looking at the world in a different way.

  • JasonL

    News has been around since medieval times, constantly balancing between giving people what they want versus giving them what they need. It’s too bad many technologists are ignorant of this historical dynamic and approach this as if news has always been one way and the Internet is causing a colossal upheaval and changing it to another way. Technology hasn’t changed the fundamental motivations of homo sapiens one iota. We still want accurate information told in a form (story) that allows us to empathize with the challenges and victories of others. Thinking of news as a “product” or “solution,” that stories can be about objects or ideas instead of people, or that an individuals is a brand… those are interesting Silicon Valley rationalizations but over time we’ll look back and see it as trying too hard to be futuristic.

  • Scott Rosenberg

    Hey King — Jay Rosen and Dave Winer both have valuable things to say here. The one piece I think they miss is the resentment journalists usually feel when they hear their work referred to as “product.” They hear it as a put-down; it sounds like this work they do that they love and that (sometimes) serves the public is just another trinket for sale on a market table. They miss that, to the technology people, the word has an almost mythical elevation; “putting the product first” and “serving the user” are, for most tech industry people calls to arms *against* the pure-mercenary instincts of the business person.

    Thus the two groups talk past each other. Which is a shame.

  • Spruce Cycle

    Rich white and jooish guys trying to hold on to their unjust and monopolistic gatekeeping caste in society. Ha,ha I read blogs by actual Ukrainians and Russians thru the help of Google translate, I don’t need you!