The Web: Fast, cheap, and getting worse by the minute

There's more content on the Web than ever before and less that's worth a damn. Will we ever see a return to quality journalism?

An old publisher of mine once said something that has stuck with me over the years: "Cheap, fast, or good. Pick two."

Now, the relationship between journos and publishers is not unlike the relationship between the cobra and the mongoose. That man was 100 percent cobra. But he was right, and here's what he meant.

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If you want to publish something quickly and of high quality, you'd better be prepared to spend a lot of money. That's why daily newspapers traditionally have had enormous staffs (or used to, back in the day).

If you want to publish quality news cheaply, you'd better be prepared to take your time. You can put out a great magazine with a small staff, as long as nobody's expecting an issue every day, week, or even once a month.

If you're looking to get stuff out there as quickly and cheaply as possible, it's going to be crap. That's pretty much guaranteed.

In the 20 years since that publisher made that statement, I've thought about it a lot, and I've found only one exception to this rule. There's a burrito joint about five miles from my house that advertises itself as being "Hot Fast Cheap and Easy." They're also extremely good. That is the only example I can name of anything being fast, cheap, and good all at once.

By and large, Web publishing follows the fast and cheap model. Because I like to pick on it, let's take the Huffington Post as an example. Arianna likes to boast about how she has a staff of 148 editors, which sounds like a lot until you compare it to an operation like the New York Times, which has a staff of 1,100. Moreover, most of Arianna's staffers are wet-behind-the-ears newbies who are repackaging other peoples' stories as fast as they possibly can; the Times' staff is full of seasoned (that is, older and better paid) journalists doing mostly original reporting.

The New York Times: Fast and good.

The Huffington Post: Fast and cheap.

Mostly, though, the Web follows Huffington, not the Times, especially with sites that have no history of print publication (TechCrunch, Gizmodo, Business Insider, and so on). Fast and cheap is the rule. Even publications like InfoWorld, which I would characterize as fast and good, have been forced to cut their expenses to the bone to operate online.

Back when I was only an ink-stained wretch, as many as seven different pairs of eyes would look at everything I wrote before it got published. Now one other person checks my stuff before it goes live -- and that's one more person than many other online publications use.

The idea wasn't to make sure something was perfect. The idea was to make sure it was right. Errors were something you wanted to avoid at all costs because they were painful, embarrassing, and difficult to correct.

These days, correcting errors is relatively easy: just revise the story. Old pixels erased, new pixels added, no big deal. But the vast majority of errors -- sometimes entire stories that are wrong -- go uncorrected on many sites, especially those that grew up entirely on the Web.

Why am I writing about this here and now? About a week ago, a young journalist named Oliver Miller published a confessional about his year as an "AOL Content Slave" on a site called (appropriately enough) The Faster Times. In it, he captures nearly everything that's wrong with today's Web publishing world. He writes:

I was given eight to ten article assignments a night, writing about television shows that I had never seen before. AOL would send me short video clips, ranging from one to two minutes in length -- clips from "Law & Order," "Family Guy," "Dancing With the Stars," the Grammys, and so on and so forth. ... My job was then to write about them. But really, my job was to lie. My job was to write about random, out-of-context video clips, while pretending to the reader that I had watched the actual show in question. ...

That alone was unethical. But what happened next was painful. My "ideal" turnaround time to produce a column started at 35 minutes, then was gradually reduced to half an hour, then 25 minutes. Twenty-five minutes to research and write about a show I had never seen -- and this 25-minute period included time for formatting the article in the AOL blogging system and choosing and editing a photograph for the article. Errors were inevitably the result. But errors didn't matter; or rather, they didn't matter for my bosses.

Miller's experience may have been extreme, but his circumstances aren't especially unusual. Web publications are under tremendous pressure to crank out as much material as they can as quickly as possible. More stories equals greater Google juice and more traffic; more traffic equals more ad impressions and clicks, and thus more revenue. That's the formula. And it's getting worse.

That is why we see the rise of content factories like Demand Media and AOL's Seed that use algorithms to determine what stories to publish based on Google trending topics. The economics of Web publishing demand cheaper and cheaper methods of producing content, editorial ethics be damned (see publishers and cobras, above).

Seriously, if publishers could figure out how to train monkeys to do this, they would. Only I'm not sure the monkeys would stand for it.

I keep wondering if the Web has a bottom and if we've hit it yet. Will readers finally say "enough" to the crap and demand a return to quality and accuracy? I hope so, but I can't say with any confidence I think it will happen. What do you think?

Has the Web bottomed out yet? Post your thoughts below or email me:

This article, "The Web: Fast, cheap, and getting worse by the minute," was originally published at Track the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter. For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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