Doing curation right

By Felix Salmon
June 15, 2010
Paul Carr has a nice old rant at TechCrunch about the way in which Forbes is moving to an unpaid-contributor model:

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Paul Carr has a nice old rant at TechCrunch about the way in which Forbes is moving to an unpaid-contributor model:

There are almost not enough words to describe how wrong-headed this move is: Forbes’ online editorial standards are already in the toilet and Dvorkin has just yanked on the flush. Not only will this new breed of hacks add thousands of pages of self-promotional, unedited (Forbes simply doesn’t have the resources to monitor thousands of contributors) drivel to Forbes.com but, by lowering the barrier to entry to anyone with a keyboard, the publication will also scare away those top tier contributors – captains of industry, statesmen and the like – who are prepared to pen a free article for Forbes just for the kudos that comes from being asked.

He’s right about this: Forbes is doomed if it thinks that running vast amounts of PR drivel (the flacks are already salivating) is any way of building a successful website. Which is not to say that Lewis Dvorkin, newly arrived from True/Slant, is wrong that it’s a good idea for editors to “increasingly become curators of talent”. It’s just to say that Forbes isn’t going to implement that idea with anything like the seriousness or budget that it deserves.

One of the reasons for the enormous success of Twitter is that it acts as a real-time curation machine: the idea is to follow a smart group of people, who are in aggregate reading a lot of material online and who tweet the really good stuff. In that sense, it’s much more efficient at driving you to quality content than say an old-fashioned RSS reader, because the RSS reader has no built-in human quality-control filter. Either you subscribe to a feed or you don’t; you can’t just subscribe to the posts that other people think are good.

Publishers like those at Forbes love the idea of “curation” partly because it sounds sophisticated but mainly because it’s cheap. But curation, done on the cheap, fails. You need a halfways-decent investment, like say that seen at Atlantic Wire, before you can really take off — and Atlantic Wire is really only a nod in the direction that a truly ambitious curator could move in.

Here’s what I’d love to see in a site which took curation really seriously.

First, I’d keep the full editorial budget — and just spend it in different ways, rather than trying to cut it. You should be able to get more bang for your buck, but that doesn’t mean cutting the bucks.

What should be done with that budget? Paying contributors, obviously. That shows seriousness of purpose, and it helps to put a natural constraint on how much material can be published. A curation site should have high standards, and one way to ensure those standards remain high is to force it to pay something — say $50 or $100 — every time a piece is published. And pieces would, wherever possible, be published in full — not just excerpted with a click to read the whole thing elsewhere. Comments should, wherever possible, be unified, using technology from Disqus or Echo.

There would be a large team of smart editors, who would be in charge of finding great content from around the internet. No biz-dev deals allowed: the only way to get content onto the site is to be found and liked and paid by one of the editors. Anybody offering to write for free, or even to pay to get their material on the site, should be politely refused.

The editors, whose key skillset should be reading rather than writing, would be charged with finding material which the authors are happy to see republished. That would naturally exclude most of the mainstream media, and would force the editors onto blogs and tumblrs and places like HuffPo to find the jewels which are published in these places every day by people who would love to get the occasional $50 or $100 check, not to mention prominent exposure on a reputable site.

Tools like Twitter will help the editors find the good material, but it’s hard work, and most of what they read won’t make the cut. Still, it’s great when you do discover a distinct new voice, and it’s also great not to ever worry about pitches or contracts or kill fees or deadlines or people not turning in what was requested of them. Working at a site like this could well be a lot of fun — and the final product, if well designed and well edited, could be very successful. It’s just too bad that nobody has really tried it. Certainly we’re not going to see anything like it at Forbes.

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