Groupon Hires Writers, But Don’t Call It Journalism

Group-buying service Groupon continues to get a lot of attention, in part because it recently turned down a staggering $6-billion acquisition offer from Google. But while the popularity of group-powered buying accounts for a large part of the company’s growth, many supporters say that a key strength is the writing talent Groupon displays in its email offers. A piece in The Atlantic entitled “Forget Journalism School and Enroll in Groupon Academy” notes that the company has more than 100 writers, editors and fact-checkers on staff — more than a lot of medium-sized newspapers — and adds that “journalism majors should rejoice” because the company is hiring and training writers. But is that really worth celebrating?

The Atlantic piece goes on to note that some observers have credited Groupon with being one of the top “alternative storytellers” in the media industry, thanks in part to the company’s dedication to teaching its writers how to create engaging and often hilarious copy for the group discounts it sends out to subscribers. And the Groupon handbook of writing tips does have a number of helpful suggestions for making your writing more interesting, such as using the active voice and not resorting to clichés, or employing comedic mechanisms such as absurd comparisons or “fake history”.

That said, however, what Groupon does isn’t even remotely close to what journalists — either the offline or the online kind — are supposed to be doing. The idea behind Groupon’s offers is to convince the person receiving the email to buy something, so that the offer gets accepted by enough people to trigger the discount, and the company gets paid by the retailer who offered it. In other words, it’s advertising — just like writing brochures or marketing campaigns. This obviously requires some writing talent, but the purpose of the writing is very different, since journalism isn’t usually aimed at selling something (other than maybe an idea or a way of looking at a particular issue).

There’s no question that online media is becoming more marketing-oriented — with writers for outlets such as Gawker Media having to worry about “selling” their posts and drawing as much traffic as possible so they can get on the Big Board. The ability to write engaging and witty prose is obviously something that comes in handy in traditional journalism as well as Groupon-style copywriting. But does that mean we should celebrate the fact that aspiring journalists are taking jobs at Groupon instead of doing journalism? The Atlantic piece makes much of the fact that writers at the company — 40 percent of whom have journalism experience — have joined because they are “eager to churn out prose and study the craft.”

But is writing eight to 10 blurbs about cupcakes and clothing for sale really great training for journalism? Maybe it seems like a worthwhile opportunity when most traditional news outlets are cutting back on staff, and one of the only other entities hiring is AOL’s — where writers can expect to share a similar workload writing about local news, but get paid $50 a piece if they are freelancers and might make $40,000 a year if they are editors. If you simply want to get paid for writing, Groupon probably looks like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow compared to that.

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