The Case Against Content Worship

Via the Media Briefing, this thought-provoking if rambling takedown of publishers’ unwarranted faith in content:

“Once upon a time content in this industry was the reworked press releases that kept the advertising apart on the printed page. It was never valuable and it isn’t now. What is valuable is a deep understanding of what users need in order to better accomplish their work – and a determination to build technology and content into contexts that make improvements that people will pay for and where they will deposit their own content as well.”

The author, David Worlock, is rightly appalled that at a recent conference of publishers, the halls rang with the refrain that great content is the key to surviving the digital transition.

I don’t think Worlock would claim, any more than I would, that excellent content has no value. But what he does say, I think, is that content is not the end of successful publishing, but a means to it. As he puts it, the “new publishing” consists in ”understanding how users work and supplying . . . content in the right context and with the right interface.”

If you think content is king, you should ask yourself the question Jeff Jarvis posed last year: Is the greater value to be found in content itself, or in “the relationships and data it can spawn”?

Think carefully. Your survival may depend upon the answer.

Three Ways to Make Media More Personal

MUD day 20:

Back in the late 90s or early aughts, one of the hot topics in the Web 1.0 world was personalization. On the industry portal site I ran for much of that time, we had what seems now like a pretty lame concept of personalization. We wanted to let our registered users select their interests from a predetermined set of categories, then present a customized home page when they logged in.

We never implemented our plan, but it hardly mattered. The onset of Web 2.0 and social media, along with the impact of Google search, would have rendered our efforts irrelevant.

But the need for publishers to think about how to make media more personal is, if anything, more important now than ever. There are many ways to go about that, but here are three that should be at the top of every publisher’s list for consideration.

1. Aggregate. Personalization means giving readers the information they want. And they don’t just want your own, original information—they want all the relevant content they can find, regardless of where it comes from. So you must point them to it by identifying and aggregating good content from other sites—even from competitive sites.

2. Treat your editors and other content creators as publishers. The old editor-in-chief, top-down, command-and-control approach to managing a content team doesn’t work in an era of personalized content. To make your content more personal, you have to empowever every person on your staff and give them a bigger role in deciding what content to create and curate. You need to encourage and promote their Twitter accounts and other social media outlets, even at the risk of allowing their personal brand to outshine your own media brand.

3. Treat the readers as your staff. The people formerly known as the audience aren’t just your readers anymore. They are participants in creating and disseminating your content. They are in some ways functionally indistinguishable from your own editors and reporters. In practical terms, this strategy means encouraging and responding to comments and highlighting them when appropriate, offering readers platforms for their work (as the Huffington Post has done for its commenters), and even perhaps hiring them are fully-fledged, paid staff.

As I’ve suggested, these three tactics are neither the only nor the required ways to make content more personal. But any publishers who aren’t thinking hard about how to make media more personal are putting their futures at risk.

More on Destination, Identity, and the Future of Content

Thanks no doubt to a helpful boost from Alexis Madrigal, my November 8 post, “The Future of Content Is Not Destination but Identity,” found a passel of new readers this week. One of them was constructively skeptical of my argument.

What does it really mean, he asked, to say the future of content is in its identity? Or that content must be imbued with the brand? However people find content, he argued, they “always wind up back at the brand to read it.” He also took issue with my suggestion that the container—the original site of publication—doesn’t matter anymore. As he pointed out, it does matter “if you want to keep people hanging around on your site reading more beyond the link that brought them there.”

Because his objections are too good to leave in the obscurity of a comment on a week-old entry, and because my MUD obligations limit the amount of time I can spend on this blog, I’m addressing his comment in today’s post.

It’s possible, of course, that I overstated my case considerably, which one is wont to do when blogging. But people don’t always wind up back at the brand to read content. Like my commenter, I read a lot of content in my RSS reader. But unlike him, I don’t go back to the source to read most of it. Thus, for me, the experience not only divorces the content from its original container, but also strips away much of its original formatting. Others may read content through Instapaper or Flipbook, which can similarly deracinate content. And I think this way of reading will only grow more common with time. (UPDATE: That should be Flipboard. And reading through it just now, I realized it actually does a good job of preserving original branding.)

It was certainly rhetoric more than conviction that prompted me to say that containers don’t matter anymore. Done well, they can still lure readers in and keep them hanging around. But containers are not nearly as good at containment in the digital era as they were in the analog. Because it is so easily copied and transmitted, content (not to mention readers) now can much more readily drift away.

When I suggested that, in response, content must be imbued with brand, I was again, no doubt, overstating. Publishers are obviously free to let their content wander off like wayward dogies without any identifying brand on their flanks. But a publisher concerned with promoting and propagating its brand would be wise to ensure that the content carries some form of brand identity. That can be done in a variety of ways: instilling a brand voice into the content (The Atlantic was once superb at this—you could always recognize its voice, no matter the author), incorporating brand references (Wired‘s Wired vs. Tired, for instance), or employing an identifiably distinctive point of view (Reason, perhaps?).

It used to be that publishers and their editors didn’t have to worry so much about this problem. When an article was contained within a print magazine, the context was enough to brand the content. But online, that context is much weaker. To me, at least, infusing your brand directly into your content seems like a smart response.

Should You Publish? A Tale of Two Melvilles

George Whyte-Melville via Wikipedia

Not Herman

Is what you write worth publishing?

Once upon a time, that wasn’t your choice to make. It used to be that the threshold to publication was as high as the transom. The only way most people could hope to cross it and break into print was through an unlikely toss over a publisher’s front door.

The Web, of course, has flung the door wide open, and there are few barriers to publishing left standing. One significant one, however, remains: The fear—or conviction—that your work isn’t good enough to deserve publication. Even though the power to publish is entirely in your hands, you may not do it.

Whether you call it the lizard brain, or the Resistance, or simply taste, most of us have personal quality filters that aim to eradicate anything we perceive as flawed. These filters are reinforced on a larger scale by devices like best-seller lists or books such as Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur, which either by effect or intent try to set limits on what is worth writing, publishing, or reading.

Wouldn’t we all be better off if we didn’t spend so much time writing, reading, or otherwise consuming second-rate content? Sure. But here’s the problem. While it’s obviously true that 95% of content is crap, what isn’t so obvious is which part is crap and which isn’t.

You may think you know. But statistically speaking, you probably don’t. Most of us just aren’t very good at judging the true worth of content.

This has always been the case. In the 19th century, for instance, literary judgment was often dead wrong.  I realized this back in my grad student days. Once, when roaming the seventh floor stacks of the enormous Olin Library at Cornell, I came across an impressive, luxuriously bound set of the complete works of a British writer named George Whyte-Melville.

Whyte-Melville, I found, was a popular and well-regarded novelist  from the 19th century. Though I was a student of that period’s literature and had been grinding through a book a day from that era for the past year, I’d never heard of him. I sampled a few of his novels. They were, to put it charitably, unremarkable. Yet at the end of the century, some publisher had determined that there was enough interest in Whyte-Melville to justify an expensive set of his books.

At the very same historical moment, Whyte-Melville’s semi-namesake and near contemporary, Herman Melville, had not a single book in print. Despite some popularity at the beginning of his career, he had fallen into near-complete literary oblivion by 1900. Twenty years later, the literary world finally came to its senses and now the right Melville is justly celebrated, the other sensibly forgotten.

The fact that so many could be so wrong in their judgments of what’s worth publishing underscores for me the importance of simply publishing everything and letting circumstances and posterity sort out what was really worth it.

Though I have mixed feelings about Dan Conover’s Xark attack last weekend on the literary establishment and its “tyranny of the smugly insignificant,” he’s right to urge creators not to worry whether they measure up:

“I’m calling on writers—professionals, amateurs, anyone who puts words together—to stop caring about what the literati think, write and say. Get over your insecure quest for ‘legitimate’ acceptance.”

Unlike Conover, I wouldn’t write off “MFA programs, book critics and humanities professors.” Nor do I think one should completely ignore Andrew Keen or one’s lizard brain. Now and then, they all have good points.

But in the end, when you’ve done the hard work and it comes to deciding whether or not to publish, the answer should almost always be, “Do it.” You might think it’s not good enough, but as history suggests, you might well be wrong.