The “content” business

One thing I’ve learned from the blogosphere (from Doc Searls, primarily) is that I should bristle anytime I hear someone in the media business use the word “content.”

I think it goes back to a long-ago quote from John Perry Bartlow that Doc pointed to:

“I didn’t start hearing about ‘content’ until the container business started going away”. This was an unfortunate side effect of the Net’s ability to transport and deliver every form of digital art. Broadcasters and publishers came to adopt the language of container cargo–and to believe that they were now in the business of “content delivery” rather selling the writing, programming and other forms of art that their first sources produce and their final customers buy.

Believe me, no writer, photographer,  moviemaker or graphic artist thinks of his or her work as “producing content”, even if its called that in a business context.

For the next couple of days, I’m hanging out with about 350 men and women who run large and small companies in the “business-to-business” media space.

I’m at the annual spring meeting of the 99-year-old organization that used to be called the American Business Press. A few years ago, it (we – I was a board member at the time) changed its name to American Business Media because the companies generate less than 1/2 of their revenues from things like advertising, rather they’re in the business of running trade shows and maintaining databases and consulting and owning online media with famous brand names.

Most of the people at this conference are suits (like me). They talk about “integrated media” products — which means packaging together everything one produces and selling it all at once. Unfortunately, they have decided to use the word “content” most of the time to describe the buiness they’re in, as in, “We’re in the content business.” But because of that whole Doc-don’t-call-it-content thing, I bristle when I hear the word.

Earlier this evening, I spent some time visiting with an iconic figure in American business-to-business publishing –someone whose name I won’t mention, but whose name is synonymous with at least two American industries.

This person has been a hero of mine for a long, long time, but he’s always treated me as if I were a peer. As I talked with him tonight, I kept thinking to myself, this is a person who would never call what he creates “content.” And then it struck me why: he’d never call it content because he’s one of the few people running a huge media company today who started his career as a writer (albeit, for his dad) and still writes regularly.

And so, I  decided once again. I’m not in the content business.
If I wanted to be in the content business, I would have chosen shipping or pallet-building or selling Rubbermaid products as my career.

What I do ain’t content.

Update: Although (see comments) what Rafat does is content. And, I must say, some of my favorite content.

  • Rafat

    rex, as someone who covers the content business, i think this whole doc searls pseudo hippie stuff about content is, well, crap…getting too relgious about what we do, or taking ourselves too serisouly, is well, precisely why i don’t care much about labels, or the lack of them…
    and i’m a journalist too…

  • Hudge

    In the trucking world which I inhabit sometimes, there’s a large carrier who hires independent contractors – owner-operators of trucks – and calls them “business capacity owners.” It is, to me, a dehumanization of the individuals, yet it recognizes that you can pretty much swap one BCO for another in the quest to get the cargo there. “Content” has always conveyed the same sense – it doesn’t matter so much what it is as long as there is something. And the fewer words the better, because we know people don’t read anymore.

  • rex

    But we still need the words so there will be a nice field of gray around the photos. Right, Bill?

  • G-man

    I don’t understand the aversion to the word “content.” Believe it or not, newspapers refer to what they print as content as well. They look for new sources of content, online content, special sections content, daily content, enterprise content, etc.

    Content is the words and pictures. Now, not all content is good content, but that’s another issue. Reporters and editors don’t always embrace the word “content” because they think they are doing more than providing a commodity, but mainstream media needs content just like blogs or TV or radio or any other media you choose to name.

    The unique things about the blogosphere is that it has that blogs and web sites can be updated in read time, have a wide potential reach and have capacity for direct, immediate and unfiltered interaction for the people consuming or reacting to the content. It can also link to other sources

    The drawbacks of the blogosphere relate directly to its strengths. Speed in posting does not mean the information shared is accurate or true. It may be only opinion, not fact.

    Another difference is that people expect information in the mainstream media to be true, and that same expecation may transfer to the blogosphere, but media outlets lose credibility with readers if their content is in error. Bloggers may find the same thing for those who venture beyond online journaling to “coverage” of politics, sports, religion, community events, concert coverage, stock market results, etc.

    The Fourth Estate isn’t just a fun gig with press passes to get into cool places. Responsibility comes with it.

    You can get wrapped up in what people call your content if you like, but in the end it will be the content and the character that makes all the difference in whether the blogosphere becomes a valuable journalistic tool or just a somewhat static online chat room.

  • Doug Shore

    Rex — that page somewhere near the front of each of your magazines that lists all the articles and the pages on which they appear, that’s called the Table of Editorial? Table of Information? Oh well, they’re your magazines. Whatever you want to call them, I will be content.

  • lcreekmo

    Oh I’m glad you told me we aren’t in the content business. Because I’ve always said we are. 🙂 I’m with several post-ers above…in this case, it’s so much semantics. I think “content” is a convenient shorthand that many people in the marketing and media businesses understand today. When someone wants to know more, I have a longer and better explanation than “content.” But people know what that word means. When you’re in the proverbial elevator giving your 30-second speech, it’s not a bad word.