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January 1, 2005

Top Ten Ideas of '04: "Content Will be More Important than its Container"

Tom Curley, head of the AP: "We thought it was about replicating our news and information franchises online." That sums up Big Journalism's Web thinking for the era, 19995-2005. The American newsroom never went to school about the Web. Instead, it took what it was doing and "moved" it online.

The background is PressThink’s Top Ten Ideas for 2004. (“The year in press think, as it were.”) I’m explicating them one at a time. Here I’m on Number 6. Number 5, about news as less of a lecture, more of a conversation is here. Number 4, about open source journalism, is here.

6. “Content will be more important than its container.” Most writers, journalists and critics I know hate the word content. (See this guy, for example, who refuses to say “content.”) They hate it because it’s a leveler: if we say that a news report, a comic strip, a scientific study, and a blog rant are all “content,” then aren’t we saying they’re kind of equivalent? That’s an outrage to a writer, a journalist, a critic, so the word content must be an outrage too, they think.

But content is an analytic term. It refers to the “stuff” media carry rather than the carriage system itself. We need a term like that. It’s not a leveler; it’s just neutral. I think what smart people mean when they “hate” the word content is they hate thinking about things in that way. We should talk about literature— not content.

It was another important thing said by Tom Curley, CEO of the Associated Press, in his big speech this year to the Online News Association: “Content will be more important than its container” in the next phase of Web development. “That’s a big shift for old media to come to grips with,” Curley added. “Killer apps, such as search, RSS and video-capture software such as Tivo — to name just a few — have begun to unlock content from any vessel we try to put it in.”

The means are there to unlock content from any vessel we try to put it in. Those vessels are the big media brands themselves, including the flagships of the press fleet. Here’s Admiral Curley telling them that news is becoming unhinged from “brand,” and so we who make news content have to re-locate where we brand it, and think about adding our voice at every step.

What Curley was saying ran parallel to what ex-newspaper man Tim Porter said in 2003: “The real lesson both the newsroom and the boardroom need to learn is that, in the age of the 24-hour scroll, the micro-fragmentation of electronic media, and the constant clamor for a news consumer’s attention by everyone from the New York Times to yours truly, all that’s left is the journalism.”

And if the journalism isn’t good enough, you’re in trouble. “Quality sells,” Porter wrote. “But, then again, in the monopolies most newspapers have enjoyed for decades mediocre has sold almost as well.” (More Porter: Indistinct Equals Extinct.) Curley again: “The franchise is not the newspaper; it’s not the broadcast; it’s not even the Web site. The franchise is the content itself.”

One example of this is the “stripping” effect of RSS, which stands for real simple syndication. When users encounter new PressThink posts in RSS form, they aren’t “at” my site, and they aren’t visiting the house of content I have carefully built for them in the domain. Look at GSO Live, a good example of an RSS-based site. You can visit with all the Greensboro bloggers, but you don’t have to go to any of their sites.

With RSS, readers get my post, the headline, the subhead— but not the blog environment of PressThink. Therefore the content has to be good enough on its own, without the house. It has to “say” PressThink: no logo, as it were. (This is one reason I put more effort into headlines and subheads than most bloggers. I’m trying to write “for” my invisible RSS readers.)

I think there’s a deeper lesson Curley intended by warning of “a big shift for old media to come to grips with.” Look at the capsule history he gave the crowd at ONA:

When the Web was born as a commercial content enterprise back in the mid-’90s, we thought it was about replicating — that is, “repurposing” — our news and information franchises online. Looking back, the first Web sites produced by many newspapers were very close cousins to the paper-and-ink versions.

Eventually, things began to change. More multimedia elements were introduced, although that was a painful experience for dialup users, and news companies that were used to one deadline a day began to cover stories differently for real-time consumption.

We thought it was about replicating our news and information franchises online. That sums up Big Journalism’s Web thinking for the ten-year period, 1995 to 2005. The American newsroom never went to school about the Web. That remains true to this day. Instead, it took what it was doing and “moved” it online. The results gave birth to the generic news sites we see today, as well as the Online News Assocation. But they also delayed a day of intellectual reckoning, and the costs of doing it that way were a subtext in Curley’s speech.

Here—in the politics of Web avoidance—journalists and the capitalists who employ them cooperated without having to coordinate their response. Publishers and media owners hate spending money on people because deep down they don’t believe their business runs on people. (They’re wrong, by the way.) They believe they own the news franchise, and the franchise—or brand—is what’s valuable. People come and go; journalists can always be fired and replaced. And you can see how a monopoly newspaper, a lazy CBS affiliate, or even an “alternative” weekly that had cornered its market might get that idea.

Journalists, meanwhile, are allergic to the idea of re-learning anything, especially journalism. And so “let’s replicate the franchise online” appealed to both groups. You make a concession to the new platform here and there—multi-media features, more constant updates—but the basic outlines of what you are doing don’t change. And you never have to go to school about journalism and the Web, which would be expensive and humbling.

I recall how astounded I was shortly after starting PressThink when I read an interview in Online Journalism Review with John Markoff, technology reporter for the New York Times, who said that in ten years “I assume that there will still be a paper, that I’ll still be writing for paper and they’ll still be killing trees a decade from now.” When people ask him about having a weblog, he says he tells them: “Oh, I already have a blog, it’s, don’t you read it?”

That complacent and high handed interview today is instructive for anyone puzzling through Big Journalism’s response to the Web. (Read it, and tell me you disagree.) When Markoff said that in ten years he would still be “writing for paper,” he had overlooked something rather important. Already in 2003, a majority of Times readers were online. Markoff and most of his colleagues believe they work for a print newspaper with an online edition. Psychologically, they’re still writing for “the paper.” For most of the readers, however, the New York Times is an online newspaper that also sells a print edition.

Curley spoke of “legacy technology, silo-ed bureaucracies and entrenched workflows” as barriers to progress. But an even deeper barrier is the intellectual legacy of defining journalism by the platform it runs on. And for evidence of that just look at my own institution: NYU’s Journalism program:

The Department currently divides journalism into three types of practice: newspaper, magazine and broadcast journalism. Most students concentrate in one of those three, each with its own requirements and course of study.

And every other J-school in the country has been organzied that way. “Content will be more important than its container” is thus a disruptive idea in journalism. In a way it is similar to that cross-platform battle-cry in the software biz: write once, run anywhere. (Originated by Sun Microsystems as a slogan for Java.)

There’s nothing left but the journalism should be good news for journalists— and J-school professors. But it won’t be until they go to school on the Web. And the truly sad thing is: no one can make them.

After Matter: Notes, reactions and links

Remarks by Tom Curley, President and CEO, The Associated Press — Online News Association Conference, Nov. 12, 2004. Readers advisory: an historic speech.

Richard MacManus at Read/Write Web, Content and Containers. (Jan. 6, 2005)

Dan Gillmor, having said his goodbyes and written his final column for the San Jose Mercury News, launches a new weblog. Dan Gillmor on Grassroots Journalism (“A conversation about the future of journalism ‘by the people, for the people.’”) He reveals who his backers are: Mitch Kapor and Pierre Omidyar. He thanks his many moral supporters (I am one.) As for the new weblog…

I plan to use this blog to ponder the present and future of grassroots journalism; to begin to figure out what we might do together in this new world; and, in general, to have the kind of conversation that this huge topic requires.

The blog will find its way (the comment threads should be interesting) and it will become something different than Dan intended. As Susan Crawford said at her (elegant) blog, “the important thing is that it’s easy to tell that Dan’s whole heart is in this project.” I agree. I had this alternative title for the Gillmor blog, based in part on his interest in things Asian: Citizen Zen.

Gillmor’s farwell column in the Merc is a signifcant work of first-person reflection.

Power. Jeff Jarvis on the lesson of lessons in my Top Ten Ideas of ‘04 list.

To me, the abstraction of the abstraction of all this comes down to one word: power. It’s all about a shift of power from those who’ve had it to those who initially owned it and licensed it: the citizenry. And this is not happening just in media, of course. It is happening in marketing and advertising and commerce and culture and politics and may even come to government. But because the tools at work mimic media — though they are more than media tools — media is, for once, on the front edge of the trend.

Bob Stepno responds to this post with: “Tell the Truth and Run Anywhere.”

Terry Heaton responds with one of his own, warning TV news people:

Every individual television news person needs to understand that technology and consumer demand have taken all the rules of what it means to be a TV reporter, a newspaper reporter, a radio reporter, and a freelance journalist and jumbled them all together into one entity - the multimedia journalist. That person’s mission is to use every means available to bring his or her journalism to the public.

To the public, by every means available. I like it.

Doc Searls snarls at the word “content” again. And he has his reasons. Go look.

See What is the Message, a sophisticated media analysis site from the McLuhan Program at University of Toronto. In commenting on this post, they write:

Old-style journalists—be they the New York Times or CBS Evening News (soon without Dan Rather) or Globe and Mail—truly believe that content is king, and that their content is their brand. To them, the story or analysis or opinion is relatively irrelevant, week-to-week. What matters is the continuation of their brand. For their tentative move online, they require tight control over who accesses their site, and precisely how that access occurs. The contents of the story matters less than the fact that the user access it via a controlled log-in on their site alone, essentially demonstrating that, for them, their brand, being the content of their web presence, is king.

To which I say: “exactly.” That’s why you have to credit Curley with giving a radical’s speech. Read the rest. It’s good.

Over at The Lincoln Plawg, it’s Colour me unimpressed. They think I am all blog hype in my Top Ten List. Stylishly done post. “Blogger’s hubris, the legacy media and top papers’ stock prices.”

RSS-think. Here’s how I put it over at Simon Waldman’s blog: If I visit houses of content, as I seem to do on the Web, that is very different than the content as “visitor” to my house. He’s the Guardian’s Director of Digital Publishing. Waldman used my comments to develop his own thoughts about RSS and news: “We are moving to a world where - from a single interface - we can keep tabs on many, many, many more sources of all different types of information (as long as we can understand the set up proceedure).” See his RSS: a shift, from what…to what?

Simon pointed me to a resource I did not know about, but will be following: On, the social bookmarks site— a list of current links about citizen+participatory+media+journalism kept current by Shane Bowman. (RSS-based.)

Ed Cone notes that GSO Live, which I mentioned here, is “an aggregator I slapped together in an hour or so and keep updated with minimal effort.” Roch Smith Jr., creator of Greensboro101, comments at Cone’s joint: “Curley dismisses the container as being right were it needs to be — as if there is no need for further improvements. Content is king, but the container will advance too through the application of creativity and efficiency. Each will move the other.” (See my short interview with Smith here.)

Meanwhile, blogHOUSTON is a group site for the local blog community that consistently critiques the Houston Chronicle. See, for example, Improving the Chronicle: Some suggestions for 2005. And their About page.

Bloggers Without Borders debuts: “Bloggers without Borders is a citizen journalism hub, dedictated to raising conscience for, and about, events around the world. We use the tools and exposure of modern citizen journalism as a means to lend a hand in the creation of awareness and outbound information management.” Mission.

Mitch Ratcliffe on blog year 2005, “The year when blogging tools part ways with blogging religion for good.”

Beware rebels bearing manifestoes and the sleek taboos of trendsetters. Eat the dead, if their bodies aren’t too putrid, to learn from the lessons coursing through their veins. Start no religions except those you are willing to mock mercilessly. Trust experience without regard to the grammars available from local professional societies. Live and let live, else you will find yourself roasting on the spit of your own dogma. Create to be free, consume to die to yourself.

Here’s some blog news. Longtime PressThink participant “Ben Franklin” comes out as Mark Anderson of the University of Minnesota, who has now started a blog, Poor Richard’s Almanac. Franklin was identified as Anderson by Hugh Hewitt the other day. But Anderson explains it a little differently in his first post. Welcome to blogging, “Ben.”

So far:

Posted by Jay Rosen at January 1, 2005 4:35 PM