Farewell, Writing–Hello, Content!

In the writing world, and especially in the digital media community, we’re all guilty of obsessing over content.  We fret over whether our content is good and whether we have enough of it.  Businesses specializing in “content marketing” swear to us that it will be the final word in marketing.  But what do we mean by this incredibly unspecific word?

Drew Breunig explains:

Before the web, we referred to works by the media format which delivered them: as newspapers, magazines, paintings, photographs, records, CDs, and so on. As digital representations grew in popularity these monikers became increasingly awkward. …

So we’ve stuck with “content”.

Breunig is concerned over what he calls the “content creep.”  He points to the fact that online newspapers and magazines are turning their attention from journalism and feature-writing to producing “content.”

What’s so attractive about content?  There are a couple of reasons it’s important.  The first is called outbound marketing: many companies have turned to blogs and social media because, to reach consumers, they need to stay fresh and remain part of the conversation.  Then there’s inbound marketing.  Businesses also need a way of attracting customers in search of a particular product or experience, and you need a steady stream of new content to, for instance, stay on a search engine’s radar.

But two things happen when you replace writing with this catch-all word “content.”  First, Breunig says, they all become interchangeable with each other.  Second, producing content becomes something trivial.  Think about it: if everything you produce is interchangeable, what matters is not what you produce, but how much you have of it. The quality of content doesn’t really matter.

What does matter is what attracts traffic, which corresponds to advertising revenues.  Breunig points to the New York Times, its affiliate About.com, Yahoo!, and newspapers like USA Today as high-profile examples of companies turning to the content market, outsourcing to companies like Demand Media, who enlist freelance writers to produce waves upon waves of content.  Breunig continues:

As a unit of measurement, “content” affects business in real ways. Ignoring the variables audiences care about in order to populate Excel spreadsheets incentivizes weak writing short on substance and attention spans.

When writing is turned into mere content, not only is quality unimportant, but concern for the audience goes right out the window with it.  We’ve all seen webpages so overloaded with pop-up advertising, fake links, and social media sharing buttons as to be incomprehensible.  Rather than support quality writing to generate that might generate a larger audience, companies seem to be going the opposite route: bleeding your single page view, before you’re likely to backtrack, for all the ad revenue it’s worth.  Here’s hoping for a reversal of writing’s fortunes.