The Problem with "Content"

Back in the early '00s, John Perry Barlow said "I didn't start hearing about 'content' until the container business felt threatened." Linux Journal was one of those containers—so was every other magazine, newspaper and broadcast station. Today, those containers are bobbing around in an ocean of "content" on the internet. Worse, the stuff inside the containers, which we used to call "editorial", is now a breed of "content" too.

In the old days, editorial lived on one side of a "Chinese wall" between itself and the publishing side of a newspaper or magazine. The same went for the programming and advertising sides of a commercial broadcast station or network. The wall was transparent, meaning it was possible for a writer, a photographer, a newscaster or a performing artist to see what funded the operation, but the ethical thing was to ignore what happened on the other side of that wall. Which was easy to do, because everything on the other side of that wall was somebody else's job.

Today that wall has been destroyed by the imperatives of "content production", which is the new job of journalists and everybody else devoted to "generating content" in maximum volumes, all the better to attract "programmatic" advertising.

You can see the wreckage of one such wall in a January 2017 The New York Times story titled "In New Jersey, Only a Few Media Watchdogs Are Left", by David Chen. In it he writes, "The Star-Ledger, which almost halved its newsroom eight years ago, has mutated into a digital media company requiring most reporters to reach an ever-increasing quota of page views as part of their compensation."

As I explained in my January 2016 article "What We Can Do with Ad Blocking's Leverage", the advertising we're talking about here isn't the old Madison Avenue kind that lived on the other side of journalism's Chinese wall. It's a new all-digital kind called adtech. While adtech is called advertising, and looks like advertising, it is actually a breed of direct marketing, a cousin of spam descended from junk mail.

Like junk mail, adtech is data-driven, wants to get personal, finds success in tiny-percentage responses and excuses massive negative externalities. Those include wanton and unwelcome surveillance, annoying the crap out of people and filling the world with crap—including fake news and fraudulent advertising.

Here's one way to tell the difference between real advertising and adtech, using the Star-Ledger as an example:

  • Real advertising wants to be in the Star-Ledger because it values the paper's journalism and readership.
  • Adtech wants to push ads at readers anywhere it can find them, based on gathered intelligence, algorithms and whatever else shows up in live auction markets for eyeballs.

In the old advertising-supported publishing world, journalism was what mattered most. In the new adtech-supported publishing world, content is what matters most.

Real advertisers in the old publishing world were flattered to be in the Star-Ledger. Adtech-oriented advertisers in the new publishing world just want to "go digital", whatever it takes. And there are thousands of intermediaries to help with that.

As I wrote in "Separating advertising's wheat and chaff", it is because of that orientation, and those intermediaries, that "Madison Avenue fell asleep, direct response marketing ate its brain, and it woke up as an alien replica of itself."

That's also why, to operate in publishing's new body-snatched economy, journalists are incentivized to meet that "ever-increasing quota of page views". When the incentives are volume-based. what happens to quality?

It is essential to note that adtech, by design, doesn't care about journalism at all. That's because adtech values a maximized sum of content in the world, regardless of how good that content is or where it comes from. The more content, the more places ads can be run.

It is also ridiculously easy to make adtech money with content, especially since there is nothing about content as a substance that requires facts to back it up. This is why, according to Buzzfeed, teenagers in one town in Macedonia made as much as $3,000 a day by generating fake news (such as "Pope endorses Trump") during the 2016 US presidential election.

In my January 2017 EOF "Debugging Democracy", I made the mistake of opening with negative remarks about the winner of that election, which distracted readers from my main point, which was that journalism is corrupted, marginalized and suffering in a world where a business based on surveillance stokes people's prejudices and drives them into mutually hostile echo chambers, damaging every democracy that depends on having at least some common ground on which agreement, or at least compromise, can be found. And I thought the topic was a good one for Linux Journal because readers such as ours are in a good position to help fix it.

I also think publishing needs to re-brain Madison Avenue and its employers who are drunk on digital and demand real advertising by real advertisers who want to sponsor real journalism.

To support that effort, I will now cross our own Chinese wall here at Linux Journal and thank the advertisers listed each month below my column. Those advertisers are brands in the best sense of the word. I hope we attract more like them to Linux Journal with this simple fact: even though countless $billions (or perhaps $trillions by now) have been spent on adtech, not one brand has been built by it.

Bonus links: Don Marti's "Targeting failure: legit sites lose, intermediaries win" and Bob Hoffman's Adtech's Massive Failure.

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Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal