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Let’s banish the word ‘content’

By Lewis G. Parker

Yesterday the Telegraph sacked its Editor and handed over control to its “Chief Content Officer”.

Content is a word that a lot of writers and journalists instinctively don’t like. Demeaning to both ourselves and our trade, it makes us feel like Miss World contenders forced to register with the taxman as strippers. But while wordsmiths like to moan about it, we’re still woefully short of a better alternative, so I went in search of one.

Lead with this

English speakers started using the word content to describe everything on a website that isn’t advertising or code in the 1990s because old journalistic terms were inadequate. Even if bloggers knew what copy was, they no longer “filed” it to anyone.

For people whose stock in trade is words, journalists have historically made a terrible hash of using them, particularly when describing their own realm.

A fine example is using the same word – lead or leader – to describe many different things.

For the misguided student thinking of applying for work experience in a newsroom: a lead article is a story that goes on the front page. It can be used in the same context to say, “We’re leading with the Titanic story tomorrow.”

But the lead – or, to make things so much clearer, lede – also refers to a specific piece of text at the top of any story.

Confusing 

So reporters can find themselves rewriting the lead (or lede) on a lead article. Often the lead story will be the subject of the day’s leader column – another word for editorial – which is discussed at a leader conference.

And of course, a lot of great stories begin with a lead, which is word for a tip-off or opening.

Discontent

After polluting the language with confusing terminology for so long, you’d have a point in arguing that journalists disqualified themselves from having any more say in what their work is called. But content really is a horrible substitute.

As one broadsheet feature writer told me, “Content is the product of late 2000s lines blurred between marketing and digital journalism. It makes me want to throw up.

“I’m not a content producer. I’m a sodding writer. Call me a shitty writer by all means, but not a content producer.”

The problem is about more than hacks with inflated egos, labouring under the illusion that their work is art.

Animal farm

photo credit: Brian McFadden, New York Times

photo credit: Brian McFadden, New York Times

Less than three years ago, the world’s biggest “content farm,” Demand Media, was reported to be worth more than the The New York Times. Their plan was simple and shockingly effective. Demand Media and thousands of other content farms – the worst kind of copywriting agencies – hired freelancers to churn out search engine-friendly content for pennies.

This effectively put content production on a par with the live webcam porn industry. Calling it a farm was an inspired touch, as it cemented a neo-feudal relationship between the corporate site owners and underpaid producers of written material, none of whom could rise up like the pigs in Orwell’s fable of economic exploitation.

And content is actually a fitting word for this kind of material. It shares the same three letters with concrete, condom and condemnation (and convoluted). For freelance writers, the whole thing was a massive con, and it still is. Thousands of sites still farm out content for as little as 2p a word or £5 an article (if you’re lucky), which is a fraction of what it would take to make a living.

You can tell someone to get stuffed – which is exactly what you should say to anyone who asks you to write for 2p a word

Given how content burst into the lexicon as a word that means essentially the filler of empty space between HTML tags, we could have ended up with an equally uninspiring term such as matter, substance, filler, muck, or even just plain old stuff.

At least stuff doesn’t double as an adjective that means one is content with the status quo. You can tell someone to get stuffed – which is exactly what you should say to anyone who asks you to write for 2p a word.

Content is king?

Simon Hinde is the director of journalism and publishing at the London College of Communication who first heard the word content in 2004 when he moved from newspapers to Yahoo!. While working in print media, he found its terminology – all the talk of copy and leads – to be equally reductive, so he isn’t that bothered by content.

“I wasn’t very keen on it at the time, but it performs the useful function of including all the different types of journalism that can be done online: words, pictures, video,” he said in an email. “But if you want to refer to the totality of all the different types of journalism produced for any given website, there isn’t an obvious alternative to content.”

Not having an alternative is one thing, but content has become so dominant that the word – and the ideas it carries – now appears in places it has no reason to be.

Rats

When I spoke to Holly Dawson, editorial director at Ethical SEO, (full disclosure: I’ve worked for them), she replied with a vivid insider view – admittedly at the more savoury end – of the copywriting industry.

Writers are ultimately still insecure ego-driven emotion-rats

“I am pretty old school, but more than that I am a massive snob and I attach a value hierarchy to the stuff I am writing, or the stuff others are writing for me,” said Holly. “So I cling on to the words article and story, as if I work on Fleet Street.

“I am also a big fan of the word narrative. Perhaps the word narrative is the one I use the most.

“I have a value hierarchy because the writing world has one. Writers are ultimately still insecure ego-driven emotion-rats, and I think these words exist in order to establish a lexiconic shorthand for where you are in the pecking order.

“But think about all the incredibly important authors from history who worked as copywriters, or in advertising – so many of them in advertising. Won’t digital media be the same in future biographies?”

Holly’s response explains that in the hands of the right people, content can transcend its label. I still wish it were called something else. Any other suggestions?