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Thursday, December 17, 2020

Content First

Was thinking about content this morning, while trying to go to sleep, and failing.  Happens a lot lately.  What, you, too?

Back in the 1990s, I was a full-charge secretary.  I spent much of my time typing correspondence and some articles for newsletters.  Typing, not doing data entry, which is what I've basically done for the last couple decades. Back then, there were two popular word processing programs, WordPerfect and Microsoft Word.  And they had two very different philosophies about content creation, philosophies which are still influencing us today.

I was a WordPerfect guy, and at the time, WordPerfect (5.1 for DOS by the way) was the most popular word processing software.  Arguably it still is, since nobody does word processing as such much anymore. Microsoft being MS, came out with Word, I'd suppose because they needed one of their own.

I wasn't around for the creation of WordPerfect.  But WP felt to me like it was created for all those folks who'd been typing for years, professional typists, back when typing was a skill with both hands, not an accident with your thumbs and spell-check.  Typing was up front.  Creating content was the first thing you did, and in many cases the last thing and all you did.  WP did a fair amount of predetermined formatting, including full justification, and you could just go with that and have a perfectly serviceable letter come off the printer -- at least in a world where "letter quality" meant looking like it came out of a decent typewriter.

If I wanted something bold or underlined, I could certainly go back later and bold it or underline it, check spelling and capitalization, use different fonts, create headers and footers and such. But content creation came first.

MS Word (in my view as a WP guy) started from the other end.  Pick your fonts, headers, footers, formatting of various kinds.  Define your paragraphs, sub-paragraphs, sub-sub-paragraphs.  Insert pictures and graphs and clipart and borders and-and-and... and after all that, if you had any time or space left, type a little content.  Yes, I'm being snide, I'll say that freely. But I wouldn't say I'm being inaccurate.

The result was a lot of contentless content, a lot of more or less wordless, worthless works.

These days, pointing that out is like arguing about preferences for PCs or Macs.  Few seem to have a use for either.  And hey, I'm old enough to talk about something I did in the 1990s, so many didn't bother to read this far anyway. I'm typing this in a Blog, which is ancient tech these days, too.

But seriously. What do we have for content these days?  We talk about the Death of Print Media, and maybe that's happening. But that's text printed and distributed on paper, with all the troubles that go with that. Paper has it's place and it's advantages we should talk about sometime. The business model, certainly, is falling apart. But that business model is vastly changed from when newspapers started.

And it's still text. Still the "written word." Still "long-form content," with all the thought and research and consideration and preparation that entails.  (Present company excepted; I just started typing.)  It still has value.  Add a picture, if the picture adds value and meaning and information. But start with the words.  Start with the content.

Newspapers had headlines, sometimes huge "lurid, large type" headlines. But those would hopefully be followed by actual content, explaining what the headline means, who did what when and where, and how they did it.  Not why, why ain't news, that someone said "this is why," that's maybe news.

News.  There's a word for ya.  Everyone wants to be a Journalist. But Journalist had a particular meaning from particular circumstances.  There's a perfectly respectable job called News Reporter. Tell folks Who What When Where and How, you're a news reporter.  And don't get me started on "unbiased Journalism."  Oops, too late.

Way back when I was a wee tot, it was hard to travel to other countries, or even to other states or cities for most people.  (Still is, but we pretend it's not.)  Someone got the opportunity to travel to someplace "exotic," they might keep a Journal of their travels, and send occasional excerpts from their Journal to a paper back home for publication. That'd be a Journalist. They'd be sharing their own experiences and their own impressions and their own, very personal, feelings about that place and time and those events.  Biased?  Of course.  There is absolutely no such thing as "unbiased Journalism."

Then there's news reporting.  Respectable, honorable, ancient profession.  Who did what when and where, and how they did it, and often what people said about it. By definition, if you're doing it right, it's not particularly biased. If the writer is expressing their opinion, then it's Opinion, not news reporting.  Perfectly legit to give an opinion, while making clear that's exactly what it is.  There's usually a page or two devoted to exactly that in a "newspaper" of whatever format.

Now, I'll grant ya, newspapers and other outlets are owned by people who want to make money. And there's some owners who lean on their outlets to push their own agendas. Been happening since Gutenberg. Sure, there's the Hearst papers, and the newer clones. Most of the founders of the US owned printing presses, seems like.  Feel free to check my math on that, though.

We have TV, we have various media resources via the Interwebs, some of which are TV-ish, as blogs and such are newspaper-ish (some with more "ish" than others) in terms of the technical style of the content. But look closely. How much of that YouTube channel isn't actually content?  How much is gee-whiz graphics and chatter and what they used to call hail-fellow-well-met?

Non-video websites (rare as they are anymore) are more of the same, seems to me. Plenty of graphics and borders and pictures, and yeah, video.  Lots of "Hi there, I'm such-and-such..." and pictures of their pets and their lunch.  And not much to say, really.  They give their opinions, and don't make much effort to say that's what they're offering. Or they basically offer nothing much. "Lorem ipsum" in 40-point bold italics.  Very pretty, I suppose.

Let me declaim my disclaimer here.  This is rambling and somewhat incoherent. To quote a Robin Williams bit, "That's not writing, that's just typing!"  But it's conceivable I have a point.  And it's a point about paper, certainly, but also YouTube and Twitch and all the others like them, and it's about blogs and podcasts and what-have-you.

Please, create content.  Start with content. If you need a picture or a graph, add one. Don't turn your work into an illuminated manuscript.  We haven't fallen that far quite yet, I hope.

If it's Opinion, say so, if it's Journalism then be clear to yourself and everyone else that's exactly what it is.  If you're going to provide news then provide news, and not Journalism and not Opinion. And be proud of being a News Reporter if that's what you're going to do. Don't let anyone or anything turn it into something else.

Start with the Content.  Worry about the Pretty later, if you have time and think it's important. But do that part in privacy, and wash your hands after.

Further Deponent Sayeth Not.