NSFW: Content Is King! Rest In Peace, Content

“Can Tim Armstrong make AOL king of content by 2010?”Blog headline

If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well / It were done quickly”Macbeth

There’s something about the idea of “New York Internet Week” that I’ve always found inherently funny; like “Saudi Arabia Bring Your Daughter To Work Day”, or Greenland being called Greenland.

Ironically for a city that’s always been so adept at branding itself, New York has always struggled to articulate its place in the worldwide web, and Internet Week is the clearest manifestation of that identity crisis. Name an industry that the Internet is disrupting: newspapers, publishing, advertising, banking – and you’ll find its heart in Manhattan. Despite the best efforts of Mayor Bloomberg and, uh, Dennis Crowley to paint New York as the place to do business in Web 3.0, the fact is that billions of advertising and investment dollars continue to flood west, never to return. And yet New York, bless it, continues to try to stay relevant – for one week a year at least – to the industry that’s bleeding it dry.

Witness the Webbys – the awards ceremony that congratulates New York based celebrities who have learned to tweet – witness the awkward panels filled with mismatched home-grown personalities (“Julia Alison meets Jeff Jarvis“) and witness (if you can’t avoid it) the week-long parties where thousands of identically unique hipsters cram into lofts to drink booze sponsored by one or all of the east coast’s four successful start-ups.

Even when they invite west coasters to get involved, the effort manages to come off more weird than wired: I was flown to town, on the kind of handsomely subsidised meal ticket only New York can offer, to moderate a panel on “Internet dating in a web 2.0 world” for an audience of feature writers from women’s magazines. This despite the fact that asking me to help navigate the minefield of online dating is like asking Rudolf Hess to give guided tours of Dachau. Nice try, New York.

And yet. While it’s easy for me to mock New York Media’s bewilderment over the Internet (see!), there was a marked change in atmosphere during this year’s Internet Week, compared to last year’s. A definite uptick in confidence, not all of which can be put down to the fact that Dennis made it on to the front cover of UK Wired. No, the change in attitude in New York towards the Internet can more fully be attributed to one word: content.

New York is a content town and, thanks in large part to AOL and Yahoo, content is once again king. Speaking at Disrupt last month, AOL’s Tim Armstrong boasted that AOL “is planning on being the largest high quality content producer for digital media”. Yahoo is taking a similar – if less clearly defined – approach, purchasing Associated Content for somewhere in the region of $100m and now, if rumours are true, eying up the Huffington Post. For the New York media crowd, this is great news – great news for journalists who are being laid off left right and centre, great news for newspapers and publishers who smell lucrative content syndication deals and great news for pro blog networks who might finally see an exit. If content really is king, then New York is its ready-made kingdom.

And yet. And yet.

The way that the likes of Tim Armstrong use the phrase “content is king” conjures up a noble image. An image of professional journalists and highly-skilled writers, possibly wearing crowns, slaving over hot typewriters to produce 1000 words of crisp copy for an eager online audience; or perhaps of sharply-written web video, a la College Humor’s original programming, or the New York Times’ daily video podcasts. For ‘content’, New York media folks read a web 3.0 of professionally produced news, analysis, entertainment – the antithesis of web 2.0’s user generated horse-shit. No wonder they’re salivating.

But that’s a very east coast – with its proud history of newspapers and publishing – interpretation of the word. Over on the west cost (and note: I’m using that term in its laziest sense to cover all Internet companies including those who, by accident of birth, have offices back east), “content” means the precise dictionary definition of the term: “something contained, as in a receptacle”; generic filler to pack inside an empty box to make it attractive to advertisers. Low-paid, illiterate swill, commissioned by the ton to provide SEO ad inventory. Just consider Associated Content and how it describes its goals post- Yahoo acquisition…

“Associated Content is now a part of Yahoo! – the world’s largest online company, with more than 600 million unique visitors a month. Yahoo! plans to leverage our content to extend its leadership and build upon their global properties to deliver personally relevant content in a scalable and efficient manner.

I mean, kudos to the company for not using the words ‘writing’ or ‘journalism’ to describe what their crowd-sourced hacks do, but it’s still hard to imagine a more mercenary way to describe the craft of writing. These are not writers, or journalists; these are self-confessed generators of content in the much the same way that horses are self-confessed generators of glue.

At least the Huffington Post employs real writers – assuming your definition of ’employs’ doesn’t require there to be payment or any meaningful editorial support and if your definition of ‘writers’ includes the authors of stories like “Sex Tapes Of The Past Decade: A Look At The Noughties’ Naughtiest” and “Indonesia’s First Celebrity Sex Tape Scandal” and “Kendra Wilkinson’s Sex Tape RELEASED, NSFW Preview” – all examples from the past few weeks.

Even the web editions of respected offline brands are going the same way. The editorial focus of Forbes Online – a mish-mash of celebrity slideshows and tacky lists of ‘Americas best paying blue-collar jobs‘ and ‘hottest summer convertibles‘ – couldn’t be more different from its print counterpart which still has ambitions to be a serious news magazine. (Truth is, today’s Forbes Online is a pale shadow of even its own glory days: this is the online publication which saw Adam Penenberg break the Stephen Glass story).

Of course, the relationship between editorial content and advertising has always been strained, in a cant-live-with-it-cant-live-without-it way. But in traditional media – for the most part – the lines were respected: editorial staff did their job, advertising staff did their job and somehow the relationship chugged along.

In new media, however, editorial content exists to serve only one purpose; as a hook on which to hang advertising. When an Internet company commissions content, their measure of success is quantitative not qualitative: does the block of words pack in enough high-buzz keywords to rope in a hundred thousand or so Google searchers? And can it be spread out over enough pages to provide half a dozen ad impressions for each of those users? If so, great: now they just need the users to click on one of those ads and GTFO, which probably explains why so much online content peters out within 30 seconds of the headline.

Jeff Levick, president of global advertising at AOL, sums up the company’s editorial policy thus: “we have insights into our audience, and can produce content they want, which leads to engagement, which leads to what advertisers want.” Therein we see the critical difference between the old media attitude towards content and the new media alternative.

The old model favoured originality: break a story that no-one else has covered or write a fresh new take on the world and the audience would come, bringing with them advertising and sales. Under the new model, originality and exclusivity are the kiss of death. SEO-driven advertising depends on knowing what people are already looking for, and delivering content that satisfies that desire; nothing more nothing less.  SEO-driven content is the opposite of journalism and creativity, just like New York’s interpretation of the phrase ‘content is king’ is the opposite of Silicon Valley’s.

It’s a depressing truth, but an important one for anyone in New York media – or elsewhere – gets too excited about the idea of a content revival. Before Harry Potter, no-one knew they were looking for books about wizards; before the Washington Post broke their most famous story, no-one knew they were searching for information about a robbery at the Watergate building, or the subsequent money trail to the White House. Put simply: if Ben Bradlee were an editor at one of today’s Internet companies, instead of the Washington Post in the 1970s, he’d almost certainly have spiked the first Watergate exclusive in favour of a slideshow of cats who look like Nixon.

“We know there’s a market for that shit. I’ve seen the numbers!”