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On Content and Relevance in Media February 17, 2012

Posted by Peter Varhol in Publishing.
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My first foray into technology publishing was at the end of 1988, joining Phil Lemmons, Cathy Baskin, Dave Betz, and other talented people in starting a new computer magazine.  Like most startups, it faltered for a combination of reasons, closing completely after about three years.  But I found what I was good at in life.  I spent the next 20 years doing it either full time or moonlighting.

There have been many changes in technology publishing, and publishing in general, in that time.  Much of that, of course, has been driven by the Web, which lets anyone be a publisher, provides unlimited space for stories, and offers the potential for worldwide content distribution.

In the 1980s and into the 1990s, tech editors and writers tended to be people with a technical education and/or experience.  We were paid fairly close to technical salaries (I actually got a nice raise over my previous software engineering job), and were expected to know our subject matter at a deep technical level.

The cost dynamics have changed a great deal, with $10K full-page, four-color advertisements replaced by ad impressions for a few cents.  Whenever I did it full time, I managed to keep close to a technical salary, but those around me became younger, non-technical, and far lower paid.  In most cases, they willingly learned enough to do what their corporate masters demanded, but never really understood what they were writing about.

I mention this because of several interesting articles recently have commented on the current and future state of content in the Web era.  MG Siegler notes that the culture of blogging and seemingly unlimited content in tech publishing has produced a plethora of blogs about other blog posts, rather than about technology.

Felix Salmon describes the quantity versus quality debate, concluding from more recent examples of broadly read, extensively reported and edited content is making a comeback over volumes of lightly reported, poor quality blogs.  However, Felix is known for drawing the conclusions he wants to draw, irrespective of available evidence, so I take what he says with a grain of salt.

And there’s Clay Shirky, who I respect a great deal, who finds himself fighting a rear-guard action against those who believe that the problems with publishing and journalism today are merely cyclical.

I can still speak fairly definitively of tech publishing, and noted a period of the mid to late 1990s where it became less about getting the tech story right and analyzing the implications, and more about interviewing company representatives and presenting those interviews as an industry debate.  That was when I started feeling less a participant in the industry, and more of an outside observer.  I wasn’t expected to (and was actively discouraged from) critically evaluate a statement or technology based on my own expertise.

Today, many of the articles I see are about technology users and their practices.  While any publisher will tell you that’s what people want to read, that’s simply not true.  Most want to read about cool new technologies, not a case study that is more about the personalities than the solutions.

The problem is that it takes people who understand the cool new technologies to write about them.  And publishers don’t employ them any more.  There are still some niche publishers and bloggers who understand the technology and can explain it to readers, but you won’t find it in any mainstream outlets.

It’s a shame, because readers aren’t being well served.  I acknowledge the fact that publishers had to find a way to stay in business, and editorial is always a place to cut costs.  And advertisers use media in a very different way than they have in the past, to gather sales leads, rather than promote their brand.

It’s a chicken and egg problem.  If publishers had continued to produce relevant technical content, would advertisers have spent more?  I don’t know, but based on some of the experiences of those niche publishers, my guess would be yes.

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