Content and Its Discontents


December 7, 2008

By VIRGINIA HEFFERNAN
For years, we in traditional media have consoled ourselves about the increasing irrelevance of our work. First, we insist that content is king. If a story, image, film or report is compelling enough — a candid photo of Malia Obama, “Slumdog Millionaire,” the columns of Maureen Dowd — it will translate into pixels. It will flourish on any platform, dominate every sport. By this logic, creators, producers, artists and journalists should attend only to producing great work and leave the current changes in the distribution and display of information to nerds in suits.

When that argument doesn’t add up, we console ourselves another way. We say that classic 20th-century forms like Hollywood movies and glossy magazines breed natural digital extensions. A video game can be spun out of “Gossip Girl.” Social networks can coalesce around publications like The Economist or Vogue. Maybe these secondary media will draw people to the main event or maybe — we have been reluctant to notice — they will be the main event themselves. Either way, it’s O.K. If a trained and talented old hand makes the primary content, young people who understand iMovie or know how to moderate message boards — someone’s nephew or baby sitter, maybe — can spin off the other stuff.

Then there’s the troublesome third argument, the one we know is true. This is the one that admits that the content that thrives in the new distribution-and-display systems is suspiciously different from the American popular culture we used to love even 10 years ago. Thrillers, it seems, don’t flourish on Hulu. No one is reading a six-part investigative series about mayoral malfeasance on Twitter. And if it’s the afterthought message boards — the ones moderated by interns — that draw all the traffic, why are we in old media pouring so much money and time into “main event” programming that goes unread and unviewed?

The third argument says we have to change. We have to develop content that metamorphoses in sync with new ways of experiencing it, disseminating it and monetizing it. This argument concedes that it’s not possible to translate or extend traditional analog content like news reports and soap operas into pixels without fundamentally changing them. So we have to invent new forms. All of the fascinating, particular, sometimes beautiful and already quaint ways of organizing words and images that evolved in the previous centuries — music reviews, fashion spreads, page-one news reports, action movies, late-night talk shows — are designed for a world that no longer exists. They fail to address existing desires, while conscientiously responding to desires people no longer have.

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