Photo of an empty cardboard box

By Christian Wihtol

Eight years ago, the Oregon newspaper where I then worked hired a new publisher. One of his first acts was to start calling our journalism “content.”

At news meetings he made declarations along the lines of: “We need to produce more content for our audiences,” and “We need to get more local content onto our platforms,” and “We need to SEO our content.”

Back then, news execs around the country had been springing this jargon on journalists for a couple of years. Our newsroom — which had remained proudly independent long after others were subsumed by chains and venture capitalists — had lagged behind the times. Maybe the buzz words helped these leaders hold onto their jobs by persuading owners that they knew how to battle the financial wildfire sweeping into the industry. The word “content” certainly signaled a new, cynical point of view: Journalism had become just another consumer product — like dog food, plastic bags, or sheets of plywood. The stuffy idea of journalism as special was dead.

Now the contagion is spreading to film and TV executives, who frequently refer to screenwriting and scripts as “content.”

Sure, screenwriters are happy their recent strike got them a good new contract. But if the implosion of American regional and local journalism is any guide, it is an ill harbinger when your top brass takes to describing your creative work as “content.”

Another harbinger: The Wall Street Journal’s new editor in chief, Emma Tucker, uses the word “content” to describe that publication’s work. That’s unnerved some reporters, according to The New York Times. And well it should.

A dangerous drift of language

I’ve worked in newsrooms for four decades. To me, people in newsrooms are journalists, not content producers. We strive to report and write fair, fact-driven articles or make photographs, videos or graphics for the important work of helping our readers understand their local, national and global worlds.

Has introducing jargon such as “content” helped us? Has it persuaded readers and advertisers to pay more, now that they know they are getting “content”? Has it drawn more young people to consider “content production” or “content curation” as a career?

The shifting semantics seem part of a broader threat to the journalism that many reporters value: in-depth work that yields substantial investigative and narrative pieces. The very possibility of doing such work is what drew many of us to the field in the first place. Yes, we enjoy the rush of writing a spot story on a 6 p.m. deadline. But we also want time to dig. And that seems antithetical to the culture of “content production.”

Of course, the terminology didn’t cause our current catastrophe. But it was a warning signal.

Why pour your heart into interviews, into researching and crafting a story, if some higher-up regards your work as just one more piece of “content.”  How dispiriting is it when our very own leaders engage in the kind of verbal clutter, obfuscation and distraction that we, as journalists, are supposed to cut through?

So, to our distant cousins in the field of screenwriting, beware when your executives label your work as “content.” No less a creative force than actor Emma Thompson recently called use of the term “rude” and “misleading.”

That it surely is.

And it is worse. It conveys that the executives who lead the industry do not value the work they are producing. They are disparaging the very business they are supposed to be encouraging.

Remembering the mission

Back when the term spread in journalism, some journalists and former journalists were quick to mock it. Slate railed against it in 2016; two years earlier, a “senior content marketing strategist,” who happened to be a former journalist, warned against confusing brand-driven content with mission-driven journalism.

But to no avail. These days, ads for news reporters and the like are peppered with references to “content.” And now the top editor at The Wall Street Journal uses the term. Is it a coincidence that other high points of Tucker’s tenure thus far, according to The New York Times, include a focus on “audience data,” the ouster of the newspaper’s chief enterprise editor, and the running of a photo of a wide-eyed surprised cat as the lead page one art in the Aug. 8 edition?

Luckily, good journalists are built for uphill battles. We know our jobs carry unique freedom and heavy responsibility. Our readers know this too, and they want us to do our job. Ironically, as news chains have cut back or closed local and regional newsrooms, our readers’ appreciation of journalism’s very special role has never felt more acute.

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Christian Wihtol writes for The Lund Report health care news website in Portland, OR, after 28 years in editing and writing roles at The Register-Guard in Eugene, OR. He has an MBA from Fairleigh Dickinson University and a BA from Oxford University.

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