Content Strategy, Philosophy, and a Bit More Philosophy

After going nearly a year (yikes!) without really writing much—or at least not much that I published under my own name—suddenly this week, I have two new pieces out.

At WonkComms, I make the case for smarter content that helps Google answer questions rather than just offer up links to pages. Much of that piece was inspired by a fantastic workshop on adaptive content, led by Noz Urbina at Confab last month.

And new this morning: my first-ever piece for The Pastry Box Project. This one is a lot more personal. I talk a bit about my winding path from academia into this whole weird world of content strategy.

On a side note: I still can’t quite believe they actually accepted my piece. Every time I look at the list of contributors, this clip starts playing in the back of my brain.

Oh, and one more note: we launched the redesigned ERG homepage this week, too. Still the same old site under the hood, but: progress. Next stop: a CMS. (I know.)

Confab 2015

Picture via Twitter user @electropoetics (Christopher J. Sparks)

Last week, I headed to Minneapolis for the fifth annual Confab—pretty much the premier conference dedicated to content strategy. It was my first trip…and it did not disappoint.

I’ve several posts that are kicking around in various stages of draft that should be showing up somewhere in the coming days. (WonkComms if I can de-nerd them sufficiently; here if not.) In the meantime, here are a few high-level takeaways.

On Content Strategy and Content Strategists

We’re all just nerds looking for answers.

Jonathon Colman

I don’t really know what you do. I think you’re all wranglers. You’ve got these crazy, drug-addicted llamas running around, and you’re trying to get them organized.

Anne Lamott

Content strategy plans for the creation, delivery, and governance of useful, usable, and brand-appropriate content.

Margot Bloomstein

We make the unclear clear.

—Jonathon Colman

The product manager will want to tell the user everything. It’s our job to figure out what the user needs to know.

Margo Stern

Note for WonkCommers: This statement equally applies when you swap in “researcher” for “product manager.”

On Managing Projects

If you don’t have time to plan, you don’t have time to project.

Aaron Parkening

Gantt charts for me, simplified timelines for thee (non-PM stakeholder).

—Aaron Parkening (paraphrased)

Don’t just do what the client says. Create a strategy, get buy in, then act on feedback to the extent that it’s consistent with the strategy.

—Margot Stern

On Just Being Better

You need to make more messes. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

—Anne Lamott

Pay attention and have a pen.

—Anne Lamott

Wicked problems sap our will to dare.

—Jonathon Colman

Try to think of “perfect” as a verb rather than an adverb.

—Margot Bloomstein

On Writing

Two keys to writing are short assignments and shitty first drafts.

—Anne Lamott

I don’t believe in inspiration. Waiting for inspiration to strike is just a way of getting out of doing your work.

—Anne Lamott

On Collaboration

Other people make your work better.

—Margot Stern

My first reaction to getting feedback on my work is, “Well, thank you for your comments. We’re not friends anymore.” But the only reason you love my stuff is because of the quality of my friends who have helped me.

—Anne Lamott

On Managing Content

Imagine if content smelled. What would your website smell like?

Gerry McGovern (paraphrased)

Columbia College reduced 36,000 pages of web content to just 944. The number of inquiries they received over the web subsequently doubled. “Outdated content actively harms your organization.”

—Gerry McGovern

The Venn diagram overlap between what we know and what our users need to know is very small.

—Margot Stern (paraphrased)

We measure inputs, not outcomes. We make people responsible for producing things, but not for achieving the right outcomes.

—Gerry McGovern

On Structured and Semantic Content

I’m not going to say much right now, mainly because I’ve a lot to say on this topic and don’t want to keep you here all day on what’s supposed to be a highlights piece. Stay tuned for much, much more.

Content without the right metadata is a depreciating asset.

Matthew Grocki

Metadata is a love note to the future.

Rachel Lovinger

Auto-generated metadata is about as accurate as a bored intern.

—Rachel Lovinger

Metadata makes our content able to adapt.

Noz Urbina

Think Tanks as Platforms

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I know I’ve already talked about think tank disruption. And I know this may sound a bit broken-record-y. But.

Think tanks are in serious danger of disruption.

Look, we can talk all we want about how think tanks serve as the bridge between academia and policymakers.

And we can fight about how Facebook prioritizes stupid viral videos. And scoff at the notion that BuzzFeed can do serious news.

We can even suggest, as one person at my organization did recently, that putting an idea on Twitter necessarily requires, “Dumbing it down.”

But none of this changes the fact that a great many new media sites—think Vox and FiveThirtyEight—and even some new projects at old media sites—the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, the New York Times‘ the Upshot—are cutting into the whole “bridge between academia and policymakers” space.

Or the fact that one in five pageviews in the U.S. occurs on Facebook.

Or that BuzzFeed just raised another $50 million in funding, much of which it’s putting toward journalism.

Or that Twitter was the main vector for information about Ferguson. And the Arab Spring. And pretty much every other breaking news story out there.

The media world is changing. But think tanks continue producing content much as we always have. That’s just not a recipe for long term success.

Platforms: A New Way Forward

In a recent American Journalism Review piece, Paul Sparrow suggested a (radically) different path for media organizations. Says Sparrow:

While technology companies have made huge strides in their effort to deliver targeted, customized ads meeting the interests of specific individuals, news/media companies must stop thinking of themselves as just content providers and fundamentally change their focus to become platforms providing critical services, as well as information.

And how are media companies supposed to turn into platforms?

In order to survive, news organizations should start hiring programmers and developers, and partner with other media organizations, to create sufficient technical staff to gain critical mass.

And there we have it. To survive in the brave new world, media companies have to become part tech company and part content provider.

Sound familiar? It should.

It’s Vox. And Medium. And the Atavist. And Circa. And Business Insider.

That said, I’m not sure it’s practical for every single think tank to try to turn into a tech company. As Say Media discovered just this past week, it’s not always very easy to mesh tech company and content provider.  That once very exciting experiment is coming to an end, as the company looks to dump its content properties and focus on its custom CMS.

I think the key here lies in the “partner with other media organizations” part of Sparrow’s suggestion.

Going It Alone

Right now, a lot of think tanks are trying to do it all. We’re all out hiring digital media specialists. Many of us are hiring developers. And designers. And social media community managers. And content people and and and…

The list of people we need just keeps growing.

And even that’s not enough. I mean one developer does not a technology company make. We need back end engineers. And some front end people. UX specialists. Information architects. Content strategists. Web designers. Someone to make sense of all that data we’re collecting.

Suddenly our entire think tank budget is going toward our platform. So who is going to produce the research we’re building all this business to publish?

The problem is that we’re all trying to build miniature digital agencies inside our organization. But we can’t build an agency that is big enough to be effective. So we spend a lot of money (at least relative to our size) while still not keeping up with the Voxes of the world.

So why go it alone?

We’re all trying to accomplish the same stuff. And we all need similar platforms—namely, a CMS that is tailored to producing policy briefings and longform research reports (along with blog posts and event pages and news items and book listings and all that other jazz that comes out of the policy side of the house).

So I’m suggesting one of two things:

  1. That a bunch of forward-thinking think tanks get together and fund a centralized digital team, one that then builds a custom CMS (or heavily customizes an existing open source CMS) that supports everyone.
  2. That an existing agency (or a new one developed for this purpose) build such a CMS and then take on a lot of think tanks as clients.

The first one is radical and different and weird and ultimately unlikely to get buy in from an industry that’s pretty methodologically conservative.

The second one may represent too small a market for any agency to find worthwhile.

I’m not sure where that leaves the think tank industry. But I’m not super optimistic about its future.

Think Tank Disruption and Affirmative Action

Finally stepped out of the ghostwriting/copywriting shadows this week for a couple of new bylined pieces.

First up, for Blog of the Century, a new piece looking at “The Limits of Merit.” The upshot:

One problem with moving from the status quo to a pure merit system is that it would level a giant blow to diversity. But, while the status quo produces more diversity than does a system of pure merit, it turns out not to be much better.

What could actually increase racial diversity at America’s top universities, relative to the current status quo, is shifting to a class-based affirmative action model.

On the navel-gazing side, I argue that explainer journalism might be just as disruptive to think tanks as it looks to be for traditional media. Explainer sites like Vox aren’t good enough to replace a think tank report yet. But no one really thinks that a PDF report is the Platonic form of good wonkery, either. The problem:

Vox is pushing iterations to its site on a near-daily basis. My team at The Century Foundation does well to persuade one fellow per month to release something that’s not a lengthy PDF, an 800-word op-ed, or a long journal article.

Read “Disrupting Wonkcomms” over at the WonkComms blog. Check out “The Limits of Merit” at TCF’s Blog of the Century.

About the NYT Digital Strategy Report

If you follow the digital media world at all, you probably already know that someone leaked a copy of the New York Timesdigital strategy memo to BuzzFeed. It’s long (and blurry—apparently the digital strategy report was printed, then scanned), but definitely worth a read.

I’m still processing the whole thing, but I do have some quick reactions. First, as I mentioned on Twitter, the suggestions put forward have implications for non-media organizations, as well.

A few bits that particularly resonated for me.

Because we are journalists, we tend to look at our competitors through the lens of content rather than strategy. But BuzzFeed, Huffington Post and USA Today are not succeeding simply because of lists, quizzes, celebrity photos and sports coverage. They are succeeding because of their sophisticated social, search and community-building tools and strategies, and often in spite of their content.

It’s not just journalists who do this. I heard it at least once a day at the Congressional Budget Office. And it’s a not-infrequent comment from researchers at The Century Foundation.

Look, no one is arguing that a deep dive into public private partnerships is going to be as popular as 25 Cats Who Have Given up on Spring. But maybe…just maybe…the reason that HuffPo piece on fast food strikes outperforms the think tank report on which is based is that “Fast Food Failure: How CEO-to-Worker Pay Disparity Undermines the Industry and the Overall Economy” doesn’t exactly scream, “ooh, I want to read that!” The fact that you have to open up a PDF to read the report isn’t helping matters, either. “Fast Food CEOs Make 1,000 Times More Than Their Typical Workers,” on the other hand…that’s something I’ll notice on Facebook.

In the digital world, tagging is a type of structured data–the information that allows things to be searched and sorted and made useful for analysis and innovation. Some of the most successful Internet companies, including Netflix, Facebook and Pandora, have so much structured data…that they have turned the science of surfacing the right piece of content at the right time into the core of thriving businesses.

Everyone forgets about metadata…They think they can just make stuff and then forget about how it is organized in terms of how you describe your content. But all your assets are useless to you unless you have metadata–your archive is full of stuff that is of no value because you can’t find it and don’t know what it’s about.

Be still my nerdy heart. Metadata is what makes digital content so powerful. But the only way it can work is for authors to stop thinking about documents and start thinking about chunks of content. Of course, as the document makes clear, taking metadata seriously means more demands on editors and web producers…and it requires explaining “how crucial this effort is to our long-term success.”

If history is any guide, that last part may well prove more demanding than actually maintaining a good system of metadata.

That’s it for now. Probably more to come later.

The Future of Digital Longform Publishing

I’ve a new piece up over at WonkComms taking a look at the future of longform in the digital world. My basic point: the foundation of the web is fundamentally postmodern (hypertext finishes off any conceit that the Author is in control of the content). But we’re still writing as if the printing press were still king. Here’s a snippet:

My hunch is that the digital world is going to fundamentally change the shape of storytelling itself. Our conventions of modern storytelling have been driven by the limitations of the media in which they originated—first as part of an oral tradition, and later as part of a print tradition.

What both formats have in common is that they require us to consume stories sequentially.

Read the full thing at WonkComms.

The Week in Review

An annotated list of the things I’ve been reading, writing, thinking, and talking about.

Future Perfect

The latest book from Steven Johnson, Future Perfect makes the case for a new political ideology, one he terms “peer progressivism.” Johnson takes Hayek’s most important insight (namely, that markets often have better information than any group of central planners could ever hope to access) and combines it with the best of progressivism (namely, a genuine concern for the poor and the disenfranchised) to yield something unique. Johnson advocates for distributed solutions to political problems. His suggestions for crowdsourcing decisions about local infrastructure spending are particularly intriguing. Side note: huge thanks to my brother, Josh, for passing this one along.

Modular Web Content

I’m slightly late to the party on this January blog post from Chris Butler. If you’re at all interested in the future of online publishing, it’s well worth checking out. Butler discusses the inherent tension between the type of gorgeous (but typically bespoke) digital longform piece and the limitations of CMS templating systems. Butler suggests moving to modular templates–ones that allow authors to arrange different blocks of content inside a single template.

The Book Metaphor

Interface design often relies on metaphors. Indeed, pretty much everything about the graphical user interface rests of some sort of metaphor, from information storage and retrieval (files and folders) to spreadsheets (ledger books) to, yes, ebooks (think iBooks and its page flips). This piece from UX Magazine reminds us that, however useful books have proven over the past millennium, they do have some inherent UX limitations, one that we might do well to avoid in our design of ebooks and ebook readers.

Death to the PDF

The World Bank released a new study (in PDF, natch) showing that no one downloads its PDF reports. Music to my ears! The Washington Post’s Wonkblog weighed in with the provocative suggestion that, “The solutions to all our problems may be buried in PDFs that nobody reads.” The Guardian, meanwhile, asks “Is the PDF Hurting Democracy?.” That may be too strong. But it’s certainly true that PDFs are an inceasingly-terrible way to present research reports.