I’m Not Content with Giving Content

My daughter asks a lot of questions; she wants to know the definitions of words, what things mean she hears on the news, what I think of something on Facebook or You Tube. She needs help choosing books to read, formulating political ideas, and coming to conclusions.

Dictionary, encyclopedia, library, newscast, advice columnist, that’s me, her very own “content provider.” When something happens that she has somehow missed, she says to me “Why didn’t you tell me?” If I have often wondered how she would fare without me, the fact is that I have made her as lazy as the rest of the world, spoon-feeding her bits and pieces of information despite myself.

When I wanted to know something as a child, my parents would say to me, “Look it up,” and sometimes I even did. I gathered my knowledge on my own, one book leading me to another, one idea to something else, related or not. Thirsty for knowledge, information and even wisdom for my entire life, I became, along the way, so wedded to words that I became a writer. Trained, educated and schooled, I worked as a journalist for a decade before turning to writing fiction full time. In the course of the past three decades I have published both fiction and nonfiction, essays, interviews, and reportage.

Now, though, it seems I have become just another “content” provider, not only to my children but to the world at large– because the difference between writers and content providers is becoming very very thin. At this point everyone who posts to the Internet can call himself a writer and too many do. There are blogs for every possible subject matter written by every possible kind of person but unlike in the past there is no filter. It’s as if vanity publishing and self publishing had married and had octuplets and those children had had even more octuplets and so on. The amount of “content” is spiraling out of the control of both the purveyor and the user, while more traditional means of publishing information are slowly sinking out of sight.

The word “content” has replaced the words “news” “reporting,” “essays,” “features,” “interviews,” and so on. There is no writing. There is content. There is no longer journalism, per se, there is content. And to too many people all content is equal. What one gets from a spurious internet site is as valuable as what one gets from a respected newspaper or magazine. NPR is just like Fox News is just like NBC Nightly News is just like……

Novels and memoirs are confused. No one understands the difference between fiction and nonfiction. Fiction is pretty boring anyway, right? Compared to real life.

“Gawker” is as reputable as People which is as informative as The National Enquirer.

Collect one, collect them all.

A few days ago, a tweet sent me to a site that claims there are 91 journalism blogs on the web. http://blog.journalistics.com/ Some who commented listed more. These are usually independent of what we used to call journalism: newspapers and magazine that feature in-depth reporting and now have a web “presence.” Some of them aren’t journalism at all but about journalism and there is a rather lively debate about what some like to call “citizen journalists,” but which others liken to “citizen surgeons,” untrained but still willing to learn on the job. Recent statistics compiled by a contributor to “Open Salon,” one of the sites to which I currently contribute “content,” says that there are 10,000 plus other regular contributors to the site; I am unsure as to what the word “regular” means, but I’ve only read a fraction and I still can’t keep up. This is even more shocking when one considers that OS is one site out of …… who knows? The fact that 10,000 people are writing for one site out of tens of thousands, means that far far more people are writing than reading.

And what we can actually find is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to content. According to a speaker on National Public Radio, the search engines we use only give us about one percent of all possible information that is actually contained on the internet. No wonder my daughter is often frustrated when told to look something up. Unless one enters just the right combination of words, the correct “open sesame,” the door will not open. What is hidden underneath can be found but not without some extra work.

So: there is too much content and not enough of it is accessible. How is that for a conundrum?

There is a lot of information out there in the great Internet beyond. I try and keep up but that is completely impossible. I love the links friends send but I have neither the time nor the resources to view all of them. There is so much “content” available that sifting through it, separating the wheat from the chaff, is a full time job. I don’t have the hours to devote to it full time, which is what it would take and then some. In addition, a lot of what I do see is, well, dreck. Stuff that would never have seen the light of day a few years ago: ego-ridden nonsense, grammatically awful and contextually void, not to mention badly argued. I have, in fact, contributed a piece or two with some of those flaws myself, unfortunately. But I hope not too many.

Journalism, despite the number of sites reportedly reporting it has undergone a sea change. Between 24-hour news and the internet, the public’s short attention span has grown ever shorter so that news is about the length of the text on the back of a cereal box and just as interesting and “new.”

And it’s also becoming far less easy for even the most discerning eye to tell what is opinion and what is real reporting. If the New Journalism brought the author into the story to good effect, the blogger brings in not only himself but his opinions disguised as fact and mixes it all up into a turgid stew. With the old guard (and I may be sounding like a Luddite here) there was a sense that the writer and the editor of those pieces took responsibility for them. Today, half of what is blogged is under a pseudonym and there is no sense that anyone is taking responsibility in either the short or the long run.

Magazines that run lengthy investigative pieces or novella length essays ( One I particularly liked was a New Yorker feature by Jane Kramer which, in glorious writing, details her many Thanksgivings around the globe ) are read by the few and far between. While I was researching and writing this article I came upon an advertisement in my favorite magazine, Harper’s (which I have been reading since I was 15, in all its incarnations). “Warning” it says in large white letters on a red background, “Harper’s Magazine is 100% content free.” There is a large circle with the word “content” in it and the familiar strikeout. The ad goes on to say that instead of content, Harper’s gives readers “literature. Investigative reporting. Criticism. Photojournalism…” and on and on. It’s a darling ad and strikes right at my heart, but I fear fewer and fewer readers and writers are listening.

Print writers have long decried the lack of any real editors in the marketplace (the closest we get on a regular basis is when an anthology editor not only chooses the contributors but actually works on the stories.) The likes of Maxwell Perkins and hundreds of others are dinosaurs. But now online people are being called “editor” who have never edited anything in their life. Their “editing” consists of picking and choosing which pieces will figure prominently on a blog site. The pieces themselves receive no comment other than from those who choose to comment (often quite nastily, but that is the subject for another time). The so-called online critics become, then, the purveyors of what is and is not read, what does and does not go viral. And the lowest common denominator is winning, if it hasn’t already crossed the finish line.

As an editor at several print magazines, I edited. I worked with writers to make their stories and articles better. Then copy editors edited copy for facts, grammar, misspelling, and confusing syntax. In the many hands made good writing great. Writers could be taught how to make their work better. Now “writers” send out their work to the great unknown, unfiltered. And if everyone is a writer and all “content” is equal what become the distinguishing characteristics?

A friend, who is a Pulitzer Prize winning author and former magazine journalist, told me she was looking through her past work the other day and was stunned at the amount of research, writing and editing that went into a magazine we both once worked for. A city magazine that took itself and its mission seriously, something not even most national magazines seem to do anymore as so many of them spend time revamping and restyling themselves to make the writing easier to read, shorter, and more palatable to people who really don’t want to read much in the first place. She asked me if anyone has any idea what the impact of all this will be. “Does anyone care?” She does, I do, but precious few others, it seems are raising the alarm. Each day newspapers and magazines shut down with alarming rate, more and more “journalists” are unpaid and therefore unsupervised, and more and more “information” is culled from other sources and reworked to mean even less than it did. All the while, everyone has an opinion on everything and said opinions live forever on the internet.

She also chastised me for “giving away” my writing to blog sites, much as she likes how I write and what I write about. And she’s right. By doing that I am contributing to the downfall of a medium I have loved my whole life.

______________________

Years ago Philip Roth was quoted as saying that he thought that only about 60,000 people in the United States read literary novels. Being both a writer of and an audience for such novels, I have no reason to doubt his assessment. Literary novels are still being written but they aren’t being published as often and when a literary novel goes “viral,” it’s always a shock to the industry that then immediately look for another novel just like the one which was a success.

But the real trouble is that even real writers are no longer allowed to sit (or in Roth’s case stand) at their desk and write, giving only the occasional interview at the time of publication. Writers no longer write and send their work to an agent who gives his suggestions, then sends it to an editor who then helps the writer shape it and make it better before publication. An agent wants a “perfect” manuscript and editors won’t take anything that they can’t immediately see selling. As legendary literary agent Georges Borchardt says in a recent issue of Poets & Writers, “editors can’t make a decision on their own. They have to go to marketing people or other people who know nothing about what the editor and I are talking about to get an offer approved.”

In addition, writers must have “profiles” in order to get book contracts. And those profiles are the responsibility of the writer himself. Writers, or “content providers,” must carefully “tag” their work so that search engines will find it and people will read it. Writers must provide websites and links and their own public relations and advertising. Writers must be famous before they are famous, published before they are published. If one is extremely lucky, one’s marketing and publicity techniques will result in a blog of no consequence being turned into a book of no consequence which may or may not be turned into a movie—of consequence or not, depending on talent other than one’s one.

I am a writer not a blogger. Each essay or bit of reportage I sent out into the internet netherworld is as carefully crafted as if it were going into print. I am more successful sometimes than others. It would help me if an editor would look at what I do before I send it out and tell me to rework it, that my argument is weak, or that perhaps I might jettison an essay altogether. This is the kind of valuable service I have offered myself (for money and occasionally for free) to dozens and dozens of writers and the kind of service I would love to have offered to me. Were I writing for a site that paid I might be able to expect it. Although maybe not. Yet I am not so wedded to everything I write as to not see the value in a clearer eye.

Yet I have succumbed, like so many other writers out there, to becoming a “content provider” who offers her “services” for free. Because there are things I wish to say, things I think are important to write about and if they cannot all be published in newspapers or magazines then I have to suck it up and either write and not send to the blogs to which I contribute–or not write at all. The second option is not an option. The first demands a sense of self larger than mine. So I continue, foolishly perhaps, to count on some readers like myself who actually can tell writing from “content” and don’t confuse them. I have had audiences of varying sizes reading my work for more than thirty years and just because millions of others are fighting me for that privilege doesn’t mean I will go quietly.

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