Content is King


2015-08-02 – If you’ve ever played chess, you know that, when the king is “captured,” the game is over. The king is king. Long live the king.

But the king is really not very powerful. The king is constantly hiding from the enemy and it’s pretty useless in advancing the game. That’s left for other pieces.

I work in the world of publishing. For decades, the mantra of the publishing world has been “content is king.” For decades, I’ve know that, if this is true, it is only true in the sense of a king in chess. Content may be the entire game, but the creators of content are definitely not in charge.

If you are not part of the publishing world, you may not be aware of the insidiousness of the term “content.”

I first became aware of the problem in the late 1980s, when the publishing company I worked for at the time was trying to computerize its large libraries of content. I use the phrase “libraries of content” to highlight the transition that was occurring. Before the transition, we referred to this body of text as a “library.” We didn’t use the word at all. After the transition, we referred to the same body of text as “content,” not using the word library.

I’m not sure when the word “content” was first used to refer to creative works, but it certainly became popular at the time my company was making the transition. The computer nerds who descended on us to make the transition happen, were the first one to use the term.


They were entirely uninterested in the meaning of the text in the library they were transitioning. At one point, I heard the tech people call our content “blobs and tars.” In other words, the thousands of pages of writing that took smart people decades to write were only data to them. A string of zeros and ones. It could have been the works of Shakespeare, the Talmud, the GCTGCCGCA of the genetic code, music videos, stock prices, or classified ads. They are all the same to programmers.

They fill up programmatic containers. They are the content of those containers.

So content is king because people don’t buy containers unless they are filled. But the container makers don’t really care what their containers are filled with. If someone will buy it, they will continue to make money building containers.

And we who create content?

Well, some of us have slipped into using this terminology, even though it demeans what we do. If I talk about my work in more literary language, I get a blank stare. If I talk about a poem, the response is: “Oh, do you mean content?” It’s easier just to give in.

* * *

An interesting phenomenon has happened in the last 10 years. As computerization has taken over everything, there has grown to be a hierarchy of programmers. There are the higher level people who design and build the containers. Sometimes they are called engineers.

Near the end of the chain, however, there a people who take the raw content and fill the containers. At three or four companies I’ve worked for, these container fillers are called the “content department,” or something like that.

Those of us who create the content are, for some reason, called subject-matter experts. In the old days, they called us writers or copywriters or editors. And the content department used to be called production or copyedit or proofreading.

Of course, each of these terms reflect different stages in polishing the ideas and language that go into the content. Each stage was once important.

It still is.

“If I were king of the forest . . .”

. . . UPDATE . . .

What’s that? You say I heard wrong? Content isn’t king? Well, what is it then? The phrase is “Cotton is King”? Well . . . never mind.

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