With the I-Slate (or whatever it ends up being called) almost upon us, Ben Hammersley's series on the implications of e-books is a must read for everyone in the publishing business. If you're a journalist, because it will show you how the right technical platform will transform the value of the content you create - and the way you create it; if you're a developer because of the pointers it offers as to what content management systems need to become.
Acolytes of Antonio Gramsci sometimes use the phrase 'the language that speaks us' to describe how the words we have available to use form and constrain our thought processes. Something like that has happened in the world of internet publishing. We think and talk about articles, stories, images, headlines, text and video that we treat separately or bundle up together in packages of greater or lesser elegance. In our minds, we're creating magazines, or newspaper sections instead of actual web experiences. CMSs are designed and built according to this hugely limiting paradigm. Publishing companies make the minimum possible changes to their working methods to accommodate the web.
We care about page views because we can count them and because they seem like a pure and uncontroversial metric compared with, say, unique users. Crucially, advertisers find page views simple to understand so the digital publishing economy essentially works by selling bundles of page views at an agreed CPM (cost per thousand, oddly) to advertisers. Clearly a commercially successful publisher is one who keeps his production costs below his CPM. The principal targets given to journalists and editors were page view-based and inevitably a series of practices developed to meet them. In a way these practices have come to define what a lot of commercial web publishing looks like.
o buying feeds of cheap content from agencies (such as Press Association) and rebranding it as your own. Instead, say, of employing journalists to find out something new.
o creating massive image galleries knowing that it's easier and cheaper to get users to flip rapidly through fifty or sixty nice pictures than it is to get them to engage with fifty or sixty different pieces of content
o letting the SEO tail wag the content dog. Don't get me wrong, search engine optimisation is an essential and valuable tool: it makes your content visible and helps users to find what they want. A publisher who doesn't use SEO is a fool. But using SEO shouldn't mean simply creating lots and lots of stories about Kate Moss, Madonna or, worse, shoehorning their names at every opportunity into stories where they don't really belong. "A teenage boy was stabbed just yards away from a nightclub in which celebrities such as Kate Moss partied, oblivious to the unfolding tragedy"
Publishers encourage this sort of thing because their business model forces them down a 'quantity' route - producing as many page views as possible, as cheaply as possible. Inexorably, quality gets squeezed out. In newspapers and decent magazines, notions of quality are woven into the fabric of what everyone does: a piece should brilliantly conceived, properly commissioned, written with insight and intelligence, designed and laid-out with flair and so on. In many online publishing houses quality is not even spoken about: the only thing that matters is the generation of page views. Perhaps, in a Gramsci-ite way, it's no longer possible to speak about quality in this environment.
But might the I-Slate (or whatever) help publishers find a way out, to restore the word 'quality' to the vocabulary of their businesses? I'll look at this in part 2.