Damage Done By the “Container Model” of Publishing

Brian O'Leary

Brian O’Leary, Founder and CEO, Magellan Media Partners, gave an excellent challenge to publishers in today’s world, and the issues he raised are highly relevant.  I think that everyone in the industry should consider them.

Don Hawkins
Columnist, Information Today and Conference Circuit Blog Editor


Publishing of books, magazines, and, newspapers is unduly governed by the containers used for centuries to transmit information, which are in two dimensions, where what does not fit with the container format is ignored.  The process of filling the container therefore strips out the context.  But our world today is one of content and browsers.  We are no longer selling content alone, so the current workflow hierarchy is already outdated.  We need to start with the context.  The containers are an option, not a starting point.  They limit how we think about our audiences and limit how they find our content.  Context should be used to strengthen content; for example on sites such as Craigslist, Monster, or Cookster.  It is time to see our digital publishing brethren as part of a disruptive continuum that affects us all.

Imagine a world where content authoring tools are cheap or even free—one where content can be disseminated in a range of contexts at a push of a button.  That world exists today.  A new breed of born-digital competitors is starting with context.  Our challenge is to be relevant to audiences who turn initially to digital content.  We treat readers as if their needs can be defined by containers.  But in digital world, search happens first.  Publishers are hamstrung by search because they have made context the last thing they think about.  When scarcity was the norm we could live in a limited world.  Editors now have a new and different role—figuring out how what is published will be discovered.

Mental models of physical containers constrain our ability to change.  We often speak of digital content as a secondary use.  Who owns the context that drives discoverability and value in a digital realm?  We are missing the opportunity to develop discoverable content because of digital myopia.  Publishers are increasingly in the content solution business, where the future is giving readers access to content-rich products.  Readers expect publishers to point to the answers they want when and where they want them.  Ours is an era of content abundance which is the precursor to the development and maintenance of context.  Digital abundance is pushing us to create more than title-level metadata.  Early and deep tagging is a structural reality.

Starting with context requires publishers to make a fundamental change in their workflow, and there is not much time to get it right!  Content must become open and accessible and we must adhere to standards.  We need to encourage broader use of our content and provide readers with tools to manage abundance.  Change can be hard.  We can be filled with a sense of hopelessness and failure, but it is a time of remarkable opportunity in publishing, if we make a leap away from what we are comfortable with.

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