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June 24, 2019

Evolution of content (podcast)

In episode 54 of the Content Strategy Experts podcast, Elizabeth Patterson interviews Sarah O’Keefe and Alan Pringle about what’s changed and what hasn’t changed in content over the years.

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Elizabeth Patterson:    Welcome to the Content Strategy Experts podcast brought to you by Scriptorium. Since 1997, Scriptorium has helped companies manage, structure, organize and distribute content in an efficient way.

EP:    In episode 54, we discuss what’s changed and what hasn’t changed in content over the years. Hi. I’m Elizabeth Patterson, and I’m joined today with Sarah O’Keefe and Alan Pringle.

Sarah O’Keefe:    Hello.

Alan Pringle:    Hi, there.

EP:    We’re going to talk some about the changes within content. I’m relatively new here and I just want to talk a little bit about how Scriptorium is different now from when it was founded back in 1997.

SO:    I love it.

AP:    No old people jokes, please. Thanks.

SO:    Too late, too late.

SO:    So when we got started with Scriptorium, we sort of had this… not sort of. When we got started with Scriptorium, we had this focus on content and technology and publishing and looking at how to combine those three things. How do you use technology to publish content efficiently? Something like that. And I think our focus from day one was always on efficiency as a priority, looking at how can we do this better? How can we take out the things that are not value added and get to focus on how to create better content?

SO:    So that focus hasn’t changed, we’re still very interested in the question of how content and technology and publishing go together to deliver whatever it is we’re trying to deliver. What’s interesting to me is that every one of those three things though, has changed. The technologies are different, publishing itself is different and even the content that we’re producing is different.

EP:    So what are some of the major changes that you have seen when it comes to writing and delivering content, specifically?

AP:    Well, on the tools and tech side in regard to content creation, 20 plus years ago, it was desktop publishing, was the big thing. And it’s still in use today.

AP:    But we’re seeing more, I think, more and more content creators, regardless of what kind of content they’re creating, whether it’s technical content, whether it’s marketing content, training content, moving more towards what we’re calling smarter content. Usually, structured authoring, XML based, where you have this separation of the content and the formatting. As you’re authoring, you are not applying the formatting. That is done separately later and done in many different ways, where you could be publishing to still, PDF or print perhaps, publishing to the web, to a learning management system. The possibility goes on and on.

AP:    But at the core of all those different delivery platforms, you still have the same source content.

EP:    Right.

SO:    So then when you look at publishing and distribution, I mean, it seems almost trite to say we’re not printing anymore, but it’s true. And it’s a big deal. 20 years ago, I was doing press checks. I was worried about bound books being shipped and making sure that the binding worked, or, oh, this book is over 900 pages, we’re going to have to do something creative, because it won’t fit in a physical binding, because it’s too big. So either the paper has to get thinner, or we have to break it into multiple volumes, or there were these physical constraints around how you do print, and how you bind books.

SO:    Now, as Alan said, we’re still doing a lot of PDF, but everybody just prints the PDF themselves. It is so rare to run across a company that is not a book publisher, that is still doing any sort of actual printed and bound documentation or books.

SO:    And then related to that, instead of having to go through this process of send it to the printer and wait for the blue lines to come back and do press and color checks and all this other stuff, you push a button and it goes on the web and it’s live.

AP:    And I remember even dealing with tractor trailers, who would back up to your facility with basically, boxes that contained thousands of whatever guide you had published, and those had to be manually hauled and then distributed to customers. What Sarah just described, all of that physical labor and transportation is going away. And I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing, says a person whose back carried many, many of those cartons of books.

SO:    Yeah, and to your point about tractor trailers, I mean, I remember a couple of incidents where we had, back in the day when we were printing, we had very, very large files, which were first PostScript, and then later PDF. And those needed to be delivered to the printer, so that the printer could process them and turn that into paper, ink on paper.

SO:    And there were a couple of cases where we had to put it on a CD or some other physical medium, I don’t know how many of our listeners remembers zip drives, but that was a thing, and hand deliver them to the printer. So you’d be either driving across town or getting a courier who would come and pick the stuff up and drive it across town, because it wasn’t possible to email the files.

AP:    Or put it on an airplane seat.

SO:    Yeah. And there was no Dropbox. And if you had a contract with your customer that said, the documentation needs to be delivered to customer X on June 1st, there were literally cases where on June 1st in the morning, we were putting people on a plane holding a CD, who were flying across the country, because they had to deliver this content to the customer on June 1st, or else there was some enormous penalty written into the contract.

SO:    And I mean, it just sounds ridiculous now.

EP:    There’s definitely that convenience in having things instantly published on the web.

AP:    And there’s a cost savings, enormous cost savings.

SO:    Less wear and tear, because we’re not physically hand carrying this stuff across the country, which actually happened. There were also numerous instances of having to drive out to the airport to catch the last FedEx plane. If you missed the office pickup at 5:00 or 6:00 or whatever it was, there was a last gasp drive out to the airport and get there before 8:45 and you could get it on the FedEx plane. I don’t miss that, actually.

AP:    Nor do I.

EP:    We’re talking here about the publishing and distribution of this content. So how specifically has content changed over the years?

AP:    Well, because we’ve moved away from this idea of a printed book, before when you were writing that content, you were thinking about the organization of that content, often in a more narrative, logical way that flowed from the start of the book to the end of the book. So there was this narrative thread, for lack of a better word.

AP:    But now, we have completely gotten away from that in several ways. First of all, there’s been this huge move to modularity. And that’s a big part of this whole smarter content push. You write these smaller pieces of content, and that makes them easier to reuse. You can mix and match to create what you need from these little smaller bits and pieces.

AP:    There’s also the fact that there’s not all this connective tissue that you had to write between all of these pieces in your narrative thread. Now, we’ve kind of discarded those, because those created a context where you expected piece B to always be after… or module A, and you can’t really expect that A, B, C, D flow anymore. They are these freestanding modules and you kind of stitch them together, which is pushing you toward writing things in a little more minimal way, without all those logical connections to link all those pieces.

SO:    And then I think, in addition to that, we’ve got a bunch of new kinds of content. The one that really, that I think is really maybe the most stunning is actually the rise of e-learning. Because back in the day, it was classroom training and if it wasn’t classroom training, there might be something like a terrible video that was captured of the training, that you could watch after the fact. Or there might be some sort of a self-study guide of some sort.

SO:    But this idea of e-learning or of blended learning that you can deliver a video and some online stuff and a test and an assessment and all these different things, in an interactive online environment was not a thing. I spent years and years doing stand up classroom training. And certainly, there’s still a market for that. But this concept of e-learning really didn’t exist and the content needed to drive it didn’t really exist in the way that it does today, by which I mean, it’s widely available, lots of people do it.

SO:    It has not replaced classroom training, but because e-learning allows you to avoid the cost of the instructor, that one-on-one or that one-on-10 cost, e-learnings become very, very popular. And that’s an entire content type that we really didn’t quite have 20 years ago. I mean there was some stuff but not a ton. So that’s one.

SO:    And the other one is things like videos and podcasts and these kind of non-text methods of getting your point across, which then of course ties back into e-learning, which uses a lot of that stuff. And then I think, and this is really a big one, these are all in one sentence, but the convergence of marcom and techcomm, the convergence of marketing content and technical content into, and for that matter, training content into a broader thing that is just, we are going to talk about our product and the content that goes with the product is, I think, really critical.

EP:    Right. So pretty significant changes have happened within this field. So how have your jobs changed over the years?

AP:    Well, we already talked about the tech. And that means that as the tech evolves, you have to evolve, or you’re going to be basically discarded with the bad tech. You really do have to pay attention to what’s going on and be sure you’re up on the latest tools and technologies. I think that’s super important.

AP:    But there’s always been this trend or this, I think, a challenge might be a better word, actually than trend, of it is very hard to sometimes find people who are experts in these tools and know how to use them properly. And as these tools get more and more specialized for creating content, that challenge multiplies, it gets even more and more difficult to find people who know how to use these tools properly.

SO:    Yeah, I think use the tools properly is a really key point. So the tools we’re using have changed, but the idea that you need to master a tool, that you need to understand how it works, you need to understand how best to use it, what it can do, what it can’t do, and what kinds of problems it’s appropriate for and what kinds of problems it’s not appropriate for, that judgment is something that hasn’t changed at all. Every new tool that comes along, we have to look at it and say what is this good for? What is this not good for? Are there showstoppers in here?

SO:    The other one, big one I think, is from my point of view, that content creators and the content production process in general has no margin for error anymore. Again, in the olden days, you would send a book to press and then you had the opportunity to correct your terrible grievous errors in a press check or in a blue line or something like that. And it was expensive to fix things, but you could fix them.

SO:    Now, you push a button and it goes live. And okay, we can fix it after the fact and we can unpublish it or we can make a correction and republish. But that slack time isn’t there anymore. We shipped and now we’re done and now I’m going to go do something else for a couple of days, while I wait for the blue lines to come in. That kind of slack has entirely disappeared from the process.

AP:    I think it’s also worth noting and we’re talking about all these changes, but there are a lot of cases where baseline technology has not changed. The whole idea of XML and basically, writing content as code, when I was in college, and I’m not going to say when and it was my first job, those two places, I learned basic markup languages in both of those, both in college and in my first job. Those skills serve me today, working with these open standards that are for XML based content.

AP:    So there are a lot of cases where you can rely on and even maybe recycle what you’ve already learned and use it as a building point to learn the latest and the greatest technology.

SO:    I think the most difficult part of a content creator’s job, and I’m thinking particularly of technical writers, but in general, is doing the research to get the information you need to write the content. And in many cases, that means you write a draft and then you run it by some sort of the subject matter expert. And I mean, people have written entire books on how hard it is to track down a subject matter expert and get them to give you a review. Get them to read what you wrote, get them to clarify, get them to answer questions.

SO:    So the elusive subject matter expert I think is still a problem. And we formalized a lot of the review processes in electronic workflows, in ways that are helpful. But we still have huge, huge problems with review workflows, because you have to get people to prioritize doing that work. And they, like everybody else, have no slack time. And they see this as, in many cases, as an optional part of their job.

SO:    I’m totally overwhelmed. What can I triage out of my job? And the answer is, oh, this stupid review, I don’t want to do that. I’m just going to ignore it and make it go away. So I mean, that was a problem 20 years ago, and I think it’s going to be a problem 100 years from now.

AP:    And it’s a symptom of a bigger problem too. We have all these blurring of distinctions now in content, and this is one of them. A lot of people who consider themselves not to be content creators, well, guess what? In truth, they are part-time content contributors, whether they want to admit it or not. And technology is really enabling that blurring. And I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing.

SO:    Yeah, that’s interesting, because if you go back, go back even further, you go back to the concept of people writing content in longhand on legal pads and those kinds of things, because for the rise of all this word processing and capturing it directly, and then that led into mark up, I don’t know. I feel like maybe it was easier when there was somebody sitting at your doorstep with a legal pad saying, tell me more. As opposed to you getting an electronic notification in your inbox that says please review this. The people are much harder to ignore.

EP:    Well, with that, I think we’re going to go ahead and wrap up. Thank you, Sarah and Alan.

SO:    Thank you.

AP:    Thank you.

EP:    And thank you for listening to the Content Strategy Experts podcast, brought to you by Scriptorium. For more information visit or check the show notes for relevant links.