New Names for Old Tricks


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A former EContent assistant editor, Kinley Levack, forwarded me an August column from The New York Observer, The Media Mob. Her email bore this subject line: "I will always think of you when I hear this phrase …" Alas, the column was not about the most inspiring bosses ever. In fact, it was about "The New Media Religion: ‘Platform Agnostic.’" After I stopped laughing, I had to applaud the columnists John Koblin and Tom McGeveran on the cleverness of the headline alone. Get it? Religion/agnostic …

In her few years here, Kinley must have heard me lecture vendors on this term at least 20 times. If it came up during a meeting, she’d smirk at my wince. Then I’d "suggest" that the vendor consider using the term "platform neutral" rather than agnostic because the word agnostic only applies to the existence of God: "a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and probably unknowable; broadly : one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god" (www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary).

Times have changed. In the intervening years, Kinley has not only moved on, she’s moved up in the world and is now managing editor for Successful Meetings magazine. Over the years, this interesting term, agnostic, has had a less positive fate; it has been watered down to include the incredibly wishy-washy: "person unwilling to commit to an opinion about something." Either way, I’m guessing that’s not what the vendors were trying to say.

I also feel pretty sure this isn’t what The New York Times’ deputy managing editor Jonathan Landman means when he uses the phrase to describe an editorial approach that encompasses content creation for multiple platforms. Though I could be wrong.

The Observer columnists did an excellent job of tracing the origins of the sad "evolution" of the term agnostic (how the mighty have fallen from questions of the divine to the merely noncommittal). They track the rise of its usage from its appearance in the Nexis database in 1991 to the point it really hit its stride, in 2000, through its most recent usage by some impressive editors.

I noticed it being used less of late, and I am sad to hear that it may experience a comeback as it is being repurposed by more creative types. I expect technology marketers—who often lack any apparent understanding of the products they are tasked with promoting—to resort to what our contributing editor David Meerman Scott calls "gobbledygook." David aptly describes how many marketers use grandiose, if meaningless, words to make products sound important without bothering to explain why they are, in fact, important. In journalism school, we were taught to show not tell; one needn’t tell me something is "paradigm shifting" if he can paint a picture of a paradigm in motion. That’s something I’d pay to see.

When I read that my media colleagues were slipping into sloppy speech, putting fancy labels on empty boxes, I was sad for a whole lot of reasons. My first cynical thought was, "Damn, can’t we even coin our own meaningless terms or intriguing mutilation of the language?" Then the potentially profound implications of what these Observer columnists ultimately observed began to seep through my linguistic snit: Editors at The New York Times and The Washington Post are resorting to hyperbolic rhetoric because they are still struggling with finding the balance between print and digital distribution. They are bandying about the term "platform agnostic" because they need to streamline content creation and cut costs while at the same time to effectively deliver across platforms, even though one-size content does not seem to fit all (figuratively or literally).

Today on the phone another EContent columnist, Peggy Anne Salz, raised the issue of how everything seemed to be for sale, from speaking slots at conferences to the cover of some magazines. I told her that only yesterday a vendor wrote to ask me if he had to be an advertiser to get written about in one of my publications. If you happen to be reading this in print, it will be pretty clear that we cover a whole lot more companies than are represented in our handful of ads. However, when I relayed this tale to Peggy, I said that being asked this question is most disturbing in that it indicates that this sort of exchange goes on at other publications. Even more disturbing is that I can almost understand why: Consumers are ever less willing to pay for content, and many advertisers believe that display advertising does not work—that only editorial mentions do them any good in terms of promotion.

So where did the bottom line go? Dwindling paid subscribers and advertisers, editorial integrity for rent cheap, and a need to pump out even more content to an increasingly disconnected audience. Perhaps it is time for editors to find a new religion after all—one in which we can put our mouths (and minds) where the money is.