Beats vs. Obsessions: More Lessons for B2B from Quartz

Gideon Lichfield

Gideon Lichfield

Last month, I wrote about how Atlantic Media’s new online publication, Quartz, offers business-to-business publishers a new advertising model to consider. Since then I’ve been thinking a lot about another new model Quartz embodies, this time involving its content. Instead of the traditional editorial beats, its coverage reflects what it calls obsessions.

Though this looks at first like a slightly precious and possibly meaningless distinction, on closer inspection, it isn’t. In fact, for the B2B world in particular, it is a crucial concept.

The idea is best understood by reading Quartz news editor Gideon Lichfield’s slightly nerdy but persuasive rationale for abandoning the beat.  As he explains, “Today almost every news outlet is organized around fixed beats: ‘financial markets,’ ‘real estate,’ ‘technology’, and so on.”

For Lichfield, the fatal flaw of the beat is that it is driven by the print model:

“Yet the beats aren’t so much an objective taxonomy as a convenient management tool, devised for an old technology. When news came in a sheaf of pages it made sense to divide them into sections—domestic, foreign, business, and so on—with an editor and a team of writers for each one, and make each writer responsible for a slice of that section: a beat.”

Lichfield’s post has provoked a range of reactions. C.W. Anderson worries that giving up on beats means abandoning the “monitorial” role of the press. Others, like Joshua Benton and Paul Raeburn, don’t think the distinction between beats and obsessions is very clear.

Benton does, however, underscore a key aspect of the concept: flexibility. “What I do like about the obsessions model,” he writes, “is that obsessions are destined to be temporary and responsive to reality.” This is clearly central to Lichfield. He repeatedly refers to beats as “fixed,” and contrasts them with his definition of obsessions as an “ever-evolving collection of phenomena.”

The other key concept Lichfield addresses is that of crossing traditional boundaries. Covering such phenomena through a traditional beat structure, he writes, “is difficult: they often cut across beat boundaries, taking in politics, economics, technology, and other issues. Our journalists have to be, to some extent, all-rounders, who aren’t afraid to get outside their usual expertise and track the topic they’re following wherever it leads.”

Lichfield adds that online, “when there are no pages and sections to constrain you, you are free to reframe your description of reality.” I would go a bit farther. That act of reframing is not simply an option, but an obligation, a key to survival.

The arbitrary distinctions and categories that characterize traditional B2B publishing—think yearly editorial calendars, ad/edit ratios, “controlled circulation”—make such reframing impossible. The niche still matters, but it is in constant flux, and to pursue it, you have to change with it.

In almost every way, the B2B print model is poorly suited to this pursuit. It commits publishers to a relatively fixed way of presenting information on a rigid production-driven schedule to an arbitrarily defined audience that may or may not want that information.

Thinking about B2B media from this perspective has been an interesting exercise. I’ve drawn, so far, three conclusions.

First, the way publishers cover information should not be driven by the needs of the print model. The insight is easy; acting on it, alas, is hard. Unlike the online-only Quartz, most B2B publishers want to protect substantial, if steadily declining, print revenues. One way or another, though, they will have to make the digital-first transition if they want to survive.

Second, publishers have to rethink their idea of their audience. It’s not 20,000 subscribers assigned to one of six demographic categories (and it never was). It is now a constantly shifting group of people that changes with every new article and every new keyword. You can’t write to them all (and you never could). So who are you trying to reach, and why?

Third, to succeed as an online publisher, you have to know when and how to change. When you substitute an evolving obsession for a fixed beat, you have to dig deeper and harder for things to write about. And when you write for an ever-changing group of readers, you have to be constantly assessing who they are.

The way you do it is through data. Most B2B publishers talk a lot about data, but mostly to ask, “Gee, how can we sell our data to companies and make a lot of money?” But the real value isn’t in the data set itself, but in how that data can help publishers strengthen their relationships with their audiences. If you aren’t actively mining and analyzing the data you have on your readers and their obsessions, you won’t keep up with them.

These are not particularly new or original observations. But they underscore for me something less obvious: to survive online, you have to abandon not just the mechanisms of print, but the very thought processes.

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