A Look Inside a B2B Editor’s Head

ASBPE Twitter Chat on Editorial Ethics

If you want to understand the state of mind of the typical journalist today, or to dig into the challenges they face in managing their careers, you don’t have to look far—as long as you mean the typical newspaper journalist.

Although there is plenty of online debate and discussion of journalistic issues, the mass of it concerns the daily press. To learn about how these issues affect the typical magazine journalist, you have to look harder. And if your interest is in trade journalists, well, good luck: they are the profession’s obscurest members.

That’s what makes a recent Twitter chat among B2B editors and writers a valuable resource. Sponsored by the ethics committee of ASBPE, an association for trade press editors and writers, the chat showcased the issues that particularly worry them.

Despite its length, I urge you to read through my Storified archive of the chat. The discussion is frustratingly fractured and incomplete (it’s Twitter, after all), but it will give you a good sense of the issues that keep trade editors up at night:

  • Preventing undue influence by advertisers (given the nature of B2B publishing, this topic was front and center).
  • Dealing with insufficient staffing and hiring.
  • Finding the proper level of involvement with marketing (particularly in sponsored webinars, a medium uniquely popular in trade publishing).
  • Managing freelancers, particularly with respect to expectations regarding plagiarism and attribution.
  • Effectively using ethics guidelines like ASBPE’s Guide to Preferred Editorial Practices.
  • Understanding the proper relationship between professional and personal use of social media.
These concerns are not unique to B2B journalists, of course. But the way they play out in the trade-press arena is in some ways very different from the rest of journalism. This twitter chat only gives a hint of that important difference—but it’s a start.

Are You Highly Digital? Try This Test

Ipad Face by Camila Andrea In a Harvard Business Review blog post discussed last week by Mark Schaefer, authors Jeffrey Rayport and Tuck Rickards asserted that most big companies are too far behind the digital curve. By their standards, only nine of the Fortune 500 corporations are highly digital.

That’s no surprise. But what interests me is the four-part test they use to assess companies. Could it be adapted to individuals as a way of testing their own digital chops, I wonder?

The authors’ four criteria for highly digital companies are pretty straightforward:

  1. The company generates a high percentage of revenues digitally.
  2. Its leadership has deep digital experience.
  3. It does business enabled by digital channels.
  4. It is seen as transformational within its industry.

I’m not sure Rayport and Rickards sufficiently explain these criteria, but it doesn’t matter. My concern here is with adapting these four tests to individuals—and particularly to editors and journalists.

So let’s say, then, that you can consider yourself highly digital if you meet the following versions of their four characteristics:

  1. Most of the work you do appears in digital form either first or exclusively. Most of what you earn you only earn because your copy appeared online.
  2. You generate your work on your own, with little need for assistance, using a variety of digital tools. You manage your CMS yourself, you are equally comfortable tweeting and posting on Facebook, you even adjust code occasionally.
  3. Your work is uniquely digital in nature. In other words, you are not simply producing second-stage shovelware, but genuinely digital content, shaped to take full advantage of its digital medium.
  4. The people you work with look to you as a model of digital competence. Others come to you not just for help using WordPress or sizing an image, but also for advice on their new-media careers.

You may be wondering, “Is all this necessary? Why do I need to determine how digital I am?”

The answer, for me, is similar to what Schaefer says about companies: “social media success is not going to be a function of marketing vision or budget. It’s going to rely on radical organizational transformation.”

Likewise, for traditional journalists, the only way to ensure a healthy career in the new-media era is to undergo a radical professional transformation. My proposed test doubtless needs work—please pitch in with suggestions or improvements in the comments below or elsewhere—but its intent is sound.

Are you highly digital? If you’re not certain of the answer, maybe it’s time to find out.

Photo by Camila Andrea via Flickr

Let’s Not Confuse Morality with Quality: Jonah Lehrer and Plagiarism

Jonah Lehrer at PopTech 2009

Jonah Lehrer

For reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, I’ve been deeply bothered for the last few days by the uproar over Jonah Lehrer’s reuse of his writing in various publications. I know almost nothing about Lehrer other than what I’ve read in the many stories about his so-called “self-plagiarism,” and have no position on his work to defend. I also agree with the idea that reusing bits of your previously published work in new articles is pretty lame. But the suggestion many writers have made that his practice is akin to plagiarism is simply wrong. It confuses quality standards with moral ones.

The controversy began with the Romenesko story last week that in a number of blog posts for the New Yorker, Lehrer had reused some paragraphs he had written for an earlier article in the Wall Street Journal. Subsequently several more instances of similar recycling from other publications were uncovered. (Steve Buttry, in the course of reflecting on his own (transparent) habits of repetition, provides a good summary of the matter.)

These are interesting findings, well worth public discussion. But they are more the material of literary criticism than of ethical analysis. They tell us that Lehrer’s range as a writer is less broad than we thought, perhaps, and that he doesn’t always have fresh insights. But they don’t tell us he’s a thief.

And possibly no one is saying that, quite. In his Slate piece on Lehrer, for instance, Josh Levin uses the phrase “self-plagiarism” somewhat jokingly. “Writing the same words twice” may not be a moral offense, he seems to say, but “it will piss off your editors” and “disappoint your customers.” Such “self-plagiarism is bad for the brand,” he concludes—not, as we might expect from real plagiarism, bad for the soul.

Similarly, while using the P-word liberally, Poynter‘s Kelly McBride suggests that Lehrer’s sin is less than mortal: “Had he stolen words from someone else—plagiarized-plagiarized rather than self-plagiarized—we’d all be calling it quits.” Instead, his readers are merely disappointed; their “enthusiasm wilts.”

Fine. If I’d been a Lehrer reader, I might be disappointed too. But to use the word plagiarism even jokingly or ironically in connection with what he did veers perilously close to character assassination. The damage it does exceeds any done by Lehrer’s recycling.

When this careless or invidious habit spreads to the New York Times, which wrote that Lehrer “has become the latest high-profile journalist to be caught up in a plagiarism scandal,” you know it’s excessive. It doesn’t matter that Times reporter Jennifer Schuessler immediately added that the scandal included “a counterintuitive twist that could come right out of his own books: The journalist he has been accused of borrowing from is himself.” What many readers will take away from this overly clever sentence is the false notion that Lehrer is a plagiarist.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this story is how many of the commenters on these critics’ posts reject the association with plagiarism. Some don’t even object to Lehrer’s reuse of his writing. In contrast to the critics’ high dudgeon, their attitude seems to be, “big deal.”

Is the critical reaction to Lehrer possibly influenced by the fact that he is very young, very smart, and very successful? Well, consider this. If a journalist we’d never heard of, like Paresh Jha, accused of fabricating sources and quotes, had instead been accused of recycling his own sentences, would we be reading about it now on Poynter? I think not.

I’m leaving open the possibility that I just don’t get it. Maybe there is a portentous ethical and moral issue in repeating yourself. But even if there is, its magnitude surely falls well short of plagiarism, and the term shouldn’t be used even humorously or ironically to describe Lehrer. It’s reasonable, given what he did, to call him a bad writer. But that’s no basis for calling him a bad person.

Photo credit: Kris Krüg/Pop!Tech

Curation: Add Value and Pass It Along

Among all the topics that seem to rile journalists and publishers these days, perhaps the most contentious is curation. Is summarizing and linking to another person’s article an honorable act or a form of theft? How can you distinguish between good curation and bad curation?

Let me begin to answer those questions by summarizing and linking to Rex Hammock’s post last week on this very issue.

The act of finding great content and linking to it, he says, is a fine idea. Though he dislikes the term curation, he approves of the activity as it was originally practiced. But recently, he says, it has come to mean something less good:

Over the past three or so years, the term media curation has evolved in its meaning to being less-and-less an act of help and service and more and more a term that’s used to add lipstick to a pig of a business model that is based on something like the following: “go re-write stuff you find elsewhere that’s about whatever is trending on Google and bury a link to them somewhere towards the end of the story so we can claim it’s not merely re-writing their story.”

Hammock’s guideline for avoiding this fix seems pretty clear: If you can’t add value to a story, just link to it.

Perhaps not so clear is how to add value. I think most rational people would agree with him that many Huffington Post or Business Insider stories are really just rewrites. But short of that extreme, there’s plenty of disagreement.

The best recent example, perhaps, comes from Kashmir Hill’s Forbes.com story last February recapping Charles Duhigg’s New York Times article on consumer marketing and data mining. As Mathew Ingram wrote, opinion was sharply divided over whether Hill stole Duhigg’s story “in an attempt to get pageviews from someone else’s work” or whether she instead served a valuable function in highlighting and directing readers to his article.

When I read Hill’s story, I don’t see an attempt to get pageviews. What I see, rather, is someone who is intensely interested in Duhigg’s subject matter, admiring of his work, and intellectually engaged with his ideas.

I can’t find similar motivations in the pedestrian article Hammock criticizes. It’s simply the output of an aggregation serf.

The contrast between these two attempts at curation suggests to me a test that any writer should apply before blogging about another person’s story: Are you are genuinely engaged with it? If the answer is yes, chances are good you will add value in passing it along.