Editorial Quality Vs. Revenue: A False Dichotomy

On its blog earlier this month, the American Society of Business Publication Editors published an anonymous and despairing note from one of its members. In it, the magazine editor described a frustrating planning meeting with his counterparts in advertising sales. Though the editor had done thorough reader research in proposing editorial topics for an upcoming magazine project, the sales staff would have none of it:

The topics I suggested would provide the basis for good editorial quality; however, our sales team deemed them too difficult to sell sponsorships. Eventually, the group decided to develop a project series based on what sponsorships could be sold, not necessarily what has proven popular with readers.

To the editor, this was a clear case of sales priorities trumping editorial quality. Indeed, the editor now feels like a publishing pariah: “I don’t feel like I can talk to anyone at my company without seeming as though I was anti-revenue.”

Though I’m deeply sympathetic to the editor, and generally agree with the wise counsel of the commenters on the story, my immediate reaction to this issue is that it’s framed with a false dichotomy. As an editor myself, my instinct is to say that those sales people just don’t have the brains and creativity to sell good content. But that’s not fair. The problem really is not that one side champions editorial quality and the other does not. What both sides feel but can’t or won’t say is that they have no clue how to make money anymore.

As the old advertising model that powered trade magazines for so many decades withers away, it’s getting harder and harder to sell independent, reader-oriented content. What ad sales staff are reduced to doing is essentially selling marketing materials—it’s the only thing left that still makes sense to advertisers.

And that approach, of course, is a dead end for third-party publishers. In the era of search-based inbound marketing, advertisers no longer really need third parties and their lists of subscribers. Nor in a digital world do they need publishers’ hulking print production and distribution apparatuses any longer.

Where does that leave us? It beats me. I suspect that this dilemma for magazine producers is just another symptom of what Seth Godin described yesterday as the “forever recession.” The trade magazine business of yore was built on inefficiencies, wherein it was difficult if not impossible for businesses to reach out to their customers on a large scale. But the internet, Godin explains, “has squeezed inefficiencies out of many systems, and the ability to move work around, coordinate activity and digitize data all combine to eliminate a wide swath of the jobs the industrial age created.” B2B communications, of course, is one of those systems, and legacy editorial and ad-sales jobs are among those imperiled.

Though it may sound deeply depressing, Godin argues that the revolution that has sparked the forever depression has an upside. It creates, he writes, “all sorts of new productivity and new opportunities.”

If Godin’s vision is accurate—and I think it’s close enough—the type of problem our anonymous editor describes is not going to be solved. Rather, it is going to be replaced, by some system so new, so as yet unrecognizable, that we can’t see exactly what it is.

In the meantime, watch out. Though the outcome may please us, the process of getting there will be very messy.

Can You Have Entrepreneurial Journalism without Entrepreneurs?

In the latest chapter of its ongoing critique of AOL’s hyperlocal news network, Patch, Business Insider last week took aim at the marketing and sales-prospecting efforts the corporation expects its editors to undertake. AOL, BI’s indignant headline says,”Requires Patch Editors To Drum Up Ad Sales Leads.”

You might object to the ethical aspects of combining editing with marketing or sales, or to the excessive workload. I don’t. It’s what entrepreneurial journalism requires. But what I do object to is this—AOL expects its editors to be entrepreneurial without actually being entrepreneurs.

As Howard Owens puts it, the problem AOL editors face isn’t the workload, but the payoff. As salaried employees, their only incentive to work as hard as AOL expects is the chance to keep their jobs. “They are expected to do all of the things they would have to do if they owned their own web sites, but merely in service of building wealth for AOL shareholders.”

I suspect this will be an ever-larger issue for trade publishers trying transition into the new-media era. Most trade editors I know already complain about their steadily increasing digital workload. To some extent, their complaints are based on distrust of digital media. But they’ve correctly identified the problem: Like AOL Patch, as Ed Pilolla has noted, their employers want them to behave as if they are working for a startup without any of the upside rewards.

I’m not sure traditional publishing businesses have any choice, though. Digital revenue has not increased to the point where they can afford to pay their editors more, let alone cut them in on growth potential that may not exist.

The future of online trade journalism may not lie with large independent publishers. For B2B journalists, the most promising options appear to be either small-scale startups where they share both the risks and rewards, or content marketing groups within those companies formerly known as advertisers.

Though I hope they can, trade publishers may not be able to find a way out of this dilemma. But there is at least one positive step they can take: vow not to misuse the concept of entrepreneurial editors.

Why Publishers Need Early Adopters, Annoying or Not

Yesterday, B2B editor and blogger Maureen Alley wrote a provocative post declaring that early adopters are annoying. I’m not sure she means it. Alley herself, after all, stands out among young B2B journalists for being well ahead of her peers in adopting the tools and ethos of social media.

If anything, the B2B industry needs to encourage early adopters, not bemoan them. Trade publishing has declined for plenty of other reasons as well, but resistance to new technologies and modes of communication has been a critical factor. A little early adoption might have gone a long way towards slowing, if not reversing, that depressing trend.

I would suggest, in fact, that every B2B publisher and content marketer needs one or more early adopters in their midst.  And those early adopters should not just be tolerated, but actively encouraged and supported. Will they sometimes wax too enthusiastic about new tools that turn out to be dead ends, like Jaiku, FriendFeed, or Google Wave? Sure. But they’ll also bring to light valuable new platforms as well, like Facebook and Twitter, and perhaps even Google Plus.

The benefits of early adopters don’t end with identification or advocacy. Those same people can perform valuable roles as implementers and trainers when their organizations decide to start using a new tool or platform.

Now it’s true that when everyone leaps on board as early adopters of something, the resulting noise overwhelms any useful signals. In that case, of course, it’s not really early adoption at all, but a herd mentality.  It can turn even the most promising new thing into an annoying fad, or worse, a disaster.

What Alley objects to, I think, is not early adopters per se, but unthinking and excessive early adoption. But few publishers need to be warned against that. Their challenge, rather, is how to overcome their culture of caution and consider the benefits of new platforms. One way they can do so is to encourage and support their own early adopters.

Yes, such enthusiasts can be annoying. But they might just save your business.

It’s Time to Embrace Editorial as a Profit Center

Early this week, Steve Yelvington made a comment on Twitter that reminded me of something I’ve been mulling over for some time. “Our newsrooms (or whatever we choose to call them) should be engines of success,” he said, “not cost centers.”

He’s right, but I prefer stronger phrasing. If the people who hold the pursestrings are to pay attention, we need to call editorial what it is: a profit center.

As any editor who’s somehow crept into the upper echelons of B2B publication management will know, the language of accounting and spreadsheets rules most boardroom discussions. Sales is a profit center, editorial is a cost center. Too many executives accept this distinction as the smart way to protect their business. In fact, it is a recipe for publishing’s demise.

What treating editorial as a cost center fails to recognize is that money is not the only form of currency. Commercial, for-profit publishing is really a process of generating one form of currency—attention—and converting it into another—money—via advertising or subscriptions.

Editorial that generates attention, therefore, generates profits. At the first part of this equation—generating attention—publishers are pretty good. At the second, however—converting it into money—they increasingly suck.

The old “profit centers,” advertising sales and subscriptions, aren’t very good at the conversion process anymore. But rather than looking for new profit centers, new ways to convert that attention into cash, all too many publishers prefer instead to decimate the only profit center they really need—editorial.

Is it any accident that as traditional trade publishing declines, content marketing is on the rise? Content marketers—in many cases, former advertisers—understand what traditional publishers have too often forgotten: editorial generates currency. Have you wondered why advertisers have been devoting more of their budget to content marketing and less to traditional advertising? It’s not because they value editorial less than publishers do, but because they value it more.

Unfortunately, editors tend to abet rather than resist their characterization as cost generators. Though they may wince to hear themselves described as expenses, they find the concept of commercial profit tricky. They love it when their sales force sells editorial in general; they hate it when they sell editorial in particular. It’s time for them to throw their reluctance aside and, as the key profit generators, get more involved in the business of publishing.

It’s an accurate and inspirational thing to say that our editorial departments should be treated as engines of success. But until editors and their bosses accept their role as profit makers, those engines will be stuck in reverse.

 

Can Content Save Publishers? Only If They Wake Up

In an article on Min Online this week, Judy Franks of The Marketing Democracy suggests that traditional media companies are faltering because they don’t value content. Though at first it might seem odd to say that businesses built on content don’t value it, she has a point.

As she explains, pure content businesses like magazines are just one of three types of media options for advertisers. Beyond the “paid media” that advertising represents, they also have the “owned media” of their own blogs, Facebook pages, and twitter accounts, and the “earned media” of online word-of-mouth.   Of these three components, the paid-media element seems the most vulnerable. If you have strong owned and earned media, why pay a third party for theirs?

Great content—at which traditional media excel—should be a compelling reason. But Franks thinks the industry has largely ignored it:

“Unfortunately, we have trained marketers through years of selling that the media are distribution conduits to audiences. We have talked about circulation numbers, demographic readership, readers per copy, and potential/actual ‘exposures’ to ads. We calculate economic value based upon opportunities to see (OTS). We have done little to sell marketers on the value of the content experiences, themselves.”

As a career editor I’m biased, but Franks’s analysis rings true. Though there has been plenty of lip service by the sales, marketing, and circulation types that largely dominate trade publishing, their real interest and belief in content has all too often been minimal. But now that advertisers no longer need publishers for distribution, what’s left to offer them? Content, of course.

With enough effort advertisers can create all the high-value content they need, but most do not have the experience or scale to do so. In theory, publishers still do. But in practice, many have been decimating the very source of their content—their editorial departments.

Content is the key to recovery for traditional independent publishers, not the impediment. Why don’t more of them realize it?