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.

Does Danger Lurk in the Language of Social Media?

No writer can become good at the craft without being sensitive to language. But in other contexts, that vocational advantage can be a liability. This seems to be true of many journalists who resist the benefits of new media solely because of the language used to describe them. When they hear words like user instead of reader, branding instead of reputation, or content instead of editorial, their writerly instincts tell them that accepting such language would be a sellout to the corporate world.

They’ve got it wrong, of course. But we should not be too quick to dismiss their reactions. They may be on to something. If the language of new media is so prone to misinterpretation, is it not also dangerously vulnerable to manipulation?

That was the lesson I took from Gene Weingarten’s criticism last month of the new-media concept of personal branding. When the Washington Post columnist wrote that branding is ruining journalism, he set off a barrage of rejoinders from personal-branding advocates, most notably and prolifically Steve Buttry.

Replying to a journalism student who had written to ask how he had built his personal brand, Weingarten offered a scathing but eloquently funny response:

“The best way to build a brand is to take a three-foot length of malleable iron and get one end red-hot. Then, apply it vigorously to the buttocks of the instructor who gave you this question. You want a nice, meaty sizzle.”

As Buttry points out, it’s clear that Weingarten in fact has no objection to the concept represented by the phrase “personal brand.” What he objects to, rather, is its intimation of commercialism, that it’s turning individuals into “Cheez Doodles.” As he put it, “We are slowly redefining our craft so it is no longer a calling but a commodity. From this execrable marketing trend arises the term you ask me about: ‘branding.’”

Ironically, the idea behind personal branding is just the opposite: taking a depersonalized commodity—the average byline, say—and showing the human face behind it.  It is, really, a revolutionary concept. A word like reputation just won’t do to describe it. As Buttry says in a subsequent post on new-media buzzwords, “Life is always changing, and journalism is certainly changing swiftly. Why should we use inadequate and inaccurate old words and phrases to describe the changes?”

But while I’m firmly on Buttry’s side in this debate, I worry nonetheless about the vulnerable duality of much new-media vocabulary. There is, I suspect, a troubling nub of validity in Weingarten’s reaction to it that should sound a note of caution for all of us new-media enthusiasts.

If on the one hand social media has co-opted the language of corporations and humanized it, there is an equal likelihood that corporations will try to do the same to the language of new media. In the blink of an eye the emphasis in the phrase personal branding can shift from humanizing a brand to branding a human.

Similarly, I worry about a phrase like content marketing. When Joe Pulizzi talks about it, I’m ready to leap onto the barricades with him and raise the banner for personalizing and equalizing the relationship with customers through great editorial. But how many corporations will see it only as another tool for trapping yet more leads into the ever-ravenous sales funnel?

If a writer as sensitive to the subtleties of words as Weingarten can mistake the meaning of personal branding, the risk that ruder corporate ears will do the same is high. Will the social media revolution be co-opted? I don’t think so. But its benefits will be slow in coming if its language remains ambiguous.  Proponents of new media probably can’t change that language, but they can do the next best thing: constantly and consistently define its key terms.

Six Tips for Effective Editorial Advisory Boards

In an article published last Monday, Joe Pulizzi advocated the use of editorial advisory boards for content marketers. In keeping with his July 4th publication date, Pulizzi made his case with revolutionary zeal.

Having worked for many years with editorial boards, I share his appreciation for them. But while I second his advice, I do so with a few words of caution. Advisory boards only work well when you put sufficient energy and thought into forming and maintaining them. So before you leap in, consider the following six tips for ensuring their effectiveness.

1. Ask yourself if you really need or want a formal board. An advisory board is most useful when you cover a fairly narrow range of technical or complex issues. If your topics are too diverse, a small group of niche experts won’t help much of the time. You should also make sure you have the time and resources to maintain a formal editorial board. If you do it right, it’s a lot of work. Many advisory boards wither on the vine. Don’t let it happen to you.

2. Know your board members. Resist inviting people onto a formal board until you’ve worked with them enough to be certain that they are genuine experts and that they truly want to help. If you keep your board small—Pulizzi wisely suggests limiting it to six members—you’ll want to make sure every one of those members is an active, insightful contributor.

3. Beware editorial board disenchantment. Even when editorial board members start out as enthusiastic participants, they may well start to lose interest or become too busy to offer meaningful help.  When that happens, you have to be ruthless (in a nice way, of course) and ask them to step down. Unless your board is just for show, you should expect every member to be an active participant. One way to deal with this problem is to make appointments to the board for a clearly stated period of time, such as a year. If a board member doesn’t work out, you simply don’t renew the appointment.

4. Be conscious of potential conflicts of interest. Even the most objective board members will have blind spots, particularly when their business interests are involved. Keep that in mind when you ask their advice, and avoid putting them on the spot. Concern about conflicts of interest goes both ways, of course. Board members will want to make sure your own business interests won’t compromise them. This is not a problem for most independent publishers, but for content marketers, the potential for editorial bias is much higher. Assure your board members that you want them to counteract your bias, not to provide a cover for it.

5. Think about compensation. Though Pulizzi didn’t mention this sensitive topic, it’s bound to come up sooner or later. I don’t recommend honoraria or other payment for services—it complicates and limits your relationship with your board members.  But there are benefits you can and should offer. In the trade magazine world, for instance, publishers give board members perks like VIP passes to conferences they sponsor and free copies of special publications. At the very least, send your board members an annual gift.

6. Don’t ask for too much. It may be slightly optimistic to suggest, as Pulizzi does with Independence-Day spirit, that an “advisory board will completely revolutionize your content marketing.” That is an unrealistic expectation for most boards. You can avoid disappointment by defining in advance what goals you have for your board and sharing them with board members. When it comes time to measure the results, you’ll likely be pleased.

Though my passion for them falls slightly short of Pulizzi’s revolutionary fervor, I think we would agree on this: well-managed editorial advisory boards can make the difference between good publications and great ones.

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.


Three Ways to Annoy People and Produce Great Content

At first glance, the idea behind content marketing is straightforward and appealing: by publishing great content, you can win friends, influence people, and achieve your marketing goals. But like all great ideas, it’s not as simple or as sunny as it first appears.

The problem is this: To make great content, you sometimes have to be a wee bit obnoxious.

If you’ve worked much with journalists and editors, you understand. The trait is not genetic, but occupational. They are as nice as anyone else, but if they do their jobs right, they will often rub people the wrong way. In my days overseeing a large editorial group for a B2B publisher, my counterpart in sales was fond of telling me that advertisers found our editors arrogant. They weren’t, and he knew it. But they were scrupulously insistent on getting their facts right, being open to all points of view, and serving the readers.  This sometimes made them look like jerks. It’s a perception that most editors learn to accept as the price of doing their jobs well.

Within a publishing company, there is high tolerance for irksome editors. But in a content-marketing setting, staff and stakeholders new to the publishing ethos may be less understanding.

Don’t let that stop you. If you want to produce great content, you must risk irritating people in one or more of the following three ways.

1. Care about details. In my experience, the most annoying of all editorial specialists are proofreaders. Why? Because they care deeply about details. Their role is to find mistakes and point them out to you.

This doesn’t make them many friends, and leaves them vulnerable to ax-wielding executives who declare, as one has in my presence, that there’s no value in paying someone to rearrange commas.

But commas and other details do matter. Editorial details are to content as fit and finish are to automobiles: they account for the difference between a functional product and a great one, and between humdrum and robust sales.  If you don’t believe me, ask As BoingBoing reports, by having user reviews on its site proofread, Zappos has demonstrably increased its revenues.

Proofreaders as a dedicated job function are well-nigh extinct, but the activity is just as important as ever. And their attention to detail matters not just at the end, when you’re proofing copy, but from the very beginning of the process. If you don’t worry about details when you’re doing the research and writing, no amount of proofreading will fix the resulting problem.

2. Keep asking questions. How do you get all those details right? By asking questions. Or more specifically, by asking annoying questions. The five W’s are just the beginning. You have to ask questions that may make you look skeptical or hostile. And you have to keep asking questions after everyone else is sick of the topic.

What’s more, the questions should not be limited to the people interviewed for stories. Everyone involved should be asking questions like why you’re covering this event and not that one, or how this story fits your mission, or what outcome or action you’re looking for, or one or more of Bob Steele’s 10 ethical questions.

If your goal is just to generate copy, you’ll never need to ask any irritating questions. But if you want to bring your reader as close as you can to an accurate and complete understanding of the topic, your questions will sometimes have to be probing and even disruptive.

3. Insist on finishing. As with any other product, obsessing over details and searching for and correcting flaws won’t do any good if you never ship. The practiced editor’s equally annoying solution here is a firm insistence on meeting deadlines.

As the deadline looms, people will inevitably beg for an extra hour to review copy, check a fact, or polish their phrasing. You must disappoint them. Others will want to get home in time for supper. You must resolutely point them to the vending machine down the hall.

Enforcing deadlines will not make you popular. But increasingly in the social media era, timely publication is a critical component of great content.

In listing these three editorial imperatives my point isn’t that deliberately unfriendly behavior is good for content. That’s not a strategy for long-term editorial success. Rather, it’s this: if you aren’t willing to ruffle some feathers now and then, your content will never soar.