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.