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.

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.

Innocent and Malignant Typos and the Case of Filloux v. Jarvis

Picture of a fainting heroine

Overdosed on typos?

As one who cares more than he should about such things, I’ve been spending way too much time today mulling over Rob O’Regan’s recent post on eMedia Vitals, “Can you spare 15 minutes in the battle against typos?”.

Like O’Regan, I suspect, I have an unhealthy sensitivity to typographical errors. To this day, I’m still suffering post-typographic stress from the discovery 27 years ago that in my first published book review, for the Nashville Tennessean, I asserted that the novel’s protagonist died from an overdose of “heroine.”

Much of the pain of that error came from the fact that it was permanent. That day’s press run was done forever. The only comfort I could take was in the knowledge that few people would read the review, fewer would notice the mistake, and all would throw the paper out a few days later.

In today’s online media, of course,  it’s easy to repair such mistakes (as I’ve done in my archived version of that fateful book review). What’s odd is how few people bother. Though O’Regan is too nice to name the writers or publications, he notes that three of the four errors he cites have yet to be corrected, several days after publication. (Me, I’m not so nice: Come on, Stefanie Botelho and Folio: magazineSilicone Valley is almost as embarrassing as heroine.)

In those rare moments when I can look at them dispassionately, I can see that most typos are innocent. Some people will be amused by Silicone Valley; no one is hurt by it.

But there’s another class of typos that, left uncorrected, suggest a subtle malignity. For the reader, they are indications that the writer’s argument might not be trustworthy. A recent example, for me, is Frédéric Filloux’s critique earlier this month of a Jeff Jarvis blog post on the status of the article in journalism.

In my opinion, Filloux simply gets it wrong. I could respect his view, however, if I thought he was actually trying to get it right. But a critical typo, uncorrected now for nearly two weeks, suggests that he isn’t trying, and worse, that he doesn’t care to. “To support his position,” Filloux writes, “Jarvis mentions Brian Settler’s coverage of the Joplin tornado.”

Settler? Nope. The New York Times reporter’s last name, of course, is Stelter.

Is failing to spell Stelter’s name correctly an innocent mistake? Maybe at first (though even then it’s a sign of carelessness). But after two weeks, it starts to fester. It would undercut even the most thoughtful argument, not just Filloux’s impulsive rant.

In a subsequent attack on Jarvis’s advocacy of process journalism, Filloux says, “personally, I’d rather stick to the quest for perfection rather than embrace the celebration of the ‘process.’” I would suggest to M. Filloux that the quest for perfection begins at home.

Fortunately, it’s not too late. As Jarvis says in a comment on Filloux’s post, “publish first and correct later has *always* been the rule, except now we can publish earlier and correct sooner.”

Should you care as much as I do about typos? I don’t recommend it. To be a productive writer, you need a tolerance for innocent slip-ups. But if you care about the truth—not to mention perfection—you’ll make sure they don’t turn into malignant ones.

Do your readers want the truth?

In a compelling but slightly unnerving blog post today, Amy Gahran argues that journalists should accept the fact that people are, in many ways, psychologically wired to resist the truth. Fighting it is pointless, she says. Instead,  “to help people understand how things really are,” journalists must find ways to “to accommodate—not deny—these psychological tendencies.” But where, I worry, does that approach lead?

Gahran’s post was sparked by her reading of Seth Mnookin’s Panic Virus, in particular its discussion of the various cognitive quirks that lead people to cling to misguided beliefs in spite of demonstrable facts to the contrary. There’s nothing new about these psychological phenomena, but as Farhad Manjoo argued in True Enough, the Internet can serve to reinforce them. Through the fragmentation of media, it’s easy for believers to find plenty of sources that confirm rather than challenge their ideas. While a few might relish challenging themselves intellectually, most don’t.

So for journalists, Gahran argues, facts are no longer sufficient in themselves. Somehow, in presenting those facts, you have to take into account the predilection of readers to disbelieve or ignore them. Gahran says it isn’t clear how to do that, but feels certain—and I think she’s right—that posing as a detached, uninvolved observer doesn’t work.

To put it another way, it’s not enough to be a presenter of the truth. You must be an advocate for it. You must want to make people accept it.

But I wonder: when you’re dealing with anosognosics—people who can’t recognize their own cognitive failings—is there any way to get them to accept reality without wrapping it in deception? Can you give such readers what they need without, perhaps impossibly, also giving them what they want? Does your goal of truth telling somehow imperceptibly slip into propaganda?

Faced with such questions, I tend to throw up my hands in despair and fall back on a selfish impulse: “This is my search for truth here. You can take it or leave it.”

That’s fine for me, but not for journalism. Truth-telling is transactional. As Gahran suggests, if journalists can’t find ways to get people to listen, they will have failed. The trick will be to do so without bending the truth in the process.

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 Zappos.com. 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.