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.