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.

What Killed Borders? A Loss of Passion

The announcement this week that Borders Group will liquidate its remaining bookstores by the end of the summer puts an end to my hopes for its unlikely revival. But though I’m sad to see it go, I don’t worry about the future of books or reading. What killed Borders wasn’t some irresistible economic or cultural force, but the loss of an essential resource businesses need to survive in times of change: passion.

Borders logo Though I’m no expert on Borders, I draw this conclusion from a memorable personal experience. One of my first assignments as a journalist was interviewing the manager responsible for opening the first Borders bookstores in Atlanta. Though I don’t remember the exact date, it was in the mid-1980s, when Borders was just beginning the expansion that would make it the de facto local bookstore for many communities.

Although it would come to be seen as the enemy of independent bookstores, that wasn’t the impression I took away from my interview. The manager was not the sort of conflicted corporate bookseller portrayed by Tom Hanks in “You’ve Got Mail,” a sensitive, soulful sort with a bloody-minded determination to smash his small competitors.

While the Borders manager was convinced of the superiority of his company’s approach to bookselling, he wasn’t brash. Rather, he believed deeply in what Borders was doing and in its potential to extend the independent bookstore experience to millions of people. He talked at great length about the benefits he wanted for Borders readers and the knowledge and dedication he expected from his clerks. His passion was such that he had me, a confirmed book lover and admirer of independent bookstores, ready to apply for a job there. Only the fact that I lived three hours from Atlanta stopped me.

Though I have not closely followed Borders since then, I have to believe that the core reason for its failure is not some economic or technological factor, but the simple loss of passion for bookselling. As noted in the Forbes RetailWire blog today, “Borders forgot how to be a bookstore” and started “hiring people . . . who had little or no interest in books, authors, or literature.”

So though I’m sorry to see the end of Borders, I don’t worry about the state of book publishing, selling, or reading. As long as people have the passion for books and the reading experience that I encountered in that Borders manager, the book business may evolve, but it will not fail.

Digital Drudgery and Second-Stage Shovelware

In a post earlier this month, I raised the sensitive question of whether legacy print journalists might be unduly worried about the workload involved in social media. It spurred a substantial number of comments, and even played a small role in that all-too rara avis, a blog post by Paul Conley.

In the most recent comment yesterday, my friend and mentor Howard Rauch argued that excessive digital workloads are very real phenomena for B2B editors. He’s right, of course. But in my reply, I struggled to make the case that the problem is not inherent in online media, but that it lies instead in the tendency of legacy publishers to treat digital media like print.

I didn’t put it very well. But today, without knowing he was doing it, blogger Adam Tinworth rode to my rescue. The problem, he explains, is second-stage shovelware.

The occasion for Tinworth’s observations was his desire to defend liveblogging as a journalistic undertaking. He argues that the criticisms being slung at The Guardian’s liveblog coverage of the Christchurch earthquake are based in a confusion of print and digital media. The journalists who object to liveblogging, he suggests, don’t understand that it is process-driven rather than product-driven:

“Most journalists think in a goal-driven way. It is the finished product that matters; the 350-word inverted pyramid that captures the essence of the story; the 3,000 words, 3 DPS feature on a certain topic. That, though, is a product of the historic fact that a magazine or newspaper was finished. The page was set, the presses rolled, the story concluded. Sure, you could follow it up in the next issue, but the original story was done.

“The internet does not possess this quality. Nothing on the internet has to be finished. . . . Websites never go to press. The medium is a different one, and allows different forms of journalism.”

The problem for many journalists and publishers is that they don’t see the full extent of this difference. While, as Tinworth notes, they have advanced beyond simply shoveling previously published print copy online, they are stuck in a second stage of shovelware: “where you’ve accepted that internet is a viable medium of first publication, but you’re still using nothing but print formats.”

When Rauch points to e-mail newsletters as a key villain in digital drudgery, he’s underscoring the failure of legacy publishers to understand digital media. All they’re doing is stuffing a print-era product into an e-mail skin. In Tinworth’s terminology, they are stuck in the second stage of shovelware.

It’s a shame on at least two counts. First, these publishers are failing to exploit the unique journalistic advantages of the Web. Second, they are taking an exciting new medium for journalists and making it look like drudgery and grunt work.

It’s understandable that those who work for such publishers are upset. The digital workloads many journalists and editors are being handed are indeed excessive. But the real cause for complaint is this: It’s not just too much work, it’s the wrong work.

A Lament for Borders Bookstores

Borders Bookstore

The news last week that Borders was declaring bankruptcy and closing some 200 stores was hardly surprising but was still, to me at least, a shock.

Back in the days when I covered the bookstore business for Publishers Weekly, Borders was perceived as an evil juggernaut that was going to destroy independent bookstores. But that argument worked much better against the previous villain, Crown Books. Crown made its ultimately short-lived business out of heavily discounting best-sellers, hardly a cultural benefit. But Borders (and, similarly, Barnes & Noble) wanted to reproduce the independent bookstore experience on a wide scale. That made it a threat to independents, but hardly evil.

One of the odd things about my line of work back then was that I was based outside of Chattanooga, Tennessee—not at the time a cultural center, to say the least. To find a decent bookstore I had to travel two hours or so to Atlanta. My situation improved when I moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1980s, but even then, getting to a good bookstore meant a longish drive out of the culturally barren San Fernando Valley into the Westside.

Within a few years, though, that changed, thanks to Borders and Barnes & Noble. By setting up shop in the Valley and back in Chattanooga and similar outposts, they made it possible to find culture alive and well in your own hometown, not just in some distant city. Sure, the best independents always outshone these chains, but both they and the chains did honorable duty. The difference was that the chains brought book culture to places where independents either wouldn’t or couldn’t go.

As a longtime fan of Amazon and a Kindle owner, I appreciate the convenience and long-tail abundance of online bookstores and e-books. Literary culture is the better for them. But they cannot replace physical bookstores as a social and tangible presence, as part of daily culture and commerce. Borders may be down, but I hope it is not out. I’ll be rooting for it to come roaring back.