Move Beyond Church & State to Realize the Full Power of the Publisher-Editor Relationship
It’s no secret that the publishing industry is going through a rough patch. Print advertising continues to dry up, digital channels have turned out to be unreliable sources of ad sales, tech giants have inserted themselves between publishers and their readers, revenue is being soaked up by social media platforms and it’s exhausting to keep pace with the never-ending need for new digital products to reach readers whose attention span is increasingly fickle and fragmented.
But is it fair to say that publishing is on the ropes? I don’t think so. To research a webinar I recently presented for the American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE) about what publishers really want from editors, I sat down for off-the-record conversations with 13 current and former publishers from a wide variety of B2C and B2B publishing companies. I came away with a sense of optimism. Yes, big change is underway, and some parts of the industry are demoralized and fatigued, but there are good ideas out there about how to handle the current moment. There’s even excitement — a sense of “Bring it on! Let’s get to grips with our problems and solve them.”
As publisher after publisher impressed upon me that there is more than enough talent, more than enough energy and an over-abundance of ideas about how to make the publishing industry thrive; they also mentioned repeatedly that the traditional church-and-state separation of editors and sales has left a legacy of internal division and mistrust.
It doesn’t have to be this way. All it takes to realize the full potential of your organization is trust, communication and collaboration based on the explicit understanding that editorial integrity and loyal readers are the most valuable assets publishers have.
Here are some of the insights I gathered on how moving beyond church-and-state separation can be fruitful for the industry.
Collaborate to Solve the Silo Problem
The church-and-state model, which dates from the 1920s, creates parallel fiefdoms within a publishing organization. This is done in the legitimate interest of keeping editorial independent from business functions to safeguard editorial integrity, but it makes for a fundamentally antagonistic relationship between two halves of a whole. In a world where external pressures differ significantly from those faced by publishers 100 years ago and only the nimble survive, this rigid separation needs a rethink. As one B2C publisher put it, nowadays “when the business doesn’t hit the numbers it’s not my problem, it’s our problem.”
Quality content and the audience engagement it creates are fast becoming the major assets publishing companies trade on. So what was known as editorial integrity is now more accurately called brand integrity. And brand integrity is everyone’s concern.
Publishers need to spread responsibility for the reader’s trust across the organization, holding marketing, advertising, circulation, and events accountable for maintaining and growing brand trust at every customer touch point. Why? Because a focus on brand integrity has real financial value.
As one B2B publisher told me: “[Sometimes] I feel like I care [as much] about editorial integrity as my editors do; I see the value of it every day when I’m selling.”
Whether applied to visualizing editorial workflow or opening the books to share with your EIC what is really going on with the business, transparency increases trust. And the knock-on effects of a close, collaborative, trust-based partnership between a publisher and editor are entirely positive.
As one B2B publisher explained to me, “it’s no longer a game of soloists — the ability [of the entire staff] to work together as a team” will determine how well the overall organization functions. And a former B2C publisher whose magazine experienced a dramatic and positive turnaround in a relatively short period of time noted approvingly that her editor-in-chief “knew every number!”
Editors and publishers need to come together and become more familiar with each other’s efforts. Get to know your colleagues “across the aisle.” Approach them like you are all in this together. As one B2B publisher told me, “Editors need to understand the business objectives and how editorial fits within them.”
Fear Stifles Innovation
Layoffs have plagued the publishing industry for at least the past 20 years. The rolling crisis of job security affects everyone, and makes for a traumatized workforce. No one can do their best work, much less innovate and contribute new ideas that — who knows — just might save the business, if they are worried about their livelihood. And editors occupy a particularly precarious position. In an industry that sets trends, speaks authoritatively, ferrets out the truth and determines what is important for each new cultural moment, their judgment is their currency.
Should editors feel that exercising that judgment exposes them, that they may be in danger of losing their jobs because the wind has suddenly shifted yet again, they will not be daring. They will not personify their brand. They will not go out there with confidence and create the quality editorial content that brings in the readers on whom publishers rely. While it could be, by now, that they are simply overworked, the chronic (and often stereotyped) resistance of editors to change may be a result of their fear that publishers view them as expendable, replaceable, or at fault for the failure of a business model that is often at odds with a changing world.
And yet, as multiple publishers expressed to me in a variety of ways, those fears are unfounded. “Talent is an issue — it’s harder and harder to find talented people to do this work,” says one former B2B and B2C publisher. Another, current, B2B publisher echoes: “You need [great editors] who know the topic better than the [interview] subjects, or the audience won’t engage with them.”
Reassure your editors that while the business may be struggling and you need them to do different things, their employment is safe. Treat them as valued equals — colleagues you admire, whose judgment you trust, who you want to support as they create and embody the brand, take risks and populate new products with editorial content of the highest possible caliber. Then sit back and watch as they transform into exactly the partners you need them to be.
Once you have your editorial colleagues on your side, collaborate. Seek their opinions about what content would work best on which platform, be it an online article, video, audio, print and/or social. Let them guide how that content is customized. Experiment together with new models about where and how to set the boundaries that keep editorial safe from advertising influence. Brainstorm new strategies to reach readers and create new revenue streams on the strength of editorial content and brand identity. Start small, test each idea in microcosm, roll out the larger change once you’ve analyzed results and accept that not every initiative will succeed.
As one publisher put it, “I’m okay if we try something quick and find out customers don’t respond. Better to ‘fail fast.’ Just make sure you are learning and don’t make the same mistake twice!”
Model the Behavior
Most importantly, if you want to move beyond church and state you have to model the behavior you want from others. It’s not easy; every publisher told me that culture change was the hardest part of the job.
But in this age of rapid transformation, they all agreed, the willingness and ability to adapt is a distinct competitive advantage.
Kilian and his company PurpleGray use coaching, workshops, and interim management to help editorial content creators adapt to a changing (digital) world without resorting to headcount reduction. Formerly Managing Editor for Editorial Development at Condé Nast and Technical Director of Digital Projects at The New Yorker, he was the youngest Production Manager in Rolling Stone history.