Moving On From Publishing Executive: The Song Remains the Same
It’s been nearly six years since I took on the very meta role of directing a publication about publishing.
It’s been a period of great uncertainty, innovation, and disruption, all of which create a lot of noise, so I always took the job of editor-in-chief of Publishing Executive and Book Business to be one of trying to find the signal through the noise. I still haven’t found a way to predict the future, but I’ve learned that in times of drastic change, the best way to get a sense for what the future will look like is not to focus on what is changing, but rather what will remain the same.
In 2013, when I started this position, the uncertainty in the industry was at its height. The web was earning a larger and larger share of consumer attention and advertising dollars. The iPad and Kindle were expected to replace magazines and books in short order. And time spent with mobile was creeping its way up while social media platforms had only begun to exert the power they would soon come to wield.
In drastic times, when your business model is being pummeled and digital upstarts are suddenly existential threats, you can’t blame publishers for questioning their very identity and purpose here on earth. Some critics even posited that publishers would be irrelevant in this new world and content would be entirely “unbundled” from media brands…and on, and on.
But let’s be clear, much has remained the same. That’s because this industry, like many industries, is driven by human behavior – and human behavior doesn’t change very much from year to year, decade to decade, or even century to century. Despite all the technology that has supposedly disrupted our world, human behavior is still driven by a handful of core needs.
Food, shelter, love, enlightenment, and pleasure.
Gathering information about how to pursue these needs will never go out of fashion.
Here are a few things that remain the same in publishing.
Here’s the big one:
People will forever have a thirst for reliable information that they can use to guide themselves toward more enjoyable and fruitful personal and professional endeavors.
The industry has always been about data.
I know analytics platforms and AI-driven, predictive engines are revealing a lot about customers/audiences. But really what these tools are doing for publishers is helping to make explicit what has always been the implicit foundation of the publishing business: audiences engaging with relevant content will be more receptive to relevant advertising offers. Thankfully, these tools are reconnecting the disintermediation of publisher content and readers and enable publishers to demonstrate and be rewarded for the commerce they inspire. The mechanics have remained the same, but the market’s understanding will be improved. (Thanks, data.)
Good content = Audience engagement. Audience engagement = monetization.
On the business side of the industry, there’s been a slow awakening to this sentiment, parallel with a “duh” moment for many on the editorial side. Seriously, I’ve seen endless executives at industry events pronounce with great profundity that “quality content” and “audience engagement” are important components to healthy media products.
I’m a stalwart advocate of journalism ethics but, believe it or not, I think the impenetrable church-state firewall has been the cause of a lot of damage the industry has endured. The business side was for so long isolated from and ignorant of what the editorial side did that when the industry faced major disruption, management didn’t fully understand the product and how to pivot. The good news is that there is now a more collaborative relationship that can produce effective products. This has its own risks, but at least no one (editors especially) will be lulled into thinking that a sustainable editorial product doesn’t require an equilibrium between audience and business needs.
Unfortunately, good content don’t come for free.
Aggregation models were never going to be a sustainable path to audience engagement. Keyword stuffing was clearly just search engine gaming that had long-term negative impact on the quality of information on the web. Unpaid contributor models have severe limitations. Good writers and editors are more expensive than hacks.
The upside: Editors are the best source of knowledge on what will resonate with the market and the audience, so if they’re used properly, they should be seen as business development and R&D, not as mere cost centers.
Advertisers have a gravitational pull that can pull us away from our best instincts.
Many marketers aren’t concerned with driving business results. They just know which metrics their performance will be judged by and how to meet those (often) meaningless numbers. But they’re not really to blame. For over a decade, internet economics put in place by power brokers (Google, Facebook, Twitter, ad networks, et al.) have rewarded bad content (in some cases false, violent, pornographic), fraudulent traffic, fake social engagement. In turn, publishers’ hands were forced to pursue scale metrics: pageviews, clicks, shares. All the while, we all knew (or should have known) that the North Star of publishing was audience engagement through relevant content. The pivot to subscriptions is not a cure all, but a needed correction and a reminder to trust our instincts.
Not sure if these parting words are any help, but I figured I’d document what I see remaining the same in the publishing industry.
FYI: Moving On
I will be moving on to lead content strategy for Comcast Business. I’ve been interested in testing my content strategy skills on the brand side for quite a while – and have had a hand in this space for many years in my work with various sponsored content and custom publishing programs over the years. Now it’s time to dive in.
Leaving the publishing industry is definitely a bittersweet moment. This will be my first foray outside the publishing industry. It’s been thoroughly rewarding to study the economics and technology that are buoying publishing organizations. So many people in the industry have been tremendously generous with their time and wisdom, for which I’m appreciative.
Hopefully I’ve been able to convey some useful insight that has improved the quality of information available to people in pursuit of food, shelter, love, enlightenment, and pleasure. (I have at least one piece of evidence that this is the case. Below is a letter from a reader John Vargo, publisher of Boating on the Hudson & Beyond magazine, which I’ve kept on a bulletin board in my office for 5 years.)
If you haven’t already, please get to know Publishing Executive senior editor Leah Wynalek, who will be taking over the editorial reins. She can be reached at email@example.com. I’m sure she’d appreciate your feedback in the future.
If you’d like to stay in touch, below is my personal contact info.
Denis Wilson was previously content director for Target Marketing, Publishing Executive, and Book Business, as well as the FUSE Media and BRAND United summits. In this role, he analyzed and reported on the fundamental changes affecting the media and marketing industries and aimed to serve content-driven businesses with practical and strategic insight. As a writer, Denis’ work has been published by Fast Company, Rolling Stone, Fortune, and The New York Times.