Editorial babble: What to do when the quality argument falls on deaf ears

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Our industry is caught between “what was” and “what will be.”  Which means that “what is” is up for grabs. And when things are up for grabs, people get busy.  Busy preserving their livelihoods, their positions, their power.

Ironically, the preservation of editorial power comes down to language.

The day the editors lost their language

Five years or so ago I was sitting with more than 200 of my closest colleagues at a company meeting meant to educate us in cutting-edge online media practices. After hearing about reader interests, market realities and competitive pressures, an agency guy took the stage and unveiled the wonders of interstitial, interactive, engaging online advertising. It went something like this:

Agency guy: "…and here's a new ad unit that we're putting in place [interstitial ad blocks site content and shows puppy wanting to play fetch]. Check it out! If you mouse over the ball you can throw it for the puppy to fetch. And he barks until you do!"

Journalist: "Ummm, what do the readers think of that?”

Agency Guy: "Who cares? It works!"

In that moment, the separation of church and state – long protecting editorial integrity – had suffered a serious blow. Kryptonite was now just a green rock. Similar conversations were likely happening in every publishing company.

The power grab

Without the comfortable – albeit somewhat mysterious – certainty of church and state as protector, the role, application, value and purpose of editorial  were suddenly open to redefinition. Bolstered by evidence of falling pages, plummeting circulation and the crumbling of entire business models, anything that smacked of revenue potential – in the form of traffic, engagement, lead generation, ad networks – could become judge and jury.  

The business was disintegrating, models were changing, money was diverting to new channels. Businesses had to do something fast, so they followed the revenue. Keeping pace – indeed, keeping alive – required businesses to bend the church and state rules to accommodate the new world order. Or did it? 

Editorial cried foul: Our integrity is at stake! Readers will abandon us! Quality is paramount! We have standards, for pity’s sake! But when asked to explain these journalistic mores, the power of that traditional defense seemed to have drained away.

After years of dependence on editorial integrity and the separation of church and state, the words to communicate the underlying rationale had atrophied. And now the power had shifted. In the face of falling revenue, editorial parlance around “quality” wasn’t getting the message across. In the best case scenarios, a patient publisher or CEO would listen politely and try to understand. In the worst cases, the argument for quality was followed by patronizing and conveniently dismissive advice: “Online is different. We need editors who ‘get it’.”

Preserving editorial power through language

In the words of one of the terrifically smart editors with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working:

“Editors are not regarded as businesspeople. In many cases, this is because they do not regard themselves as businesspeople and therefore do not communicate to business leaders in business language. If you change that and use business language (’My job is to accumulate the audience to meet our business goals'), you will gain credibility with your business leaders.

“If your business makes money through advertising, or lead generation, or sale of research data, then those are the goals that should frame your discussions. You should be able to contribute great ideas about how to reach those goals.

“Then if you find it necessary to disagree with your business leaders at some point (worst case scenario: 'The editorial coverage is not for sale because we will erode our audience and no longer be able to meet our business goals'), they are more likely to accept your argument and less likely to dismiss you as a whiny editor who doesn't understand the business.”

Know your audience. Speak their language. The only way to preserve editorial power is by using the language of the business. It's simply about effective communication. And isn’t that what editors are supposed to be good at?
 

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