Social media and blogging software have made publishing and sharing frictionless. Publishing organisations and individuals experiment with them: often focusing on technology and not enough on content and users. Yet, as the strangeness of the tools wears off, the pendulum is swinging back from wild experiments to fundamentals of our crafts. Because, as Sara Wachter-Boettcher wrote, “technology can’t help you make good decisions; it can only help you implement them”, the industry is bound to learn what the tools are good for and how to use them. This is happening. Many outlets reconsider their editorial practices and exciting case studies come out about their successes.
End Me-too Content and Let Writers Write
Publishers often try to translate the paper model to the web and offer everything to their audiences. It leads to a me-too content explosion in which publishers struggle to cover everything in order to stay household brands. In the digital world, however, nobody limits themselves to a single source of information and hyperlinks makes browsing from one to the next easy. Publishers learn how to be valued brands without offering everything to everyone and how to follow the new rule: “Cover what you do best. Link to the rest”. There’s way too much “news” or discussion for every publisher to push an opinion or fresh information on every particular issue.
Charlie Sheen’s problems were all over the media a few months ago. Peer pressure meant that lots of different publications ran related stories without adding much in terms of information or point of view. The coverage of Charlie Sheen’s breakdown lead Kerry Lauerman, Editor-in-Chief of Salon.com to reconsider their strategy and push for original reporting:
Lauerman calls the shift “piecemeal” and says it will be largely up to staffers to figure out how they can best contribute to the site’s evolving overarching mission.
Give contributors an “overarching mission”, empower them and give them the tools to pursue it. It works and, most of all, the alternative is gloomy.
Chasing Twitter trending topics, paraphrasing other pieces to create me-too content, trying to publish a few minutes before the competition doesn’t make a big difference in the end. However, it erodes the writers’ motivation. Writing a half-funny SEO-conscious introduction for a cute goat picture, cat video or a critique of the latest Tumblr sensation only to draw people’s attention can be a drag. Most writers produce their best work when they feel knowledgeable, informed and have enough time to develop an angle on the story.
Gawker’s Editor-in-Chief, A.J. Daulerio, recognized this and decided to assign page-views as the focus of a single staff-writer each day and give more freedom to the others. Gawker’s experiment is analysed on Nieman Journalism Lab. Although the page-view numbers aren’t conclusive either way, the staff seems happier. It will no doubt also help them with their goal to “demonstrate a rounded personality” and clean their brand.
Long-Form Branding Opportunities
In matters of branding, original content and personality matter most because publishers have to make themselves memorable. Forty-percent of the time, I can’t remember where I read about a piece of news. Most of my friends who are bombarded with content are the same. Pay attention and you’ll find you have a similar experience. However, longer pieces which develop a point of view and an interesting angle give the publisher a better opportunity to make a lasting impression. People still value long-form journalism very much according to Bob Cohn, editorial director of Atlantic Digital, in this interview on Mediabistro:
We routinely publish 6-, 8-, even 10,000 word stories on the website. It is not surprising for a magazine story to get a million page views. If you accept that people still believe in high-quality, long-form journalism, then they want it wherever they can get it.
In the end, getting caught up in the tools and the pace of online life can destroy our precious sense of purpose and have unintended consequences. Publish or perish seems to be the motto of our time. Yet, we can’t work well in a constant sense of urgency. We don’t work well when the goal is to take up space and time. Merlin Mann’s essay Better explains this better than I could.
Doing good and being original still works at least as well as the alternative. So, we can choose to empower the writers — whether it’s you or an other — and push things forward.
Image credit: “Newsroom” by Mephisto 97.6. Creative Commons License BY-SA.