Editorial Executives Chart New Path for Social Giant Playing Field

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It was nice to hear at Wednesday’s solutions-oriented Buying & Selling Content in New York that Dan Roth, executive editor of LinkedIn, faces issues that we all do.

“We also try to get our posts on different platforms and find the same questions,” said Roth, during an exhilarating keynote panel titled How Apple, Facebook, LinkedIn and Google Are Changing the Game.

Those questions would be:
- Is having your audience go to social platforms to read your content good for the long-term interests of publishers?
- Is there any choice?
- How do publishers monetize this?

Roth said that he would not “have joined LinkedIn if there wasn’t a big commitment to publishing." But part of that commitment still requires him having frequent “conversations” with their data scientists. “They don’t really care at all about [what’s in] the articles, just that this one does better. But what is it about that one that does better? This—and having an editorial voice—is what’s important to us.”

“It’s interesting; two or three years ago we had to get eyeballs to our site,” said Brian Madden, VP of audience for Hearst Digital. “I worked with editors so people would share and we would show up in search results. Now it’s all about the social platforms. I have to figure out how to work with them—Instant Articles, LinkedIn, Google. “Can we make more money doing it that way? It’s complicated. We don’t have systems to figure that out or the puzzle pieces aren't in place. Hopefully [those companies are] incentivized to make it work for us as well as them.

“[But] that’s where the audience is who we want to connect with, so we have to be there.”

Kara Swisher, executive editor of Re/Code, proved to be the perfect moderator, keeping a laid-back panel of established editors on their digital toes. When the recent Business Insider $343 million sale to a German media company came up, Swisher said, “I thought Henry [Blodget, site co-founder] should write me a million dollar check”—the essence being that it is companies like hers that are doing the actual reporting.

“Ah, there’s nothing to be done about it,” she said.  “You can go that way and kill yourself every night. Or do what you do. [Fortunately,] we have a conference business that makes enormous amounts of money.”

And there’s today’s conundrum—try to work better with these social giants and hope, like Madden said, that it will be in their best interests to see publishers succeed; but at the same time, you must ramp up your other businesses like events, online learning and data.

“Transition periods are when everything seems most hopeless,” said John Herrman, editor of The Awl, the third panelist and the most philosophical one. “But one hopeful path I see is that these different platforms might want to create some distinct identity in terms of content like a TV network. Imagine working online without the web.”

Swisher suggested that the future might see users creating their “own buffet or meals” based on these different content platforms.

“Platforms have become more assertive in what they show people,” Herrman said. “I’m optimistic—they may want people to create for them. Look at Netflix [for an example of people paying for content]. The difference is that the stuff that they’re doing, people are more willing to pay for. [Maybe we’re] creating conditions for a new type of publisher.”

Swisher lamented about today’s emphasis on the “packaging and bow. You need the right headline on the content or the work doesn’t matter at all.” She mentioned another big article that her site did the work on, but then Twitter scooped it out from them. “The minute it was out they ate and chewed up what we did. We didn’t get an enormous amount of credit or audience for what we did. [We needed to do] something more clever with how we distributed it.”

Madden agreed. 

“How much time are the editors and writers thinking about the platforms they’re writing for and crafting it for there?” he asked. “Let me adjust it so it will work on this platform, this site. You’ve seen changes in the Facebook algorithm and Google rewarding the publications that are actually creating content [so there is hope]. Maybe we’ll see viral aggregators going down, and original, good-quality content coming back.

“Unfortunately we have to do all of it,” said Roth. “Kara, do you have a team figuring out what to do with [your content]?”

“No, our first [priority] is, is this accurate?” she replied.

Roth said that for now, we’ll have to assume that creating the best content, at the least, helps your brand.

“You have impact that way, but not audience,” Swisher countered.

“I had an editor who used to ask if this story is better as a tweet,” Herrman said. “Taken seriously, a lot of stories [may be] better as a tweet.”

“When it comes to B2B publishers, they may want to use platforms as farm teams,” Roth said. “Write a post and get picked up by Marketing Today or CMO. [They’ll then ask,] ‘Why don’t you get started writing for us?’ Then put it on LinkedIn to get a big audience. [This way] you’re finding voices instead of, ‘they’re eating our lunch.’ Bring them onboard.”

Herrman suggested that “all of these social things will be taken by new feeds or notifications on your phone. There’s this feeling I get that that it would be a better feed than what Facebook can offer. Google and Apple make a nice watch and a nice search engine, but…”

Swisher finished by further lamenting a publishing playing field where an article headlined, “23 things you need to know about the Left Shark” attracted huge numbers (from last year’s Super Bowl halftime show).

“You want to be data informed and not data driven,” she said.

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…