In a couple of weeks, I’m going to be on a panel called “New Publishing and Web Content” at SXSW Interactive, and I’ve been thinking even more than usual about publishing and the anxieties surrounding its supposed demise.
When people talk about the imminent death of publishing, they’re usually talking about something narrow, specific, and tied to ways of working that predate the internet: the publication of books, magazines, newspapers, and all kinds of printed legal and business data, along with the economic, logistical, and aesthetic structures that have made that process possible. And that kind of publishing is indeed getting whipped around like a very small cowboy on a very large bull.
Why? Because the internet is made of publishing, and its new and often anarchic publishing models are messing with older models in all kinds of ways.
A lot of smart people are talking about what will happen to traditional organizations and methods and how they’ll be changed by the forces of New Publishing. This is a great conversation, but for a lot of content people, it’s obscuring a more important point.
The really useful part of this conversation—for content people and the people who hire us—is that we are all now enmeshed in a publishing process that predates the internet by several hundred years.
Where We Go From Here
Last week, Kristina Halvorson published a great post about the thing that content strategy is becoming. And down toward the end is this little depth charge:
…once we’ve witnessed content strategy’s effectiveness at the project level, it’s time to take several steps back and examine our organizations. Because content strategy can’t be truly effective over the long term without an internal editorial infrastructure to support it. And that means widespread organizational change.
If that doesn’t make your ears ring, take a few deep breaths and read it again. (Kristina’s from Minnesota, which is presumably why that statement isn’t splashed across the Brain Traffic website in 72-point black text.)
She’s saying something that anyone who’s done much content strategy work already knows, but has until now despaired of telling their clients: Content strategy engagements are the very beginning of a much larger process. And if you don’t commit to the much larger process, you will not keep up in the new world for much longer. It’s not a new idea—AOL’s Steve Case was talking about it ten years ago and it’s the assumption behind the recent surge in attention to editorial strategy—but it’s one that the business world may finally be ready to hear.
To restate the basics:
- The internet made it possible for everyone to become a publisher.
- The internet plus the market made it mandatory for organizations to become publishers if they want to compete for the attention of their constituents.
The recent increase in client enthusiasm for content strategy is the sound of a significant minority of organizations slowly beginning to realize the above.
Old Think(ing) for New Publishers
So let’s talk about what this means. Publishing online requires a known set of skills: creative leadership, design, editing, production, quality control, and ongoing planning and management. It also takes a few new skills, like community management, curation, and semantic wrangling, most of which are borrowed from other disciplines. But it’s largely made up of new applications for old skills.
When we talk about content strategy, we’re mostly explaining to our clients that if you want to be part of an online conversation, you must become a publisher. And because we’ve been publishing books, magazines, newspapers, catalogs, pamphlets, and fanzines in various forms since the 1450s, we know a few things about that.
We know, for example, that publishing is a genuinely complex task that requires vast quantities of invisible labor. We also know that the things we’ve learned to do as publishers of books and especially of magazines and newspapers can help our clients do a much better job of communicating with their readers. Things like:
- building a solid editorial workflow, including clear approval processes and thorough quality checks,
- using editorial calendars and planning content campaigns and themes—explicit or otherwise—well in advance,
- tuning content for specific channels and audiences (if you think this is a new idea, consider the challenges of putting out regional editions of newspapers and magazines in print, on the same day, all over the world), and perhaps most importantly,
- regularly publishing smart, original content that readers can use, which means hiring people who can listen to internal experts and write, edit, and curate content that extends well beyond white papers, executive bios, and the annual report.
We (by which I mean you) are doing a great job of talking about this stuff amongst ourselves. Next, we need to do a better job of communicating it to our clients. In particular, we need to help our clients focus on this core challenge—publishing—in the face of constant distraction in the form of new tools and trends.
Keep Your Eye on the Doughnut
From about 1999 onward, the peripatetic experts of the leading-edge online trend of the moment have generated a standing wave of hype about tools disguised as paradigm shifts—just poke Twitter to see how many social media “gurus” are lined up to take your money. This is what happens on frontiers, and the snake oil salesmen aren’t going anywhere until the rate of change slows down. In the meantime, it’s our job as content and editorial strategists to help our clients focus on the central challenges and opportunities of online communication.
Right now, these are the trees: Twitter, Google Buzz, Facebook, YouTube channels, tagging, SEO (still), user-generated content. Publishing is the forest.
Help your clients and bosses come to grips with the publishing process, and the rest of your content strategy will sell itself.
- “Content strategy is, in fact, the next big thing” on BrainTraffic.com
- Jeffrey MacIntyre on Editorial Strategy (Slideshare)
- Kristina Halvorson and Joe Pulizzi on Content Strategy (Slideshare)
- “On Publishing” from Mandy Brown at A Working Library
- “Books Not Dead” on Zeldman.com, about our upcoming panel
- Notes on the disastrous “New Think for Old Publishers” panel from SXSW 2009 (Booksquare, Medialoper, GalleyCat)