Digital Directions: Keepers of the Brand
After college graduation, I was saddled with the challenge of wielding a liberal arts degree in a tough job market. My strategy was to throw myself into technology and grad school. Many classmates of mine went the traditional publishing route, nabbing junior editorial roles. This was … ahem! … a few decades ago, and the starting salary was around $15,000. In New York City. The feeble compensation was rationalized by the fact that publishing was a “glamour” profession, and since the editor was at the epicenter of prestige, many jumped at the chance to get these positions. What about now? What is the editorial role in the emerging digital content landscape, and does that role have the same level of importance?
To answer that, we need to sketch the diverse functions of the editorial role in the broadest sense, from acquisition through developmental and copyediting:
• Discovery of sources of content that are of value to an audience.
• Selection and prioritization of content for distribution.
• Correction and enhancement of content, often working collaboratively with authors to create verified, high-quality content.
• Compilation and arrangement of content.
• Refinement and design of content to maximize the clarity, utility and enjoyment of the offerings.
As diverse and critical as these functions may be, the digital content ecosystem increasingly suggests new models that make all of this seem somewhat moot:
• Drudge Report, which reportedly gets up to 20 million page views per month, eschews most editorial niceties of refinement and compilation. Instead, the news-aggregation site has a single-minded and unwavering emphasis on timeliness. Wrong headline? No problem: It can be corrected in a few minutes. In the meantime, the site gets the page views.
• Google solved the discovery problem, right?
• Wikipedia allows communities of interest to correct and enhance encyclopedia entries.
• Digg, a social news Web site, uses reader-driven ratings to automatically prioritize content. If an editor’s role is a proxy for a community of interest, why not just go directly to the community of interest? Digg does!
Through user customization options, many content providers, such as Yahoo, give the role of compilation and arrangement to the end-user.
The Social Impact
General characteristics of the emerging digital content delivery model suggest a loss of traditional editorial control. Content is created in a social context such as blog entries, Twitter tweets, or audience comments on commercially created material.
The social aspect of the digital content landscape is perhaps the most challenging to the editorial role, particularly for non-fiction works. Two key functions of the editorial role are the selection of elements of content and the prioritization among these elements—a key form of publishing-value creation. Social media platforms such as Digg and Wikipedia provide these functions. Online peer-review platforms also provide the opportunity for communities of interest to select and prioritize content.
For that matter, what is the value of copyediting? In the age of texting and tweets, a population is emerging apparently indifferent to issues pertaining to grammar and style. From a market perspective, is the value of copyediting as great as speed of delivery?
An Evolving, but Significant Role
Well, Virginia, I do believe the editorial role will continue to have as much value in the digital landscape as it did in traditional publishing. Like so many roles in the content world, the editor’s function will need to evolve. But, even in the realm of dynamic, customized, socially contextualized content, editors provide a critical, strategic role:
• Quality. Any activity performed by an individual professionally devoted to that activity will yield a higher-quality result than if performed by one not so devoted. Professionals, on average, do a better job than dilettantes. Some of the more quantifiable characteristics of content quality are clarity, accuracy and primacy.
While there are indeed individuals (non-professionals) spending a large percentage of their waking hours doing a fine job editing Wikipedia entries, I would counter that they, in fact, have become editors. They just are not getting paid for it. Maybe they should.
• Reference-ability. Content generated through a known, understood and credible editorial process often has more value as a reference source than content that is not the result of such a process. This is most clearly seen in the case of content from scientific and scholarly journals, but also is true of general reference, news and professional information. Reference-ability increases the value of content and is a direct result of the editorial role. The increasing use of online systems for peer review does not signal the end of the editor’s role. Such systems are merely additional editorial tools that have diminished value when not used by editors.
Keepers of the Brand
The digital content landscape is fluid. Content can dynamically change configuration and appearance based upon the device through which it is delivered and the manner in which it is combined with other elements. However, underlying content quality and reference-ability are immutable characteristics even in such a dynamic milieu, and these characteristics are the result of the editorial role.
Further, these characteristics are essential aspects of a content provider’s brand. Editors, therefore, are critical keepers of the value of the publisher’s brand.
In the world of dynamic, customized, digital content, immersed as it is in the soup of Wikis, tweets and Diggs, the importance of a publisher’s brand does not diminish. On the contrary, it becomes even more important to distinguish the publisher’s offerings from the cacophony that surrounds it.
Brand value, in turn, directly drives the ability to monetize content, whether through advertising, licensing, subscription or other forms of delivery.
Many editors already acknowledge the need to adapt to a more dynamic, digital environment. These changes affect such diverse areas as licensure, accelerated publishing cycles and cross-platform delivery. The editor’s role will change, new skills will be added, and some traditional business practices will be discarded.
However, for many publishing organizations, diminishment of the editor’s role will result in the erosion of brand value and the subsequent loss of revenue. Not a pretty picture.
Andrew Brenneman is founder and president of Finitiv, a provider of digital content solutions. He has been leading digital media initiatives at major media and technology organizations for more than 20 years. Contact him at Andrew@Finitiv.com.