Felix Salmon

When online editors spew jargon

By Felix Salmon
July 19, 2010

The history of the news business has no shortage of legendary larger-than-life straight-talkers with vision and drive and a bottle of whiskey in their desk drawer. The top editorial staff at newspapers, magazines, and television news shows might be well versed in the dark arts of office politics, but they nearly always make sure that their public face is a simple and often friendly one. They can be trusted, is the message.

So why is the online world so different? I don’t want to pick on any individual in particular, but this interview today with the executive editor of a major website, conducted via email so that he could clearly articulate exactly what he wanted to say, is full of the kind of business and management jargon that most editorial-side employees instinctively recoil at.

Focusing on key verticals… productization… thought-leaders… packaging the right applications and tools to support coverage… coverage verticals… legacy media… high-impact editorial packaging… as I described in our mission… work hip-to-hip every hour… driving a quickly evolving digital identity and user experience… a giant white space… adopting a “content-ownership strategy”… hire incremental editors… a shot at being great… That was achieved by hewing to our mission and adopting the content ownership strategy.

In principle, I think it makes sense for the old lines between the editorial and the business sides to blur, especially online. The success of both requires staying on top of the same technologies, and when the integration is done well, everyone benefits, especially the readers. The alternative is all to often that readers get annoyed by floating survey ads or other bright ideas dreamed up by some sadistic media buyer, which ultimately ruin the editorial product much more than any honest sponsorship would.

The top editor of most publications has always been wheeled out to impress advertisers on a regular basis, but online editors can often be much more constructive and helpful, without violating any ethical boundaries, than their print counterparts. They tend to have an instinctive idea of what works and what doesn’t, on their site — and that kind of hard-won intelligence is exactly what advertisers want to know.

It’s important, then, for top online editors to be able to speak the business side’s language. If nothing else, it helps them to get the resources they need to create a great product. But equally when they’re not dealing with business-side issues, I think there’s a lot of value in them showing that they haven’t had their brains eaten by zombies.

When economics meets politics, as we all know, politics wins. And when the business side meets the editorial side, the business side wins. And that’s the downside of merging the two: in a medium which in journalists are already increasingly pressured to maximize their daily pageview numbers, it falls to their bosses to fight for the kind of things which might not be as immediately quantifiable, but which are much better at building a long-term franchise.

When journalists instead see their bosses spewing missions and strategies and coverage-supporting application packages, they tend to get a little demoralized. Those things are all well and good, but I tend to get worried when I see them emanating from anybody with the word “editor” in his job title. It means that a crucial part of editorial leadership — clearly articulating the vision of the site or publication, rather than just asserting that you have one — is prone to getting lost.

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