"I have an e-newsletter to knock out. Could we talk later?" one asked.
"I had to do a webcast, which is why I couldn't talk earlier," explained another.
And a third's voicemail message made it clear that this editor worked from a home office—thanks, of course, to the advances in communications technology.
Clearly, the rise of the Internet has transformed the job of the b-to-b editor.
"The job has changed tremendously from five years ago," said Geoff Lewis, a group editorial director at Penton Media. In addition to making daily reporting feasible for what had largely been an industry of monthly magazines, the Web has made video and audio reporting a reality. Technology publication Web sites and mainstream business media sites such as Forbes.com have been especially aggressive in turning print journalists into camera-ready personalities via online video.
"It's becoming harder for a troll to be an editor in chief," joked Steve Fox, editor in chief of International Data Group's InfoWorld. Then again, he noted that editors being the public face of the brand is nothing new.
In conjunction with their new responsibilities, the amount of work editors are expected to perform has multiplied. "Doubled doesn't sound wrong to me; it might have trebled," Fox said.
The work has changed, and there's flat-out more of it, but editors tend to agree that their counterparts on the publishing side of the business don't always grasp the implications of these changes.
"While many publishers have focused early attention on the transformation of the sales, business and technology organizations, the traditional editorial functions are belatedly undergoing a just-as-significant transformation, something with less attention from top management," concluded a report from Outsell Inc. titled "Creating the E-Media Organization: Practical Insights, Vol. 2."
The Outsell report also summarizes the new skills the Web has forced on many editors, most of whom were trained for newspaper or magazine editing.
"Editors," the report says, "are responsible for much more volume and diversity of content than is needed in print, and in many different formats: video, audio, data sets, animated graphics, blogs, webinars and moderating wikis. The volume of content and pages online is not just two or three times that in print; it is 50 to 1,000 times more and requires a different editorial craft."
At most traditional b-to-b magazines, editors and reporters work on both the print and online products. "The most obvious change is that you need a much wider range of skills," InfoWorld's Fox said.
Jan Tuchman, editor in chief of McGraw-Hill Cos.' Engineering News-Record, related a simple example of how the Web has created new editorial opportunities. Recently, she said she conducted an interview with a European architect. On the ENR Web site, visitors could hear an audio version of the interview while viewing a slide show of the architect's projects.
Editorial brands in different industries have adapted to the Web at different speeds and in different ways, depending on their own audience's adaptation to the medium. At InfoWorld, for instance, Fox said, "Online is job 1." The computer-savvy audiences of InfoWorld and other tech publications were among the Internet's early adopters.
Newport Communications Group, which publishes Heavy Duty Trucking, was initially very aggressive in embracing the Internet. But the company's editorial director, Deborah Whistler, said that Newport, in part because trucking companies and truckers aren't among the leaders in adapting to the Internet, has eased off on the gas pedal in its drive to the Web. "We've pulled back a bit on doing daily news," she said.
Additionally, Newport found that producing video for the Web is more complicated than it may at first seem. The company wanted to produce a video version of its popular truck test drive feature, but hiring an extra camera operator, over and above the reporter who completed the feature in print, proved too expensive. "It's a really cool idea," Whistler said. "We have a lot of cool ideas; whether they're practical or not is another matter."
Web sites such as AllBusiness.com that don't have a companion print component have introduced a host of new editorial skills to b-to-b media. Many of the key skills for AllBusiness.com, which, among things, aggregates how-to articles for microbusinesses (those with fewer than five employees), resemble those that are typical of a wire service editor. "We have 1.2 million articles on our site, and we're quickly approaching 2 million," said Eric Pfeiffer, managing editor of AllBusiness.com.
The business model of AllBusiness.com requires content partnerships and syndication deals. While Pfeiffer said the editorial staffers working for him must have a familiarity with AllBusiness.com's content management system, he said that the basic skills were not that much different from those required of traditional print journalists. It all comes down to telling a good story and telling it clearly. "If you're a good editor of text, that translates pretty well to video," Pfeiffer said.
The editorial landscape is changing quickly as new products—from spin-off magazines to one-off webcasts to sponsored microsites—are launched with amazing regularity. Today, editorial staffers are often referred to as "brand stewards." In this role, they are expected to generate ideas for these kinds of new editorial products. This process, which usually entails gauging the advertising revenue potential of these new products, brings editors closer than ever to the advertising and circulation sides of the business.
Engineering News-Record's Tuchman said b-to-b reporters, in general, have always covered beats in which their product's advertisers have also been subjects of coverage. The Internet, which has made possible micro-targeted editorial content, has also enabled this niche information to be sponsored by a single advertiser—one that is usually very close to this narrowcast content. "We have to ask ourselves, 'Is this appropriate for the readers?' " Tuchman said. "If it is, then the answer is yes, we should do it."
It's possible that content sponsored by a single advertiser can skirt the boundaries of strictly editorial content and what would be considered custom content. Penton Media's Lewis said he is careful to keep his editorial staffers as far away as possible from what could be perceived as custom media projects. Those are assigned to freelancers.
Jim Spanfeller, president-CEO of Forbes.com, said he has few worries about custom content created at the request of an advertiser because the Web and its metrics are relentless about weeding out content that readers don't want. Only worthwhile content survives, and the Internet's merciless metrics tell reporters and advertisers alike what's being read—and what's not.
Marlys Miller, editor of Vance Publishing Corp.'s Pork, said her publication has moved slowly to the Web, in part because of editorial workload. It offers a weekly e-newsletter, among other electronic products, but the focus remains on the print product.
Many editors are finding it difficult to split their time among print, the Internet and another increasing area of responsibility, events. "The challenge is partly one of bandwidth—as revenues shrink, editorial budgets are constrained, and the `new' media responsibilities come on top of a reporter/editor's undiminishing day job," the Outsell report noted.
"I think we're all doing more with less," Miller said. Other editors agreed but would only say so on background.
"We're doing as much business as we did in 2000, but we're doing this with a staff from 2003 or 2002, and it hurts," one editor said.
"I think people are still not happy," another top editor said. "If the publisher comes to them or someone from the business side and says, 'Here's good news, we just sold another e-newsletter that you're going to have to produce every month,' people do not jump for joy when they hear that."
The publishing and business sides of b-to-b media, in the age of the Internet, may find themselves more at odds than ever. "I don't think there's recognition from publishers of how valuable editors are," said one editor. "The whole crank-out-the-copy mentality—that doesn't sit terribly well [with editors]. We all want to do good work. It's a matter of being allowed. That's frustrating."
Robert Krakoff, president-CEO of Nielsen Business Media, agreed that the Internet content issue was complex but said the increase in workload may be overstated. He pointed out that business publication pages have not grown in recent years, so print editorial responsibilities have likely not increased much either. "I think it may be a red herring," he said.
Krakoff has always gone on record as saying that editors are central to the success of b-to-b media publications. He said that in an era when search engines such as Google have made once obscure information more readily available, it's up to the editorial staff to make sure it is creating a publication or Web site that presents information or opinions that cannot be found elsewhere.
Forbes.com's Spanfeller makes the case that editors may be more important than ever in an era when the amount of content produced can be so overwhelming. "These are the people who are taking the time to weed through what's out there," he said. "They're separating the wheat from the chaff."