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The increasingly complex job of your editors

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This month, American Business Media announces the winners of its prestigious Jesse H. Neal Awards, honoring the best editors and their work. Year after year, the work on display is ambitious and truly impressive. But at the same time, that editorial work represents just one part of an increasingly complex job that's never been more challenging. As we honor the best work this month, we should also acknowledge the complicated new difficulties faced by our top editors. Like everything else in today's world, the fact of change itself isn't new, but its pace is so relentless now that it seems like we're building a new business every day. Let me trace this evolution for you: Many years ago, I was editor of one of the business newspapers at Crain Communications Inc. at the time when a new distribution technology came along. It was—yes—the fax machine, and one of our advertisers wanted to pay us a six-figure sum to deliver a daily newsfeed to them via fax. The newsroom said it was impossible; the business side said, and I quote: “Are you kidding?” The business side's excellent argument won the day, which was a good thing. It turned out that going daily put us well ahead of the competition down the road. Some years later, in the summer of 1994 to be exact, I took a job as the launch editor in chief for a new trade book meant to cover the build-out of the “Information Superhighway.” I was still trying to make my first hires when I was called to the publisher's office. “Have you seen this new Netscape thing that lets you browse the World Wide Web?” he asked. “This changes everything! When you launch the print magazine, you need to launch it with a home page at the same time.” “No problem,'' I said. “Except—what's a home page?” (In my defense, it was a brand-new term in 1994.) So, with considerable cursing, we launched one of the very first trade-magazine websites (text only, even the ad links), and I have never again held a job that didn't involve figuring out a way to mesh digital strategy with the traditional print business. Indeed, for almost the past two decades, the challenge of integrating print and digital has been a major pain point faced by all top editors. Most trade papers have solved it by now—just in time for a whole new wave of complex transformations. In the last couple of years, particularly since the 2008 recession, our industry has focused relentlessly on creating new revenue products to replace the horrifying roller coaster of ad page peaks and valleys. Now we all sell some combination of lead-generation programs, marketing and content services, white papers and research, app development, and oh, by the way, what's your social media strategy? What's the editor's role in all these products? No doubt some editors would prefer not to be involved at all, but that's not possible. For one thing, these new revenue ideas require creative thinking about how to develop and use new content, and that's what good editors do. Just as important, it's essential that the integrity of the publication be maintained no matter what new ideas come along, and the editor is one of the key stewards of that integrity. This is important to remember: Regardless of the nature of these new digital products, the fundamental church/state verities of publishing don't change. These rules are simply stated. No advertiser can bully or buy its way into editorial coverage on any of our platforms, and all advertising content must be transparent to the reader; there can be no deception about whether something is editorial or advertising. Losing sight of this will cost us far more than any new short-term revenue idea we might push. So as we honor editors at the Neal Awards on March 16 for their straightforward editorial work, let's remember also how tough the job has become compared even with only a few years ago. And even as editors remonstrate about how impossible the new tasks are, let's also remember that the best of them are there to save us from moving too quickly into untested new businesses. David Klein is VP-group publisher at Crain Communications Inc. He can be reached at dklein@crain.com.
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