In a Consumer-Controlled World, Journalists Should Be Marketers

Would Help Assess What Readers Want as They Move Across Platforms

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Jack Griffin, president of Meredith Publishing, kicked up a ruckus when he told attendees at a Folio conference, "We don't hire editors anymore; we hire content strategists."

His comments were interpreted by some editors as demeaning the editorial role. But, as Folio reported, others thought the debate missed the point. "Perhaps everybody here should focus more on delivering content that's exactly what the consumer demands than worry about what title you're assigned for your work," wrote one reader.

That's not an easy job these days. Jack's editors produce content over a broad array of platforms (print, podcasts, video, online consumer events) and life stages (young adults, young families, established families, early empty-nesters), and they deliver it "where she wants it, when she wants it, how she wants it."

What causes consternation among some editors is that they don't like the idea of giving up control of what material consumers receive. The new technology has empowered the consumer to call the shots, and that goes against editors' traditional view that they know what's best for readers.

The notion that it's the editors' job to give readers what they want is what marketing and strategic thinking is all about. Jack Griffin understands this truth, and I'm proud to say my alma mater, Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, understands it too.

In fact Medill's dean, John Lavine, has had the audacity to integrate both sides of its curriculum-journalism and marketing-into one comprehensive program drawing on the strengths of both. John's thinking is that journalists need to know about marketing to assess what readers want as they move across all the platforms spawned by the digital age, and marketers need to know the fundamentals of journalism, such as compelling storytelling.

Unfortunately, an incident I'll call Quotegate has set off a diversion that prompted a faculty uprising, an inquiry into the matter and even editorials in the Chicago Tribune. As one fellow board of advisers member told me, "People figure if they can kill the messenger, they can get rid of the message." And that radical message is that both journalists and marketers need to reach their audiences in compelling new ways, especially as they move from one platform to another.

The trouble began when John wrote a column for the Medill magazine and anonymously quoted a student about a class he was taking that developed an integrated-marketing plan to cut down on teen-driving deaths. The Medill junior was quoted: "I sure felt good about this class."

A columnist for The Daily Northwestern thought John's quote sounded fishy. He figured out what class John was talking about and said he interviewed all 29 members. No one admitted to saying such laudatory things. Never mind that students posted their own (equally laudatory, if not more so) comments at the end of the term. John now admits he should have used the name of the student. "I should get an F for that," he says.

I get the feeling that the Tribune, which so far has been tied up in knots over the transition to digital media, feels threatened by the Medill changes because they challenge everything the paper is doing to retain control over its readers. Its editorial writers, with visions of a massive conspiracy dancing in their heads, asked ominously whether John had fabricated "self-serving lies." Please keep in mind we're talking about a kid admitting he enjoyed his class.

The problem with Quotegate is that it's taking valuable time away from discussing Medill's game-changing curriculum. From my viewpoint, editors should be marketers-not to hawk advertisers' wares, as critics claim Medill is espousing, but to reach those elusive audiences where, when and how they want to be reached.
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