Monday, January 30, 2006

Feedback on feedback

Almost every journalist I have ever known is incapable of being objective about his own skill level. And even the least talented journalist in a newsroom tends to think he has mastered his craft. But every once in awhile I have the distinct pleasure of meeting a reporter who wants to get better at his job.

The advice that I give such ambitious reporters is to ask their readers for help.
Putting a feedback function at the bottom a story, I tell them, is the single best way I know for a reporter to get better at what he does. Readers will tell you when you've got something wrong and when you've done something right. Readers will tell you when you've missed something important or found something interesting. Readers will tell you when you're on the right track or heading in the wrong direction.

I've been very pleased to see BusinessWeek's use of feedback functions. And in some stories, such as this one, the input from readers enhances the work of the writer. But I've been disappointed to find that while feedback functions are becoming more common in the mainstream press, they have not caught on in B2B. The message I keep hearing from B2B executives and journalists is that they expect the worst from the readers -- rants and viciousness and inaccuracies. I understand that fear. I've seen how a feedback function can turn on you. But I believe the advantages outweigh the risks. And I believe that the advantages are greater for a B2B publication than for any other product -- because a B2B audience by definition is filled with people who have the specialized knowledge to improve a story.

Rich Skrenta, the CEO of, recently added feedback functions to the stories on his news aggregation site. He's "astonished" by the level of participation and says that many readers are posting "first-person accounts of news events from across the country" that are often "raw" and "heart-wrenching."
Read what Rich has to say. Ask yourself when was the last time you were "astonished" by anything at your publication.
Then ask yourself when you're going to let your audience help you create a better product.

ADDENDUM: A beta version of Yahoo's news service is also offering a feedback function. Take a look.

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Friday, January 27, 2006

The best among us

Today is a good day to be in B2B journalism.
The finalists for ABM's Neal Awards have been announced, and that gives us the opportunity to see just how good we can be. Take a look at the list. Pat yourself on the back if any product you work on is a finalist.
I'm thrilled to see that some of my favorite B2B publications are in the finals -- Fleet Owner, National Jeweler and IDG/CXO Media's CSO, CIO and CFO.
As you glance through the list, you'll note bittersweetly that CMO made the cut in several categories, including best single issue. It's old news now that CMO is no more....but I'm hoping the magazine can pick up a few posthumous honors.

But I have to admit that I'm perplexed by one of the finalists. is on the list for best Web site with fewer than 25,000 unique visitors a month. (Full Disclosure: I was once a senior writer at Porkmag's parent company, Vance Publishing.) But Porkmag has few of the things that make for a compelling Web site. Although there are occasional audio files from Vance's new radio property, the site is largely a collection of black text on white background. It looks like a newspaper on a computer screen. Actually, it looks worse, because a newspaper would have photos. And there is no interactivity -- no links, no feedback functions. The news section is just a news feed. The magazine material isn't repurposed and there's nothing original that I see.
I know that the journalists of Vance can do better than this. That company is full of talented people. And I expect the product will improve. But for now, I don't see why the site should be on the finalist list.
If you're willing to put up with a registration process, take a look and see if you agree.
Then compare it with some of the other finalists at E&P and CIO.

For Matt McAlister's take on one of the finalists, look here.
For David Shaw's take on the finalists, look here. (And a special thanks to David for pointing out something I missed in my first look through the list -- Hammock Publishing, owned by Rex of Rexblog, is one of the finalists.)

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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Misunderstanding all you see

Every once in awhile someone says something about the differences between magazines and the online world that I find to be shockingly out of touch. That's my reaction to a new essay by Bruce Sheiman in min online (there's no permalink for the piece, but it can be found here for at least awhile.)
Sheiman seems to be defending print magazines from some unseen enemy. And he argues that information on the Web is "fragmented, overwhelming, and unfathomable."
I first saw the piece a few days ago, when a magazine editor I know in Kansas City sent it to me. That editor said he could find no value in what Bruce wrote, and wanted to know if I could.

Here are some excerpts from the email I sent back to that editor:
"He (Sheiman) states that a "search engine is not an editor," and implies that this is some sort of shortcoming. That's silly. A search engine is a search engine. An editor is an editor. And one of a search engine's functions is, arguably, to point readers to the work of editors.
But more importantly, a search engine has some editor-like functions. And of course, there are other Web-based tools such as RSS with even stronger editor-like functions.
And most importantly, he misses the biggest point of all -- the Web allows a user to assume the editing role himself. Sure, a professional editor has some value. But that value has clearly been diminished in a world where I can create my own "magazine" on Bloglines with information from 100 sources in about 5 minutes. My "magazine" will tell me when it's updated. It will allow me to talk back to the writers. And I can share it with my friends."
"In a sense, Sheiman understands the branding and identity functions of magazines. But he chooses the easy and obvious examples. And that makes me think he hasn't thought this through.
I mean really, he says a business person's identity is reinforced by reading BusinessWeek in print. Sure. OK. No kidding. But has he seen what has happened to BusinessWeek in the past year? It's become the single most interactive magazine on the Web! Its print edition has become an afterthought. And most interestingly, BusinessWeek has talked about these changes in a public blog. But I'd bet that he hasn't even seen it."

Colin Crawford, vice president for business development at IDG, also came across Sheiman's piece. The essay and Colin's response can be found here.

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Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Global awards for B2B

If you're a talented journalist with an international flare, it's time to toot your own horn.
Trade, Association and Business Publications International, the global association of B2B publishers, is accepting nominees for its Tabbie awards.
The Tabbies, which recognize excellence in both editorial and design, are promoted by a number of trade associations, including ASBPE here in the U.S. and the Magazine Publishers Association of New Zealand.
If you believe as I do that our industry is growing increasingly global, then you'll understand that your competitors will increasingly include rivals from overseas. So the Tabbies are worth following if only to gauge just how good your new competition can be.
For information on last year's winners, take a look at this earlier post.

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Monday, January 23, 2006

Dealing with unwanted comments

The CBS blog linked to something I wrote last week. And that link led me to look at CBS' entry in the blogosphere for the first time.
And what I found concerned me.
The post that mentions me is fine. Most of the posts on the blog are fine. Things are well written. There is a degree of the inside-the-newsroom talk that I like to see in mainstream media blogs. But the comments to the post were disconcerting. Take a look.

None of the comments are about the actual post. Instead, the readers apparently used the blog's comment function to complain about CBS' coverage of the president. Now there's nothing all that unusual about off-topic comments. They happen. Just like comment spam happens. And every blogger has to develop a plan to deal with them. (Note: Comments to this blog are moderated. Nothing is posted unless I approve it. I screen out spam, crazy people, most off-topic posts and foul language. Until a few weeks ago, I didn't moderate comments, but a sudden slew of comment spam prompted me to change my mind.)
But a look around the CBS blog indicates that off-topic comments are everywhere! The blog, it appears, has become a place for CBS' many critics to dump their anger.
And although allowing for customer feedback is a function of a blog, I suspect that the folks at CBS must be disappointed to find that fury has become the norm.

Just days after I made note of CBS' comment woes, the Washington Post announced that it was closing the comment function on one of its blogs following an outpouring of inappropriate comments. It's an unfortunate move, but one that I understand. I've gone back and forth on allowing comments on this blog several times.
Nonetheless I can't help but feel that between those two major media players, it is CBS that has taken the wiser course by opting not to silence the angry customers.
More importantly, I worry that B2B publishers will use the Washington Post problem as an excuse to avoid adding comment functions. I'm convinced that would be a huge mistake. I'd rather put up with a hundred screaming fools than silence a single insightful reader.

For more on the Washington Post issue and the questions it raises about feedback functions and conversational media, look at this piece from Poynter. Then read this piece on Susan Mernit's blog and follow the links to additional conversation.

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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Don't blink or you'll miss it

I expect that sometime in the not-too-distant future, we won't spend as much time worrying about Web site design as we do now. Content is separating from its containers. Thus the containers are growing less important.

That's not to say that we should abandon all efforts at creating a beautiful site. I still like things that are pretty and clean. I still enjoy a site where the layout and navigation make sense to me. And a new study seems to suggest that the visual appearance of a site is more important that many writers would like to believe. Canadian researchers said that Web site visitors make "aesthetic judgments that influence the rest of their experience with an Internet site" in less than 1/20th of a second.
In other words, a first-time visitor will decide whether or not to hit the backspace key in less than the blink of an eye. "So Web designers have to make sure they're not offending users visually," one of the researchers told Reuters.

I've written about some of the uglier sites in B2B before. Take a look, and if your eyes can handle it, follow the links. And if you're some sort of visual masochist, take a look at this text-heavy monster or this cluttered mess.

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Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Writing and conversation

Every few weeks or so, someone writes something claiming that the blogging phenomenon is something other than what it appears to be.
The most recent of these pieces is from Ad Age's Simon Dumenco, who argues that there is "no such thing as blogging. There is no such thing as a blogger. Blogging is just writing -- writing using a particularly efficient type of publishing technology."

I understand what Dumenco is saying. And I agree with a point.
When I meet with journalists and publishers who are less than enthusiastic about new media, I tend to say things much like Dumenco is saying.
"Blogging," I say, "is first and foremost about a type of software. It's about inexpensive, easy-to-use, content-management systems." Furthermore, I say, blogging software will replace the publishing software that you use now. Or, as Dumenco says, existing content-management systems "will be phased out and everyone publishing online will be using some form of what’s now commonly thought of as blogging software."

But when I speak with journalists and publishers who are more open-minded than average, I take a different approach.
"Blogging," I say, "represents a fundamental cultural shift in media. Something has changed in how people approach content. The audience has found its voice. News consumers insist upon the option of participating in the news-gathering process. And there's no going back." Furthermore, I say, the fundamental traits of blogging -- feedback functions, audience participation, citizen journalism, transparency, external links, rapid publishing -- make for better journalism. And much of what we as journalists do in the future will be similar to what is now commonly thought of as blogging.

And therein lies my concern. When someone like Dumenco says that blogging is just writing, that whether you are reporting for a mainstream publication or publishing a blog, the "underlying creative/media function remains exactly the same," I wince.
Because for every journalist I meet who is excited by the culture of blogging, I find 10 who don't have a clue what that culture is. For every reporter I meet who likes the idea of public conversation, agnostic links and mash-ups. I meet 10 who think they can say everything there is to say.

Blogging isn't just writing. It is more. It is writing and conversation. And those two things combined make for better journalism than either could alone.

For more on the difference between writing and blogging, check out this post by Steve Rubel.
For more on the lessons that blogging has for journalists, read this earlier post of mine.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Ethics survey points to B2B media's failings

I'm torn.
A new survey by the American Society of Business Publication Editors says B2B journalists have "serious" concerns about how publishers handle ethics issues.
Obviously it's good news that journalists are worried about ethics issues. But just as obvious is that it's bad news that there's so much to be concerned about.
According to the survey:
-- At B2B publications that have a formal ethics policy, nearly a third of the editors said their company "only sometimes" backs them up for taking an ethical stand.
-- 40% of respondents said they were aware of sales staff engaging in unethical behavior.
And what sort of unethical stuff is happening out there? The journalists in the survey suggest that publishers blur the lines between advertising and editorial content, let advertisers review copy before publishing and force editors to make sales calls.

I applaud ASBPE for its work in this area. (FULL DISCLOSURE: ASBPE is planning to issue a new ethics policy this year. The group asked for my input, and I was glad to provide it.)
I have applauded ABM, ASME and TABPI for their work on ethics too, while condemning the Newsletter and Electronic Publishers group for failing to behave ethically.
But look...the simple truth is that B2B publishing is still riddled with inappropriate behavior. And it's routine for many trade journalists to put up with behavior that mainstream journalists would never tolerate. Heck, I regularly see trade reporters do things that no newspaper reporter would ever dream of doing -- running in-house ads as editorial copy or failing to report on the parent company, for example. And in my entire career I have never heard of a mainstream publisher requiring reporters to sell advertisements. But that does happen in B2B.

Take a look at the survey results (visit the ASBPE home page and follow the links or read Folio magazine's take on the survey.) Make sure that your coworkers take a look too. Know that as you struggle to behave like a professional, there are others out there just like you.
For my advice on how to handle an ethics lapse at your publication, see this earlier post.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2006

A blog by any other word would smell as sweet

Last week I was talking with a media executive who hates the word "blog."
He doesn't hate blogs. He likes quite a few in fact.
But he's convinced that the word "blog" carries too many negative associations. The journalists and publishers he knows think "blog" is shorthand for "libelous material published by amateurs."
I've run into such people myself, and I've suggested that keeping them on staff is a mistake.

This executive says the word "blog" has such negative connotations for the media folks he knows that they can't be reasoned with. He says that it works against me if I say "blog" when discussing citizen journalism, conversational media, do-it-yourself publishing or entrepreneurial journalists. "They tune you out," he said.
I've run into such people myself, and I've said that their inability to keep an open mind makes them ill-suited for journalism.

If I have a mantra in my consulting business, it is this: B2B journalists don't need to start a blog, but they do need to become more bloglike.
But perhaps my executive friend is right; perhaps I need to find a way to say that so that even the most close-minded people can hear it.

In the meantime, I'll take some consolation in knowing that people outside of B2B media are encountering a very different problem.
My friend Amy points to a piece that suggests marketers are too much in love with the word '"blog." And Jeremiah Owyang says this blog-centered tunnel vision may be causing marketers to miss the larger picture. "Blogs are not important, they are just easy to use tools to facilitate conversation, nothing more, nothing less," Jeremiah said.

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Friday, January 06, 2006

More on the end of CMO

When I first heard that CMO magazine was folding, I held out hope that the Web site might survive. But that was wishful thinking. And within a few hours, it became clear that the electronic product would also close.
Consider what this means. The CMO enterprise -- print, Web site, bloggers, etc. -- was one of the best things ever produced in B2B media.
Yet it couldn't survive.

A few hours before I heard the news about CMO, I was on the phone with a new client who is revamping an online product (FULL DISCLOSURE: Sorry, this client has requested anonymity.) We talked about new competitors -- bloggers, low-cost newsletters, etc. And he suggested that his best defense was in a "flight to quality."
Now I would never suggest that quality is not important. Nor would I suggest that it does not provide a competitive advantage. But I am sometimes skittish about a publication that sees its advantage as quality. That's chiefly because such publications are often not as good as the folks who work on them think they are.
But CMO is a perfect example of a product where quality was its chief advantage. CMO was magnificent. It was as good as things get in our business. And that's why it attracted so much attention from those of us who care about quality.
Yet it couldn't survive.

So today I'm worried.
I'm worried that too many people in our industry will see the death of CMO as proof that quality doesn't matter. I'm worried that too many number crunchers will see the death of CMO as an argument against incurring the expense of good design, original content and quality staff.

Certainly CMO had some disadvantages as well.
Most obviously, it served a niche that may very well be overserved. Furthermore, CMO was based in a suburban office park in Massachusetts, but covered an industry that is based largely in New York City.
And perhaps those disadvantages can explain why CMO had to die.
But I can't stop thinking about how great a publication it was. I can't stop thinking about how many times I have pointed to it as an example of just how good B2B journalism can be. Nor can I shake the worry that CMO did everything we could ever ask a staff to do: creating a series of wonderful products across the entire spectrum of media.
Yet it couldn't survive.

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Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The heartbreak of a magazine's end

My heart is broken.
What is arguably the best magazine in the B2B world is closing.
It appears that CXO Media, a unit of IDG, has decided to shutter CMO Magazine.
I've used this blog on numerous occasions to sing the praises of CMO. It is, simply, a remarkable publication. And I'm not alone in my love of CMO. The magazine did well in the Folio awards and was named magazine of the year by ASBPE.
I shall it miss it terribly.
It's unclear at this point if CMO's online publication will survive. The Web site did survive an earlier series of layoffs at CXO. So perhaps not all is lost.
FULL DISCLOSURE: IDG hired me last year to speak to its journalists, and I was lucky enough to meet some of CMO's staff on a recent visit to the company's offices in Massachusetts. Furthermore, until a few days ago, I was a consultant to Prism's Chief Marketer family of products, which competes against CMO.

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Learning to speak with, not to, readers

I can remember the first time I stood behind a podium.
I was a college kid who found himself standing in front of another group of college kids talking about an idea I had about journalism. I was suggesting that reporters adopt the psychologists' persona of "unconditional positive regard" when interviewing sources.
I don't remember much about my speech. Nor do I remember much about how my fellow students or the teacher reacted.
Instead I remember only the sheer joy of having a captive audience. I was drunk with the happiness that comes from conversational power. I was talking. The audience was quiet. I felt like a god, an authority, a teacher, an expert, a grown-up, a celebrity, a professional.
I remember too the first time I sat in one of those classic, creative-writing workshops where the students take turns critiquing each other's work. One day it was my turn. I read my story aloud. And then the students told me what they thought.
It was excruciating. I was defensive and angry. I felt misunderstood and resentful. I couldn't hear praise, although I seem to remember that there was some. Instead I heard only criticism. And I did my best to shut it out.

I suspect that I'm not alone in this. I think that most journalists prefer giving lectures to having conversations. A traditional news story is, after all, a form of lecture. A journalist compiles information and then stands behind a podium (or a magazine, newspaper, TV station, etc.) and "delivers" his findings. That's an effective way to spread information. And, perhaps more importantly, it fits the ego needs of the sorts of people who are drawn to journalism.

But today it seems clear to me that the creative-writing class was the more valuable experience. As tough as it was, I learned more in that "conversation" than I could ever have learned in my own lecture.
And as I get older, and as media evolves, it is becoming clearer that journalism consumers are more like the students in the creative-writing class than they are like students in the lecture hall.

Our readers want to talk. And they have something valuable to say.
It's time for all of us to step from behind the podium. It's time to invite conversation. It's time to put feedback functions on our stories.
And I'm quite sure it will make all of us better journalists.

My friend Amy Gahran has become a leading advocate for the concept of conversational media. Visit her new blog,, to see how content producers and content consumers can learn to speak with, rather than speak to, each other.

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Monday, January 02, 2006

Stay out of my inbox

As I've said before, I try to steer clear of the "print is dead" debate. I find the whole thing sort of silly. It seems clear to me that some parts of print are dead, while other parts will survive much longer than I will.
On the other hand, I am worried about the fate of one of the more popular forms of electronic publishing -- the email newsletter.
A year ago, I subscribed to around 100 email newsletters. I didn't have the time to search every single Web page that interested me, so I asked publishers to come to me. I filled out the forms -- even the very annoying and intrusive ones that are common among controlled-circulation publishers -- and let my email in-box fill with news. But as 2006 begins, I find that I'm subscribing to only about a dozen email newsletters. And most of those are related to my clients.
In other words, I tend to subscribe to these things now only when I'm getting paid to do so.

The reason for this, of course, is RSS. Like millions of other folks around the world, I became an RSS addict in 2005. With RSS, I control the timing and appearance of my news. With RSS I don't have to worry about annoying "unsubscribe" functions that don't work properly. With RSS I'm not subjected to a never-ending stream of spam and other marketing nonsense from publishers.
For a content consumer, RSS is a vastly superior delivery mechanism. And I expect that, eventually, every consumer will demand it. Content is becoming containerless, and the publisher who doesn't understand that will lose readers.

But let me be clear: there's no need to panic. I'm not predicting the death of the email newsletter in 2006 (although I may wind up predicting it for 2007 or so.) Sure, RSS is growing like crazy. And sure, many of your customers want it now. But RSS still requires a tiny bit of technical knowledge, and users require at least a passing interest in efficiency or time management before they start thinking about RSS. So it will be awhile before the majority of your audience demands RSS, and it will be even longer before the majority of your audience refuses to subscribe to newsletters.

Given that, I tell publishers and journalists to offer RSS now (it's about the easiest thing you'll ever do) while putting a little more effort into improving the newsletters they publish. My experience has been that journalists tend to think of email products as annoying, administrative tasks. The laziest folks at any B2B company like to say that they are "print" people. And they don't put much effort into the Web site. Quite predictably, email newsletters, which are produced only once a week or so, get even less attention.
For example, lots of lazy writers copy the lead of a story and paste it into the newsletter. The result is that users read a paragraph in the email, click on the link, and then come upon the exact same piece of text they just read. A newsletter should carry a tease -- something that urges a reader to click through to the story. And a tease should never be the same as a story lead.
Want another example? I recently reviewed a year's worth of email products for a client. Much to my surprise, I found that the staff hadn't filled out the title tag in a single issue. That sort of ineptitude can do great harm to a publication's ranking in search engines. And after finding that the tags were missing, I wasn't surprised to find that the same folks had failed to include a single link, graphic, photo, audio or video file in any stories for the entire year.

RSS is the future. And smart people in media can see that.
But until the future is here, I'd advise folks to worry less about RSS and worry more about the quality of existing products.
Because a lot of them are truly awful.

For a look at one of the most overlooked features of the email newsletter, take a look at this piece about subject lines.
For a look at some interesting research on what makes someone read a newsletter, check out this piece in Chief Marketer. (FULL DISCLOSURE: Although I can't take any credit for this particular article, one of my clients has been the Chief Marketer family of products published by the newly renamed Prism. And from now on, I won't be able to take any credit, or blame, for anything at Chief Marketer. That consulting gig ended on Dec. 31. )

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