Monday, December 12, 2005

Why are so many products so bad?

Sometimes I wonder what people in B2B media are thinking. Much of what we do in this industry seems to be so ... crappy.
Certainly those of us on the editorial side of the game tend to blame the folks on the business side when our products are less than compelling. We complain that we are underfunded and understaffed. But I'm coming to believe that most of our problems aren't caused by slim budgets and greedy bosses. Our problems are caused by unambitious and unskilled journalists.

Time and again I've seen this same dynamic: A B2B magazine decided to do "something" online. It chose someone from the existing staff to create and manage the new product. However, the existing staff member had never expressed any interest in online products, multimedia reporting or conversational editorial. Heck, the staff member is often just plain lousy in print too. But at least they are familiar with that medium, whereas they don't know a thing about the Web and don't care to know.
Or, even worse, they don't know anything about the Web, but think that they do.

Most distressing is that some of these folks have been running online products for years now, and yet they haven't taken the time to learn anything about the medium. Week after week they drop a print story on to a Web page. Week after week passes and they never take the time to learn how to upload a photo, record an audio file or do some search-engine optimization. They have never read the EyeTrack study. They have never read a blog.

As a result, their sites are ugly and often quite strange.
Look around.
Ask yourself, how is it possible to have an online magazine about the recording industry where the reporters don't do audio?
How is it that the Web site of a magazine that covers videography doesn't have video? Heck, why don't the news stories have photos?
Imagine that you had a pretty good content-management system that surrounded your copy with crisp graphics and white space. Would you cram your stories into unreadable, flush-left squares of multisentence paragraphs?
Want to see something sillier? In an era of conversation, links and targeted ads, imagine a Web site that wants you to pay for the right to tell your friends to read one of their articles. (NOTE: I assume this ridiculous idea came from the business side and not from editorial. But it's the sort of thing that the editorial staff should find a way to stop.)

It seems to me that people should be making more of an effort to at least master the basics. For example, here is a story from a Cygnus publication about digital photography. It has a simple and elegant look. And, most importantly, it has digital photos. I spoke at Cygnus earlier this year and I met the staff of that magazine. And they are as overworked as anyone else in B2B publishing. But they have taken the time to understand a few simple concepts: Web sites should look like Web sites. Stories about photography should have photos, etc.
Or consider what is happening at CMO. I spoke at IDG a few weeks ago and met a few folks from that product. And they too work long hours for inadequate pay. But I think their product is superb.

Look -- this is journalism. We will never have enough resources. We will never be paid enough. We will never have enough time.
But the lack of resources has never been the determining factor in what makes for fantastic reporting or beautiful storytelling. Great journalism is born of talent and ambition. And nothing can be more illuminating...or more difficult...than to look at yourself and your staff and ask if there is enough of either trait at your company.

tags: , , , , , conversational media


  1. Hey, Paul--Great item on ugly Web sites, and the frequent laziness of media companies and their editors when it comes to the Web.

    Quick additional thought: Not sure I see a huge difference between the un-reader friendly flush-left text of the Library Journal site and the un-reader friendly flush-left text of the Cygnus site.

    That said, I'm glad you haven't weighed in on my site. We are not a paragon yet, either.

  2. Hi Tony,
    Thanks for your comment.
    You're right -- the text in the Cygnus site is also flush left and the paragraphs are too long. But somehow it just looks nastier in the Library Journal site.
    And when I look more closely, I think I know why.
    The first graf in the Cygnus piece is 69 words long. The opening graf in the Library piece is 117 words.
    More importantly, the columns in the Cygnus piece are about 45 spaces wide. The columns in the Library story are about 95 spaces wide.
    The end result is that while the Cygnus piece doesn't look perfect, the Library story looks square. It just looks weird to me. And my eye wants to jump away rather than try to read.
    As for your guys may not be perfect. None of us are. But I always get the feeling that your staff is ambitious. And I know that you're interested in the changes in our industry. Those two things -- ambition and forward-thinking leadership -- are all anyone needs.

  3. Also, the Cygnus site uses a larger border around their text box, which I think helps improve readibility.

  4. Hi Matt,
    Thanks for the comment.
    Good point -- the border does make it much easier to read the story. The Library story, on the other hand, looks cramped with such a narrow border.

  5. Hi Paul.

    Well if the problem is talent, then what is keeping talented J-School grads from these pubs? They certainly often offer greater financial benefits than do most newspaper gigs.

  6. Hi,
    You've touched upon a bigger problem for B2B media. As a general rule, B2B pubs just don't attract the best students from journalism schools. There are exceptions, but they are few. As I say at the top of my blog, B2B is the least glamorous part of journalism. And very few of the best students are willing to consider a job in B2B. We simply don't have the attraction that newspaper, consumer mag and TV jobs have.
    There are tremendous advantages to working in B2B. Part of why I do this blog is to convince young people that they can have a fantastic career in this industry.
    But I assure you, this is not an easy sell.

  7. Great point about writers not considering b2b, there are so many great benefits. I think it must be the misconceptions about the business/corporate word. They must not get that, journalist in the business world don’t have to wear a tie either! We still get create material, scoops, exclusives, travel, etc.

    Another perk being, if you can be a full time editor or staff writer, is the sense of community in you industry. And...the ego's are in check because you can’t be a prima donna in a business environment. And...the competition can be low if you are really specialized.


  8. Hi Stan,
    Thanks for your comments.
    I agree with you...except for one thing. I find as many prima donna personalities in B2B journalism as anywhere else in the media.
    The difference -- and I can't explain it -- is that in B2B these people are generally not very talented. In the mainstream press, it seems it is the bigger talents that have the bigger egos.

  9. Talent, like intelligence, breeds a sense of superiority I guess. And, doesn't a deeper understanding of your industry make you better at what you do? I get calls from the Financial Times and WSJ all the time, they are clueless.

  10. Hi Stan,
    In general, I agree. Having a deep understanding of an industry makes a B2B journalist more valuable. And yes, the journalists of the mainstream business press do not have that specialized industry knowledge.
    Where I see a problem in B2B -- and I see it ALL the time -- is when journalists think their industry knowledge is enough to justify their paychecks.
    I assure you ... every week I talk to senior executives who no longer believe that.
    The problem is that while the b2b media has changed, many b2b journalists have not.
    A skillset that had value in 1990 -- a Rolodex of sources and some moderate talent in writing for print -- just doesn't cut it anymore.