Long gone are the days when Lisa Stone would wait for her father to bring home The New York Times every evening to the family’s Montana home — three days after its original publication. Similarly, said Stone, co-founder and chief executive officer of BlogHer, fashion is no longer “about some tastemaker, someone in New York who decides what color we’ll all be wearing.” Rather, women are consuming content as participants, and mapping out their personal styles in a highly individualistic and improvised way.
In such an environment, when the word “reader” is replaced by “user” or “participant,” what role does the editor have? A roundtable at the summit to tackle the issue included Stone; Glamour editor in chief Cindi Leive; HSN executive vice president William Lynch, who also serves as general manager for marketing, content and dot-com; and The New York Times editor for digital initiatives, Jim Schacter.
Each is working in a landscape transformed by new distribution systems, which have radically changed the way their jobs are done. The transformation has been such that Schacter referred to himself as working “in what we used to call newspapers.”
Take Leive, who is now not only a magazine editor, but also is responsible for shepherding the Glamour brand across multiple platforms, including television appearances, events, books and, of course, a Web site.
“In print, editors were all used to being control freaks, sweating every word and every cover line,” she said. “You can’t and shouldn’t do that online, and when you try, it results in a bad Web site.”
As a result, she said, she sought out bloggers and Web editors who “get the DNA of the brand,” so the Web content could be trusted to be on-brand even with the sped-up, unmediated format.
Schacter argued that the editor has become more viable than ever: “You’re suddenly the editor of the whole world” for people who now have access to such a broad range of information and are now looking to someone to filter and process it.
It’s not just print editors who are adjusting to the digital space, however. Television, with its natural advantage for Web video, has needed to adapt its format to the quick-hit preferences of the average surfer.
According to Lynch, HSN has figured out how to repackage the rich video inventory at the channel’s disposal for the Web, itself a form of storytelling. The example of “The Daily Show,” which put all 30 minutes of its programs online before realizing that greatest hits-style clips of the show on YouTube vastly outpaced its site’s traffic, was particularly germane. “We have to adjust our 24-hour network to be pithy,” Lynch said.
The direct participation of the audience is perhaps the most profound change of all. For example, HSN’s partnering with Patricia Field for an exclusive “Sex and the City” line — itself an example of cross-platform marketing — included live chats that brought in the average female viewer. But when readers become participants, editors have a new, to-be-negotiated role in how much to intervene in user-generated content, starting with comments.
BlogHer has implemented a set of guidelines that is obligatory for members, and helps create a less-toxic environment. “Every single one of the bloggers has to print, sign and fax it,” said Stone, adding several times during the roundtable that, if a member breaks the rules, “we cut them off at the knees.”
For the Times, said Schacter, “The volume of comments is one of our biggest and most wonderful problems,” and while currently no comments go up without moderation, the company is still figuring out how to delegate moderation. (“There is a law that says that in any string of comments, in the sixth Hitler will come up,” Schacter said dryly.)
There are also commercial considerations: as media companies figure out how to monetize their Web investments, they’re faced with a whole new set of quandaries that challenge the rules set by their past media platforms.
The digital world also offers a more direct connection to commerce — with the possibility of click-through fulfillment — than print magazines can. Glamour.com has a partnership with ShopStyle for e-commerce, and BlogHer connects contributors directly to advertisers with the mantra that, as Stone put it, “transparency is everything to this user.” The idea is that as long as particular relationships are disclosed, the audience doesn’t mind being marketed to, or the blurring of editorial and advertising lines.
The level of participation can create a better engagement story for advertisers. Stone recalled that GM wanted to get a workshop together for women to learn to write about cars. She suggested instead that the auto company bring cars to the annual BlogHer conference and have bloggers create YouTube videos of themselves driving them. The videos are still on the site today.
The Times’ push into the digital world is by its nature a little trickier, as the Gray Lady attempts to adapt to “integrated marketing” and the demands of digital advertising’s new models without compromising its newspaper-honed standards of integrity — the subject of many hours of meetings. “For us, we have areas of our coverage that have always been places where we experiment with boundaries — fashion, sports. Things that are not quite the coverage of Washington and Baghdad are obvious places for us to test what we’re comfortable with, and what we have from permission from advertisers and from our readers and users to go to,” Schacter said. “Bottom line is an awfully scary thing right now, but at the end of the day, if The New York Times is perceived as having compromised its editorial integrity, what is really the value of The New York Times? What is the distinguishing factor for us in a world of news brands? We diminish that at an incredible risk to what we stand for and the value we provide to advertisers.”