Category Archives: For Writers

Contently: New Way for Journalists and Brands to Find Each Other

One of the most interesting things about the new web service Contently, which launched today, is the introductory statement on the site: “Contently powers content creation for cutting-edge brands and forward-thinking media companies.”

Just a year ago, no site like this would’ve included the words “cutting-edge brands” as part of the equation.

Contently is a site where freelance journalists can, essentially, hawk their wares. They can create a profile and aggregate their work, and even use the site to take payments through PayPal. Presumably, if the site draws in enough journalists, entities in need of good writing will come to the site to find a good writer.

In the past, the gigs freelance journalists were looking for involved newspapers, magazines, news web sites, and the occasional gray-area publication like an airline magazine. And when corporate brands went looking for writers, they generally didn’t look for journalists — because the brands weren’t creating content that was journalistic. Brands pumped out marketing — a kind of writing that acts like kryptonite on most journalists.

All that’s changing. Journalists and brands are meeting in the middle, to benefit both. Brands are finding that journalistic content works — as has been described in a number of posts on this blog. And journalists are finding that they can cut deals with brands to do credible, authentic work that’s not anything like marketing messaging.

As Contently founder Shane Snow told Columbia Journalism Review: “We thought if we could connect good professionals who are now out of work with publishers who care about professional quality work, not SEO, content-farm stuff, then we could create a business out of that.”

If Contently can create that marketplace, it could give a lift to branded journalism.

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New Journalism School Courses for a New Journalism Reality

As the college school year gets going, journalism programs are asking a very pertinent question in the age of upended media models: What should journalism schools teach?

The answer from where I sit: Something different from what they’re teaching now.

In a piece this week, Geneva Overholser, director of USC’s j-school and long a critical thinker about journalism, lists some goals for her school. That led me to peruse the course selections at a few journalism schools, including the program at my alma mater, Rutgers.

Here’s the chief problem: all of the schools seem to treat journalism as a profession dominated by viable, stable institutions where someone gets a “job” as a reporter or editor, and does that job all day for years on end.

Which these days is like believing thunder comes from Zeus flinging bolts from the sky.

Yes, the schools offer worthwhile courses in basic writing and editing skills and the role of journalism in society. But I’m more concerned about what’s missing for journalism students looking to make their way in the new media world.

So here are some courses j-schools really should be offering:

Build Your Own Brand

In the good old days, the media outlet was the brand and the journalist melded into it. You, the reporter, didn’t have to be credible and recognizable — you borrowed that from The Detroit News or Fortune or ABC News or whoever you worked for. Which worked fine if you were moving from one full-time job to another over the years.

Well, fewer and fewer journalists are moving from one full-time job to another anymore. Journalism is increasingly about working for multiple entities on a contract or project basis, and being a journalism entrepreneur. The people who are best at this build a brand of their own. They become known for something.

Dan Pink has built a brand as a terrific writer about the changing nature of work and human behavior. Ben Clymer made a name for himself in the niche world of writing about fancy watches. Your brand can even just be that of a solid, careful writer who gets projects done on time with minimum fuss. The point is, you have to be something — you can’t rely on being part of something else. Students need to be taught how to do that.

Spiraling (Pre-requisite: Build Your Own Brand)

My friend David Duncan, who has built a brand as a writer about medicine and technology, is a master at this. He continually has multiple projects going on multiple platforms. He has done books, magazine pieces, blog posts, online columns, speeches, white papers, consulting, radio shows, TV gigs and teaching — and I’m probably missing a few.

They all connect or feed off of each other in some way, and he operates with the understanding that the spiral will often allow him to make a lot of money doing something he doesn’t particularly love — and that will help fund the writing of a book, which he’d care about passionately but which would earn him (if he were masochistic enough to look at it this way) about $2 an hour.

But here’s the brilliance of a good spiral: The book that makes him little money gives him the credibility and brand to get hired to, say, speak to a corporation or write a paper for a private group, which brings in a lot of dough.

A journalist just starting out needs to start creating a spiral, and know how to keep feeding it.

Twenty-first Century Transparency vs. Twentieth Century Ethics

I grew up on good journalism ethics. I believed in them, understood their importance, and followed them. Some continue to apply to any project for any entity — especially principles of fairness, accuracy, and trustworthiness.

But some aspects of journalism ethics, such as strictly avoiding conflicts of interest, made more sense for a full-time journalism job. A reporter for The Wall Street Journal could never even let a corporate PR person buy her a cup of coffee. Meanwhile, a journalist working a spiral might find herself giving a talk sponsored by a technology company one day, and doing a story for magazine about a technology trend the next.

The key to making that work — and keeping your brand clean — is transparency. Actually, it’s transparency PLUS the tested ethics of fairness, accuracy and trustworthiness. But these are new rules that are still being explored. Journalism schools and their students could do a lot to create a new understanding of ethics for the new media world.

Storytelling

Just a brief thought here: Many journalism programs seem to emphasize “reporting” — i.e., putting the facts together in a news report. And that’s useful in a lot of contexts.

But messages are much more powerful when they come wrapped in narrative stories. Malcolm Gladwell has made a mint on this concept. He tells stories to help us understand big ideas. Too few people do this well, and it’s incredibly valuable.

J-schools ought to invite a professor of fiction writing to cross the hall and teach narrative non-fiction.

Public Service Journalism

The news business is still suffering through an era of creative destruction. Many newspapers, especially, are getting destroyed, and some new version of civic journalism has to arise from this.

It looks to me like we are going to wind up with two types of journalists. One will be the professional, private-sector journalists. They will build their brands and their spirals, write about business and sports and globalization and Hollywood celebrities, and quite frankly make better money at it.

The other type will be public service journalists. And they, equally as frankly, will answer to a higher calling. They might work for city news organizations or political web sites or public radio or other outlets that are necessary for civic life but operate on shoe-string budgets. And they will make less money. Choosing to go this route is like choosing to be a teacher or soldier or social worker.

We need students to understand this kind of career so they can build it — or build institutions down the road that can support public service journalism. Journalism schools could do a lot to explore this idea.

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Back Togather: New Take On the Old Book Tour

Just read about this New York start-up, Togather, and it’s an interesting take on the old idea of an author’s book tour. It’s sort of a mash-up between a Meetup and a Groupon. Essentially, readers and an author strike a deal that if people in a geographic area buy a certain number of the author’s e-books, the author will come and give a talk there. (Scientists have yet to discover how to have an author sign an e-book.)

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This could be a tool in a branded-content strategy involving a book. As the previous two posts pointed out, a lot is evolving about how a CEO or company can use good, credible books to build a brand. The old “book tour” or book reading has become an economically unviable mess. Through something like Togather, combined with the interests of branded content, this could see a revival.

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Growing a Book, Part 2: A Personal POV

TIBCO CEO Vivek Ranadive is getting all sorts of huzzahs from the media these days — some for his company’s performance, and some for his personal elan, like in this Esquire profile.

Part of Vivek’s brand is the book he and I co-authored, The Two-Second Advantage. It’s worth looking at how that book worked as branded journalism — and how it could’ve worked better.

This all started because — as described in the previous post — the CEO wanted to write a book. Vivek wants to be seen as a Big Thinker in technology, and it’s been a good strategy for him, getting him on TV and written about in major publications. That’s helped TIBCO get noticed even though it’s relatively small compared to competitors such as IBM and Oracle.

A good path to Big Thinkdom is a book. Of course, the book has to actually be good, or it can backfire. It doesn’t have to sell that well — society concludes that just publishing a good book makes you smart — but obviously a popular book is better than an obscure one.

Anyway, Vivek and I met in a TIBCO conference room. He had some ideas about how computer systems were going to become instantly predictive, allowing companies to anticipate what’s just about to happen.

I’d been harboring ideas about writing a book on how human talent is based on our brains being instantly predictive. When I described the idea to people, I used a term slightly borrowed from Wayne Gretzky, calling it “the two-second advantage.”

Vivek loved the phrase. Our ideas mapped to each other. And a deal to write The Two-Second Advantage was born.

With the aid of my agent, Sandy Dijkstra, we sold the idea to Crown Business (a Random House division). Vivek and I split the advance and royalties. That wouldn’t have been enough for me to live on and work full-time on the book, so Vivek essentially sponsored me with some additional support. The book took about 14 months to research, write and edit.

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Importantly, the book is not about TIBCO or anything it sells. It’s not even about the current computer software business. It’s a ride through neuroscience and computer science and technology experiments and ideas about what can be. It’s a journalistic book. If you didn’t read Vivek’s bio on the flap, you wouldn’t know TIBCO had any connection to it.

After the book came out, TIBCO adopted “the two-second advantage” as a marketing slogan. I thought that was smart. It tied TIBCO to the book’s ideas, rather than tying the book to TIBCO.

The book came out in September 2011. In its first week, it edged onto The New York Times bestseller list. Then promptly dropped off.

TIBCO created a web site for the book once the book was out, but it remained static. It did a little advertising for the book, and we all (Vivek, the publisher and I) did publicity. In the end, the book certainly boosted Vivek’s brand, which is what it was supposed to do for him. (Hopefully it also informed and entertained a lot of readers and gave something useful to the world.)

On the other hand, we should’ve done more to grow the book and build an audience while we did the research. The web site shouldn’t have been static at the book’s launch, but alive during the book’s creation, and afterward. We could’ve built more lectures and events around the ideas.

We wound up with a bestselling book, which is great — and more than most people ever expect. But in this age, a brand can get a lot more out of doing a book than just a book.

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Growing a book

A lot of CEOs have this idea that they want to publish a book. And that can be OK. But there are some problems with books. For one, as an economic model, they make Soviet five-year plans look good.

A book takes a huge investment of time and effort over a year or two at least. During that time, only a few people around the author and book publisher read the book. Then, all of the sudden, this big body of work is wrapped in a cover and tossed out to the public, usually with minimal marketing. Then everyone hopes the book catches on. It can be a little like fishing by rowing out to the middle of the lake and hoping a big one jumps into your boat.

A better approach to books might come from some thinking we’ve been doing around branded journalism.

The advice goes something like this: Don’t think of a book as a stand-alone product. Think of it as an end product — the final packaging of a lot of work that’s made its way out to the public over a couple of years.

This can be especially effective for a big-idea or high-concept book. It might not work as well for a book that’s more of a narrative story, like a biography or history. The basic concept is to expose the research and thinking all along the way, getting the public involved and winning followers. It’s growing a book rather than just delivering one.

One example of how that can work goes back to The Long Tail. In 2004, Chris Anderson, editor of Wired, wrote a story about the Long Tail concept for his magazine. The article generated enormous buzz. Anderson then created a Long Tail blog to tease out more Long Tail ideas and get conversations going with readers. Along the way, Anderson gave talks about the Long Tail at conferences and colleges.

As Anderson wrote and conversed and researched, he collected all of that and started building a book. That book, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More, came out in 2006. By that point, The Long Tail was a brand, and the book was just one important expression of it.

It also became less important to Anderson that the book itself make a ton of money. Profits from the book would be a bonus, but the whole brand was more important — the brand could drive revenue through speeches, ads on the blog, ads in Wired, and so on.

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This is where book publishers have a problem. They only have a stake in the book. Book publishers might do better if they got out of the business of “books” and into the business of “ideas” — or maybe something you might call “branded concepts,” like The Long Tail or The Innovator’s Dilemma or The Tipping Point.

A publisher could contract with an author for a two- or three-year journey that would spin out web content, speeches, TV appearances, tweets, and finally a book — all managed as a whole, with revenue coming from multiple sources along the way. It would be something of a Live Nation approach to book publishing.

I don’t know of book publishers thinking that way. That’s an opportunity for companies to do exactly that in the realm of branded journalism.

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For writers: try acting

By my good friend Andrea Chalupa — some interesting advice for writers of all kinds, even those writing for business: Take an acting course.