Category Archives: New Journalism Models

NYT’s Ricochet: A New Wrinkle in Branded Journalism

Instead of a brand creating journalistic content, what if a brand could borrow and share some of the best content created by actual journalists?

That’s what Ricochet, an intriguing new tool from The New York Times, is making possible. The newspaper first unveiled the tool last year and used it internally, but this week NYT announced that other media companies — Forbes, Conde Nast, Time Inc. — will also use it. No doubt NYT will sell Ricochet widely, and it could become an important part of the way branded journalism works.

Ricochet allows a brand to buy an ad next to an online story. But the ad only appears when that brand shares the story through a specially-generated link. If others in turn share that link, they’ll see the brand’s ad, too.

If the Times writes a story about cloud computing, SAP — which, incidentally, helped develop Ricochet — can use Ricochet to buy an ad to run with that story when SAP shares it. So if SAP tweets the story or posts it on Facebook or its SAP website, anyone who clicks on it sees an SAP ad along with the story. Significantly, points out NYT’s R&D chief Michael Zimbalist, Ricochet guarantees that readers won’t click the story that SAP shared and see an ad from an SAP competitor.

Using Ricochet does something else: It doubles down on a brand’s support for a story. Yes, it’s sharing it. And now it’s also, in a way, financing it.

The best branded journalism doesn’t “sell” — it develops a market. Bicycle apparel company Rapha hired journalists and started Rouleur, a biking magazine. The magazine doesn’t write about Rapha’s stuff — it writes about hard-core biking. If it can help generate more bikers, there will be more people around to buy Rapha’s stuff.

So it makes sense for an SAP to encourage excitement about cloud computing. Or a Tourneau to celebrate high-end watches. A good way for brands to do these kinds of things is to circulate credible, authentic, journalistic content about the topics their constituents care about.

One way to do that is to create content yourself — a la Rouleur. But that’s not always easy and not in many brands’ DNA.

Ricochet seems to usher in a new era of brands being able to easily buy into legitimate journalism created by media outlets, and redistribute it in a way that lets everyone win. The brand gets to associate itself with market-building journalism; the journalistic organization makes more money so it can continue producing such stories; and the public gets content it likes and values.

It will be interesting to see what happens as Ricochet becomes more widely offered.


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Paid Content Has No Rules, So Behave

When institutions blow apart, the old rules give way to something that’s more like no rules. Which is pretty much where we are in journalistic branded content.

In that environment, brands have to be careful and behave, or they could find themselves losing the public’s trust.

The old structure of the media industry had its flaws. But when news and information flowed through traditional newspapers and magazines, trained journalists imposed a shared code of law, especially when it came to things like conflicts of interest, separating advertisers from coverage, and objectivity. Same with books and publishing houses, though book editors generally had a different set of standards from journalists.

If those institutions were gatekeepers, the gates have been obliterated by storming mobs. Instead of pitchforks, they’ve come bearing Web news sites, blogs, Twitter, self-publishing, Kindle Singles, etc. The democratization of media has been wonderful and eye-opening in so many ways, but there’s also this: Some in the storming mobs have a lot of money to spend and a motivation to use it in ways the old journalists usually squashed.

Case in point: the government of Malaysia. Last week, the story surfaced that Malaysia paid 10 media columnists – who wrote for outlets such as Huffington Post and National Review – to write pieces smearing an opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim. With a hunger for content and less scrutiny of what they publish, Web news sites are particularly vulnerable to this kind of thing.

We’ve seen instances of Twitter abuse. Lots of questions have been raised about celebrities getting paid by companies to tweet about their products – with no disclosure about the arrangement. Rainn Wilson got called out for pitching del Taco on the sly.

Lately stories have surfaced about schemes to manipulate bestseller lists so books like Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness looks like it zooms to the top.

Who knows how much of this goes unreported and unseen. So the temptation can be great for brands to sponsor content in sneaky ways.

But then, getting outed is a bitch. Anything pro-Malaysia in any news outlet is now suspect. Any celebrity mention of del Taco will raise an eyebrow.

In this new environment, brands have to be guardians of their own credibility. The best way to do that is to be as transparent and noble as possible when it comes to journalistic content. Don’t try to trick us. Yes, a brand may get away with it, but if we do find out, the brand will lose our trust. That’s not worth it.


Most Brilliant Use of Stoner Content by a Police Department Goes To…

This is an era of invention in branded content. Lots of breakthrough ideas. Lots of out-of-the-box thinking.

But the Seattle Police Department employing an alternative journalist to write a blog about upcoming changes in marijuana laws — awesome!

Back in March, the Seattle police first hired journalist Jonah Spangenthal-Lee to write a blog for the department. Which was very forward-thinking of the Seattle police. Spangenthal-Lee had become a fairly well-known local crime reporter, first on a couple of Seattle web sites and then for the Seattle alternative newspaper The Stranger, which features stories such as, “Cannibis Calendar: Things to Do With Pot in the Coming Months,” and “Sex at Seattle Art Museum.”

The idea, at the time, was for Spangenthal-Lee to write a blog about police actions in the city. As Spangenthal-Lee noted, it’s alarming to see a police helicopter circling overhead and never know why. The blog was meant to help people know what was happening in Seattle. Police officers had been doing that on the department’s site, but police officers aren’t writers. Spangenthal-Lee made the blog more journalistic and compelling.

And then this month, the department collided with a major challenge. Washington State voted to decriminalize marijuana. If the police were going to have to deal with this new reality, they wanted the public to understand the law and how the department would approach it.








Given Spangenthal-Lee’s background with both crime and The Stranger, he was the perfect choice to write about pot for the police. So the Seattle Police launched a sub-section of its blog, called Marijwhatnow? A sample:

Q: Can I smoke pot outside my home? Like at a park, magic show, or the Bite of Seattle?

A: Much like having an open container of alcohol in public, doing so could result in a civil infraction—like a ticket—but not arrest. You can certainly use marijuana in the privacy of your own home. 

Is the blog working? Well, over the weekend a New York Times story noted that the pot posts have “gone closer to viral than perhaps any official police communication in history, with 26,000 Facebook ‘likes’ and more than 218,000 page views as of Friday.”




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Sandy, Ickiness, and “Deadline Branded Journalism”

Here’s one reason why brands should embrace journalists: Good journalists have learned how to be current in ways that feel relevant and welcome — as opposed to icky.

See, when marketing types try to be relevant, they too often come across as more inappropriate than when your drunk best man structured his toast around the story of that time you made a sex tape with two co-eds and a fruit salad.

My old friend Stuart Elliott wrote a New York Times story about exactly those kinds of screw-ups in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Everybody on the east side of the U.S. was absolutely fixated by the storm early this week, and brands wanted to snag a little piece of that interest. But especially in a time of disaster, there’s no room for any message that sounds the least bit self-serving or insensitive. Stuart details a number of such flubs, like this one: The Adler brand urged shoppers on Twitter and in e-mails to “storm our site” and obtain free shipping by entering “code Sandy at checkout.” Adler ended up having to apologize.

Nonetheless, it’s smart for brands to try to be current. I recently stopped by Forbes to talk to Lewis Dvorkin, who is building a platform on for branded content, called BrandVoice. Brands pay to blog on, and the content gets mixed in with all the other Forbes-created content — though BrandVoice pieces are marked as such. For a BrandVoice story to get attention, it has to be good on its own merits — as good as Forbes’ journalist-written pieces.

So what works in getting attention? “Being current,” Lewis immediately said. Stay close to the news, and the stories will get more readers.

But really — brands are terrible at this! If they try to stay close to the news, they often stumble like Adler. And then on the flip side, brands seem like they are news-blind.

In checking several times this week, I never saw one BrandView story rise to Forbes’ most-read list. Two of the most active brands on Forbes’ BrandView are Oracle and SAP. It’s hard to find a relevant story in their buckets. On Oct. 31, while much of the Northeast cleaned up from Sandy, Oracle ran a post from its president, Mark Hurd, titled, “What CEOs want from CIOs.” At that point, on that day — who cared!?

Journalists who have worked for newspapers or news magazines instinctively hunt for relevant angles on a big story, always keeping their audience in mind. The trick is to always know the bigger picture  and filter current events through that.

A simple example: Let’s say a reporter covers real estate. She always has in her mind the big trends and issues that people care about — like housing prices, foreclosures, interest rates. She’s learned those issues and has some expertise in them. So when Sandy hits, she immediately writes about how the storm will impact those curent issues, addressing the topic in ways that matter to readers.

If a brand acted more like a journalist, it would filter current events through the kinds of things it knows about — and match that up with what people care about.

Cape Bank in Cape May, N.J., might inherently know a lot about the history of how a major storm impacts a seashore economy. If it thought like a journalist, it would quickly put that knowledge into words or videos and get its wisdom out to the public, perhaps as an op-ed piece or blog or  video. To hit the right note, the piece could not at all try to promote the bank. The idea would be to share knowledge and help people. By doing so, the bank could seem smart and caring, not to mention quick on its feet.

Let’s call it “deadline branded journalism.” At the moment, it’s either hard to find or badly done. A smart brand might exploit that opening.

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Why Brands Should Produce Content They Can Sell for Actual Money

I’m going to throw down a gauntlet here: The measure of great branded content is whether the audience will pay for it.

Most of the time these days, brands looking to create content dive right into the free model. They believe they have to foot the bill to create a web news site, a magazine, a book. And then they give it away.

Brands in some way have been doing this forever, from airline magazines to Mayo Clinic’s web site and everything in between. The web has especially fueled the era of free content — Wired magazine shouted that to the world in 2008 with its cover story, Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business.

But there’s also always been another side to that story. Merck created its Merck Manual more than 100 years ago, and first gave the drug guides away to doctors — but later sold them to consumers. Now you can buy one in a bookstore or on Amazon — or buy one of its spin-offs, like the Merck Manual Home Health Handbook.

Weber, the grill company, pumps out a whole series of grilling cookbooks — and people buy them, at as much as $40 a pop. When I co-wrote the book The Two-Second Advantage with TIBCO CEO Vivek Ranadive, the idea from the start was to write a book good enough to sell to a mainstream publisher and make the bestseller list.

Bike apparel company Rapha publishes a literary cycling magazine, Rouleur, that it sells for $20 dollars an issue. Twenty dollars!

Harvard Business Review is a great branded content success. It is, actually, Harvard Business School’s branded content play — and it’s become a stand-alone business. These days, it’s available online, as an iPad app, and in the traditional magazine format. Buy an all-access pass for $99 a year.


I can’t think of a brand that has created a new, digital content offering, and charged for it. (Let me know if I’m missing something.) But — why not? If it’s good enough — especially if it’s useful — people will pay for it.

Why should a brand even try to create content it can sell?

Well, for one, if you get the audience to pay, you’ll get a better audience. The audience will be invested in your content, so it will be more loyal, more likely to actually consume the content, more likely to buy into the brand.

And if we’re honest, free also lowers the expectations of greatness. If a brand is creating give-away content — it’s not charging the audience and it’s not charging advertisers — nobody expects the content to be truly, consistently great. The brand doesn’t have to lure the best talent or design a beautiful product. The burden is only to put out something that’s OK. So making a decision to sell content is making a decision to produce great content — and that can only be good for the brand.

It’s not about the money, by the way. As any media company knows, content can be a tough business to try to make a profit on. But, hey, if paying customers offset some of the cost while the content is benefitting the brand — what’s not to like?

Yes, sure, in a lot of situations, free probably makes sense. It lowers the barrier to getting an audience, especially when starting from scratch. Heck, this blog is free. If I charged for it at this point, I’d be lucky if my dog Louie subscribed.

But free isn’t always the answer. And when it comes to content, free may be the enemy of great.

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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.


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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Investing In Community Through Journalism

For each kind of company or organization, there’s a matching kind of journalism that, if it thrives, helps the company prosper. Hollywood is helped enormously by movie reviews and celebrity tabloid crap (which, oh my God, I hesitate to call “journalism,” but whatEVer). Technology companies need tech journalists to air new ideas and share advances.

Journalism has a lot of social functions that we don’t readily recognize. It’s an important way a community — geographic or based on interest — talks to each other and builds bonds. It’s part of a community’s glue, along with things like live gatherings and, these days, social media.

So if you’re guiding a company or brand, and you look up and realize that the journalism your community needs is non-existent, or not as good as it could be, or crumbling, what might you do?

Most brands, of course, do nothing. Smart brands, though, would understand the gap and realize the benefit of helping to close it.

Bike apparel company Rapha recognized that good journalism about hard-core biking would create more interest in the sport, which would in turn create more potential customers for Rapha — and, somewhere downstream, more sales of Rapha products. So Rapha started a hard-core biking magazine, Rouleur.

Not every brand wants to actually own and operate a magazine or other form of journalism. But what about more arms-length relationships? Like maybe help back a journalistic start-up where it makes sense.

A couple of years ago, a friend and colleague in journalism, George Quarashi, saw a need in the U.S. for thoughtful, New Yorker-level journalism about soccer. He and pal Mark Kirby started Howler — a magazine, web site and app — and have slowly crawled toward a launch. They’ve had to rely on a lot of free help from journalist friends (including me) and funding through Kickstarter.

But it would be smart of Major League Soccer to back Howler. As a brand, MLS has a smallish base that it needs to grow. Its community has a fraction of the journalistic glue enjoyed by the NFL, NBA or Major League Baseball. MLS knows all about the Howler venture. Investing in it would be a pretty low-risk, low-maintenance form of branded journalism. Brands should think that way. Too often, they don’t.


A lot of thoughtful, journalistic discourse is disappearing from a lot of communities that are important to brands. Anyone running a brand should consider what that loss means to its audience. Somewhere in there is an opportunity.

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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.


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.


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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