Beyond container myopia

For nine years, I served on a board of education in the community where I live. It’s an interesting job, one that makes you sensitive to how information is provided and consumed at a local level.

School board politics are seldom predictable, but the middle third of my foray into public service was surprisingly quiet. Success usually has many authors, but in this instance I think there was one: Maria Zingaro, who joined the local paper as a reporter at the start of my second term.

Community newspapers typically hire reporters with little or no prior experience. Many are promising, but it takes time to master the local mix of governing bodies, committees, personalities, issues and agendas. Unlike those before and after, Ms. Zingaro hit the ground running.

The stories she wrote were complete, nuanced and fair. Often enough, that meant they exposed things that the school district was doing less than well. But the result was not a groundswell of criticism.

Armed with reasonably complete, balanced reporting, the folks who had elected us made choices that were actionable and informed. The didn’t stop watching or expressing concern, but they did so in ways that an elected body could address.

When I started to think about repositioning publishing (not just books, but also periodicals) as the “engine of the engagement economy”, Maria Zingaro came to mind. Although most of what we do is not reporting, much of what we do can now be tied to outcomes.

That perspective helps reframe the challenge we face in publishing, as captured by Jane McGonigal:

In the economy of engagement, it is less and less important to compete for attention, and more and more important to compete for things like brain cycles and interactive bandwidth. Crowd-dependent projects must capture the mental energy and the active effort it takes to make individual contributions to a larger whole.

Writing in Advertising Age (November 7), John Battelle returned to the five “golden rules of publishing” he first described in 2006. These included:

In the article, Battelle adds to the original five with new, uncomfortable sixth: all brands are publishers.

How does this help us sell books? I have only a limited answer, and I also think it’s the wrong question. Battelle’s observations make it clear that if we don’t find a new role, selling books will become only harder by the day.

We have before us an opportunity to shift publishing from providing products to measuring our success in supporting outcomes. I don’t pretend to have a business model worked out to make that possible, but I’ve seen what happens when someone decides that her job involved more than just writing to fill a container. That’s worth fighting for.

(With thanks to Eli James of Pandamian and Joseph Pearson, founder of Inventive Labs, which launched Monocle. Both Eli and Joseph pushed me to do more to explain “engagement economy”. I am sure they’ll help me do more over time.)

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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