5 Career Tips to Survive Publishing’s Digital Shift

PUSH By Steve Snodgrass
PUSH By Steve Snodgrass via Flickr

Transition, transformation, disruption, disintermediation… whichever word you prefer, the publishing industry is undergoing a massive shift that’s being driven by the Internet, with the news and magazine sides arguably a bit further ahead of the curve than the book side, for better or worse, though few major players among them are seeing any light at the end of the tunnel.

The Atlantic is one of my favorite examples that I’ve cited often, and 2011 was the second great year in a row for the “legacy” brand that went all-in on a digital-first strategy in 2007 and are now reaping the rewards that include growth on the print side of the business.

“We decided to prioritize digital over everything else. We were no longer going to be ‘The Atlantic, which happens to do digital.’ We were going to be a digital media company that also published The Atlantic magazine.”

That must have been a frightening prospect for a number of people, I suggested in a conversation with [Justin Smith, president of Atlantic Consumer Media] at The Atlantic‘s offices last month.

“It’s easier to be ‘digital first’ when your legacy business is not strong, when you have nothing to defend,” Smith explained. “At the time, all we had to defend was red ink.”

Many publishers are in a similar situation, perhaps not quite as dire as defending red ink, yet, but with each passing year the turning radius to make the shift to digital-first becomes tighter and tighter, and even more so for staff. There’s no value in being the last man standing at a publisher unable (or worse, unwilling) to make the shift, and there are few job opportunities for those “good soliders” who can’t clearly demonstrate that they have at least tried to stay ahead of the curve.

We’re in the early stages of such a shift at the day job, and having just completed annual performance reviews and reporting on our analytics from last year, I started noticing a few things that were common to the people who really GET IT.

1) Shift, don’t Drift

Stop being a passive consumer and jump in the deep end of the pool. Try everything until you’re savvy and connected enough to figure out what to ignore at a quick glance. Even if a particular medium or platform doesn’t appeal to you personally, try to understand where it fits in the big picture and who the primary and secondary audiences are. (For me, Tumblr and Pinterest fall in that category.) Launch your own website on WordPress; get on Twitter and Facebook and Google+ and LinkedIn and Goodreads. Set up a Google Analytics account and learn how to make the most of it; experiment with Google AdWords and Facebook ads. Sign up for Constant Contact or MailChimp and learn about email marketing. Get access to a smartphone, an ereader and tablet, download a few ebooks and apps, and understand what’s really happening in mobile. Don’t just rely on publishing industry rags and pundits; bookmark MarketingProfs, eMarketer, and ReadWriteWeb and understand what other industries are doing, many of which are way of ahead of the digital curve compared to publishing.

2) HTML 101

This Internet thing isn’t a fad, and it disrupts every industry it touches, no matter how mainstream or niche it might be. Don’t be that person who leaves HTML to the “digital guy,” or a junior editor or marketer; I’ve worked with too many people who did that over the years and have watched almost all of them eventually lose their jobs because their skills weren’t up-to-date. Learn the basics yourself and understand what it takes to build and manage different types of websites. Make liberal use of “Right click > View Page Source” and take a look at the guts of your favorite websites. Befriend web designers and ebook and app developers, in person or online, and learn from them. Sign up for Code Year.

3) Data is Your High-Maintenance Best Friend

“Crisitunity: Real-time data; it’s what we asked for.”
–Lou Paskalis, VP of Global Media, Content Development and Mobile Marketing, American Express

At the end of the day, the Internet is all about connections — people-to-people, people-to-information, information-to-people — and one of its byproducts is data. Metric tons of data! So much of it that we often don’t know where to start other than to place astronomical values on the companies that successfully acquire and curate it, or worse, cower in fear of them. In the digital age, there’s no need to rely solely on instinct and intuition, though both remain invaluable tools when they’re not ego-driven. Remember Einstein’s words: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” First step, determine what’s most important to your business’ success and measure it on a regular basis. Second step, don’t just report the data, analyze it thoroughly and translate the story it’s telling you into something actionable. Third step, TAKE ACTION!

4) Develop Personal Learning Networks

You don’t know everything and you never will. Thankfully, no matter where you live or work, you are not alone. The Internet is huge and has few borders, and in every nook and cranny you’ll find a community of people with similar interests and passions and varying levels of experience. Most of those people are willing to share their insights and hard-won experiences, especially with others willing to reciprocate. No matter how experienced you are, or aren’t, be a giver not just a taker and you’ll become a valued member of your community and ultimately get more value from it.

5) Impatience is a Virtue

Stop waiting for someone else to figure it out, whatever IT might be! If you’re facing an unexplored path, attack it with vigor and dare yourself to push past your comfort level. I’m a firm believer in “it’s better to seek forgiveness than permission,” as long as your approach is informed and well conceived. Embrace mistakes, but don’t set yourself up to make dumb ones. If you’re on to something, others will take notice and eventually follow. If you’re on the wrong track, you’ll learn from it and be able to teach others from the lessons you learn. And if you work somewhere where this approach isn’t valued, focus on the first four points, update your resume accordingly, and find a better employer.

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16 thoughts on “5 Career Tips to Survive Publishing’s Digital Shift

  1. Great article! I LOVE the Atlantic now, Their feed is wonderful and so informative I’ve been thinking I need to sub to the magazine, which I will do in the next few weeks I imagine.

    As to the technology advice, YES! Even if it turns out you don’t have the talent to become proficient, it’s important to be familiar with the subject so, at the very least, you can make wise decisions about when to hire someone with expertise.

    1. Yes, familiarity is key. The number of meetings I’ve sat in where time was wasted on remedial stuff because people didn’t have the self-motivation to stay on top of changes in the industry has always been frustrating. There’s a shocking lack of intellectual curiosity for an industry that’s fundamentally about the spreading of ideas.

  2. Great advice. As you went down the “big picture” list in “Shift Don’t Drift,” I realized that I’ve managed to touch on all of them, from Tumblr, Pinterest and Smashwords to MailChimp, Google+ and the iPad and Kindle. When I look back to where I was 3 years ago to now it makes my head spin. Learning all this new stuff (via all the free tools and resources) has been a privilege and a blast!
    PS Does anyone else think of Harold Pinter every time they see the Pinterest name?

    1. You noted something I only alluded to, but every platform and resource I referred to is free, and that was purposeful. I’ve heard a lot of complaints that companies don’t offer professional development any more, and while true, that’s not an excuse. Thanks for the comment!

  3. Great advice. The key is to jump in and just start absorbing what you can. Don’t let others tell you what to know, learn it yourself. But don’t be afraid. Jump in and play.

  4. It’s never a bad idea to learn about what’s coming to get you.

    While most of the recommendations in this list are common sense, I have a little trouble with #2, HTML 101. As a classically-trained former programmer, I don’t see the point to it; learning a programming language makes no sense unless you understand how programming works at the macro level, which means understanding how computers work. That’s a lot to ask of people who don’t really need that knowledge. Besides, commercial websites have become so complex that I doubt anyone codes HTML by hand anymore. Right-click->Show Source will typically give you only a tiny slice of what’s actually making a website run; you could just as easily ask people to learn Java or C++.

    Perhaps we should really urge people to play with or learn one of the web authoring programs. This approach wouldn’t immediately wash out the folks who can’t or won’t engage with code (most of the world), but will show them what their own web developers are working with and give them a flavor of what’s involved.

    1. Most people will never have to code anything, by hand or otherwise, but familiarizing yourself with the basics is an important starting point, as Carolyn noted in her comment above. That’s also why I suggested setting up a WordPress site which would teach some of the basic web skills that I’ve been continually astounded so many people in publishing lack.

    2. While I agree people should learn program, you don’t need to learn all the core coding to know how to get HTML to display correctly. Do you think every application dev knows how the Linux kernel works? And they don’t need to.

  5. Guy, another fantastic post from you. I too went through the checklist. One thing I will say is that all of these skills and all of this knowledge is useful to a generalist, anyone working anywhere there will be the need to post information to the web and communicate with a constituency. And it is always a good thing to be learning. It enlivens the mind. Thanks for this!

    1. With few exceptions, I think we all need to be generalists these days, with so much change and transition happening. Be really good at a couple of specific things, but have some familiarity with everything else. Thanks!

  6. Great job. These are important lessons to impart to anyone in the industry and thinking about it as a career choice.

    I agree with you about HTML 101. Not necessarily having to know enough code to code but understanding the logic of any programming language is incredibly useful, even it that’s just to communicate to a developer what you’re looking for. I learned Pascal in university. Does anyone even use that programming language anymore? I doubt it. But understanding if/then/else helps me think through web apps, databases and all the supporting structures of creating cool user experiences online–and that’s from a marketing perspective.

    The more you understand, the better you can create (or better contribute to the team hired to create).

    1. I’m no programmer and have no interest in becoming one, but the great opportunities I’ve had over the past few years have all sprung from my desire to understand as much as possible about the bigger picture, ensuring I can contribute to a variety of situations. Ultimately, it’s about being flexible. Thanks!

  7. Thanks very much! I will follow most of this advice. Pintrest and Tumblr are my holdouts so far, too. Not for long!

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