Do you read the writer or the publication?

Posted on November 10, 2011


The question has been asked for a long time but the last few years of online social media are making this even trickier for publishers to be comfortable with.

You might have noticed a growing number of statements on all sorts of social networks, especially on Twitter, in bio sections and along the lines of ‘These are my views, not my employer’s.’

This is no longer limited to people who routinely communicate with a large or influential audience– typically journalists, PR professionals and some others in marketing. It can now cover anyone with an identity and a platform to say things online (ie most people).

There’s a simple reason for that. Their employers are either officially or with an informal but strong nudge encouraging them to do so. I know – I once helped draft a Social Media Policy doc that covered such issues.

So far, so much you know. But the other day my mind started racing when I saw a mischievous tweet. Upon reading what a journalist had written (also on Twitter) the author of the follow-up tweet said something along the lines of: “Your views only? Then what is it I read back at your paper?” – referring to bylined pieces at a big online publication.

I say mischievous partly because it’s a word that doesn’t get used enough 😉 but mainly because I think the commenter I mention knew the answer to his question. Disingenuous might be a better description.

Earlier this week I read this piece on B2B Memes entitled The Future of Content Is Not Destination but Identity. The point it makes is that readers often dip in and out of content, as aggregated on search results pages and other popular services. However good a publication design and package, most don’t stay loyal to one environment. (This is more arguable when it comes to apps rather than websites and again in user-pays environments, for both sites and apps.)

Similarly, a lot of us look for and read a writer as much as we read a publication. Online has only made that easier. I don’t have to buy a Daily Telegraph to read Henry Winter’s excellent writing on football. Hey, following him on Twitter is perhaps equally satisfying for me (behind-the-scenes, immediate, generous) – and that doesn’t give anything back to his employer if I don’t click through, which I often don’t need to.

The difficult piece of this equation is when an audience considers a content creator’s authentic voice. At one end of the spectrum there are writers, broadcasters or film-makers who demand and get final sign off on their content. This is rare but does happen.

On the other side there are bloggers where the blog (the publication) and the blogger (the writer) are often one and the same. Again, there are exceptions, many great blogs having more than one voice but those are in the minority, albeit those that tend to make money, look professional, get a lot of eyeballs etc..

So outside a few superstars in media and a worldwide army of solo bloggers, it is easy to forget many professionals in the industries I mentioned earlier don’t get final cut or to sign off their work. Some work – increasingly so in recent years, for various reasons – does go out unedited or ‘edit lite’ but it is always within parameters, in line with what’s expected.

The brand – the newspaper, TV or radio station, all most likely with important online businesses these days – has the final say. Whether you want to believe it or not, most of the time you are reading the publication.

But when it comes to myriad social channels, however much one of those brands seeks control, it’s not going to happen. Most, thankfully, also see the upside of active, engaged writers, cultivating trust, audiences, hopefully mining for info and sources.

And what the consumer gets is those irritating but obligatory bios. Don’t expect them to go away  any time soon.

Posted in: Social media, Work