(Yesterday, I blogged about something being called “explanatory journalism.” It provides some background for this post.)
I ran out of time dashing off that post, but wanted to mention a business-to-business media company that rose out of the blogosphere and has become what I believe is a model for a successful business-to-business news enterprise that demonstrates, even if they’ve never used the term, a great model for blending “news journalism” and “explanatory journalism.”
Search Engine Land and its editor-in-chief Danny Sullivan are the definitive source on news related to the search engine industry (which means, Google, Bing and specialized search engines). As this is a topic that can attract the worst elements of the internet (those who believe they can “out-smart” Google), I’ve always been impressed by Search Engine Land’s ability to cover a topic from a definable (and defendable) point of view that clearly advocates an ethical and gimmick-free approach to search marketing. At the same time, I’m sure there are those who follow Danny’s every word in order to reverse engineer his explanation in an effort to “beat Google.” (As I’ve always written on this blog, if your SEO guru consultant tells you he or she can beat Google, ask yourself, “Is this person actually smarter than the army of engineers at Google?)
However, a more nuanced way in which Search Engine Land has always impressed me is the ability Danny and other writers there (Matt McGee comes to mind) have to add a layer of explanation to whatever a breaking news story may be. There can be some new announcement from Google in the morning and by mid-afternoon, there is a massive point-by-point break down of what is taking place and why it is important. The ability to be in the middle of a breaking news story and write thoughtful, easy to understand, non-jargon-dependent explanations of what’s taking place is a skill few people master. That’s why so many people write in buzzwords.
Another reason I thought of Search Engine Land when the topic of “explanatory journalism” hit the radar yesterday was the way in which Danny wrote a recent post explaining “Why Search Engine Land Will & Won’t Cover Someone Being Penalized By Google.” In his post, labeled an “open letter,” Danny does a thorough job in explaining what factors go into deciding what is, and is not, a news story on Search Engine Land. In an approach that is akin to the concept Dave Winer has described as narrating your work, this post turns the same explanatory skills used to describe what’s important in the industry he covers to explaining how decisions are made in his own company.
Explanatory Journalism and Business-to-Business Media
As someone who has spent almost three decades hanging out with publishers and editors of traditional business-to-business media (meaning, they were around before the internet existed), I have often been perplexed by the editorial decisions they make. The majority of coverage seems to focus on transactions of the industries they cover: job changes, corporate transactions (company launches, fundings, acquisitions, closings, etc.), contracts gained or lost, and product announcements.
Yes, that type of flow is of interest, but it’s less valuable than the kind of explanatory journalism that provides context and instruction and a point-of-view that helps someone make better decisions related to that news. But such journalism requires reporters who know as much about the topic they’re covering as the people they cover. And that doesn’t seem to be the world in which we’re living these days.
While the same content approach (transaction-obsessed) seems to have followed business-to-business media to the web (Exhibit A: Tech websites that confuse news about the latest start up and round of funding with what’s taking place in an industry), there are other sites, like Search Engine Land, that are pioneering a new type of editorial model that blend traditional business-to-business coverage with an adaptation of something akin to “explanatory journalism,”
Simply put, Search Engine Land (and its conferences worldwide, I’m guessing) have found that sweet spot where a business-to-business media company can seamlessly blend serious breaking-news types of journalism with other forms of contextual and “how-to” helpful information that enable an audience to understand and do their jobs better.
(Note: I don’t mean to imply there aren’t some traditional media companies that have mastered the art of explanatory journalism. Many serve as the knowledge marketplace of the industries they serve.)