Building great editorial teams

How to construct an organization that can execute a playbook

This week’s focus is around hiring and operating edit teams. To start, I wrote the second part to last week’s piece about developing an editorial framework. Shareen Pathak, my longtime colleague who was Digiday Media’s managing director of editorial products and a million other jobs, contributes her formula for building editorial products. On managing, I make the case for self-awareness.

Building great editorial teams

Last week, I went over the elements of building an editorial framework. The critical second part: Hiring people and building a team that can execute on the playbook developed. I’m regularly asked about hiring, and people are the hardest part -- recruiting, growth and retention -- by far.

Figure out your pitch. Everyone’s in sales. That will become clear the first chance you have to hire. You need to sell top people in a ruthlessly competitive market. Larger brands start with big advantages. They have big names that sound good at cocktail parties, they have recruiters and pipelines, better benefits and higher salaries, and so on. The pitch we landed on as a challenger brand: Come here and you’ll grow faster than at bigger name publications -- and you’ll get a chance to do things here (events, podcasts, etc) you likely will not at those larger organizations.

Know your type. The laziest approach to hiring is to look for a reporter covering the exact area at a competitive publication. That can work, only you’re likely limiting the growth of the brand (and trapping yourself into being similar to your competitors). We found advantages to having a “type.” We had success in finding people who were early in their careers at smaller publications. Jack Marshall came from ClickZ, Sahil Patel from Cynopsis, Hilary Milnes from BostInno. What was most important is that the candidate was at a point in their career where they wanted to grow and improve quickly.

Understand your biases and weaknesses. The racial reckoning of this year has shone a needed spotlight on the downside of hiring for “cultural fit.” That can be code for hiring people most like you. I made that mistake very early on. Turned out the people I judged to be the best fit were a lot like…. me. Funny how that works. Self-awareness (more on that later) is critical in getting yourself out of that. What’s more, hiring to cover up your own weaknesses is critical. For instance, Shareen Pathak excelled at many things at the same time, understanding and driving processes in ways that I didn’t.

Put people in positions to succeed. One mistake I often saw is to believe someone was a “bad hire” when they were really not put in a position to succeed. We tried to be flexible with hiring. That meant having a general understanding of what we’re looking for (a reporter, for example) but not being hell bent on a beat (must cover ad tech). This led to an approach that encouraged reporters to spend the first six months doing bits of a few beats before narrowing in on one area. With events, some people were very into them both helping with speakers and being on stage, and others were not. Better to play to people’s individual strengths rather than force them into some box.

See value in an alumni network. I don’t believe that someone leaving a company is a “betrayal.” The reality of many professions, in particular media, is moving jobs is often critical for growth. We had several people on our team stay more than five years, but the average was about two years.  I found two years to be the cutoff point for many to be considered a success. It’s frustrating to lose a talented contributor to a bigger name place or a competitor, but in the long run a strong alumni network helps in marketing your company as a great environment for career growth.

Making an edit team an edit organization

One of the best decisions I made at Digiday was hiring Shareen Pathak, who held about every role you can think of as we built an editorial group into an editorial organization. Shareen’s consulting now with all sorts of companies building editorial organizations -- you should get in touch with her if you’re doing this -- so I asked her to contribute a brief roadmap to building an editorial org.

Call it a lightbulb moment that was a little late in coming, but there really are a lot of good ideas out there — it's the execution that is lacking.

Nowhere perhaps has this felt more true recently than when talking to people that are trying to make — for lack of a better word, content. Over the past few months, I've worked with a pretty wide variety of types of companies: traditional newsrooms, startup publishing operations, a couple design firms, an ad agency, and even a sports franchise. All of them have really smart, innovative ideas for stories, videos, podcasts, series, newsletters and events. The biggest need: Turning them into editorial products. The "productization" (sorry) of editorial is now one of the most pressing needs inside most companies, but remains woefully deprioritized. Here are a few basic ways to get it done.

  • Know it. Have an awareness for why turning your editorial content into a product is important and have it be signed off on and spread throughout your organization.
  • Give every idea a why. Every single project should match directly to a KPI or goal that was decided before. "Trying things out" isn't enough.
  • Document it. Before you even put the proverbial pen to paper, map out your resources, including time, people, money and that elusive one, attention, and ensure there are enough of them to create what you have in mind.
  • Turn it into a system. Call it the conveyer belt or the sausage factory, there's a reason for modern manufacturing methods. Create a system of ownership and execution.
  • Replicate it. Good products don't start from scratch every time. Record it, systematize it, and create ways to repeat it, ideally at scale.

Managing teams: Self-awareness

At Digiday, we had a company meeting a year or so ago where the CEO and I answered questions. We were about 65 people at the time, and the company had grown to the point where I didn’t have much personal contact with many in different departments. One of the questions was about one trait that’s needed for leadership. I opted for self-awareness.

All of us bring a set of our own biases and weaknesses to all we do. We cannot change, for the most part, who we are and the blind spots that come with being a human. But we can mitigate them by being aware of them. Self-awareness gives you comfort in knowing what you don’t know. That will lead you to trust the people who know more than you, who are in the day-to-day details you are not. It also gives you confidence to make mistakes, learn from them, do better the next time. FInally, I believe self-awareness can be used to understand others better, knowing what we intend sometimes isn’t what is conveyed.

Some things to check out

I gave some thoughts on the Substack Revolution for a piece in PR Week, including what Substack needs to do in order to solve basic problems for creators: “You need support for audience discovery, because what happens is, you see amazing growth and then suddenly hit a wall. Substack also needs to provide tools to help people grow their audience and monetize beyond subscriptions.”

While on the self-promotion beat -- I’m told this is audience development -- I recorded a podcast with my friend Mike Shields. This was a lot of fun, and part of Next in Marketing, a podcast series Mike is doing with Appsflyer. Check it out.

Morning Brew cofounder Austin Rief has a nice Twitter thread telling the story of how he and Alex Lieberman hustled their way to 10,000 subscribers. I often returned to the cliche of “do things that don’t scale.” I’d prefer to worry about how scalable things are after  you get traction -- and this story is a good example of how things that seem hacked together -- collecting emails on bits of paper -- can actually lead to a scalable process like Morning Brew’s ambassador program.

Focus on the product. This would seem obvious advice from Elon Musk, but too often the things around the product -- finance, operations, marketing -- suck up all the oxygen in the room. I tried, often unsuccessfully, to make sure 75% of my time each week was spent focused on the products that built our brands.

Counterfactual history and ad tech are two things you didn’t think of together, but what better time than now. Ana and Maja Milicevic take on a thorny one: What if Google didn’t buy DoubleClick back in 2007?