Harvard Business Review publisher: relevancy is key to digital age

18 May 2012

The key word of the digital age and in a time of social sharing and algorithms is ‘relevancy’, the publisher of the Harvard Business Review Josh Macht told publishers this week. He said we are now in an era where marriage of big data with an editorial voice offers an opportunity to create a community around online publications.

Macht leads the commercial activities of Harvard Business Review magazine, its websites hbr.org and harvardbusiness.org, and Harvard Business Press books. Before his current role, he was executive director of Harvard Business Digital, responsible for the growth of the company’s web efforts. He was also editor and general manager of TIME.com, Time magazine’s online home. In the early 1990s he was a founding editor of Inc.com, which was among the first national magazines to create a substantial online presence for small business owners and entrepreneurs.

Macht was speaking at the Media Future Conference 2012 in Dublin this week and said that during a time where a big shift in media is occurring he views this time with an equal dose of caution and optimism.

But he sees a problem on the horizon and that problem is ‘relevancy’.

“It’s strange that a publisher would think relevancy is a problem when the more relevant content is that people read it, tweet it and buy your content.

“Recommendation engines are everywhere – telling you where to eat, what to buy and these are getting smarter and smarter based on algorithms that figure out your behaviour and spit out what is relevancy.

But, he said, in terms of the publishing world and its future, we need to hit pause for a minute – it’s not so much the automation that creates relevancy, not machines, it’s people.

“People create relevancy and that’s because they are producing a product. It’s really a community of editors and producers who come together and give that product a voice, an editorial identity.”

But publishing – newspapers and magazines, in particular – is in the midst of a massive upheaval brought about by the digital revolution and that establishing an editorial identity is more critical than ever.

“Editorial identity is what attracts us to a publication and allows us to be part of the conversation, that’s really important.”

Macht said the masses of data being produced via the internet – also known as big data – is leading to a revolution in algorithms and recommendation engines. In fact, the speed of progress has been so fast that questions have arisen as to whether traditional editorial values matter. Can’t robots do the work instead?

“It’s staggering to me – only in 2009 Amazon said that year it collects and stores as much information as produced in human history. But (Google executive chairman) Eric Schmidt says today that they collect and store that amount of information every two days. That’s an unbelievable amount of information.”

He said technologists like Google are focused on figuring out what people want, when they want it and making it perfect for the user.

“That’s a really neat ideal but you can’t live on algorithms alone. We’ve moved into an era where if you carry all that data with an editorial voice that will create a new editorial community around a publication.

“If you marry together the voice of the customer with the voice of an editor and create an editorial identity I think that will drive a lot of value.”

However, Macht pointed out – from personal experience – that often editors and publishers lose track of that identity. “We can often become very attached to the jobs we do.”

He said what is needed is a more sophisticated way of creating relevancy by tying together these great technological advances with the human flare for insight and sensitivity.

“There is a fair amount of automation involved in creating an editorial product today. Google is a great example of this providing a different result for everyone searching for the same things using its algorithms. We see this with a number of other products, such as Pandora and iTunes Genius where they look at your past behaviour and try to say what you think you want.”

On the topic of would robots make good reporters, Macht said we need to be careful. “The pace is nothing short of amazing but moving forward we need to be careful if we think algorithms can work on their own and supplant an editorial process.”

The relevancy trap

Macht warned of the danger of a relevancy trap if we think products will be able to advance based on algorithms alone without the need for an editorial community.

“David Carr from the New York Times had a great quote about how ‘communities of like-minded people come together in niches like ‘The Huffington Post.’

“But people who read it at the same time see that there’s a voice to that publication and the ideas are taking shape because there’s an editor behind the process.

“There’s real economic value in that an idea can originate with an editor and resonate with the community.

“There are a lot of influential audiences but what is a powerful idea for advertisers is ideas in motion. Ideas aren’t inert, they need to effect the community. The best way to do that is through social media and smart marketers will realise if a publication has engaged with its audience.

“There’s a big economic upside to this.”

Macht concluded by telling the audience about his time as an editor when he published a piece that didn’t go down well with readers and he was down about it. “My editor at the time said ‘you’re upset because editing is personal and you think the magazine is a reflection of you.’

“I don’t want to hark back to a gentler time when editors were arbiters of taste but the idea that being editor and publication only reflects you is an older mental model.

“The publication should reflect the community you are involved with. It doesn’t lessen the role you play and in fact probably makes you more influential at the end of the day.

“The quality of the discourse defines the ideas on the website; the quality of the conversation.

“Marry the customer with the voice of the editor and you can do something in any age.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years