Elizabeth Spiers on Launching Media Brands

This post is part of the Content Q&A Series, featuring interviews with top content strategists and executives about their work and insights about the industry.

As brands foray into creating content, it’s helpful to learn from media experts who have been launching journalism brands for years and know how to develop an audience and construct stories.

The Content Strategist spoke with Elizabeth Spiers, former editor of The New York Observer, who helped launch Gawker and Flavorwire and now consults with early-stage startups, about how to create strong content and navigate grey areas in the overlap of journalism and brand writing.

What do news publications need to do to adapt to digital? Any publication you see doing it really well?

I think that even now there’s still a lot of trepidation in the industry about web journalism cannibalizing print, and in most cases, the web and print versions of the same publications have completely different audiences. If everyone internalized this, you’d see more journalists breaking news as the story develops and then synthesizing it into longer pieces for print.

But there’s still a tendency in traditional journalism to save the breaking news for the longer print piece, which I believe is a mistake. Even monthlies need to think like breaking news operations on the web.

I’m biased because I work with them, but I recently did a long feature on Groupon for Fast Company scheduled for the May issue. After Andrew Mason got fired in late February, I asked if I could do an intermediary piece for the web (I had the last interview with him before it happened) and they instantly understood what I wanted to do. It didn’t change the thrust of the print piece, but we had something that was relevant and timely on the web the day after Mason’s firing.

My editor, David Lidsky, was up late with the web editors Noah Robischon and Tyler Gray trying to get the draft I banged out in a few hours into shape for the next morning — which something you’d expect at a daily newspaper, but is much rarer at a monthly magazine.

You’ve been behind the launch of several media sites — any tips for setting tone and building an audience?

I think it’s important to have a distinctive tone. I was a big fan of the old SPY magazine and part of what I loved about it was that you could remove the branding and the bylines and still be able to identify a SPY story as a SPY story.

The biggest mistake people make when they launch something new is not understanding their audience.

There are formulas that work — slideshows of cats will probably never fade in popularity. But when, soon enough, every site in existence is doing slideshows of cats, you need a differentiating factor.

The biggest mistake people make when they launch something new is not understanding their audience — who they are and what they want. So they create a product that’s advertising-friendly but not appealing to readers.

And growing advertising and audience is not a chicken-and-egg problem. You absolutely have to have the audience first.

What tips do you have for writers who want to improve skills and begin freelancing for major publications — anything wrong with foraying into content marketing or writing for brands? 

I think it’s irrelevant. Freelance journalists have been doing technical and marketing writing since the beginning of time to make ends meet.

I think most would prefer more literary endeavors — book editing, ghostwriting, etc., but not everyone has that range of choices.

As long as there’s no conflict of interest — meaning you’re not writing marketing content for a company you’re also covering — I don’t see a problem with it.

Occasionally journalists will go on to work for a tech company, perhaps after covering the company they now work for. Do you have any concerns with journalistic integrity?

This isn’t new either. Every beat has a revolving door. I think you just notice it more in tech because it’s a sexier industry and big exits could mean big money for people who make the jump.

But journalistic integrity boils down to the individual and if someone’s willing to be corrupted, it’s probably not just the possibility of a job in the industry that’s a problem.

Good journalism is about letting the reporting drive the narrative.

And the beat reporters that have it the worst in terms of potential conflict are the media reporters — everyone you cover could offer you a job and there’s an almost 100% chance that eventually, you’ll end up working for a publication you’ve written about. But if you go into the beat knowing that you want to work in the industry you’re covering, it’s probably a bad sign.

I did the reverse — I worked in finance and tech before I ever did anything that would be considered journalism and I don’t have any curiosity about what’s on the other side because I already know.

I’d never cover a company I wanted to work for. I don’t want anything to bias me going in, and I think I’m fairly aware of my biases.

I think good journalism is about letting the reporting drive the narrative, and if, godforbid, you have a palpable need to be liked by your subject, you should probably get out of journalism.

You’re writing a novel — what journalistic skills carry over to fiction, and what initiated the project?

I don’t think it’s the same for everybody, but I learned how to construct a tight narrative via journalism. There are questions that you ask in journalism — Where is the dramatic tension? Is the lede/beginning of the story compelling? What motivates the subject? — that are equally applicable to fiction writing.

That said, fiction writing scratches a different itch for me. It’s less formulaic and you can be more experimental but it’s harder in many ways because you don’t have tight, obvious parameters.

Any content/editing pet peeves?

This is a beginner problem, but I’ve often had reporters file stories that were really just a chronological assemblage of their notes. You have to think about storytelling and not just whether you managed to get all the facts on the page.

And this is also a beginner problem, but understanding when it is appropriate to insert yourself into the story is something that seems to be learned over time. I think this happens largely because we put the giants of new journalism on a pedestal and don’t understand that crowbarring in your own experience of what happened does not necessarily make you Gay Talese.

You have to think about storytelling and not just whether you managed to get all the facts on the page.

If there is a compelling reason for you to insert yourself — you’re interviewing a famous cannibal and he tries to eat you, for example — that’s completely fine. If it’s a stunt journalism piece or a personal essay, it’s not only fine, but necessary.

But informing the reader of your every minute feeling during the interview ignores the fact that the reader doesn’t know who you are and doesn’t inherently care about your opinion. (Unless you actually are Gay Talese, and then I’ll concede that the reader might take the byline into consideration.) The reader cares about the subject and the story. Only insert yourself if it’s additive to the story.

Image by NY Observer

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