If you think all trade publications are the same, think again.
At HIMSS, I had almost 30 formal meetings, gave an opening presentation at our magazine’s Editorial Board breakfast, and delivered another at the beginning of our first-annual Innovator Awards Reception. I probably talked with an additional 30 people while attending dinners and receptions. Throughout the show, I caught up with our editors to hear what they were learning on the show floor.
Looking back on all those interactions, in every meeting, in every discussion, I kept making the same point (and reminding our editors to do the same): We’re different.
There are several publications that call the healthcare IT space home, and we’re one of them. I consistently drive home the message that HCI is very different from the others, and I do it with honesty, passion and, most importantly, specifics. To illustrate this, let’s pretend I’m instructing an editor-in-chief class for those who want to run a trade magazine. I think my lesson plan for the semester would go something like this.
Lesson 1 — Editorial Integrity is Everything
Advertising-supported trade publications are custom built for breaking the rules that journalists hold dear. While most writers are true believers, confident that the only reason to write something is because it’s of value to the reader, the inherent conflicts of interest mean the environment is rife with temptation. When financial times are tough, the business side of the house can get a bit short-sighted, looking for a little help from its editorial friends. When that happens, strong editors have to hold the line, ensuring the long-term viability of the brand and maintaining its reputation by saying, “No.” Success in this business is inevitable if the publication does things the right way. Write for the reader and consider nothing else. A short-term “nickels and dimes” approach will get you only so far.
But not everyone in the industry agrees. Some of our competitors don’t do a great job of holding the line, embedding ad tracking URLs in editorial items, going for nickels and dimes rather than long-term integrity, giving publishers strangely prominent column positions, and switching people between editorial and sales positions as if their skill sets and missions were the same. In fact, one of these publisher’s notes recently made a claim of superiority over its competitors (including HCI) by stating with pride that its mission was not to teach, “but simply to inform.” Well, I’ll respond with pride and say we absolutely seek to do more than inform. We seek to provide a forum for readers to teach each other.
To be clear, you’ve never seen a publisher’s letter in HCI, and you never will. Our publisher communicates with her clients, but she does it the right way, through meetings, phone calls and e-mails directly to them, not to our readers at large.
At HCI, I personally pledge that every single word, down to the smallest news brief, is selected for one reason and one reason only — because the editors on this magazine think it’s of value to you.
Lesson 2 — Tell Me Who You’re Not
I am a firm believer in the notion that you’ll never be successful trying to be all things to all people, as too broad a target inevitably results in watered down, mediocre editorial. But going narrow takes courage. It takes moving away from a nickels and dimes approach and adopting a bold strategic plan. It takes a publisher willing to say goodbye to peripheral advertisers that just aren’t a good fit for the publication anymore. Once embraced, however, success comes into focus, because an easily articulated value proposition means both the editorial and sales functions are coherent are logical. Once the target reader is more specifically defined, editors can quickly become part of that community, which is the ultimate key to success.
Again, our competitors aren’t very good at restricting themselves, as they struggle to cover hospitals, group practices, payers and vendors in a meaningful way. Even within that large swath, our competitors further refuse to curb their ambitions, covering each constituency from its smallest to largest iteration.
HCI has strategically narrowed its target audience, resulting in a laser-focused reader profile — healthcare IT leaders (including CIOs, CTOs, CMIOs, and anyone aspiring to those positions) of large hospitals and multi-hospital health systems. We write for these individuals cover to cover using a six-department format to ensure every aspect of their job is addressed every month. We speak to them, for them. We understand their needs better than their CEOs do, and we never lose sight of our mission. All reporters on staff are constantly reminded of our keyword strategy when coming up with story ideas, interviewing and writing: C-suite IT leader, total cost of ownership, and enterprise integration. It’s a simple and consistent approach that provides real value for those target readers. Over time, we feel this strategy will make us an indispensable part of the community we serve.
Lesson 3 — Quality Control is Key
Many magazines in this space print contributed pieces, but just as all magazines are not created equal, all contributed pieces are not of the same caliber. There’s a little game that gets played in the trade publication world, and it goes something like this: As part of a sale, vendors ask provider organizations if someone at the hospital or practice will “byline” an article touting the product or service in question. The vendor’s PR or marketing people actually write the piece, getting sign off from the purported author, then shopping it around to editors like me.
Editors with small staffs, weak freelance budgets, or an interest in being “friendly” to vendors lap these up with abandon. Leaf through some of our competitors and you’ll almost exclusively see these articles.
HCI does not accept these articles. In fact, I put a stop to this in December of last year, writing a new guideline in red letters across the “Information for Authors” section of our Web site. It said I would no longer accept submission proposals from third parties — no marketing or PR intermediaries. If you want to write something for this publication, you can take the time and deal with us directly. It’s not arrogance, not hubris, just sticking up for our readers, as these pieces are notoriously bad, requiring revision after revision to keep them from sounding like advertisements.
Funny anecdote: I was recently working through some pieces that had come in before I put the rule into place. One, which I had edited heavily and sent back to the “author,” was returned to me with more references to the vendor than when I had first reviewed it. In the original piece, the vendor was mentioned 10 times. After instructing the “writer” to max out at two, the revision came back with 14 mentions. Amazing. Rejected.
Industry experts do have something to offer, but I pledge to you that any contributed piece we print is one whose ideas I have shaped and developed with the actual author, and that I have only accepted it once it meets our high standards. Again, it comes back to defining the reader, knowing who you are, and who you are not. Never compromise and the rest will fall into place.
Lesson 4 — Edit Calendars are Bad
I hate editorial calendars. They weren’t invented for writers or readers. And if they don’t help either of those two groups, we shouldn’t use them. Other than giving advertisers a chance for a one-off buy against a specific editorial item, they’re of no good to anyone. And, for that reason, smart publishers realize editorial calendars actually work against them.
As part of an evolution in the right direction, over the past few years, we’ve gone down from six items (that was crazy), to three, and finally to one (and I really don’t even stick to that). I do think it’s important for potential sources to know what we’re working on, so I’ve started posting each issue’s editorial lineup on my blog as soon as I assign the stories. We also send this information out in our weekly e-newsletter to create a dialogue with CIOs, along with notices of other projects for them to get involved in.
Liberation from the dreaded editorial calendar is not something our competitors have been able to achieve, and you can rest assured they’ll be sitting in an edit meeting at some point trying to figure out how to make a story that was “assigned” eight months earlier work.
Our way, HCI editors have maximum flexibility to speak to readers, watch the trends and craft every issue based on the best information we have at that moment. For an editor, it doesn’t get better than that.
Lesson 5 —We Simply Work Harder
Working harder and longer isn’t a miserable thing when you take pride in what you’re producing. When we did our Innovator Profiles in January, I was struck by how passionate healthcare CIOs are (see my edit memo). They truly believe that what they do makes a difference in patient care, and they’re right. That passion is infectious. If you speak to them almost daily, as we do, you can’t help but work hard. And that’s the real key to this job — think of your readers as your bosses. They are the people you have to serve.
While I can’t speak to how hard our competitors work, I can tell you that I ask a lot of our editors, mostly because I know how capable they are. On our staff, we’ve got people with graduate-level journalism degrees and real-world healthcare experience. We’ve built that staff by keeping one requirement front and center — I don’t pick people who want a job, even if they could do it, I choose people who want this job. I think that philosophy has served us well, positioning us to serve you every day.
A real identity
At HCI, we feel a strong loyalty to our readers. We value the trust they place in us, and we would never break that trust by compromising our integrity for a few bucks. This magazine does things the right way. We have a long-term vision of where we’re going, and the values it will take to get there.
With this said, all I ask is that you take a look at this magazine and its competitors with fresh eyes. Perhaps you’ll notice some things you never picked up before. If you do, drop me a line. Your note in support of this approach will help if someone around here gets tempted by nickels and dimes.