In case you hadn’t noticed, there have been a few changes in our industry of late. This thing called the Internet has become rather popular, and that’s made life difficult for those of us with publications still made out of recycled tree.

The online services we offer to our customers have changed as well, from branding to reach to engagement; from business publishing to social networking; from RSS to widgets; from sit back to lean forward.

It’s all very confusing, and at this point, if you’re like most publishers, you’re probably heartily tired of having to improvise, adapt, and overcome (or outmaneuver your creditors).

But the answer to how to succeed in publishing in the 21st Century really isn’t that complicated: We just make it that way by getting sucked into the complexities of trying to keep pace with ever-changing Internet technology.

And that really isn’t our job. Our job is to serve the needs of our audience—and that requires recognizing that what our audience wants from us has changed fundamentally from even a few years ago.

Then and Now

In the old days, the role of the business publisher was to gather factual information and high-quality analysis, pull it together into a print publication, and mail that sucker out to anyone qualified to read it.

But the limitations of the medium meant that along with the information they wanted, subscribers always received a bunch of “stuff” they didn’t. And that was fine; it’s what ye olde table of contents was invented for.

But the Internet changed this completely. Now, people can get exactly the information they want, and nothing else (blame Google). More than that, they can get exactly the opinion they want from people who agree with them (blame blogs).

To use a TV analogy, the Internet has become an infinite channel of information, and the browser is the dial that allows viewer to search for the talk shows they want in infinitesimally tiny increments.

Ironically, in the consumer world this freedom of information has resulted in the opposite of open-mindedness.  That’s because rather than using the Internet to learn all of the points of view on a particular issue, people tend to use it to find the exact information that justifies their point of view, no matter how extreme. (Think President Obama is an illegal alien? Join the 45,000 people on Facebook who agree with you.)

The big mistake that business publishers are making is in thinking that the shifts taking place in the consumer world don’t apply to their industry.

In those old days, business people subscribed to trade publications for authoritative facts and independent analysis. Today, they crave like-minded opinion just as much as consumers do: They don’t want to know the truth—they want a blogger who agrees wholeheartedly with their business strategy.

And this is a problem, because a lot of business editors haven’t moved on from the time when business publishing was a noble, badly paid calling. They don’t like opinion—and they really hate blogs.

Pick Your Battles

So, Step 1 in building a successful publishing business is to grant those editors the luxury of early retirement. Step 2 is to bring in the bloggers. Step 3? Well, that brings us back to Internet technology. Rather than blindly deploying every new technology that happens by, publishers need to rally around the ones that match the new informational needs of their users.

That means automated content aggregation feeds, which search the Internet for relevant blogs and post them to the home page of the site; user preferences, which allow site visitors to only see (or be mailed) the information they need; lots of video (a more powerful medium for opinion than boring old text); and, of course, wiki features that allow like-minded users to join together on your site and agree with each other.