There is, to the really ardent enthusiast, a sort of poetry about a sequence of acquisition deals in a sector which results in the emergence of a company large enough and technically adroit enough to challenge not just the pre-existing market leaders but the way in which business is done by practitioners in the sector. The announcement this week of the purchase of Gorkana (formerly Durrants) by Cision, now enhanced by Vocus, gives me a frisson of this feeling. From the dawn of the great age of newspapers in the 1880s, getting things into them and measuring the results became a business in its own right, nowadays abbreviated to “PR”. There is, of course, a lot more to it than that, and the things placed could range from advertising to editorial briefing, and more media opportunities widened the scope, but in 1880 PR was hunch and artistry. When William Durrant and Henry Romeike formed their press clippings agency in that year and named it after the former (Romeike seceded to form his own) the measurement was needed to demonstrate, and no doubt sometimes defend, the campaign strategy. Today, as we know well from other sectors, the ability to measure, and then analyse, can easily become more important than the inspired hunch. While the latter lives on in the industry legend, planning an effective launch campaign is increasingly a desktop activity in the marketing department which once employed those wizard PR consultants. Automating workflow, introducing unprecedented levels of accuracy and comparability, adding software tools from predictive data analysis through to automated campaign booking tools, and we have a revolution in process. And it came not from the PR industry itself, but from its ancillary, mechanical component, the clippings agency. If we look at many other industries entering the digital age, this is very often the case.

But between 1880 and 2000, very little happened. In that year August Capital acquired Discovery Group, which contained Durrants,for £14m in an MBI and installed a strong team of ex-Thomson executives led by Steve White. I can recall my own initial visit, in what is now London’s white hot high tech Shoreditch, and seeing the long desks of clippers with their shears and piles of newspapers. Did they seek consultancy, I wondered, or the Last Rites? And then very quickly came the idea that if all of that clipping could be automated and made searchable very great things could be accomplished. I know less of the history of Cision (once Sweden’s Observer Group, who sold Romeike’s agency, ironically, back to Durrants in the post MBI period), but I suspect that they followed a similar trajectory. Under the CEO, Peter Granat, who has brought first Cision and then, earlier this year, Vocus, together in deals funded by the Chicago private equity player, GTCR, they have created a powerful technology base in the US in parallel to the UK development at Durrants. August Capital sold on to the British PE player Exponent, which enabled an acquisition programme which included buying aligned software players Metrica and Gorkana, and the renaming of the company after the latter. Exponent’s exit at £253m (according to MergerMarket – others say rather less) demonstrates the value added through these activities and looks to me like a X12 multiple at least.

So here is a very satisfying story for those of us who still believe in Progress. Three private equity houses have brought in appropriate technology and management, and at each stage have made acquisitions that added value. Bringing all three together in Chicago could well be transformative for the new group, and for the global industry within which they are embedded. Over time usage will move out of PR agencies and into end user corporate marketing, a vastly larger marketplace. As this begins to happen, so will GTCR be able to leverage its position and get the right exit price. I do not imagine that the major advertising and PR agencies will allow this process automation without an attempt to own it. WPP, through its Kantar data unit, already bought Precise Information as a way of testing the waters. WPP’s major competitors have aligned interests. How often have we seen this in the networked world? You own a very profitable media franchise. This becomes threatened by digital transformation. So you are forced to buy one of the disrupters. Then the legacy business declines. Then you can enjoy life again as the proprietor of a much smaller and slightly less printable business.

The story of Gorkana, however, is a good one. And the final credit should rest where it so seldom does, with the management. Steve White and his initial 2000 team and their successors were able to see where users wanted to be, as well as grasping the impact of transformative technology. While they had to contend with both the active and passive resistance of some of the players in the process (for instance, newspaper management were deeply suspicious of any attempt to database their content, for whatever purpose), they completely changed the mechanics and analytical output of an activity which had hardly changed during the previous 120 years. Reflect that while this work was going on the dimensions of media monitoring were widening all the time, and including web presence and then social media analysis. And reflect as well that the management of these companies started without a content-based intellectual property valuation – they owned none of the content that they analysed. In the information industry in particular it is important that we remember what people accomplish, as well as software.

If you are near Hall 4.0 at the Frankfurt Book Fair on Friday this week at 10 am, do yourself a favour, take an hour out from frenetic rights trading, and consider for a moment one of the critical issues of publishing as an industry in our times: does editing still matter in a digital world, and if it does, who should be doing it? And it is not just an issue of rational organisation and growing margins. For those who have invested a lifetime here, the litany of job titles (copy editor, sub-editor, commissioning editor, managing editor, executive Editor in my own case) recognises the scope of the editing function from selection of what to publish through to the preparation and validation of the published material. It recognises that “editor” has often meant “marketing manager” in some circumstances. And we should nor forget that all those grades and variations in editorial job titles demonstrate the willingness of publishing management to trade a new job title when what was requested was a pay rise!

I wanted to be there to moderate the debate in Hall 4.0. Instead a slipped disc has me on my back, but more than adequately replaced by David Attwooll of David Attwooll Associates (, who knows the changing structures of the publishing business far better than most of us. Together with Dr Sven Fund, who runs Walter de Gruyter, and Dr Helmut Pesch of Lubbe this session will explore a question that would have made our publishing grandfathers blanch. Is editing the core of our business, or even a core competence?

One characteristic of a life in publishing is the decline of editorial standards debate. As soon as a new acquaintance realises that you are connected to the trade, then begins the chorus of criticism around standards: in your new friend’s youth, there were no literals in printed books, all the facts were always correct, the index was extensive and the bibliography was right up to date, and above all, the stream of inadequate drivel and trivia now published with fanfares at Frankfurt would have been strangled at birth. The latter comments are pure marketing, and relate to age and changing tastes. The former claims, discounted for failing memory, reflect something very odd about our industry. In a place where brand is mostly invested in the author, and seldom in the publisher imprint (OUP and Penguin may be the exceptions), editorial standards in regard to content preparation can only have been important as a way of attracting authors. Now that we are in an agent and author auction-based world the publisher surely has every right to demand a finished product, edited and ready for publication, and thus we see the trend towards editorial work moving out of publishing houses and going freelance or outsourced.

So the role of the consumer publisher devolves to Investor+Marketeer. Would Max Perkins or Dick Seaver find employment? They would probably work for literary agents , who may or may not be interested in investing in re-shaping and rewriting on the heroic scale of these two representatives of the Great Age of Editing (1925-1960) But notice that none of these changes in the business of publishing has a specifically digital edge. And none of them brings self-publishing into the equation. Yet in a publishing world dominated by these factors, Amazon can offer freelance services to would-be self-publishers, who can also buy into a huge range of specialised self-publishing bureaux, from Blurb to eternity. Editorial standards could improve in an EaaS world. Matching systems derived from the dating world could match editor with author. Fact-checking in a data analytics world will be automated, leaving the editor with the task of resolving clashes of opinion or fact.

And all of this may be fine for consumer publishing, but where does it leave educational, or academic or professional publishing, where there have long been disputes about who is responsible? In the early years of this century I was often told that the end of the publisher role in peer review meant the end of the STM publisher. While the glory days of late 1990s +45% ebitda are now long departed, there is no major journals publisher who is not now an important Open Access publisher. More recently, we have been told that the reason why commercial publishers are more expensive than other routes to market is a result of their high editorial added value. They both improve the accuracy and the literacy of the finished article while ensuring that it’s linking and citing functions work immaculately. Metadata may be the answer; if publishers can prove that they can make content more discoverable and improve user access then surly here is a line of defence for traditional publishing process – the digital need coming to the rescue of the craft industry of copy preparation! While academics debate their article publishing strategy (PLoS One -cheap and quick , but peer review only reaches to validation of methodology Versus Publisher – expensive and slow but thorough in terms of mark-up and metadata) the choices may come down to how quickly these articles are needed in the academic marketplace and whether the research is funded by an institution willing to pay for the editorial added value. And if the editing funding is available is it best spent with the publisher or one of a host of specialised agencies (often created by unemployed publishers’ editors) who can be competitively cheaper and faster?

Or why not just let the crowd do it? The insane desire of the human race to point out the deficiencies of others is so readily channeled into crowd-sourcing that we have turned the vice of promulgating ill-prepared communications and pushing them into the public space into the virtues of crowd-editing in the Age of Wikipedia. And it does work very well, until you reach the point of “who edits the editors?”. Then you find yourself back in St Paul’s Churchyard in London in the eighteenth century, where booksellers like Thomas Longman were protecting their migration to publishing and basing their attractiveness to authors upon the better presentation of their works… publishing does move in some very full circles.