The One Thing Publishers Should Never Outsource

Every publisher needs a platform. If they don’t control that platform, they are at the mercy of platform owners whose behavior is shaped by incentives that may not align with the needs of publishers.”

Can I get a heck yes? These words from Graeme Caldwell writing in EContent summarize a fundamental truth about publishing today. You must own your platform.

“Anyone who watches web publishing closely will recognize the pattern,” Caldwell explains. “A platform is founded with bold ambitions to improve publishing workflows or promote the best content. For a while, all is well, but, eventually, the platform begins to chip away at the experience that attracted publishers. Pressure from investors, the media, or social factors influence the platform to change in ways that hurt publishers, who are forced to find another platform or build their own.”

He’s right; we’ve seen it first hand as publishers began to rely too heavily on third-party platforms to distribute their content. We saw it with Apple News in 2016, with publishers underwhelmed by results. We saw it again when Facebook changed their algorithms and rolled out their pay-to-play model; engagement fell off like a stone.

“Facebook is the biggest social media network in the world with over 2 billion monthly active users,” Caldwell continues. “It is deeply integrated into the lives of people around the world, who rely on it for news, communications, and to organize their social and business lives. Publishers have invested hugely into optimizing for Facebook, often at the expense of building their own platforms. Publishing business like Upworthy grew almost entirely as a result of Facebook referrals.

“In 2018, Facebook changed its news feed algorithms. Instead of surfacing publisher content, Facebook now prioritizes user-generated content. Overnight, Facebook-dependent publishers experienced a catastrophic decline in traffic and advertising revenue. As TechCrunch’s Micheal Rucker put it in an article titled How Publishers Will Survive Facebook’s Newsfeed Change: ‘Publishers will buckle down on their owned-and-operated properties and ensure that they are creating the best user experience on the destinations they can actually control.’”

Then he brings up Medium, the hugely popular content publishing platform that gave publishers a built-in CMS and allowed them to publish on a custom URL … until Medium removed custom domains last year.

“To generate a return for investors — it has never made a profit — Medium has morphed through several monetization schemes, including advertising and paywalls. Medium attracted major publishers with promises of advertising revenue and support. It was once the home of The Awl, ThinkProgress, Film School Rejects, Hairpin, and The Billfold. But, every time the business model changed, publishers lost out and moved to a platform they owned and controlled.”

That control comes with a distinct advantage – the ability to rephrase the discussion about the feasibility of paid content. As more publishers succeed with paid content strategies, they can atone for their “original sin” of giving away their content for free.

Ev Williams, Medium’s founder and a co-founder of Twitter, once said ‘The idea won’t be to start a website. That will be dead. The individual website won’t matter. The Internet is not going to be about billions of people going to millions of websites. It will be about getting it from centralized websites,’” Caldwell reminds us.

“That sentiment should be terrifying to publishers because it means handing control of their business and content to a platform with incentives that are radically different from those of individual publishers,” he continues.

It is indeed, as many publishers learned the hard way hyper distribution won’t save them.