The Shapeshifting Publisher of 2015

Video is big this year. (Or maybe that was last year?) In any case, I remember the first time video was big. It was 2006, and my then-employer Time Inc. announced that, due to advertiser demand for online video, it was launching Time Inc. Studios, a brand new unit designed to produce video content for all of the magazine brands. At the time, one of my editor bosses presciently noted that “video turns people into assholes.” Every editor and writer (myself included) started reimagining themselves as producers, thinking that they could turn out cable- or network-television quality programming.

But Time Inc.’s strength, then and now, was text and images. The company, its employees, and its brands, had print DNA, so our online products were essentially article- or caption-based content. Also, video was really expensive. More expensive than text articles, it turns out. And for Time Inc. to really “win” with video, it needed millions of views to even make the initiative worthwhile.

How could we pivot into a completely foreign format, without the aid of VC money and without a companywide buy-in that our survival would require a different skillset than the ones our employees had? In retrospect, the move to the internet was straightforward compared to what it would take to successfully move into video.

Publishers relearn these kinds of lessons every year, on every new social platform. John Herrman’s great Awl series on the plight of the digital publisher reminds me of this. Publishers chase what’s hot, and contort themselves into new, unfamiliar shapes, to announce (to marketers, really) their grand ambitions for… apps, native advertising, proprietary CMSes, video, ecommerce, podcasting. Eventually, the reality sets in, the new strategy founders, and the publisher reverts to what it knows: Mostly text articles and maybe some photos and illustrations. The economy of text still can’t be beat, except by tweets.

What makes a publisher think it can become a better ad agency than an ad agency? Perhaps it’s the feeling that there’s no other choice—to accept your fate is not a great strategy, either. A publisher must embrace ambitious new challenges, maybe steal a few Digiday headlines from the hot young startups, and try not to lose a chance to “engage” with a #millennial. And what Time Inc. was really doing in 2006 was remembering a hard lesson from the early 1980s, when it let its magazine brands miss out on cable television. (Though, to its credit, it did invent HBO.)

Publishers have now swung the other way, embracing everything for fear of missing out. I can’t recall a time when so many proprietary platforms with custom formats were able to request—and receive—custom, exclusive new content from publishers, and for free! Facebook recruited The New York Times, BuzzFeed, and The Atlantic for its Instant Articles. Snapchat pulled in BuzzFeed and CNN for its “Discover” section. Medium is getting publishers to cross-post their stories, just to test it out. Most platforms choose the same six big media partners, leaving out independent publishers.

Every platform’s favorite launch partner is BuzzFeed—which also serves as the inspiration for today’s Shapeshifter Publisher. With more than $200 million in the bank and no legacy product or brand to worry about, they can afford endless experimentation, vacuuming up internet talent across hundreds of specialties, even if that comes at the cost of a clearly defined mission and self-identity. CEO Jonah Peretti’s latest memo declares that BuzzFeed is a news and entertainment platform that lives everywhere—existing across every social network, customized to fit each audience. This aims to foster “intimacy” and “impact,” but the only risk is that the 2015 media mega-brand will represent “everything” and “nothing” all at once. (Probably worth the risk.) Once hiring slows down, you must work with the specialized talent you have, but new platforms will keep evolving with or without you.

The best-case scenario works for both platform and publisher: A fun new app becomes insanely popular, and the early adopter publisher has a nice new traffic funnel. But soon more partners jump in. Traffic begins to ebb and flow in inconsistent and confusing patterns. Did Facebook change its algorithm? Is our traffic tumbling? Do we have to completely change our strategy this week to keep the line pointing upward?

I’m most bullish on The New York Times, and other publishers who (yes) participate in the same game of platform-chasing but still realize that traffic and engagement is the beginning of the funnel, not the end of it. They have staked their digital future on their most direct relationships with the reader (and, by extension, the reader’s funding). It means they will always be structured in a way that keeps them at least partly accountable to their most loyal users for what they produce. (They will also hopefully learn that this type of behavior will not endear them to their subscribers, who fund the work.)

But if all a publisher does is chase traffic and growth and impressions, their brand—and the credibility it holds—will change every day, every hour, to the whims of what other, newer platforms dictate. What’s left is a publisher is adrift in tactics, constantly questioning its identity. Traffic, of course, is important—you can’t introduce yourself to new users without it—but when a reader pays you for your service, it’s much easier to remember why you exist at all.

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