my count, there have been only three great sins by online publishers.
The original sin occurred at online publishing’s genesis in the HotWired offices almost two decades ago: the concept of the banner ad. Nearly everything about these ads turned out to be misconceived, and all in the name of meeting advertiser demand and generating revenue that was roughly similar to print. The modular and ephemeral aspect of banner ads quickly turned them into a commodity: it enabled readers to ignore them, browsers to block them, and ad networks to sell them around the publishers’ own sales team. Cheap, ineffective, and ubiquitous, they nevertheless continue to persist today, sapping value from the business of content.
Publishing’s second great sin (less remarked upon) was its failure to take a stand on user privacy and data. Having won a minor battle over privacy that nearly destroyed Doubleclick in 2000, publishers missed the opportunity to keep the data doors closed. Instead, they lined up behind the seductively positioned TACODA and its descendants, who promised publishers higher returns based on behavioral data and user profiles. Lawmakers were told that user privacy was not an issue, but publishers failed to realize that once they compromised on user privacy by profiling through data, ad networks would use the same approach to profile their own audiences. So in time, even if advertisers couldn’t buy a specific publisher’s inventory through an ad network, they could buy more or less the same data profile on an exchange. Today, this phenomenon, now renamed “data leakage,” has publishers sweating.
These sins were both committed in the name of growing revenues, but ultimately had the opposite effect. The final great sin of publishers is happening today and may be their undoing: relying upon their authors for distribution.
Nearly every media company today is promoting its writers, broadcasters, influencers, and their stars. If you land on certain pages on the New York Times, you may see the entire righthand column dedicated to individual authors whose Twitter feeds you might follow. The Times encourages you to do this; once you follow an author, you will hopefully visit their site more frequently through this new social channel. When authors promote through this model of “entrepreneurial journalism,” publishers believe they will enjoy the benefits.
Long-term, however, the arrangement makes plain to authors the sad truth of online content: Publishing brands are becoming merely the sum of their authorial parts. These parts are also becoming modular and interchangeable, and can be consumed a la carte or through dedicated social channels.
If you wish, for example, to consume the writing of Andrew Sullivan, you might well begin by following him on Twitter. Once you have, you may cease to care whether he is now writing for The Atlantic, or the Daily Beast, his own blog, or a corporate sponsor’s branded site (that looks and feels like a publisher).
Writers’ audiences are fast becoming their own -- and soon nearly all of the functions the publisher has provided will have dissipated entirely: branding, prestige, editorial oversight, ad sales -- and, most important, distribution.
When that happens, the author transforms from a freelancer to a minor brand. The author becomes the true publisher, in search of a content aggregator with a willingness to pay for his or her audience. The key question then becomes “Who values the audience the most, and is most capable of paying the author’s bills?” The answer might well be the branded site, engaging in the relatively new field of “content marketing.”
So, should publishers lock up their writers’ social accounts? Individually (as in the case of the former two sins) they simply may not have that choice, as the market rushes them headlong down their self-destructive path . But collectively the rush of publishers towards social distribution in search of new audiences may look like a third, and perhaps critical sin in publishers' collective fall from grace.