Knowledge Bridge

Global Intelligence for the Digital Transition

//Peter Whitehead /november 30 / 2015

Platforms are eating publishers

On one level, the synergy between publishers and platforms looks natural, a win-win: publishers need their content to reachReach1) unique users that visited the site over the course of the reporting period,…//read more  an audience so they can attract advertisers; platforms have audience in abundance but need diverse, engaging content to keep them on the platform. Put the two together and everyone’s happy, aren’t they?

Well, no. Publishers are finding themselves at the wrong end of an uneven, unhealthy bargain, which is bad news for both news business economics and quality, pluralistic information.

“This is a really depressing, dystopian way to think about publishers and platforms. It only really makes sense if you view writing as a fungible commodity,” says John West in Quartz. For the synergy logic to work, a piece of journalism must be viewed as an ad unit, its value being no more and no less than how many clicks it generates. Even more depressing for West is that Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and all other platforms view journalism in this way – they can see the cost (or potential revenues) of quality content, but not the value – and “that’s going to smother journalistic independence and the open web”.

The platforms have created such seamlessly efficient ways to deliver content that news publishers will soon have no need even to have a website. Facebook’s Instant Articles, Apple News, Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages, Twitter’s Moments, Snapchat – they provide comfortable, contained experiences, perfectly tailored for mobile, which is the direction audiences are headed. While the bare audience numbers make sense in the short term, warns West, “it will cost you”.

By granting control of content to Facebook and its like, publishers are turning platforms into the world’s gatekeepers to information, and these risk-averse megacorps already have a less than glittering track record of speaking truth to power and promoting diverse views.

It also means that publishers become ever more reliant on clicks: they only have worth to the platform if they bring in the traffic. The implication for quality is clear: as publishers become wire services for platforms, they lose their unique voice, their identity and their connection with their own audience. Editorial output has to match the platform’s audience, so publishers are incentivized to create bland, populist or clickbait brand of news. This means that a publisher’s traditional audience trusts them less and, with the context removed (knowing that an article was produced by The Guardian or The New Republic is an important part of the reading experience), an article has less meaning.

West also laments that “we’re also losing the organic and open shape of the web. It’s becoming something much more rigid and more hierarchical.”

“The answer is simple, but it isn’t easy,” he concludes. “We need to stop pretending that content is free. Publications need to ask readers to pay for their content directly, and readers need to be willing to give up money, as opposed to their privacy and attention. This means that publications will have to abandon the rapid-growth business models driven by display ads, which have driven them to rely on Facebook for millions of pageviews a month.”

John Herman in The Awl take a look at another aspect of the unfolding battle between publishers and platforms. Platforms like Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook and Google are creating their own editorial spaces and, in some cases, standalone apps, but are wrestling with what content to put there. With the platforms not having a clear content plan or even what audiences they want to serve, it leaves publishers with the headache of having to ask: “What do these platforms want from us? What will they then want for themselves? What will be left for the partners?” This is an uncomfortable place for publishers to be.

Herman points out that over the past few years, publishers have been providing platforms like Facebook with huge volumes of free content in exchange for big audiences and, occasionally, revenues. However, he warns that Facebook is simultaneously intent on destroying this same advertising system.

Platforms are sucking in the ad revenues that used to go to web advertising that helped support publishers. “These new in-house editorial projects located at the center of the platform, rather than at its edges, will succeed or fail based on how they assist in that project—not according to how well they replicate or replace or improve on publications supported by a model they’re in the process of destroying.”

Publishers be warned.

Article by Peter Whitehead

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