Mathew Ingram, senior writer for Fortune magazine, will be moderating a panel on digital publishing featuring senior speakers from Vox, Mashable and Mic, at TheMediaBriefing’s Digital Media Strategies USA conference which takes place from 8 – 10 September 2015 at the Millennium Broadway Hotel in the heart of New York City.

Last week, Pitchfork Media’s film spin-off website The Dissolve closed its doors. It was a premature end that its founder and editorial director Keith Phipps attributed to “the various challenges inherent in launching a freestanding website in a crowded publishing environment”. 

Fortune’s Mathew Ingram – late of Gigaom, a site that he says also fell victim to that drive for size – says that publishers and the advertisers on which they depend are stuck in a “vicious circle” that leads some publishers to chase huge audience figures at the expense of their identity.

Falling victim to scale

“Traditionally media businesses wanted scale because they wanted to influence as many as people as possible…and because they wanted to build advertising businesses and advertisers wanted scale.

“Certainly some publishers that started out with a very targeted focus had to grow and expand the range of things they cover and write about. When you do that you become more and more like a mass media outlet like a newspaper, and the conventional wisdom is that’s not what people want any more. 

“People don’t want something that is about everything. They want sites that are specifically about the things they’re interested in. That’s a very difficult game to play.

It’s a game made even more complicated by the arrival of a few new players. In their belated transition to digital publishing, legacy news brands lost their grip on the distribution methods that made them so powerful to begin with.

Subsequently, platforms and services like Facebook and Google have usurped that position, and Ingram argues that by chasing scale to appease their advertisers, publishers are only playing into the hands of those giants:

“To the extent that you use a platform to [grow to scale], you are empowering the platform. You’re not necessarily empowering you. To some extent those two things can work together, but in many ways you’re actually helping something that’s in many cases a competitor become stronger.”

This echoes, to some extent the point made to TheMediaBriefing last month by Trushar Barotthe Mobile Editor for the BBC World Service and Global News services, who told us that media companies like the BBC need to consider more carefully the true value of their potential contribution to third party sites.

“These are the new media giants and players of the world today. I think that sometimes because of the behaviour patterns that news organisations have got into when they deal with social media platforms they just rush into saying ‘we need to be on it, open an account and just get going,’ but they don’t really think about the value they’ve just brought to that platform.”

Is it possible for publishers to regain lost power?

But there are alternatives to chasing scale solely to appease advertisers. Whether it’s an attempt by the publishers to wrest control back or just a natural regression to the brand metrics for which clicks are a proxy as the Financial Times’ Dominic Good suggests, some publishers are choosing to eschew scale and offer better targeting instead. 

Ingram argues that, while that’s certainly a viable approach, it doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of publishers handing their power to other platforms who built their success on having that better targeting but have the capacity to reach billions:

“There’s the sense that at least some brands are looking for targeting rather than scale. So it’s not so much the size of the audience specifically – it’s who that audience is, and what they do and what they’re interested in. 

Facebook obviously has both things. It has a huge audience, but it also has an incredible amount of targeting it can do, really granular targeting based on all kinds of things.”

Nor is it necessarily a solution for publishers to launch verticals which more passively attract readers of those specific demographics – because, again, the nature of the advertising environment demands scale.

Says Ingram:

“That’s a very difficult game to play. It’s very hard to build a giant mass audience made up of highly targeted verticals.

“You could argue that Vox has been trying to do that. Vox has a sort of targeted market in a way; the Verge certainly does. Gawker tried to go that route as well, and it’s not as easy as it sounds to build that many really highly targeted and influential verticals.”

Differentiating yourself on digital

Another potential solution we’ve seen publishers, both legacy and digital pure-play, attempting is to differentiate themselves by building tech solutions to the new problems they face, essentially developing sources of revenue other than advertising. That, in theory, allows them a competitive advantage against their rivals who are facing the same problems, and makes them a more attrative proposition to potential investors.

But since those rivals are unlikely to be short of ingenuity themselves, exactly how proprietary and therefore valuable can those tech solutions be?

Ingram argues that media companies looking to transition to providing tech solutions need to be aware that by its nature that technology is likely to be ubiquitous:

“The risk is if you say ‘we’re just a technology company’, your technology had better be good because it’s pretty ubiquitous at this point. Even if you say ‘we have proprietary data, analytics, for our content’… How proprietary could they possibly be?”

And even offering marketing solutions – the much touted publisher-as-agency approach that we’re seeing many companies atttempting – doesn’t necessarily differentiate your business:

“Everyone is going after the same targets. Huffington Post, it’s all gonna do video, they’re building a movie studio. BuzzFeed is building a movie studio – I think Mashable’s doing the same – and they all are doing or are going to do marketing campaigns for brands as well as content for the editorial side.

“So, everyone’s focusing on the same things and the question becomes ‘what are you doing that’s any different’.

Is it just about scale, is it just about having views, is it just about how many clicks?

And if it is, Google and Facebook are the ones who win, not you.”

Mathew Ingram will be moderating a panel on digital publishing at Digital Media Strategies USA, featuring senior speakers from Vox, Mashable and the Verge.

Image courtesy of Paul Bica via Flickr used under a Creative Commons License.