Yesterday we published a piece by our contributor Kevin Anderson titled ‘The collapse of the attention economy‘. Its central tenet is that an overabundance of content to which we all have access has led to an unsustainable environment in which scale is all and practically impossible to achieve.

As a result, the valuations of publishers has become uncoupled from actual performance and we’re all flailing around to find an accurate measure of success (that doesn’t make us look bad in comparison with our competitors).

Based on the response to the article, it’s fair to say it hit a nerve. There’s nothing that quite inflames the imagination of media analysts like the suggestion all the great ‘success’ stories of the past few years have actually been nothing of the sort, and that the billions spent in VC funding have been a bad bet. 

But on the day we published that article, there were related discussions taking place elsewhere that demonstrate the extent to which many publishers are living in fear, and for a plethora of reasons. 

Growth is a goal, not a reality

Writing for Digiday, Ricardo Bilton argues that the halcyon days of growth for the VC-backed digital publishers is already behind them. Sites like BuzzFeed and Mashable, who provide the template for publishers who grew to huge scale relatively quickly, have seen that growth curbed by exactly the same issues that beset legacy publishers [emphasis in bold is ours]:

“While none of these sites have yet to see significant declines in their audience numbers, their investors are in the business of pouring money into growing companies, not stalled ones. There are also signs growth is slowing on the business side at these companies. Mashable, for example, reportedly missed its sales goals this year, while BuzzFeed said it would tap the brakes on new hires.” 

There are suggestions, too, that those VC-backed youth focused publications won’t retain either their reputation or USP as youth-focused digital bad boys for long. From The Gaurdian’s Mark Sweney:

“A question many of the sexy digital media players like Vice, BuzzFeed, HuffingtonPost (now part of Verizon) and Vox will have to answer in 2016 is whether they can keep their cool as their businesses start to look more like the established media companies they challenge.

“Regarding relative upstart publishers,” says Brian Wieser, senior research analyst at Pivotal, “I think with the passing of time and growth in size the more they will resemble older publishers with legacies in print, in terms of quality content [creation] as well as the opportunities and challenges of generating revenue from digital advertising.”

And for those Western publishers who are relying on the widely-spoken English language to help them grow elsewhere, there’s bad news. In an (excellent) article on Quartz entitled ‘English is no longer the language of the web’, Ethan Zuckerman reveals:

“More than half of China’s 450 million Internet users regularly use a social media platform, writing blog posts, posting updates on Renren (China’s Facebook equivalent) or status messages to Sina Weibo, a microblogging site similar to Twitter. And the vast majority of those updates are in Chinese, not English.” 

So, sorry Kevin, it doesn’t look like there’s going to be a reduction in the amount of content online any time soon.

Distribution is done for

Publishers are also stymied – as are publishers who already had scale by dint of their legacy – by an ever-growing dependance on third-party platforms like Facebook to deliver their product to audiences. Writing for Slate, Will Oremus tries to explain who actually controls the Facebook algorithm – and we can draw some unnerving conclusions for publishers as a result:

“But those interactions are only a rough proxy for what Facebook users actually want. What if people “like” posts that they don’t really like, or click on stories that turn out to be unsatisfying? The result could be a news feed that optimizes for virality, rather than quality.”

And even if the algorithm – which the article smartly points out is ultimately based on the decisions of fallible, fallible humans – is truly neutral, the company behind it certainly isn’t. It’s a business, with a money-making agenda of its own, and there are suggestions that doesn’t align with those of its publisher partners in the Instant Articles scheme. 

Kadhim Shubber, writing in the FT, states:

“Free Basics is the new name for what you may have previously known as, Zuckerberg’s initiative to bring world online by persuading telecom companies in emerging markets to give their customers Facebook for free, along with other websites that are willing to play by Facebook’s technical rules – rules which, as TechCrunch notes, make it difficult to build competing social network or messaging apps.”

So Facebook controls distribution, and while that’s not a new fear for publishers, but it can’t be far from their minds when Zuckerberg is coming under fire for trying to corner still-nascent markets. It looks like publishers are beholden to the third parties for the foreseeable future. Which is a problem, because they’re continuing to be squeezed elsewhere, too.

The digital ad ecosystem has never not been in turmoil. But it’s the epicentre of an especially vicious maelstrom now, as more articles like this one, which begins ‘is 2016 going to be the year when adblocking kills the £3bn UK digital display advertising market?’ (which is actually fairly sunny in its conclusion).

There are suggestions that adblocking might actually be the impetus for a complete rethink about digital display advertising. This piece by Neil Charles posits that it could essentially kill off the worst excesses of programmatic buying, for instance.

But the fact remains that display advertising hasn’t been the big hope, on mobile or desktop, for a while now. Circling back to Kevin Anderson’s argument, scale – and the traditional measures of scale – might ultimately just be a red herring for the vast majority of publishers. 

Everyone’s tap-dancing on quicksand, now. It’s no wonder publishers are scared.

Though we can’t promise any silver bullets, TheMediaBriefing and selected guests from across the media landscape will be discussing the above issues across our Digital Media Strategies event in March. Click here for more information.