When I hear the word “platform” I find myself thinking of those insanely elevated shoes, upon which people of smaller stature can sometimes be found teetering, trying to simultaneously keep their balance and participate in the conversation that would otherwise take place above their heads.
Although I can understand why wearers of platform shoes would want to big themselves up, it doesn’t really leave them any better off. The shoes inevitably end up looking silly, and it doesn’t really make the wearer any taller. Sooner or later — following a sprained ankle, bruised ego, or change in fashion — the platforms end up being boxed up and discarded.
It’s better, isn’t it, when we are able to feel comfortable as we are, rather than trying to be something we’re not?
This is a good analogy for publishers who have spent the better part of the last few decades trying on various platforms in order to feel like bigger players in the digital landscape. Like platform shoes which make it difficult to walk, digital platforms similarly haven’t gotten publishers very far.
When I worked for the New York newspaper, Newsday, in the early 1990s we were one of a number of publishers to sign agreements with one of the proprietary online services, Prodigy, to launch a digital edition of the newspaper. Some other publishers, such as the San Jose Mercury News, signed with AOL to do the same, and a few — such as the Washington Post — signed up with the slick Interchange service from AT&T.
But publishers of that era had a good excuse — there was no World Wide Web to enable them to reach consumers directly, and so the only way to experiment with digital was to ride on top of someone else’s platform. Even then, it didn’t work out quite so well — technical limitations, miniscule revenue share, no ownership of the end user relationship, strategic shifts by the platform partner — all conspired to make the opportunity less than compelling, other than as a learning experience. Sometimes the platform even just went away.
Not much has changed today. Look at Facebook Live and its programme to pay publishers for content. The New York Times has reportedly been paid more than $3 million to regularly produce videos for Live — but the output has been inconsistent in quality, leading the Times’ own public editor to criticise her newspaper for failing to maintain the brand standard. Additionally, the Times doesn’t own the end user relationship and it depends entirely on Facebook both for audience data and for ad sales against the content.
No wonder, then, that a Times spokesperson assured Columbia Journalism Review that “success is often less about numbers, and more about encouraging journalists to embrace a new platform.” Sure — if the platform’s paying you $3 million, why the hell not. But the payola will last only as long as Facebook determines it’s worthwhile; after that, there’s not much reason for publishers to keep playing along. Really what the Times is doing on Facebook Live is just a high-tech version of custom publishing.
Not everyone is finding it worthwhile to stick with a Facebook dependency — the Guardian in April dropped out of the Facebook Instant Articles programme, citing a lack of revenue. Facebook admitted that it needed to improve its revenue options for publishers.
Practically and strategically, publishers should be doing more than embracing new platforms — they ought to be operating under a business model that works. That’s probably why publishers are also beginning to migrate away from Medium, another platform that promised a new style of publishing and plenty of ad revenue to go along with it.
Last year Medium was aggressively promoting its publisher programme with a reported offer of a nearly $3 CPM which it would pay to publishers, funded via its own sponsorship sales efforts. By the beginning of this year, founder Ev Williams was calling ad-driven media on the internet a “broken system” and Medium was cutting its ad sales team. Sorry, publishers — but perhaps you’d like to try our new subscription model instead?
When Medium launched its publisher programme, some were touting it as the new WordPress — but it wasn’t. WordPress is still the new WordPress. That’s because WordPress (or Drupal, Joomla or some of the other publishing solutions) enables publishers to be the platform. Publishers own their site. They own the user relationship. They can manage, change and adapt the underlying open-source technology. They can run ads where they want and charge what they want. They get to implement their own subscription options.
Control and self-determination are really the bottom line. Publishers need to stop chasing after platforms and their audiences — those will never belong to the publisher, and will ultimately only be a distraction.
Like wearing platform shoes, publishers need to stop trying to big themselves up. The average publisher may be smaller than the big guys, but they’re unique. Publishers must embrace what makes them differentiated, and build healthy, direct relationships with an audience that really cares. That’s how publishers will stand proudly on their own two feet.
Evan Rudowski is a managing partner at Atlantic Leap
Image courtesy of Jeremy Segrott via Flickr used under a Creative Commons license.