In his examination of Medium’s latest move, analyst Frederic Filloux notes that “nobody with a working knowledge of the publishing industry was surprised” by Ev Williams’ announcement that the “broken system” of ad-based digital publishing does not serve anyone, and that the publishing platform would be pivoting away from that as a result. The implication is that advertising, so long the means by which many publishers funded their operations, cannot sustain them now.
For a real-world example, look no further than The Sun newspaper in the UK. By some distance the newspaper with the largest daily circulation in the UK, its latest results demonstrate that even before one-off costs the paper lost £48 million.
That loss was large enough to offset the positive news for its parent company News Group Newspaper Ltd, which is seeing encouraging growth in digital subscriptions at its titles The Times and The Sunday Times. However even within the filings for those titles, the company notes that:
“Turnover declined in the year consistent with the overall industry which continues to suffer from advertisers shifting spend from print into digital. The declines in print advertising revenue offset the ongoing solid performance in other areas of the business, notably print circulation and digital subscriptions.”
That problem is exacerbated by The Sun’s recent emergence from behind its paywall online. Since doing so it has built up a sizeable online footprint, overtaking rivals who have been ad-supported. And yet, as its results demonstrate, scale alone is no guarantee of revenue growth – particularly since digital advertising spend isn’t necessarily heading to the publishers themselves to the extent they’d like.
For one thing, the internet has removed some of the prestige of a newspaper brand, particularly when it comes to the position they hold as gatekeepers allowing advertisers access to audiences. As The Drum’s Guy Zitter points out:
“All of the national newspapers’ digital audiences can also largely be found via retargeting, so unique access has gone and with it control of pricing. The internet provides almost infinite advertising opportunity and clearly marketing budgets are not infinite so price pressure is downwards. Nevertheless, on the surface it would appear a model which produces an audience in a trusted environment should be able to be monetised.”
And while digital adspend is growing online, it’s not necessarily going to formats for which publishers are tuned to make money. As the WSJ reports, even digital ad spend on desktop devices isn’t looking especially hale and hearty:
“This year will mark the first year without any growth for desktop ad sales, which will start to shrink in 2017, and “be in permanent decline thereafter,” Magna said.”
For instance, unsurprisingly given where people are choosing to spend their time on mobile devices, social media spending on mobile alone grew 64 percent year-on-year, which as a recent IPA Bellwhether report notes means that “mobile now accounts for 80 percent of spend allocated to social”. That’s not an area where publishers wield much power, nor have much if any control.
The elephants in the room for digital advertising, though, are the effective duopoly of Google and Facebook, which effectively hoovered up all the growth in digital ad-spend last year. They’re so in control of the display advertising ecosystem that any attempt to get to grips with the very real problems of fraud and viewability that plague the industry without them is inevitably stymied:
“And even as more mobile publishers have worked to integrate various viewability tracking partners, ad buyers remain frustrated that Google and Facebook have been hesitant to allow for the same level of direct data collection. This frustration has only been exacerbated by a string of recent metrics miscalculations by Facebook.”
So ad spend is transitioning away from publishers and towards platforms on which they have little influence. Small wonder that Ev Williams is actively casting around for alternative revenue models. Nor are publishers unaware of this – The Economist’s Tom Standage has predicted that display advertising will have disappeared within a decade:
“Many publishers seem unwilling to accept this, though. They hope to find a way to replace declining print revenues with online advertising.
“This is a fantasy, and incumbent print publishers who try to move to a digital-ad model are mostly doomed to failure.”
When The Sun emerged from behind the paywall it was suggested by some that for a tabloid used to defining the public agenda, locking its content away was too much to be borne. Its editor at the time the paywall was erected, David Dinsmore, argued that “asking readers to pay for content is the only way to protect the future of the newspaper industry”. Now, with increased pressure on digital advertising and a duopoly that hoovers up most of the growth there, it looks like Dinsmore’s hunch was correct.