Audience Engagement Digital Publishing Top Stories
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“It’s just, the bottom fell out”: Publishers are reframing their relationship with platforms

Publishers have moved on from the idea that the massive audiences on platforms would translate into meaningful revenues, according to a new report from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School. They are now focusing on building a sustainable business model by regaining control of their revenue streams and serving the interests of their core audience—a strategy in which the importance of platforms is reduced.

The report, Platforms and Publishers: The End of an Era, draws from interviews with representatives from 27 news organizations. They include national and local legacy outlets, as well as digital natives, and range across broadcast, audio, and magazines publishers. The interviewees were promised anonymity and confidentiality, hence none of the quotes carry identifying information. 

Last year, we observed strong signals that publishers were looking to bring audiences back to their own properties over “social-first” publishing. In 2019, the trend gained momentum. Many publishers interviewed openly regretted focusing on brand-diluting social content during the scale era, at the expense of undervaluing their core audiences, and have subsequently recommitted to serving their most loyal readers.

Platforms and Publishers: The End of an Era

“Platforms can turn off ‘audience taps’ on a whim”

According to the report, years of underwhelming return on investment from collaboration with platforms finally led publishers to definitively adjust their priorities. 

In one of the interviews, the Director of Digital at a participating publisher said, “The basic premise of platforms for publishers has changed significantly​. The second-order effect of monetizing traffic that came from posting your story to Facebook—this past year has proven that that model ​cannot​ sustain. 

There’s no way that any publisher who is reliant on Facebook, and increasingly on Google, will have a sustainable business model. There’s no correlation, in almost every case, to actual money.

Facebook’s move to de-emphasize news content in its News Feed in 2018 also played a role in alienating publishers. It confirmed a “previously theoretical fear: that platforms can turn off ‘audience taps’ on a whim.”

In an interview earlier this year, a publisher said, “Eighteen months ago, Facebook sent somewhere between 35 and 45% of many of our sites’ total visitation. In that period of time, it has gone from that to 7%. It’s just, the bottom fell out.

Another executive said, “The reason why publishers and these platforms got into bed with each other originally was that there was a basic bargain”—publishers would provide content in exchange for audience and, by extension, revenue—but “the bargain has broken down.”

Numerous interviewees in this latest round suggested that the drastic withdrawal of Facebook traffic, and associated “end of the scale game” that was just beginning to emerge in our 2018 report, led to one of the most significant learnings from the fallout of this platform “era”: anything that distracts a publisher from focusing on their most loyal audiences, is a losing strategy.

Platforms and Publishers: The End of an Era

“Let’s not waste our time”

The researchers emphasize that this does not mean that publishers will no longer work with platforms. It’s “an impossible scenario, as the latter are the gatekeepers of the online information ecosystem—but rather that any optimism about the ability of ad-based products to sustain journalism seems all but gone.” 

Most of the publishers are now looking at platform products as marketing vehicles to gain readers who can eventually be converted into paying subscribers. This is in contrast to past interviews in which publishers “expressed willingness to overhaul parts of their businesses in line with platform maneuvers.”

Instead of crafting strategy around platform products and hoping for revenue, publishers are planning around revenue, and from there determining which platform products might provide a means to that end. 

Platforms and Publishers: The End of an Era

An executive from a major global news outlet said that their approach to the platforms boiled down to one simple question: “What are we trying to achieve and how does each platform fit into that or does each platform fit into that? If they do, let’s partner with them; if not, let’s not waste our time.”

Another interviewee from a local nonprofit said, “If we’re having a conversation with a platform that does not involve revenue or retention, it’s not a conversation that’s worth having, to be honest.”

“We have to think about retention”

An audience manager from a local nonprofit suggested that publishers needed to focus their engagement efforts around the publisher-audience dynamic rather than the platform-audience dynamic. 

“The overarching thing for me is the importance of engagement. I really think it was such a bad trend where newsrooms were obsessed with ‘engagement’ and kept talking about it in terms of all these social interactions. Those were really metrics that were helpful for these platforms in terms of them trying to build their own platforms and ensure their users were addicted or obsessed with those apps, but not super helpful to publishers in the long run.

I think finally publishers are looking at that word ‘engagement’ and understanding that it’s much more about a relationship with a reader. For that to exist you have got to think beyond an interaction or platform. We have to think about retention and where do I move next with this person and how do I keep in contact with this person.”

Another executive from a global publisher with a membership model said that their model enabled them to prioritize quality over quantity. “If you need to create highly engaged users with your brand…it means you can take different decisions about the content you commission and you can be much more focused on building quality and trust, rather than creating content that drives one-time readers. 

If your focus is on engagement to drive reader revenues, it changes your approach to the sort of journalism you’re commissioning—maybe less stuff, but publishing better stuff. I think it’s quite a healthy change really.

“End game has got to be sustainable readership”

Publishers are hoping that subscription and membership models would give them control over their route to sustainability and insulate them from the platforms’ often-experimental changes (algorithm shifts, abrupt pivots in format priorities, withdrawal of payments, etc.)

A representative from a membership-funded outlet said that the continuation of this trend seems inevitable. “It’s much clearer to everyone that the end game has got to be sustainable readership. If you don’t have a revenue plan—beyond ad impressions and display ads—that is trying to move all of that reach into something more substantive in terms of readers giving [money] to you, whether it’s subscription or through donations, then what’s the point?”

The full report is available at Columbia Journalism Review:
Platforms and Publishers: The End of an Era