How the role of the publisher is changing

Publishers are finding that their job descriptions are changing. In the last two months, there has been a lot of media attention on the role of the publisher, after Time Inc. announced it was phasing out publishers as part of a structural change. A recent Nieman Lab article explored the job of the publisher, and suggested that it was evolving, with digital native Vox naming a new publisher, inspired by Buzzfeed’s appointment of Dao Nguyen to publisher in 2014.

It’s also being discussed in academia. In an article in Publishing Research Quarterly, Matt Turner, Chief Technology Officer at MarcLogic, wrote: “Publishers are making the shift to information providers but this has only brought a new set of challenges to the front.” While still running the core business, publishers who have embraced innovation by providing information targeted to subgroups of audiences, have changed their business fundamentally to become information providers, he argued.  

At FIPP, we wanted to understand what was happening in the real world. So, we asked our FIPP members, how is the role of the publisher changing?

Lee-Anne Coosner, Publisher, Media24 Lifestyle, Weeklies, South Africa

What is the purpose of the role of the publisher in 2016? 

A publisher today must have the vision to ensure that the brands they manage continue to be innovative and that titles under their leadership have a clear perspective. This is crucial in order to create relevant content that will consistently be trustworthy and engaging for the brands’ communities.

The ultimate goal is to create personal, adaptable and measurable content platforms as well as activation solutions – ensuring that advertisers will turn to your titles for content solutions because of the rich relationships you have built with your audiences.

You must have a deep understanding of all aspects of the business. You must be a strategist and become renowned for coming up with unique solutions that benefit all stakeholders.

In essence, publishers have to help their brands become a meeting place for audiences and advertisers. They must assist their commercial teams to create cross-platform advertising offerings – while remaining true to the brand DNA because this will best serve both audiences and advertisers.

Publishers also need to find ways to drive digital commercial ventures and find various models that will work, incorporating the best of what digital media has to offer (interactivity; video; rich, deep visual content). The avenues open for commercial opportunities has grown so much and the appetite for engaging content – whether it’s advertising or editorial – has grown tremendously in the past few years. The fact that so many traditional publishers are launching studios to generate advertising partner content is a sign that there is a growing demand for this kind of content.

We are constantly seeing new ways of driving commercial ventures digitally and publishers need to be agile enough to take advantage of the opportunities as they arise. This environment is definitely for those who can react fast, be flexible and who can juggle several balls – and sometimes opposite demands – at once.

How has the job changed? 

I can still remember a landscape in which the print magazine was the centre of the universe and everything revolved around that aspect of the business. But this has of course changed in recent years – our brands have since taken centre stage as the most important aspect of the business, with print being just one element of it.

Today our landscape is dictated round our brand audience and platforms revolve round them, whether it’s on social media, in print or on websites. This changing landscape has led to many new opportunities. In order to thrive publishers need to understand every aspect of operating in this new world and try to reframe a model that is beneficial to their brands.

Monetising communities is the way forward, whether through advertising or subscription. Publishers need to know the unique characteristics, strengths and weaknesses of their brands in order to find a best-fit monetising strategy for that particular brands – a one-size-fits-all approach does not work any more.

There has certainly been an increase in the demand for publishers provide a one-stop shop for multi-platform strategy, media planning and often creative skills, because they know their brands so intimately. Publishers have to lead the way with ingenuity, innovation, creative flair and business insight, creating true 360º campaigns.

What are some of the skills publishers must have nowadays, and how has that changed in the last five years?

A publisher today has to have tenacity, integrity, vision, the rare gift of understanding both sides of the coin – sales and brand. This hybrid skill set is what will give you the ability to come up with content solutions that not only satisfies clients, but also editorial, marketing and sales teams. 

You also have to take more risks now in order to find innovative solutions. In the past there was a bit more of a conservative approach to advertising solutions and finding ways to bring together audiences and advertisers and there was definitely much more focus on protecting print.

These days we embrace the myriad of opportunities digital now affords us – both to tell better stories for our audiences but also to present solutions for advertisers.

This is why my mantra is: Be bold, be awesome, be everywhere. 

Chris Kerwin, Publishing Director, BBC Worldwide, UK

Chris Kerwin is Publishing Director at BBC Worldwide with responsibility for BBC Good Food and the Top Gear Publishing business. He’s been at the BBC for four years and prior to that has worked for Future Publishing and Channel Five.

What is the purpose of the role of the publisher in 2016? 

I see the role of Publisher (at least on BBC Good Food) as that of the CEO of a brand. We’re no longer ‘just’ a magazine, but a digital business across multiple platforms (website, apps, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest, Google+, YouTube), a books business, a one-shots business (Easy Cook and Home Cooking Series) and a Live Events business. We’ve got to be in all of the above (and more… we’re exploring product branding, holidays, restaurant offers, a wine club) to survive.

I also oversee the Top Gear publishing business though, where the role is different since it’s about building an ancillary business off the back of a TV brand. Same applies as above though.


How has the job changed?

Circulation, subs and sales are still vital, but no longer all we have to know about. We have to explore every avenue and every alley to find revenue and chase down profit. The good news is that our audience comes with us if we get it right. We’ve built a brand with Good Food that whilst it sells > 200k magazines a month, gets > 20m unique users a month online.

Ad sales is increasingly important in this mix and has become our dominant revenue stream, taking into account magazines and digital sales. Having an intelligent, content-led ad sales team is essential.

What are some of the skills publishers must have nowadays, and how has that changed in the last five years?

Digital skills (product management, understanding of technology and development) are key. As is a lust for innovation. You’ve got to want to try new things. An understanding of ad sales is essential, and these days that includes content partnerships at one end and programmatic sales at the other, as well as standard page and display sales.

Simon Jary,Publishing Director, IDG, UK

What is the purpose of the publisher’s role in 2016?

The consumer-based Publisher’s role is to marshal all parts of the business to a strategy of astute monetisation of traffic growth, based around multiple revenue sources. We have to recognise the value of traditional journalistic standards applied to a far-sighted long-term commercial strategy. Crucially the Publisher must not micromanage, giving good, talented people the room they need to succeed.


How has the job changed?

Coming originally from Editorial has been an advantage for me as more than ever publishing is centred on content and the reader , and less so on traditional sales. This includes the commercial side, which is intrinsically married to the audience. We see a direct link between audience growth and increasing revenues, with programmatic and third-party revenues growing alongside traffic. Third-party (affiliate, network, native and contextual), programmatic and retargeting are more important to the consumer side of the business than direct sales. Revenue is at the heart of my role as Publisher, but that means working with the Editorial Director as much as the Sales Director, and with a varied range of network and affiliate partners as much as clients and agencies.

What are some of the skills publishers must have nowadays, and how has that changed in the last five years?

Publishers should be absolutely on top of content, working hand in hand with Editorial to drive audience growth. That means working with data analytics, and forever optimising the technical as well as the human parts of the business. Revenue now springs from your audience rather than your brand. Readers today are much less loyal, arriving from Search and Social and caring little for where their needs are answered as long as they are quickly and efficiently. Embracing reader disloyalty while growing traffic brings you a more valuable audience – at least from the consumer-publishing point of view.

Editorial has to understand and embrace this rather than relying on returning visitors, and continuing to regard themselves as the holy curators of the news and the current. We now update more than we create, but in that process we constantly refine and enhance our content – for one end: to answer our audience’s needs. To sum up the strategy: do only what you do best, and do it better than the rest.

Mark Ellis, President and COO, Time Inc. Sales and Marketing, USA

What is the purpose of the role of the publisher in 2016?

Agencies and advertisers are buying differently. They’re increasingly targeting audiences across many brands rather than focusing on one specific brand. They are also asking for insights and data to inform media decisions, and they are looking for integrated, turn-key solutions at scale. To adapt to these changes, Time Inc. has been evolving to a category sales approach. We are doing this to better serve our advertising partners and become a one-stop solutions provider. As part of this new structure, we created four new category teams: Food & Beverage (including alcohol), Beauty, Retail (including big box retail and quick-service restaurants) and Financial Services in addition to the three category teams we launched in April—Automotive, Pharmaceutical and Technology & Telecommunications. We also appointed leaders for each category, as well as brand and digital heads to lead sales in our new organisation. None of these roles uses the term Publisher, which we feel is outdated.


How has the job changed? 

Our new category, brand and digital leads are the senior-most customer facing people at Time Inc. Driving revenue is the key role. In that regard, the role hasn’t changed much, as the primary role of the publisher has always been to drive revenue. Some functions, like circulation and event management, have been centralised in other parts of the organisation. The new category, brand and digital sales structure will deliver more effective results for our customers, more opportunities for our talent to stretch and hone their skills in a rapidly changing marketplace, and ultimately more revenue for Time Inc.

What are some of the skills publishers must have nowadays, and how has that changed in the last five years?

Publishers or any sellers today must know everything about their customers’ businesses. They must be able to mine data and lead with insights. They must be creative packagers and must be digital first.Customers don’t have the bandwidth to see multiple different sales leads from the same company, so there is a need to integrate capabilities and offer scale. We are doing this with our new structure. To drive our digital transformation we created a complimentary digital organisation to focus on video, social, data, programmatic and ad products.

Tom Wolf, Senior Advisor, International, Forbes Media, USA

What is the purpose of the role of the publisher in 2016?

The publisher role was always sales and management, primarily. I was at Hearst for almost 30 years, so I’m familiar with Hearst and now with Forbes. Back then, you didn’t have to think about digital. Then, the role of the publisher was sales and marketing, getting involved with the financials and the management of people, that goes without saying as a publisher.

Digital, is the mega-change. Now, it’s more about the whole project. The publisher concept has changed and is different. It’s about sales and marketing, but also digital, particularly at Forbes. Forbes’ digital revenue is just exploding. Approximately 80 per cent of our ad revenues now come from digital.


How has the job changed?

You’re certainly heading up revenue development, but where your revenue is coming from is different. Digital should be growing dramatically. I mean, the reality is you’re lucky if you can hold print steady, but digital should be growing 20-40 per cent, because that’s where all of the money is flowing and you’re competing with the Googles and Facebooks of the world.

Publishers need to understand what’s happening on the digital side, and understand it’s a different sale. A lot of it is programmatic where it’s all going into a black box. For Forbes, one of our big things is BrandVoice, which is native advertising. More than 35 per cent of Forbes’ total ad revenues are generated by BrandVoice partners. Which is another big change because that can be digital or print and advertisers are clamouring for this product.

What are some of the skills publishers must have nowadays and how has that changed in the last five years?

The challenges are there, constantly. 


And as Google and Facebook grow, they can be more targeted and go after our higher-demographic audiences. Understanding digital is a new key skill. That’s where the challenges are, that’s where the change is, and that’s where the publisher needs a better understanding of programmatic, and BrandVoice – those are the things that are happening now that they have to understand and how to be able to talk against these on a competitive basis. More than 35 per cent of Forbes’ total ad revenues are generated by BrandVoice partners.

The speed of change is what’s changing the industry.

Back, when it was a print world and you had your monthly magazine or bi-weekly magazine, you dealt with change in that time frame. Now, with digital, everything is new everyday. So, dealing and working with your editor has changed because the website is updated every minute, every second. And, dealing with all new content every day. We have 1,800 to 1,900 contributors in terms of content. How do you monetise all of that content? That’s another change.

Your reaction time must also change. You don’t want to react too quickly sometimes, you have to think things through with any major decision, but you have to be quick on your feet. Your reaction time is a lot shorter than it used to be, that’s for sure.

Media24, BBC Worldwide, IDG, Time Inc. and Forbes are members of FIPP.

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