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Peter Houston talks: Magazine publishing's second sin

With a dangerous dependency on third-party platforms, publishers doubled down on the ‘Original Sin’ of free content. Facebook side-lining magazine content is the perfect opportunity to repent.

On the 1st of February, Conde Nast’s Wired magazine put up a paywall. The magazine of internet evangelists everywhere came to the conclusion that, although the purists want all information to be free, we don’t always get what we want.

Talking with Nieman Lab about the decision to make readers pay, Editor Nicholas Thomson said he sees paywalls as an essential part of the future of journalism.

“People who have studied the information age at this point recognise that there were a bunch of problems and side effects to the fact that people weren’t asked to pay for content in the early years of the internet.”

Thomson is talking about publishing’s ‘Original Sin’, the phrase used in 2009 by Alan D. Mutter on his Newsosaur blog to describe the root cause of the difficulties publishers faced in making enough money online.

Mutter thought it would be as difficult for publishers to overcome the problems caused by giving their content away for free as it has been for humanity to get past Adam and Eve’s biblical transgressions. He concluded ‘consumers were either going to have to start paying for professionally generated content or there won’t much of it left’.

That was almost a decade ago and rather than fix things, most publishers have doubled-down on their sinning, still giving their content away for free, but now giving their audiences away with it.

Executive eagerness to re-distribute magazine and newspaper content on third-party platforms has seriously weakened the bond between content creator and content consumer. According to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2017, less than half of people finding a news story through social media remember the brand behind it.

Publishing’s digital distribution deal with Facebook was done on the promise of reach at global scale and advertising revenues that would more than make up for any loss of income on wholly-owned digital real-estate. The revenues have largely failed to materialise and Mr Mark Zuckerberg just killed the dream of global reach with his January 12th announcement.

Facing his own crisis of confidence, with time on the site declining, Zuck has thrown publishers under the bus. The worst hit will be left with no reach, no readers, no revenue.

We can blame Facebook’s boss all we want for the media’s woes, but at least he is looking after his own. At the first sign of trouble, he’s gone straight back to where he started, prioritising the friends and family content that people regularly say they want in their newsfeeds.

Magazine could do worse than learn a little of this audience-first focus.

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The sin of platform publishing

Publishing’s second sin is, arguably, worse than its first.

Back in the day, giving consumers free access to content saw publishers cut off reader revenues. In the long-term, this has proved to be disastrous for many publications. But some forgiveness can be found in the fact that an ad-funded internet was just an extension of a revenue strategy that had been working reasonably well for years in print: Cut-price subscriptions boosting reader numbers to support healthy advertising rates.

Add digital’s almost infinite scale to that model and it’s easy to see the temptation.

The headlong rush into platform dependency is less easy to forgive. Despite regular warnings about the negative impact a growing reliance on platform publishing might have, publishers terrified that they might just miss out on the next big thing, went all in.

A couple of weeks after Facebook launched Instant Articles in May 2015, Emily Bell was raising questions about the risk of ‘losing the paths’ between stories and readers and giving up control of audience data and revenue. By the following June, she was reporting Tow Center research that showed leading US publishers pushing content out over an average of 19 platforms.

Less than three years later, the Golden Goose has become Golem, with Facebook ditching publishers to save its precious network.

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Platform priorities

Despite the general shock that followed last month’s algorithm announcements, the writing has been on the wall for a while. Facebook referral traffic has been dropping and Instant Articles has been ditched by more than half of its launch partners including Cosmopolitan, National Geographic, Rolling Stone, The Guardian and The New York Times.

No one is calling for a complete retreat from platform publishing. Even Facebook will continue to be an important channel for reaching people. As Conde Nast’s Wolfgang Blau says, “It remains the world‘s most powerful distributor of that most precious of resources called attention.”

But magazine publishers need to get much clearer on what they want from their platform partners.

Audience development consultant Ned Berke says if you are chasing subscriptions, you need to facilitate sign ups. If you’re looking for new readers, optimise sharing. If it’s loyalty you’re after, encourage commenting.

Facebook’s shift in focus has been a huge reality-check, and is equally a huge opportunity for magazine publishers to press the reset button. They now need to point their operations away from dreams of global domination and toward a more sustainable, magazine-scale future.

For Nicholas Thomson at Wired that’s about building a more “stable financial future” around content that people will pay for. He said advertising skews publishers’ incentives towards content that will attract readers but is dirt cheap to produce, “slideshows, rehashed news and clickbait”.

He explained, that with a subscription or paywall model, “You’re trying to build a really deep relationship with your reader. You do want as many readers as possible. You do want people to come frequently. But what you really want them to do is love your stories.”

Post-platform publishers need to respect the value in their brands, their content, their people and get busy rebuilding direct relationships with their audiences.

For magazine publishers that desperately want to retake control of their own destiny but are terrified that abandoning platform scale they will miss out on future reach and revenues, I offer the advice of Winnie the Pooh.

“You're braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”

For those determined to get back on the bandwagon and find another platform to deliver their content at scale, whether that’s Snapchat or Flipboard, I offer the wisdom of Voltaire.

“Once a philosopher twice a pervert.”

* This is the first of what will be a regular contribution from Peter. Peter will also be one of the speakers at our very first FIPP Insider in Helsinki in March. See more about FIPP Insider Helsinki at fippinsider.com and/or learn more about the FIPP Insider series here.

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