What we learned about publishing in 2014

This year started out on a hopeful note for publishers, as new, venture capital-soaked media outlets set out to make their marks, journalists were wooed in talent wars and outlets invested in video series and other new revenue streams.

But ongoing advertising declines continued to roil traditional media companies. Newspapers found themselves even more vulnerable, as multimedia empires spun them off to focus on their faster-growing broadcast arms.

Here, then, is a recap of five of the big publishing trends of 2014, and what we learned.

Journalists don’t like to be “disrupted” and shoved into a “vertically integrated media company.”
Nor, for that matter, do they like to be called “content creators.” The publishing business may need a savior, but as high-profile troubles at The New Republic and First Look Media showed, journalists can be self-important and hard to manage, at least by their latest saviors, the Silicon Valley crowd. There was a staff exodus at TNR, where there were complaints that owner Chris Hughes and CEO Guy Vidras didn’t respect the magazine’s legacy. Journalists chafed against the Silicon Valley-style management at eBay founder Pierre Omidyar’s First Look, and two of its big-name editors left.

On the bright side, there does seem to be one exception to this trend, and that’s The Washington Post, where owner Jeff Bezos has taken a hands-off approach to management while providing a financial runway and encouraging continued innovation.

Social hasn’t been the death knell of publishers — at least, not yet.
When Facebook changed its algorithm a year ago, many publishers reported big increases in traffic from the social network (helped, no doubt, by their own concerted efforts). Those include Time.com, which more than tripled its Facebook referral traffic in a year; and Hearst Magazines, which increased its own by nearly tenfold.

But publishers would do well to be wary. On mobile, which is capturing a growing portion of reader time, Facebook carries even more weight, directing a greater percentage of publishers’ referral traffic there than on desktop. Now, Facebook reportedly wants publishers to let it host their articles on its own servers, which would allow for quicker load time but give Facebook, not the publishers, control over reader behavior data.

New business models flourished.
This was a busy year for experimentation with new business models as publishers sought ways to offset declining ad revenue. Publications including Capital New York, Slate and Pando offered new consumer-pay products. The New York Times, Business Insider and others expanded their events business. Others made forays into e-commerce.

Events are hard to do well, though, and the competition is getting stiffer. Few publishers have the brand loyalty and content that’s special enough to support a membership program. And the average cut that publishers get from e-commerce sales is 5 percent, which is why few are making a significant business out of it.

It’s a native world.
Strenuous resistance to this ad format has softened, as even publishers like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal embraced it in 2014. And marketers plan to increase their spending on native by 34.4 percent in 2015 over 2014 — good news for publishers, as native commands higher ad rates than display.

Still, native still faces challenges reaching a big enough audience, and marketers struggle to measure its success.

The pageview’s not dead, but it’s got competition.
The idea that ad sales should be based on the time readers spend on publisher sites rather than clicks gained momentum this year. The Financial Times, The Economist, Medium and Upworthy to varying degrees pushed for engagement metrics. It’s a welcome sign that the industry is looking beyond the much-maligned click as an ad-buying metric and one that high-quality publishers stand to benefit most from.

But while many ad buyers agree that clicks are problematic because they’re prone to being gamed, and they like the idea of an engagement metric in theory, its adoption is held back by the lack of an industry standard, its higher cost and absence of proof that it works.