Publishers’ Greatest Challenges in Digital

A couple of weeks ago, Digiday asked several publishers, “Should publishers be investing their future in apps or the in-browser experience, like HTML 5?” The responses varied and the conversation surrounding the answers was entertaining and informative. This week, we wanted to bring the discussion up a level and find out some of the hurdles publishers constantly leap or trip over in digital. Yes, there are many. But having insights from some of the industry’s leading players can help frame the issues at hand into, perhaps, a manageable outcome.

What is the biggest challenge publishers face in the digital age?

Jason Pontin, editor-in-chief and publisher, Technology Review: The economic challenges of publishing in the digital age are well understood — and, the Lord knows, depressing — so let’s not belabor them. The technical challenges are absorbing to the professionals, but their solutions are tediously complex to outsiders. Pass over them. For me, the biggest challenge of publishing and doing good journalism in the digital age is a personal one. If, as I wrote on the occasion of announcing Technology Review’s new electronic strategy, “Digital first is a mode of being that promotes innovation and excellence,” the trick is how to think usefully in that mode.

If publishers needed only to shrug off the habits of the last 150 years (as if they were an outmoded suit of clothes), it would be easy enough. But there are many traditional things that publishing will want in the new century, which, while so far rare on the Web, must somehow be translated into their new medium. (To give just two examples: the long history of graphic design and typography, and the narrative techniques of long-form journalism.) So, to be usefully digital in this transitional period, it is necessary to be amphibian: at once fully alive to the new medium and heartlessly ready to dispense with what no longer works, and at the same time, sensitive to the history of one’s craft and reverentially eager to use what can be saved. It’s not an easy trick.

Julie Hansen, president, Business Insider: Adapting the business model and publishing format to the changing media consumption habits. Specifically, mobile and social are radically overhauling how readers consume digital content. And this changes everything, from how content gets presented, to the tools used to grow audience, and even how advertising is sold. Social offers publishers the chance to leverage vast new audiences. It also comes with the challenge of rethinking the user and advertiser experience so that every page is a “home page,” i.e., a pathway into the site for someone who arrived via the recommendation of a friend.

And mobile is particularly challenging for publishers given the explosion of formats to consider (which are important to develop for now and in the future?) and the monstrous expense of supporting multiple platforms. Will mobile engender new native publishing formats, or is it just Web content made portable? Will it develop a sustainable advertising model?

Joanne Bradford, chief marketing officer, Demand Media: That there’s too many of them. In most media categories, the top players get more than their share. There are opportunities to grow the business but the concentration of spenders is the largest. So the inverse of that is that the challenge of the small publishers and the pricing pressure and inefficiencies they brought comes down to the fact that there are too many publishers. The barrier to entry to becoming a publisher is not that great, and anyone thinks they can publish anything. In TV, you have to have distribution; in a newsstand, there’s only so much placement. We think there are too many publishers that are efficient, driving the price down and driving the cost of that business up for the marketers. So my piece is, while I love the competitive set, I believe we’re in a place that needs some players to fall out in some categories. If you’re a marketer, why are you going to buy; if you’re a consumer, you don’t need infinite choice. You need quality choices that give you some variety.

David Doty, chief marketing officer, IAB: The biggest challenge in digital today is providing superb consumer experiences that include emotionally impactful brand advertising that reaches people in ways that advertising has always reached them — by touching their hearts and their humor. Publishers are also dedicating lots of time and effort to communicating with consumers around how to manage their privacy, giving them choices that provide the best and most relevant digital experiences. To that end, several major IAB members have donated 2 billion impressions to a consumer-education campaign, created by the DAA, called “Your AdChoices.”

Big data, and how to leverage greater value out of inventory and audiences, is another pressing topic publishers are wrestling with, in the age of ad technology. Finally, borders are liquid in digital, and every day the chances increase that the largest growth markets will be outside the U.S.