The haves and have-nots: Small publishers are left adrift by shift to platforms

When Google was creating its fast-loading mobile pages initiative, AMP, it gathered together a group of big-name publishers to ask what their needs are. In fact, big publishers like The New York Times contributed their own code — which, naturally, addressed their specific interests — to what became the AMP framework. They were, in that sense, part of the creation.

But not all publishers are created equal. Outside of the marquee publishers that platforms like Facebook and Google still feel the need to court, most publishers are left on the outside looking in, without much of a say in the direction of these initiatives. The tectonic shifts to platforms no less affects the little guy than the big guy, but that doesn’t mean the little guy gets a say.

Look no further than the rollout of Facebook’s Instant Articles format and Snapchat’s Discover platform last year. The New York Times was on board, and so was National Geographic and BuzzFeed. Their big names and deep resources allowed them to be part of the launch. Their audiences are a factor, too: The platforms are competing with each other to get people to spend time there, and courting publishers that already have large readerships is one way to ensure that. For other publishers, that means fast following.

“If you want to play in the world of Google and Facebook — and you do, because they drive a huge amount of traffic — you to figure out how to make it work,” says Patrick Starzan, svp of marketing and general manager of social media at video comedy site Funny or Die.

Smaller publishers, less leverage
The taking on of hosting and monetizing content is all well and good, but it still leaves publishers with the work of creating content — which is the expensive part. It’s also where they have an ability to differentiate themselves, says Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next, a trade association for premium publishers. The problem is that losing control of those parts of their business (such as ad sales, content presentation) makes it harder to project where that business will go long-term and relatedly makes it hard to justify investing in their own editorial content.

“On the open web, they have control over what they’re putting in front of their audience; they had the ability to differentiate,” Kint says. “If they’re going to put resources in an expensive venue and they don’t have much control over the distribution of it, there’s just that much more risk.”

The publisher imbalance plays out in a few ways. One is the sheer negotiation power that big publishers have by virtue of their size. Google calls up The New York Times to cater to its needs; most publishers can’t get an email returned.

“Platforms are trying to get as much scale as possible,” says Michael Macher, publisher of The Awl Network, which has thrown in its lot with Medium. “They’re incentivized to work well with big ones.”

Another big factor in the inequality is the costs that need to be sunk into creating content for these platforms. To be sure, some platforms require only minimal engineering work to get on board and reap the benefits. The Apple News app and Google’s fast-loading article feature, Accelerated Mobile Pages, have a low barrier of entry, costwise. Apple, for instance, has introduced tools aimed specifically at making it easier for small- to medium-sized publishers to post to the platform. Facebook Instant Articles has democratized itself by opening itself to all publishers and making a WordPress plug-in to simplify the process of publishing to Instant Articles from WordPress.

“Facebook and Google are reducing friction so it’s going to make it easier for publishers of small and medium sizes with to come and play along,” says Ryan Brown, vp of business development at Gawker Media. Even Gawker Media, whose CEO Nick Denton voiced reservations about ceding too much control to Facebook, is now all-in on Instant Articles. Denton has said that it’s better to be yoked to Facebook than the convoluted ad-tech world. There is a sense of defeatism. Brown says, “It just became apparent that we want to be where the audience is.”

Other platforms demand heavier lifting which big or well-financed publishers are better equipped to handle. Snapchat has its own publishing system and requires (or encourages) content to be custom-built because of its particular vernacular, features like vertical video and young audience. Publishers with Snapchat Discover channels have hired teams of eight or more people to supply it with fresh, unique content on a daily basis. Most publishers “can’t even” when they hear of the resources deployed.

“You have to figure out what your team is good at right now,” Slate president Keith Hernandez said on the Digiday Podcast in March. “The most fun thing would be to say you’re not good at Snapchat now, so let’s go hire people who are good at Snapchat. The reality is we have fiscal responsibility to make our revenue goals. We have to make deliberate choices of what we’re good at.”

Video is another area that spotlights the divide among publishers. There’s big demand among advertisers for video inventory, but making quality video and repurposing it for different platforms requires time and money. Snapchat’s vertical video autoplays with sound. Facebook video is autoplay but silent, so publishers have to figure out how to capture people’s attention with captions on the video as they scroll through their news feed.

“You can’t tiptoe into Snapchat — you have to go all in,” says Gawker’s Brown. As for video: “The economics require you have a certain level of views to justify the expense you put in. It’s expensive to produce.”

And while publishers have the opportunity to reach new audiences on these platforms, if they want to measure it for themselves and potential advertisers, they have to pay comScore to have additional platforms measured, which is another barrier for entry for smaller players.

Then there’s advertising
Despite their efforts to diversify their revenue into other areas like events, ecommerce and subscriptions or memberships, advertising is still the dominant model for publishers. In addition to negotiating clout, being a bigger publisher means having access to bigger sales teams that can absorb the demands associated with selling on multiple platforms — not to mention having the big audiences that are still a requirement for many ad buyers.

It’s an awkward time in media, where distributed audiences are growing faster than publishers’ ability to monetize them, says Paul Berry, CEO and founder of RebelMouse. But the big, VC-backed publishers are focused foremost on scale and have enough runway to afford to be able to figure out the revenue later, so they can better afford to take a risk on a platform where the payoff isn’t necessarily known.

While some platform moves seem to offer benefits to publishers, others work against them, as Emily Bell recently pointed out in a speech titled “The End of the News as We Know It: How Facebook Swallowed Journalism.” She cites how the Apple News app has provided another distribution outlet for publishers, which is good. But at the same time, the tech giant made it easier for its mobile phone users to block ads that appear on publishers’ own sites (not so good).

As Bell points out, one way publishers have been trying to insulate themselves from declining digital ad rates and ad blocking is by selling ads that look and read like editorial content. But here again, big publishers have the advantage. Native advertising is time-consuming and expensive to do, and is hard for publishers to do profitably without a big audience to distribute it across.

Playing to their strengths 
For publishers with more limited resources, managing a platform strategy means being ruthless about where they place their bets. The Awl Network has focused on branded content, leveraging its production quality and trusting audience, and has won some big campaigns this way. On the content side, they’d like to do more podcasts and original video, but has instead focused on platforms such as Instant Articles and Medium that already are a better match for its content, given the reality, says Macher, that “we aren’t in a position to build a five, 10-person team for one platform.”

Funny or Die stretches its mandate by looking to hire people who are versatile, people who can “pop in and out, shoot something for Periscope and Snapchat and switch gears. We get a lot out of people,” Starzan says.

Salon doesn’t have the resources to figure out how to adapt its longform articles to Instagram or Snapchat, but even if it did, it might favor putting them towards its politics coverage or video group. “We have to ruthlessly prioritize everything we do,” says editor-in-chief David Daley.

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