‘Real change needs to happen:’ Publishers shrug at platform overtures

The platform giants have grabbed headlines lately with moves to improve their relationships with publishers. But apparently not all publishers have gotten the memo.

Facebook recently hired former TV journalist Campbell Brown as head of news partnerships and announced the Facebook Journalism Project to bolster its ties with news organizations. It has also begun expanding the types of ads it lets publishers run in their video and Instant Articles. Google has upgraded its fast-loading mobile articles initiative, AMP, to support native and video ads and expanded its Digital News Initiative fund to encourage high-quality journalism. Apple is seeking to sell more ads into its news aggregation app, Apple News.

“Over the last few months, we’ve seen a little bit more of a concerted effort by the platforms to work more with the publisher partners,” said Michael Kuntz, svp of digital revenue at the USA Today Network.

Still, he and other publishing execs say that effort hasn’t resulted in tangible revenue opportunities. It’s a concern that will permeate the air as publishers and other stakeholders in digital media (including the platform giants) gather today at the IAB’s annual Leadership Meeting in Hollywood, Florida.

“There’s real meaningful change that needs to happen. It’s fundamentally about monetization,” said Mike Dyer, president and publisher of the Daily Beast. “More than product array, more than relationships, more than hires.”

A report out last week from premium publisher trade group Digital Content Next showed that just 14 percent of publisher revenue was coming from distributed content. It’s a revelation that comes on top of the equally uncomfortable knowledge that the majority of digital ad revenue is going to Facebook and Google.

There have been new revenue initiatives, but each comes with a catch. Publishers have the most frustration with Facebook, with its sheer scale and focus on user engagement that often conflicts with their own interests. Its new mid-roll video ads have to be on videos that are 90 seconds or more — too bad for publishers that have perfected the 60-second clip. There’s a risk of engagement dropping off when people hit an ad.

Then there’s Google, which publishers see as more of an ally. But despite improvements to AMP, many publishers still can make more money from their own pages than they can on AMP pages, which by design don’t support all ad formats.

“The dominance of the duopoly is breathtaking,” said Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next. “Their influence at events, industry coverage and Washington is powerful. Consider the simple fact neither company is MRC-accredited right now. They play by their own rules and reap the benefits.” (Google had two metrics suspended by the Media Rating Council last year; the MRC says today that Google is accredited for certain of measurements but that the suspension is still in place for certain DFP-related metrics and some ActiveView viewability-related metrics.)

It’s not just platforms’ payment terms that madden publishers. It’s the sometimes erratic way the platforms (especially Facebook) change tack, so media companies that have organized themselves around one feature have to do sudden about-faces to keep up. “As they change their strategy, sometimes our teams are caught in the middle of these changes,” Kuntz said.

A couple factors work in publishers’ favor, at least where Facebook is concerned, said Justin Choi, president and CEO of native ad platform Nativo. Take the rapid rise of Snapchat. While it’s often criticized as hard to work with, the app, along with Google, could be a counterweight to Facebook based on the fact that it incorporated publishers early on with its Discover section, a sign that it takes content seriously. “Snapchat and Google AMP make Facebook have to engage more with publishers,” he said.

The spread of fake news also has woken the platforms up to the fact that not all content is equal, he said. “Fake news is a huge positive for trusted publishers. It’s making platforms mindful of the fact that a pageview is not always a pageview. The content matters.”

Still, after spreading themselves across platforms and seeing little monetary upside, publishers increasingly are realizing that their survival depends on building direct connections with readers. The Daily Beast is well along this path. It kept platforms at arm’s length to begin with — rather than participate in AMP or Instant Articles, it cut its page-load time on its own. It’s been rewarded with steady growth in traffic, fully half of it coming direct to the site. “It’s a slower and steadier build, but it’s defensible,” Dyer said.

At the same time, publishers that once felt compelled to jump at every platform initiative are now starting to deprioritize features that haven’t monetized well or scaled, such as Facebook Instant Articles and Facebook Live video, Twitter Amplify, YouTube Red and Apple News, according to the DCN report. And that may only be the beginning.

“Platforms are the audience king,” said Nick Ascheim, svp of digital at NBC News. “One of the most important sources of that content is us, and if that relationship continues to be where we can’t make it economically viable, it makes sense to take our content off there.”


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