Scaled back: Why publishers are rethinking their pursuit of huge numbers

After years of making scale the name of the game, a number of publishers are retreating from scale. While most still rely heavily on traffic generated from aggregation, or repurposing information published elsewhere, or highlighting trending content, newer publishers like The Outline, The Ringer and Axios are either ignoring aggregation and fast-twitch tactics altogether or using them far less. The legacy players are trying to minimize the cost of producing that content and finding ways to wring more money out of it. 

A few may even be looking to shrink the overall number of stories they publish. In its recently released internal report, The New York Times concluded that “too many” of the hundreds of stories it published on a daily basis “lack significant impact or audience” and that they failed in the most basic function that Times’ content ought to serve: to make it a “valuable destination.”

“The industry’s kind of in a retreat,” said Josh Topolsky, the founder of The Outline. “People are numb to the volume right now.

“While I think 95 percent of the businesses that exist in digital are still volume businesses, I think there’s another business emerging.”

Infinite scroll
At the dawn of digital publishing, there was no downside to chasing scale. Without the strictures of magazine or newspaper page counts, publishers could create unlimited stories, lard them up with ads, then distribute them at a low cost in an environment where audiences seemed to grow bigger every day.

Today, almost everybody has a tap they turn for quick, cheap content, whether it’s unpaid contributor posts, fast-twitch “trending” teams or byzantine content-syndication partnerships, and the resulting numbers are eye-popping: The Daily Mail cranks out 1,200 written stories every single day (along with over 600 videos), the Washington Post writes 500 and publishes hundreds more it has syndicated from wire services; and after focusing almost entirely on features, nearly a third of the stories Refinery29 publishes every day are trending stories, according to Neha Gandhi, its svp of content strategy and innovation (20 percent comes from features).

“It’s a luxury to publish in this kind of way,” Gandhi said. “We’re not looking to build our business on the back of trending news. As we’ve gotten bigger, we’ve had the opportunity to hire different kinds of talent.”

Quality over quantity
But while most established publishers play some variation of this game now, many new premium publishers never started. The Ringer, the Bill Simmons-helmed sports and pop culture site, publishes fewer than 30 stories per day; the Information, the premium, paywalled business publication founded by Jessica Lessin, publishes just two; and Axios, while it’s committed to publishing large quantities of information, mostly eschews the aggregation and reblogging that have become common elsewhere.

They’ve left that strategy behind because the value in cheap stories, written fast, is dropping. Display advertising pricing has been locked in a decline for years, and advertisers, after years of demanding scale, have started to take top-line audience numbers much less seriously, opting instead for detailed information about a site’s logged-in or registered users.

“It’s not necessarily about breadth of content and the number of page impressions,” said Louisa Wong, the chief digital officer of Amplifi, Dentsu Aegis’s media investment arm. Instead, Wong said, the more attractive point for advertisers is audience data at scale, wrung out of registered and logged-in users. While there’s no shortage of publishers that might offer the raw numbers advertisers wanted years ago, Wong said the number of publishers that can deliver the audience detail she now covets is small, no more than a couple dozen.

Still, no publisher wants to walk away from a revenue source, and so publishers have been busy figuring out how to manage the cost of this quicker, cheaper content while wringing more revenue out of it. This takes a few forms: In December, Time Inc. launched 10 topic-specific news desks to coordinate and syndicate stories across its titles. Meanwhile, publications from Thrillist to The New York Times have begun republishing older stories on their site and across platforms, too.

“Being able to move ideas from one platform to the next is a big opportunity in trending,” Gandhi said.

Slow and steady
These tricks will grow less popular as the display market continues to sunset. But with the banner ad projected to stick around for another eight or nine years, that drawing down will be slow and steady. “The market hasn’t caught up, so unfortunately these business can’t exclusively do the right thing,” said Dan Fogarty, a former senior editor at USA Today and “Their quarterly numbers would look like shit, so they have to do bad things too.”

And while publishers start phasing out these audience-boosting content plays, a clearer picture of audience sizes might start to emerge. “If you admit your audience is a different value [than the rest of the market],” said Topolsky, “then you’ve gotta recognize that there’s more of a limit to the more valuable audience.

“You basically have to accept something that’s very hard to accept,” Topolsky continued, “which is that your audience is a lot smaller than you think it is.”

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