The Rundown: Panic creeps in at publishers

Publishers of all stripes are facing a period of reckoning. Facebook traffic is drying up, ad revenue is getting harder to come by and pivots to subscriptions or commerce won’t be a viable option for many.

Most publishers are putting on a brave face. They talk about how Facebook’s algorithm changes might benefit them long term, forcing them to be more disciplined with their strategies and driving them to forge “more meaningful connections” with their audiences. They argue problems such as ad fraud and brand safety are pulling marketers away from programmatic ads and back into the arms of their “premium” content and experiences.

But behind closed doors, staffers at some publishers paint a very different picture — often one of mounting panic and a perceived lack of direction, as their companies flail around looking for something tangible to pin their hopes on. Their concern is that a lack of strategy and direction is often passed off as an effort at “diversification.” But talking about diversification and figuring out how to do it successfully are two very different things.

Reading about their companies in the media only makes them more nervous when they compare that to the reality they see every day.

“There’s a growing feeling we’re just throwing things out there randomly to see what sticks,” one staffer at a digital publisher told me this week.

Another expressed amusement at what he called “revisionist history” regarding his company’s strategy to rely on Facebook traffic and programmatic ads, which he said he believes has left his company somewhat backed into a corner.

As my colleague Lucia Moses noted in her piece this week about Mic’s post-Facebook struggles, staffers there worry the company waited too long to pivot from Facebook-friendly clickbait and is running out of options (and money).

It’s a similar situation at “legacy” publishers, many of which are building out video studios and commerce arms, instituting paywalls and membership programs, and seemingly anything else they can think of. That’s in addition to various other cost-cutting and “efficiency” exercises such as centralizing editorial resources to work across multiple brands and properties.

Media is hard — that’s news to nobody. But nerves are jangling more vigorously for many in the publishing business as the year continues, with the full force of Facebook’s algorithm fallout still being felt; the continued ad dominance of Facebook, Google and other programmatic platforms; and other looming headaches such as the General Data Protection Regulation.

LittleThings may have been the first notable casualty of 2018, but those across the industry concur it’s unlikely to be the last. The question publishing staffers are now asking over Thursday night beers is: Who’s next?

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