Thursday, December 26, 2019

CJR: "Platforms, publishers, and the end of scale"

From the Columbia Journalism Review, November 22:
Only three years ago, the power that technology platforms would gain over news publishing was unimaginable in depth and breadth. Now platforms both increasingly act as publishers and support the entire publishing ecosystem. This dual role marks the beginning of a new phase in the platform-publisher relationship, and a new step in the way platform companies wield their power. The Tow Center’s third report in our Platforms and Publishers project, Platforms and Publishers: The End of an Era, published today, examines publishers’ experiences in tandem with this shift, and what it means for the future of publishing.

Many publishers won’t make it far into this new moment. News organizations have come to learn that the promise of on-platform ad revenue at scale is broken; the outlets most dependent on ad revenue face an especially treacherous transition to financial sustainability. The question publishers face is cruelly simple: How do you get subscriptions, memberships, and other revenue streams flowing before advertising effectively dries up? No platform product can answer it.

The relationship between platforms and publishers has changed rapidly since the Tow Center began researching its implications in 2016. The question of whether platforms act as publishers is no longer widely debated: in March, Google erased that distinction when the company announced that it would create local newsrooms. The first is in Youngstown, Ohio, where the last remaining daily newspaper, the Vindicator, recently went out of business. Google’s newsrooms will be owned and managed by venerable publishing companies McClatchy (in the US) and Archant (in the UK), but they will be funded by Google’s Local Experiments Project. This decision to establish new newsrooms, a first among platforms, is a significant departure from these firms’ efforts to bolster existing outlets; as of last year, Google and Facebook already promised a combined $600 million to journalism, placing the pair among the industry’s top patrons.

Not only are platforms creating and supporting newsrooms externally, they are also forming them internally. With the rollout of Facebook News last month, every major platform—including Facebook, Google, Apple, and Twitter—now defines and curates news. With the exception of Google Discover, which relies solely on an algorithm to promote news in its feed, curation is done by humans who are often former journalists and editors, and who are aided by algorithms. The LinkedIn Newsroom actually produces reported stories. Facebook’s News team, like Apple’s, accepts pitches from publishers hoping to be featured as a top story—the contemporary “above the fold.”

Publishers interviewed by the Tow Center this year often spoke of the end of a platform “era.” This era was defined by scale, the platforms’ long-standing promise: audiences of hundreds of millions and billions would bring publishers enough advertising revenue to make it worthwhile for them to forfeit direct editorial control and audience relationships. In order to get in front of those audiences, publishers had to distribute their work through, or create new work exclusively for, these platforms’ publishing products.

Publishers now understand that such control and relationships with readers are essential to their success. This era, it turns out, was a “bubble” and a “distraction,” publishers told the Tow Center. After years without meaningful or consistent revenue, publishers finally believe that “the scale game is over.”

“A reckoning” is next, they said. Publishers regret undervaluing their own audiences in favor of brand-diluting social-first content....

 We're still working on our 'Pivot to Video'.