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How Publishers Lost Their Way

2013 October 2
by Greg Satell

When Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post, it meant the end of one of America’s great publishing dynasties. For 80 years, the Graham family ran the paper with dignity, grace and a commitment to public service. However, time had passed them by.

Some of the great old publishing empires remain, such as the Sulzbergers of The New York Times, the Newhouses of Conde Nast and, of course, the Forbes family.  Yet they are now the exception rather than the rule.

Meanwhile, publishing itself is thriving—creating new fortunes in record time.  Bleacher Report sold for almost $175 million after only 5 years; Huffington Post reaped $315 million in 6 years and these juggernauts were founded by people with scant experience in the industry.  Clearly publishers have lost their way.  Here’s how they can get back on track.

The Chinese Wall

One of the most time honored traditions in publishing has been the “Chinese Wall,” an imaginary barrier separating the business and editorial sides of journalistic operations.  It served the industry well, insulating editorial departments from pressures that would undermine their objectivity.

Unfortunately, the opposite was true as well.  Publishing executives could pretend they were in another business entirely.  They could imagine they were “Masters of the Universe,” strut around just like the Wall Street guys and talk deals.  Or they could nerd out like the Silicon Valley guys, spewing out neologisms and and acronym-laden metrics.

As financial pressures came to the fore and the cult of shareholder value took hold—a notion increasingly becoming known as the dumbest idea in the world—publishers lost sight of the true purpose of the industry—to inform, excite and inspire.

Marrying Content With Distribution

As business interests became dominant, many publishers became MBA’s and found themselves enamored by business strategy, especially Michael Porter’s value chains.  After all, McKinsey and BCG guys are every bit as cool as the Wall Street and Silicon Valley types.

Now they could become chess players, putting together just the right pieces in just the right combination.  Distribution was key, of course, because it created a direct connection to the consumer and enabled multiple consolidation strategies.  Once the model was set up, they could “roll up” additional brands into it and positively print money.

The product was now called “content.”  It was the stuff you fed into the machine to make all the big dollars.  If you had a news brand, why not add a sports brand?  How about something for the female demographic?  And that crucial 18-34 demo?  Gotta have some of that!

Publishing became much less about ideas and much more about acquiring the right products for the right target groups and hitching it all up to robust distribution.  Editorial talent, with their demands and idiosyncrasies, became, if anything, a nuisance.

The Death of Walled Gardens and The Birth of Convergence

1989 was a pivotal year.  The Berlin Wall came down, liberating the populations of Eastern Europe.  People who for decades had been trapped, were now set free.  They could start businesses, buy goods from anywhere in the world and travel wherever they wanted to.

In that same year, a lone revolutionary working at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland named Tim Berners-Lee had a similar idea.  He wanted to free content from the confines of technology platforms.  He built a World Wide Web on which access became universal and distribution free.

As the idea took hold, publishers’ Chinese walls started crumbling much like the one in Berlin.  Business side people suddenly had to worry about the product.  They brought in technologists and usability experts, built proprietary platforms and went to conferences to hear about the wonders of transmedia storytelling.

It was exciting!  A new age of convergence was dawning, merging Web and video content onto multiple screens.  Now the business became about acquiring new consumers with digital promotion strategies such as SEO and SEM.  And social media, oh boy!  You had to move fast to build a new machine for delivering content assets, if you wanted to keep up..

A New Age Of Storytelling

Digital technology has indeed been transformative.  It has created enormous shifts in the way we operate.  We need to bring in new people with skills that didn’t even exist a generation ago.  Business models need to adapt.  The challenges are immense and so are the opportunities.

But what has gotten lost is the product itself.  Content is not an asset to be acquired, but a wonderful thing that we should take joy in creating.  It touches people.  Educates them. Brings something special to their lives.  At its very best, publishing is the lifeblood of a free, prosperous and joyful society.

The new media tycoons are not tech geniuses.  What they have done is found new, compelling ways to tell stories with passion and purpose.  This has allowed them to attract great storytellers who have important things to say.  People respond, money comes in and that enables them to experiment with new ideas and methods.

For too long, media executives have gotten it backwards.  Great publishing comes not from marrying content with distribution.  It is the product itself that attracts distribution.  So enough talk about “eyeballs,” “native advertising” and all the other buzzwords.  To build a great business in media, or any other industry, you need to put the product first.

– Greg

3 Responses leave one →
  1. October 3, 2013

    Hear, hear.

  2. October 20, 2013

    Great post Greg, very informative.

    It’s interesting that publishing is thriving, but the old houses were not able to make the change.

    Thanks for revealing that to me.

  3. October 20, 2013

    Thanks Phillip. I think there are parallels in many industries, btw.

    – Greg

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