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Responsive Soup for the Publisher’s Soul

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Written by Aysling

Published: 09/17/2015

Shift Happens

For centuries, publishers were accustomed to being the primary sources of content. The word “publisher” is from the Latin “publicare” which means to make public. The publishers in ancient times were not separate entities from governmental and religious institutions (which themselves were not always separate). The existence of publishers or content creators of any kind — independent from established public institutions and instead as private institutions — is relatively new in human history. Still even more recently are publishers existing as organizations for economic ends. Nevertheless, they became the de facto gatekeepers of knowledge and entertainment, sometimes abusing this power. This position of virtual authority was accomplished through having expertise, access to content creation tools, and the resources to disseminate content broadly. Even publishers we now consider legacy were only made possible with changes in the social, economic, and technological landscape. The Gutenberg printing press being the primary example. This contributed to social, political, religious, and economic upheavals previously unimaginable. This change was relatively slow going, allowing for centuries-long institutions.

Electronic Acceleration

With the advent of the information and then digital age, the capacity for anyone to create and then disseminate content changed this already new(ish) dynamic even more dramatically, and quickly. The resulting scenario is such that any creator, previously unable to access the resources of publishers, are now able to create content and reach a wide audience. Not only reach a wide audience, but also reach an audience wider than any publisher could imagine, even in the height of their monopolies. Throw social media into the mix and the dynamic changes even more substantially. Previously a publisher could pontificate without experiencing much of a backlash beyond a few irate letters. Or if it was really egregious, the reprimand of fellow publishers. It seems to me content publishing is no longer a monologue. Consumers are simultaneously creators. The primary mode of expression being the comment, the now infamous platform: the com-box. Furthermore, any potentially offending content a publisher may attempt to conceal is permanently on record. Stored on multiple servers across multiple continents, to be viewed, commented, replicated, mocked, and remixed in perpetuity. The big economic effect of the digital age is that consumers are less interested in print for their daily content. Now with mobile devices they can access countless websites and get content from friends with the flick of a thumb. The vast majority of it is free. The notion of paying for a printed piece of paper for transient content is viewed as not only archaic but downright stupid.

Adapt or Die

Print publishing is a 500+ year old industry that experienced a disruption more monumental in the last ten years than the previous five centuries combined. Unfortunately, for many publishers, the changes are happening at a faster pace than many of them are even able to understand. Imagine being in a building, built over decades, that you’ve been in for most of your life that within a few years is suddenly no longer attached to the ground, but is floating at sea. Then faster than that happened it is flying through space. That’s kind of what happened with the internet and that kind of change is probably only going to continue. The only way for a publisher to survive is to adapt. To be responsive to the environment. But what does it mean to be responsive? How exactly should a publisher be responsive? There are three areas in which a publisher should be responsive: business strategy, content creation, and design. All three are interlinked and each one is vital to the other’s success. I’m going to focus on the strategy.

Ask Yourself Why?

These questions must be asked on an individual and corporate level. Why this content? Why are you publishing?  Why does your company exist? Who are you serving? The answers will determine what kind of business strategy, content, and design you will have. If you’re mostly looking to make money and that is the primary/only goal of your company, then your business model, content, and design will reflect that. If you’re more motivated by creating high-quality editorial content married to print, then your business strategy will need to reflect that. Your purpose for publishing determines the materials, form, and process of creating content. In today’s economy, this will likely require making some specific sacrifices. It is exceedingly unlikely that you will be able to have a lucrative topic-specific, print-only magazine. In today’s economy, there is an inverse correlation between quality of content, breadth of reach, and commercial viability. We are currently in the midst of what I call a content paradox.

The Content Paradox

There are four converging interplaying realities that have created our contemporary publishing scenario. The first is the growth of digital technology, the second is the psychological effects, the third is the cultural values, and the fourth are the commercial consequences. As described above, the technology has completely shifted so I don’t need to go into that too much. It is now easier and faster to produce and publish content. The monetization of this content on the web has primarily been through advertising. However, instead of traditional advertising that required an artful relationship between advertiser and publisher, now we are in the age of automation. Sophisticated computer algorithms track user behavior and feed advertisements tailored specific to them, regardless of the content it is displayed next to. A publisher now simply determines where to place, what are effectively windows, on their sites. The server farms then serve up what’s in those windows. The job of the publisher is now to get as many eyeballs on that window as possible. This dynamic is about to change dramatically as iOS 9 begins blocking ads and ad blocking increases in prevalence. This adds to the existing ad decline. I believe that advertising as the primary or major source of revenue will become obsolete faster than newsstand sales are. Digital changes are much swifter, more comprehensive, and consequently, more brutal.

Psychological Aftermath

Human beings are not able to handle as much information as is now available. What I choose to ignore is becoming more important than what I choose to focus on. The cognitive fatigue is palpable. In the race for attention, the most bombastic and easily digestible content tends to win. This is evidenced by Buzzfeed surpassing the New York Times. Now velocity and quantity are valued above quality and, even in some cases, veracity. The care and concern for the written word are more frequently being forgotten. Articles are reflecting television in their sensationalism and substanceless proclamations. Apologies for inaccuracies are less frequent. While social media can be a natural accountability mechanism resulting in bigger backlashes — unless the attention is substantive enough to the original offense — most will allow the misrepresentations to persist. Even then, the capacity for the rejoinder to take effect is dependent on its capacity to render the same level of attention. If it was otherwise, most listicles would be retracted. Long-form is seeing a surge in content marketing as people long for more substantive content. Nevertheless, in terms of percentage of total content consumed, it is probably pretty small when compared to the amount of tweets and videos viewed. Simply put, we don’t have the time or mental energy to engage with extended content that requires mental discipline. For those raised in the digital deluge forced to swim in a sea of pixels do not have the mental muscles to walk on the dry land of singular attention in order to reap the fruits of comprehensive understanding. This is not to malign millennials as if they are at fault; it’s to diagnose a reality since I myself am a millennial.

Triumph of Trivia

A steady decline in intellectual engagement has been documented over the last century, accelerated by digital media. Examine the lyrics of popular music 50 years ago to today. A colleague of mine, Herb Jordan, demonstrates this articulately specifically within black culture. As Isaac Asimov stated: “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’” (http://media.aphelis.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/ASIMOV_1980_Cult_of_Ignorance.pdf) It’s not unsurprising that in an environment of instant pre-digested concepts encapsulated in 140-character sound bites the broader public forms a superficial and fallacious notion of egalitarianism. The conflation of capacity with dignity coincides with the confusion of privilege with right resulting in exaggerated entitlement. “By nature all men are equal in liberty, but not in other endowments” as Thomas Aquinas would articulate it. This seems to escape the understanding of your average American. Some have discovered this very idea would cause many younger millennials to bristle. Even in academia ideas are shackled to protect fragile egos through the censuring of political correctness. The obsession with preventing emotional damage, usually to avoid litigation, perpetuates the insulation to real intellectual challenges. The net result is threefold: 1) repugnance at anything that requires work (everything should be easy) 2) don’t like paying (everything should be free) 3) easily offended (everything should make me feel good). The great difficulty is that technology as such is not responsible for this, nor is the culture. It’s simply that most have not learned the habits of using technology responsibly. The main reason is the economic force behind their development. This in turn engendered the climate for their adoption.

Economic Engulfment

Prior to the advent of modern capitalism, many, if not most, academic and artistic pursuits were the result of patronage. The reason most college majors such as literature, painting, philosophy, and even science were referred to as “liberal arts” was because they could not bring about a profit. One had to have a certain economic freedom (liberal) to pursue them. This, of course, restricted them to those who were economically advantaged or had relationships with those who were. Now most developments are subservient primarily to fiscal concerns. What sells is what is now considered successful. Advertising as the source of revenue has made mass consumption of content and, therefore, its creation the gravitational center. This requires now riding on waves of cultural fads combined with using media to hijack neurology to magnetize eyes and ears. The result is that most Hollywood blockbusters are made to be as generic as possible, readily translatable for foreign premieres. The more particular and difficult content is not considered valuable. This is not to say great art and economic success are mutually exclusive. It’s simply to acknowledge that more often than not, in today’s climate, it’s much less likely. Mass media, following the model of industrialization, attempts to replicate the attractive in as efficient a means as possible for monetary gain to keep the machine going. This only works as long as advertising continues to be effective, again, this is changing.

Millennial Idealism

This requires another long article by itself, but there’s a shocking amount of idealism that creates an excruciating inner conflict for many self-conscious millennials. Millennials often want to be more disciplined. They crave the real. They crave the authentic. They crave the unique. They want to be connected to something particular. To something that is loved fiercely for its own sake. That means if your main goal is to make money, good luck appealing to millennials. However, it’s important to note that while most millennials may be incapable of really engaging with conceptually rich content that serves a higher end than economic gain, most WANT to. Theoretically, and in actuality, many corporations take advantage of this weakness because many millennials will settle for the effects of their ideals over the substance if it requires work. They’ll accept distraction if it’s easy to ease the pain of their shallow existence. The only way that corporations can achieve this though is through exploitation of organic subcultures. This is well documented. This, of course, feeds the cynicism of many millennials when they discover it and ultimately they flock to brands that are authentic — companies that have higher goals than building the bank account. The rise of B-Corps and the success of companies like Tom’s make this evident. The most poignant example of this was a sincere video produced by Nike. One comment was “I will ALWAYS buy Nike because of this video.” I don’t think Nike could imagine or even hope for that kind of response. Nor should they have made it their aim, but by focusing on the story and benefiting others, they got it.

Choose Your End

I’m not saying that content producers are de facto immoral for producing popcorn content for economic gain. No more than I’m going to say that fast food companies are doing wrong for providing fast food. However, I will say that factual inaccuracies from sloppy research or negligence are blameworthy being the equivalent of allowing poison and disease in food. I just want to recognize that the content which our current economy, technology, psychology, and culture favors is the intellectual equivalent of fast food. Although, this is changing. You as a person and your business need to examine what kind of company you want to be. Do you want to be a fabricator of distractions serving money or do you want to be the producers of great content or something in between? You must make a sacrifice either way. Fortunately, by having an adaptive business model, one can make a decent living in order to keep creating great content. To continue the analogy, Zingerman’s is a very successful restaurant in Ann Arbor, Michigan that is nationally acclaimed. They serve some of the best and most high-quality food in the nation and refuse to grow beyond the city borders despite constant pressure to do so. If you ever have a chance to go, you’ll notice all of the employees are happy. The owners ended up making a substantial amount, but near the amount they could have if they standardized it into a chain. They made this choice because they loved creating, serving, and sharing food — viewing money only as a means to keep doing that. They sacrificed potentially billions to maintain brilliance. However, it must really be the case that the money serves the content or eventually, at least the millennials will sniff that out. Furthermore, as technologies change and ad-blocking increases, business models will be forced to shift for other alternative revenue streams. As a caveat to my earlier mention about millennials’ repugnance to paying, they are willing to fork over their cash if it seems that the value you’re providing is exponential. Branding is the art of reflecting and communicating your love of content.

Choose Your Model

Doing great work and making a living are not mutually exclusive, but it requires more creativity, cooperation, leadership, and vision. Business structures no longer need to be binary between for-profit and nonprofit. For example, the B-Corporation. This structure gives a CEO the power to make a decision for a company that may not be the most financially viable decision, but helps the community or employees without threat of backlash from the board of directors or other shareholders. Right now, most corporations can depose or even sue a CEO for not doing everything in their power to increase profits, regardless of social consequence. An even more poignant example of a new business structure is the L3C or Low profit Limited Liability Company. It is a for-profit company which can accept tax-deductible donations under certain conditions. Additionally, there is the phenomenon of the “triple bottom line” where a company places social, environmental, and fiscal benefit all on the same level. Not to be confused with the legal business structure, there is also the growing popularity of the Benefit Corporation certification which any business structure can obtain through demonstrating benefit to the broader community. Once you have the legal structure, the big question is, where is most of the revenue coming from? It is unlikely advertising will supply much of that. Incredibly innovative revenue streams, including eCommerce, will likely become essential. Diversification, like investment, will be critical for survival.

Choose Your Audience

The other big aspect of your business model is audience size. There are numerous articles out there saying that one should focus on a niche. Regardless of the purpose of your organization there are many benefits to doing so. However, the ultra-specialization is not something that is necessary for every publication. Publishers that appeal to broad audiences are an important part of the media landscape. The broader the audience does not necessarily mean a degradation in the quality or importance of content. It is a greater challenge to produce something more universally appealing while still remaining of laudable character, but it isn’t impossible. Regardless of size, the key to success in any business is to know your audience. In recent years within the tech community, a lot of discussion has revolved around what is called “customer discovery.” This is different than the typical surveys and focus groups that many marketing companies use to try and quantify their customers. By talking with and observing people in the real world, as well as how they actually behave, innovators have been able to gain valuable insights. These insights have led to solutions that would have escaped the capacity of the customer to identify or articulate, much less fit on a 1 to 5 scale. Likewise, content providers should emulate this process through the use of social media. However, as a caveat, simply giving people what they want is not enough. In 2013, Variety lamented the fact that PewDiePie is the highest subscribed channel on YouTube.

The primary critique is that if this unwatchable garbage is what people want we’re all doomed. I’m inclined to agree that it is refuse and signals a troubling trend. Yet, if you look at what’s behind this vulgar YouTube star and the undeniable success of others like him, what you’ll find is a young man who honestly and authentically engages with his audience. He just tries to be himself and bring his fans into a community. If a publisher can emulate this authentic community building out of love for high-quality content they could become the guardians of knowledge again. A publisher could become a content juggernaut, especially among millennials.

POSTED BY Aaron Harburg , to contact click here.

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