As Content & Technology Converge, Publishers Feel the Squeeze
Is there a difference between a content company and a technology company? The answer to that question is becoming increasingly difficult to answer. In the recent past, publishers were by and large content companies. Today, with the blending of multiple content distribution formats, magazine media companies have forged new business alliances and discovered new types of competitors, blurring the lines between magazine companies and technology companies.
David Carey recently noted that, "Hearst is a content company, operating with a platform mentality...functioning as one global entity as far as content sharing." I suggest to you that only a technology company that sells content on such a vast scale can achieve the goal of that kind of global outreach.
Let's put a bunch of companies in the same sentence and see if we can divine the differences: The New York Times, Hearst, Condé Nast, Yahoo, Buzzfeed, Vox, and Upworthy. Can you distinguish the differences between these companies and their missions? If we are all fast becoming technology companies, as it seems we are, perhaps we should consider the differences and significance of online readership and off-line readership. Are we nearing a point when it will all be just readership?
The MPA seems to think so. Its newly created media metric Media 360° attempts to measure audiences across multiple platforms and multiple formats, trying to provide a comprehensive picture of the aggregate consumer demand for the magazine media business. The data captures print and digital editions, web pages, the mobile web, video, and social media activity. These figures are added up for a total number of active brand participants, with the goal of seeing the totality of brand engagement.
This comprehensive numeric approach may be best achieved as a technology company or at least a company that uses technology to its fullest.
Which brings me to the biggest content technology company of them all and perhaps the biggest and most serious competitor for publishers today. This would be a company that already has a comprehensive picture of the data about consumer demand. This is, of course, Facebook.
Facebook is continuing to evolve and alter its algorithms with the intention of making it an even more powerful content platform. Facebook's desire is to keep as many users as possible within its own platform, and hence, as much content, news, and entertainment as possible there too.
As I write this, Facebook is negotiating deals with major companies like National Geographic, Buzzfeed, The New York Times, and a host of others to post the publishers' original content directly on and in the Facebook universe. Facebook will supposedly be sharing the ad revenue with publishers, but I highly doubt the agreement is weighted in favor of the creator of the content.
The only reason an owner and creator of content would even consider such a deal is to tap into the 1.5 billion Facebook users. You can make a case that numbers like that make it easy to get readership. I suggest it might make it too easy. Easy to get, yes, and way too easy to lose at the change of algorithms.
I'm skeptical of the long-term results of such an alliance for publishers. It seems to me that it places us in an extremely vulnerable position. Sure we could get more readers by working directly with Facebook, and perhaps get some trickle down ad revenues. But long term the readers aren't ours -- they are Facebook's. And the loyalty of our readers will belong to the technology company called Facebook and not to us.
At the end of the day Facebook wants Facebook users to stay in the Facebook sphere of influence. That means on Facebook's pages, not ours. I worry about the potential brand diminishment of giving that much power to a goliath who has zero interest in our survival or ability to make an honest living.
Thus you have the double-edged sword of technology. It can empower us to greater readership. But in doing so, it creates a very narrow window of sustainability that exists at the caprice of a larger and indifferent suitor