Is Social Media Killing the Digital Publishing Industry?

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“Be everywhere your readers are” is an oft-repeated mantra in the digital publishing world. This goal to get as many eyes on a piece of content as possible has led to a feverish race to provide content to news aggregation sites, primarily social media outlets like Facebook.

But does handing over your content to aggregators actually improve your bottom line, build brand awareness, expand your audience and increase your revenue? Are these publishers actually seeing a return on their investment?

The answer to this question lies in a simple truth: not all aggregation sites are created equal.

Why Use Content Aggregation?

The digital publishing industry is at a crossroads, struggling to stay afloat because their legacy source of revenue—advertising—isn’t paying like it used to. On top of financial struggles, this reliance on traditional ads, interstitials, and pop-ups slows page load times and results in customer frustration, while native advertising challenges the editorial integrity of a brand.

As publishers experiment with more modern monetization strategies, their need for immediate revenue means that they remain beholden to ad impressions and need as many eyes as possible on their content to keep the lights on. The uphill battle against ad blocking software, which grew by a reported 48 percent in 2015, puts publishers in a desperate situation: increase traffic or vanish into obscurity.

Most content aggregation sites that partner with publishers fall into one of two models—paid aggregators and free aggregators. Both models offer the opportunity to engage a new audience, generate traffic, and increase brand awareness, but come with very different costs and benefits.

Paid Content Aggregators

Paid content aggregators partner with publishers and offer the opportunity to negotiate terms of curation, publication, page placement and payment. Generally, these partners are paid via a revenue share agreement, or they pay publishers royalties based on content performance. Companies that use this model include newsstand platforms, such as Zinio, micropayment models, such as Blendle, and all-you-can-read subscription services.

Partnering with paid aggregators has many potential upsides for publishers. Deals struck between companies often are negotiated to retain a publisher’s specific brand voice and independence. When publishers charge for their content, they rely less on advertising revenue, which means they can produce quality content that’s true to their editorial voice without pandering to free readers with “clickbait” to drive traffic. This creative independence allows them to retain loyal readers, take editorial risks without threatening their bottom line, and control every aspect of their content creation and distribution.

However, paid aggregation models rely on a sizeable, loyal customer base who are willing to pay for the content that they consume. While paid content aggregators are themselves modes of discovering new content for many users, it’s challenging to find a large audience without using social media distribution channels.

Social Media Aggregators

In contrast, free “partners” operate in a very different manner, providing no guarantees about how the content will be used. These aggregators include social media giants Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat, and offer scale and access to an audience with a size that’s unrivaled by single publisher websites and paid aggregators. Due to this potential for large amounts of traffic, many publishers rely on social media platforms to drive readership—which can ultimately lead to an unbalanced, parasitic relationship between content creators and aggregation platforms, as opposed to a symbiotic one.

Posting at least some content on social media is a no-brainer for many publishers. Their traffic and ability to reach new audience greatly benefit from their content being shared, tweeted, liked, and snapped. Potential readers are introduced to their content via networks, which is their number one trusted source when discovering new articles, blogs, and other content. Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat work especially well for non-exclusive content (such as breaking news), and shareable pieces that link back to the publisher’s site as part of the user experience.

The Risks of Social Media in Digital Publishing

However, relying solely or even largely on social media for revenue puts publishers in a precarious position. Platforms know that content creators need them, and so they have the upper hand in terms of deciding what can and can’t be published, leading to outcries of censorship and a threat to journalistic independence. These accusations lead to a larger questions: as aggregators and not publishers, should social media sites be beholden to rules about censorship? Since millions of people rely on their networks as their sole source about what’s going on in the world, do the platforms have a fundamental duty to allow access to everything that doesn’t explicitly violate their terms of service?

These big-picture issues aside, a reliance on Facebook or Twitter for traffic isn’t beneficial to publishers for a number of other reasons. Since social media is the primary source of information for many readers, publishers adjust their content to fit the needs of a platform audience, rather than their own. This leads to a change in their voice, tone and subject matter, resulting in an alienation of their own readers as they cater to a social media audience. Loyal readers leave, and companies all end up publishing the same stories, with the same tone, in the same style--a total breakdown of the context that makes content unique. This loss of publisher perspective takes away a reader’s ability to think critically about the content they’re consuming, which allows them to recognize flaws and prejudices in reporting.

Eventually, publishers lose any need to operate their own websites, and are virtually absorbed by the aggregation platform.

The Solution

Whether customers like it or not, they currently pay a cost for all of the content they read online—whether it’s with money, user experience, privacy and personal data, or their access to content that’s truly unencumbered by the demands of social media platforms. Supporting journalists and publications they trust can no longer be viewed as optional; in order for the independent digital publishing industry to survive in the age of social media, readers must be willing to pay for the content they consume.

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