At the crossroads: The challenges facing publishers and content creators today

by Joe Hyrkin, CEO of issuu

There’s never been a more exciting time to be a consumer of content — you know this if you spend any time on mobile, online or in the cloud today.

But the world of publishing, long the “sick man” of today’s major media, is at a crossroads.

On the road to 3 billion new Internet users joining the rest of us online by 2020, publishers must navigate a series of ever-escalating challenges if they want to remain competitive, relevant and in control of their own destinies in the short years between now and then.

Short- vs. long-form content

One of the trickiest areas to navigate is whether to create short form content or go deep.

The modern media Internet is filled with this kind of content, and some would argue (à la BuzzFeed) that this is the natural, current end-state evolution of easily monetizable media content, because so many readers now have such brief attention spans and frequently consume content on mobile devices. Plus the sheer volume of Instagrams, Vines, Facebooks and silly videos out there — not to mention the pesky business of actually working — cause most people to multitask, meaning they’re probably not devoting their full attention to what they read anyway.

All of these factors have driven the popularity of short form. But — and this is a big “but” — long form still has its place. People can’t subsist on snackable content alone.

Readers also want in-depth, researched, well-constructed content, especially when it relates to their specific interests.

Interestingly, long-form articles are shared more than short-form articles: on average, one study found articles with 3,000 to 10,000 words had 8,500 shares, whereas content with 1,000 words or less averaged 4,500 shares. For content creators, this is great news — it means there is a market for deep content if you take the time to create it. Long form, by its very nature, creates deeper engagement with the reader and so provides more in page monetization possibilities that trade on user attention. So publishers who know their readers better, will do better than their competitors who don’t.

Local vs. hyperlocal

Newspapers are struggling in the U.S., and have been for a while, but that does not mean that interest in local news has gone away.

People still want to know what is going on in their community and crave hyperlocal news.

Sadly, it is just not sustainable to be a beat reporter at a local outlet anymore. Local news outlets just don’t have the resources any longer, as their natural advertising monopolies have been erased by Craigslist and others, to enable a critical mass of journalists to conduct authentic, valuable, on-the-ground reporting.

Dedicating one reporter to a specific topic involves a fair amount of resources, and often the time and money invested do not justify the return from a financial point of view. The media economics do not work, and this has left a gaping hole in the quality of local media today.

The fact is most people still care deeply about what’s going on around them, but they no longer need to read it in the form factor of a community newspaper or in print to figure it out. They can follow local news on Facebook, Twitter, Nextdoor and blogs. However, just because content is available across these outlets does not mean it is good, well-reported content.

The chaos of content today

One of the biggest challenges facing content creators and publishers is that there is now and will be going forward ever more and ever too much content to make sense of.

Finding and surfacing the good stuff remains an unsolved challenge for the world’s biggest Internet brands, let alone publishing brands.

How do we build a Netflix or YouTube equivalent in publishing? Where readers can get personalized, relevant recommendations, and customize their preferences as easily as they do for video or music?

How do you strike the right balance between the quality content and the stuff that will induce hypoglycemic overload? Most people don’t want their newsfeeds dominated by Trump’s latest gaffe, holiday listicles and quizzes about which ’90s pop star they are.

The proliferation of lightweight content stems partly from shifting consumer behaviors (as outlined above), as well as from flawed business models. To make money from online media, you need as many views, ratings, clicks and shares as possible. The more eyeballs on the content, the more advertising revenue you can drive, which is what keeps publications afloat.

The economic goals have the lion’s share of priority now as old-line media company profits continue to vaporize, and the strategies of yesterday’s moguls drive the prioritization of quantity over quality, at the expense of in-depth, long-form reporting.

We end up with far more pieces of junk content created than the kind of journalism people want and need to read, that society benefits from, which the world can no longer easily finance on the back of the previous century’s business models.

Money, money, money …

Let’s talk a little more about the flaws in today’s media business models. Ad-supported sites appear to be thriving, while many subscription-based services are hurting. Heavyweights like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have fairly strong subscriber bases, but few others come close.

The perception, and perhaps the reality, is that advertisers don’t care about long form content — they just want the clicks.

However, the fact is that ad-supported journalism just doesn’t generate that much revenue online.

The margins are thin, which means journalists are not able to make a decent living and do real reporting. It’s no wonder Pulitzer Prize winning journalists are defecting to PR.

Overcoming this divide is a serious challenge. Without incentives and support for journalists to do their good works, quality, independent journalism — a bedrock of our democracy — will irrevocably suffer.

What is the solution? Should there be a revenue-share model for content creation, whereby journalists get a share in the success of their stories? Should people just cover what they want and sell their content to the highest bidder? It seems like these models would only promote more click-baiting.

The fact is that some topics, like labor rights, are critically important, and yet not widely appealing or “sexy.” If you only reward journalists for stories that rack up page views, critical areas of reporting will fall through the cracks. And when “journalists” are beholden to certain view/click thresholds, this raises some serious questions about who has the power to tell stories.

Another route is making news outlets nonprofits, since they provide a public service.

Nonprofit news outlets are on the rise, but they remain a fragile part of American media, and according to Pew, “many of these organizations also face substantial challenges to their long-term financial well-being.”

Trust is something else to consider.

There has been a wave of excitement about upstarts who are disrupting traditional media with new approaches and business models. Buzzfeed is valued about the same as the New York Times Company. Medium just raised $57 million three years after being founded. But are we comfortable with this evolution?

How does trust factor in? Do you trust just anyone to do a good job of reporting a story? To what extent does having a reporter and a reputable outlet attached to a story affect its perceived veracity and impact? Would Watergate have been as credible a story if it had been crowdsourced, or reported as a list of the Top 14 Mistakes Made During the Break-in and Cover-up?

Moving forward

These issues are pressing now, and will only become more so as the next 3 billion people come online over the next five years. Content, and access to it, matters. In markets like India, bandwidth is a hot commodity and people need access to what is going on around them. The mobile web is king, but phones are limited in what they can do, so short, pithy content is in demand.

Publishers are at a crossroads.

They need to develop plans for how their content is consumed across multiple platforms. How publishers solve the editorial/advertiser conundrum will have a direct impact on the depth of content they produce.

This decision will be critical in determining which publishers will become the go-to sources for information and stand out from all the others in an increasingly noisy world.

Joe Hyrkin is the CEO of issuu, the world’s leading digital publishing and discovery platform connecting people to the content they love most. Reach him @yankeejoe.

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