Publishing, meet Spotify

Stewart Schley
Nov 8 · 9 min read

Wake up, editors. It’s time to firewall them thar’ cattle.

Fencing off the herd only worked in the era of physical media, I fear.

Yesterday’s layoffs at Bustle — several editors of lifestyle and book coverage lost their jobs — has me thinking about the role of online publishers juxtaposed against the immutable reality of physical delivery. It is not a promising intersection.

I suspect the strategy conception for Bustle and a thousand other online verticals like it goes like this: “We have the makings of a compelling destination that can provide relevant, engaging content that appeals to (fill in the blank). Already, our traffic is significant. But we can do more. If we imbue our foundation with a broader selection of content, touching on (fill in the blank), we can keep visitors engaged within our editorial environment, thereby producing revenue growth.”

Or some such. It’s that “within our editorial environment” thing that’s the hang-up, though. The strategy at Bustle Media Group and pretty much everywhere else where a similar pretense holds is doomed. It’s doomed not because these guys aren’t really good at what they do. It’s doomed for immutable reasons that no amount of beautiful typography or thoughtful curation can overcome. And if we don’t adjust publishing to this reality it will remain doomed.

The issue is how stuff (content) gets to human beings (“visitors” or “daily active users”).

The screen’s the thing
Which of course is: across a lighted screen. It might be a PC, might be an Android phone, might be an iPad. These presentation mediums are all the same, really, and they’re all really capable. They’re responsive, available, fast and handy. It’s the surrounding context where the bad stuff happens.

Oh, for the days of a physical newspaper or magazine. Now there was a captive audience. A physical boundary described the starting and ending points of the reader experience. In the day, the metro daily (my father’s was the Denver Post) was divided into sections: News, Life, Sports, Finance, Classifieds. The point was that if a piece of writing or a column or an article or a UPI photo did not exist within this physical confine, then (pause for emphasis): It. Didn’t. Exist. The entire experience was bounded by physicality. The top-of-the-fold headlines on the front page started things off, and some full-page ad for a department store typically rounded it from there on the back page of Life, and in between was everything available to the reader within that session.

Same for magazines. You cracked the opening cover of Time or Sports Illustrated or Harper’s Bazaar and you were “in” a prescribed environment from which there was no seeping of OPC: Other People’s Content. If some smart columnist for an alternative newsweekly had penned an authoritative take on Ronald Reagan’s national defense policy, you wouldn’t know about it. It existed in an alternative universe accessible to you only if you started up the car and drove to the nearest 7–11 and purchased a copy. Which, it being 8 p.m. on a Tuesday in winter and the Pontiac acting up lately, you weren’t gonna do.

Obviously, that is no longer the case. Choices for what to read are now not just more plentiful, but subject to almost zero friction in terms of access. This is the problem: OPC is always just a click away. On the same screen. In the exact same chair or your same coffee shop or your same subway ride. The “newspaper” is now your screen. It is bounded neither by brand or physical means of construction and delivery.

This is why the core premise of Bustle, Mic, The Onion and any other of a bazillion online “publications” is challenged. There is no more containing of a reader within an organized vessel. No amount of consistency in typography or artful presentation of recommended titles can overcome the fact that all the world’s stuff flows over the exact same medium, which is a glass screen. The dividing lines are gone.

I say this loving the look and the vibe of online publications like New York Media’s Vulture, where everything lives within a consistent pastiche of voice, visual look and navigational integrity. This is not the problem. People are already doing a great job. No amount of talent or quality improvement can get us much further than we already are. The problem, rather, is that despite this integrity of presentation and commonality of voice and subject matter, it’s still too easy and too inviting for us to stray.

I know you know this, but I still think it’s easy to lapse into a dated viewpoint. It’s especially easy for publishers who grew up in a world of physical media to overlook this reality.

As often is the case, ranching motifs help to provide graspable analogy. You’re zooming across Wyoming on I-80 on your way to ski in Park City, but something’s amiss. There used to be barbed-wire fences neatly dividing one rancher’s land from another’s. But now they’re toppled, and the cattle are roaming freely across the land. You can shout “moo” to any attractive Bessie anywhere you want regardless of whose brand they bear. The ranchers have lost control of their own flock.

What this means is that individual bits of content — articles, videos, photo essays — must contend for attention all on their own, as unique objects. They no longer enjoy the comfort of a surrounding landscape that neatly ropes them into territories, as magazines and newspapers once did. My own reading habits testify to this: What I do is to gleefully skip from one article to another, jumping over brand boundaries at will, based on what a third-party aggregator, in this case the enormously satisfying Next Draft, tells me is interesting.

Curator Dave Pell, who cleverly calls himself “Managing Editor, Internet,” reads voraciously every day, and picks and chooses articles to recommend. He does not appear to apply favoritism for any editorial environment in which an article was brought to life. I flit easily from The New York Times to the Atlantic to Wired to any number of otherwise obscure reference points. The thing is, and this is the important point, they’re all the same. Identical in the means of access. I get them on a screen after clicking a link or pressing a button. My editorial environment isn’t Bustle or Vulture or The Verge. My environment is everything.

Bustle, presumably, thought it could get around this reality, or at least operate successfully despite this reality. But it’s possible that it cannot. Or than nobody can, I suppose, which is probably discouraging news to whoever the new-age Tina Brown is, who is now assigned the task of building the brand and corralling the cattle and protecting the territory.

I suppose there are a few modest exceptions. Once you’ve supplied credit card credentials to subscribe to a particular editorial environment, say, the Wall Street Journal, you do tend to poke around there a bit longer before straying. But still: everything else is still, always, RIGHT THERE, a click away. The idea of hunkering down with a particular online publisher — Sunday mornings with the New York Times, except on a screen — no longer happens.

Stray cat strut
I fear this is what Bustle and others are finding out. No amount of careful curation and presentation of symmetrical content sets can keep me from straying. The locus of attention is the world, not the magazine and not the website.

For this reason, I hereby submit that the way to publish anymore is not to resist this truth but to concede it. This “truth” being the primacy of the individual article. If we admit that content bits and slivers need to find their way home all by themselves, rather than benefit from the supposed comforts of a surrounding environment, then we should encourage them to do just that. The beast of aggregation that has been set loose and exploited by various third-party vehicles — Dave Pell’s being only one small fish in an ocean that’s otherwise tsunami-ed by Facebook and Apple News and Google — is not going to go away. Yet this model of guidance and curation of OPC obviously lacks economic certainty for those on the other end.

A different system would require that first, we recognize the importance of the individual article as the arbiter of value. And second, that we establish a better mechanism to monetize that value than racing to the bottom of the cost-per-thousand well by slapping an advertisement next to it.

The irony is: We’ve already done the hard part. The love is already there. We really, really enjoy reading think pieces and breaking news and long-form essays and first-person narratives and such. If we didn’t love them, we wouldn’t read them. Granted, we find them and get to them in an entirely new way. The cows are running amuck, and we stumble upon them not because we aspire to patronize a particular dairy farmer’s milk output but because somebody has pointed them out to us: “Ooohhh, will you look at that lovely red Hereford over there!”

I think it’s important that we start to firewall these individual cows. But not in the manner you’re accustomed to. Hanging a “sorry, members only” sign on a digital publishing destination just gets us back into the same trap we’re trying to escape from: the idea of a fenced-off sliver of land. The bric-a-brac arrangements of paywalls that permeate online publishing already present a mess of a problem for readers. The very same curation vehicle that pointed me to an informative, free-to-read essay on the opiate crisis followed up by sending me to a provocative headline about NCAA athletics that immediately bopped me in the face with a “closed” sign. Turns out I could read one, but not the other. And people, I do not have the time, inclination or memory or credit card balance to subscribe to everything at the top of the funnel, organized and catalogued by the identity of the publisher. Even now I can’t recall if I have one more free article on the Economist this month, or if the New Yorker’s about to dope out that I’ve overextended my allotment for November. (I have, even though I subscribe to the print version. I can’t get the authentication process to work.)

What’s needed, I think, is a macro system for granting me access to…everything. Forget publication-by-publication rulesets. Just make it so that I know when Dave Pell says I should read something, I can read something. Whether it’s shrouded in the familiar typefaces of the New York Times or it can be found in some provocative new upstart journal I’ve never heard of.

Apple is sort of trying this with the new Apple News app — it aggregates lots of content from lots of publishers under a Netflix-style subscription — but here again the supporting ideal is off. It’s based on aggregating editorial environments (The Wall St. Journal, National Geographic, Bon Apetit) not individual articles. That’s the same old way of organizing things.

Music as model
Instead, let’s look to the modern music model. Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon, Tidal and YouTube Music all compete to sell me basically the same thing: everything. The individual song I choose to hear or sample (i.e., the “article” in publishing) is available and accessible under an umbrella payment mechanism. The song has value, I’m willing to pay for it, and with little friction, there it suddenly appears.

Devising a holistic model for publishing online would obviously require a level of we’re-all-in-this-togetherism that may be idealistic and impossible to carry off. But damn, it’d be cool. All these aggregators that push me to firewalls, all these editorial environments that hope to contain my interest but in fact are as ephemeral as cloud wisps, are collapsed, instead, into a big-picture accessibility arrangement that more closely matches the way I read today. If the Bustle writer of the future pens an irresistible piece about sex, money, a terrific new novel or a clever take about economic survival, I can find it and read it, and skip away from it, just as I more or less try to do today. The upside is somebody gets paid. A royalty mechanism exists to steer a few cents to the author and their publisher each time somebody hits the “Read Now!” button on the page. This happens regardless of the “editorial environment” that houses the article. Hell, maybe there is no “editorial environment,” but instead merely the imprimatur of a respected curator. A “Powered by the Washington Post” icon tells you something about the article you’re about to dive into. But the article itself exists as a self-standing, isolated thing. You can link to it, recommend it, read it and ultimately pay for the privilege. Bonus: we get back something that used to provide economic support for greatness, which is scarcity. Good stuff generally will provoke payment. Lousy stuff won’t. Sorry, guys in underwear pecking out misspelled clickbait screeds.

I’d love to see publishing thrive in an altogether new environment. To accomplish that, we need to stop pretending that it’s the window-dressing of an editorial environment that will carry the day and start to realize the individual piece of work is the real source of value association. Cows, man. Let’s start charging for the cows.

Written by

Writer, editor, media industry analyst. Fan of electric guitars. Believes in Santa Claus and baseball. Some light dusting.

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