It would be hard to find an industry that has undergone more upheaval due to the digital revolution than publishing. We take a look at the past, present and future of publishing and how brands are taking huge strides to become publishers in their own right.
1996 wasn’t a particularly exciting year in the scheme of things. Internet Explorer 3 was released. Online auctioneer eBay opened its doors. DVDs were launched in Japan. Prince Charles and Princess Diana finally got divorced. Spiderbait’s infectious ‘Buy Me a Pony’ came #1 in the Hottest 100. I was 13 and like most annoying 13 year olds, I was entering the insufferable age of know-it-all political idealism.
I decided I wanted to join the fourth estate and become a foreign correspondent, holding governments and corporations to account. In response, my mum gave me a copy of One Crowded Hour, Tim Bowden’s biography of cameramen Neil Davis. For those unfamiliar with Davis, after 20 years of filming conflict all over South-East Asia, he famously filmed his own death in 1985 after being shot in the streets of Bangkok during an attempted coup.
Of course reality set in at some point when I realised I wasn’t talented enough to become a great journalist and even if I was, I would never make any money doing it (unfortunately for my student loan situation, this realisation came after I finished my journalism undergrad). Even in the early 2000s, when the likes of Fairfax and News Limited were still posting enormous profits, the digital revolution had started to take its affect.
It’s in our nature to sentimentalise and rewrite the past. And so it’s only natural that when we reminisce about the hey-days of publishing, we do so with rose coloured glasses.
Esteemed Australian publisher and journalist Eric Beecher, recalled in The Monthly, memories of a bygone era where people would fill the streets outside The Age headquarters, at midnight, just so they would be the first to get a copy of the day’s breaking news. But as Beecher goes on to say, he would watch as they stripped away the news sections of the paper only to “keeping the classified ads and dump the rest into rubbish bins”.
And therein lies an ancient chink — publishing empires, and the quality journalism they produced, have always been beholden to the revenue generated by advertising. Canadian communication theorist Marshall McLuhan (best known for coining the phrase “the medium is the message”) foretold as early as 1964 that:
“The classified ads (and stock-market quotations) are the bedrock of the press. Should an alternative source of easy access to such diverse daily information be found, the press will fold.”
Fast forward 50 years and it’s clear that McLuhan’s predictions were eerily spot on. While the traditional press hasn’t entirely folded, as an industry, it continues to waste away — posting huge financial losses, slashing staff each year, losing readers in droves.
The conundrum, of course, is that as consumers, we want more news than ever before. Actually, let me rephrase that. As consumers, we want more content more than ever before. And not only do we want more content than ever before, we want it to be more diverse, more relevant, more instantaneous and available on more devices and mediums. And truth be told, the majority of us don’t want to have to pay for it — after all, why part with the penny if you can get it for free?
While embers still glow among the smouldering ashes of traditional publishing empires, a new type of publisher has been rising quietly for years — the brand publisher. For decades, brands invested heavily in their public relations departments. PR specialists now outnumber journalists on an average of 5 to 1. At the end of the day, the role of PR people has always been to generate content about their brand and make it relevant to their consumers. The only difference being that historically they were dependent on publishers to act as the powerful intermediary between brand and consumer. As the power in that equation began to shift, it made complete sense for brands to bypass it altogether and create their own mediums to push their messages directly to their audiences.
For many brands today, they have so many things going in their favour to make their mark as publishers in their own right. Many brands have large marketing teams and creative resources at their disposal to create content. They have technology platforms available to build off and they have money they can pull from traditional ATL budgets to support their endeavours. On the other side of the fence, traditional publishers are continuing to slash staff in a desperate effort to stay afloat.
For brand detractors it is simple enough to dismiss brand publishing as blatant advertising or content marketing — just using the medium to sell the product. And there are literally hundreds of examples of brands failing miserably at trying to push a product by labelling it as news. Which stands as a lesson: just because you can, doesn’t always mean you should.
Deanna Brown, former CEO of Federated Media, argues that brands can be authentic publishers in their own right, but like everything, it’s a matter of getting the balance right.
“I think the notion that brands — if they’re transparent, if they’re authentic, in the right context — can be conversational… I think brands absolutely can tell great stories without them being marketing messages,” she said.
Red Bull, ANZ, Dell, Microsoft, Adobe, Xerox and countless other big name brands are already moving beyond the ‘brand publisher’ wave and are simply becoming just ‘publishers’. All of the above have already begun investing heavily in hiring journalists and producing original content, the majority of which is banned from in anyway pushing their products directly and instead focuses on associating the brand. Red Bull concentrates its content on extreme sports, ANZ on financial and economic news, Dell on technology and innovation and so on.
So as brands continue to go from strength to strength, will there still be a role for traditional publishers to play in the future? The answer, of course, is yes, but in an increasingly competitive landscape, whoever produces the best content, wins.
When she isn’t wasting her time watching live surfing streams from all corners of the globe, Jen Tucker is busy being Deepend’s Strategy Director. She’s terrible at Twitter, so connect with her on LinkedIn instead.