Restoring Publisher Control Over Digital Distribution

Relay Media’s Origin Story

UPDATE: In October 2017, Relay Media was sold to Google. David Gehring remained independent and in November 2017, teamed with Sam Parnell to start Distributed Media Lab (DML). DML is carrying on the vision of a distributed content platform empowering publishers across the open web. In March 2018, DML launched the platform with Noozhawk, a local online news organization in Santa Barbara, and as of March 30, 2018, in discussions with many more publishers to pilot the platform.

In the fall of 2015 I started talking with Barb Palser and John Pettitt about a shared ambition. We wanted to figure out how to help publishers benefit from the clear and growing trend toward off-platform distribution on the open web.

At that time, Facebook was about to launch Instant Articles, everyone was clamoring over SnapChat’s Discover and Google was in early discussions about forming the AMP Project. Industry economics increasingly favored Google and Facebook, and I assumed this was likely to accelerate as advertisers shifted more of their budgets to digital. It felt like publisher disintermediation from consumers and advertisers was about to be set in stone for all time.

In the midst of that, we wondered whether there could be an open web distribution platform that:

a) Places publishers at the center of things rather than relying on the major platforms for distribution and monetization.

b) Uses the open web as a scaled and frictionless content exchange rather than creating a new “walled garden.”

c) Shifts economic incentives away from leaking user data and rampant low-quality, clickbait and fake content.

A sense of urgency around these ideas stemmed from a shared commitment to journalism in our democratic society. All three of us appreciated the role a free press plays in providing the information we need to be free and self governing. We shared a growing concern for the rapidly eroding profit-based economics that is necessary to support industry-scale production of original quality journalism. Control over distribution is fundamental to the economic model, and that was going away fast.

One thing we also knew was that publishers would have to work together if there would be any chance of gaining greater control over their own distribution destiny.

Instead of (or realistically, in addition to) platform-mediated content distribution like this:

Current state: Publishers depend on large platforms for off-property reach.

We imagined a direct publisher-to-publisher distribution model like this:

Relay vision: Direct distribution strengthens publishers, not platforms.

As a team, we approached this challenge with some experience.

I was deeply involved in the AMP Project having participated in the early effort to form that project while working for The Guardian and advising the Digital News Initiative — a collaboration between Google and a group of leading European publishers including The Financial Times, Les Echos, La Stampa, El País, Die Zeit, F.A.Z. and NRC. Before The Guardian, I worked at Google in various roles, always revolving around the economics of news media content and partnerships. This experience gave me the chance to develop deep relationships across the news media industry and also serve as a strategic advisor to different media companies and associations.

While at Google, I gained a friendship with John Pettit who at that time had a startup called Repost. Repost aimed to build a scaled content exchange for quality journalism and was born out of Pettitt’s experience engaging with the news media while serving as staff photographer for Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign. Pettitt had been the founding CTO of two previous IPO software companies and had been working on the internet since 1984 (that’s not a typo). I spent enough time with John to know he was the kind of engineer and manager who could see the forest for the trees and somehow still loved coding in the weeds — a rare range of talents!

I’d met Barb Palser a few years earlier. While managing news partnerships for YouTube, I had interacted with Palser in her role running digital for the McGraw-Hill local TV station group. From there, Palser went on to hold senior positions at Internet Broadcasting and Nexstar Broadcasting when I reached out to her to talk about these ideas. Barb was the smartest product person I knew in the local news business. I thought the ideas we were developing would have immediate application in the local media landscape so, of course, I reached out to her for perspective. To be honest, I expected her to explain to me why my ideas were probably not going to work. Instead, she signed on as a co-founder!

Together, John, Barb and I launched Relay Media with the goal of improving distribution for quality publishers. The strategy was to reduce reliance on Google and Facebook for off-platform reach and revenue and to help quality publishers regain trust in part by shifting the economics away from clickbait, fake or garbage content and toward quality original journalism.

We knew that getting publishers to work together would be hard. Editorial collaboration and commercial cooperation can be riddled with technical, organizational and political challenges. Industry-wide collaboration is usually close to impossible.

As a team we had deep experience (and some scars) from these industry dynamics, but we believed we had some ideas about how to overcome the challenges and help publishers support one another in a way that drove economics in the right direction.

It’s been said, it is better to be lucky than smart, so we hoped our timing was right. And, from previous experience I knew it was better to identify growing consumer or market waves and then jump in front of them rather than expect to force systemic change on a market or industry as a startup.

Market pressures were making Publishers more willing than ever to collaborate both editorially and commercially — at least in concept. On the commercial side, I was particularly excited about burgeoning Private Marketplaces. Clearly, a scarcity function needed to be imposed on the economic model for monetization rates to move upward again in a scaled market. I was very excited about the PMPs playing that role over time, and we definitely thought we could support that development in the industry by providing scaled inventory specifically suited for quality-focused buyers.

As for the buy side: Advertisers and agencies, in an era increasingly defined by a desire to attack fake news and eliminate fraud from the ecosystem, were increasingly focused on quality placement and viewable campaigns.

Bottom line, we thought the macro trends we were seeing could well support the vision and plan for Relay Media as a distribution platform designed to benefit quality publishers.

We got started in 2016 by launching an AMP Converter as our first product.

The AMP Converter was designed for publishers who wanted to publish AMP but knew this effort clearly fell into the outsourcing category given the nascent and constantly evolving nature of the specification. As of May 2017 we have over 75 publishers now using our AMP Converter and we’re driving more than 21MM monthly uniques — and growing!

More importantly, we knew AMP would play a pivotal role in our broader vision. Having been involved in the AMP Project from inception and armed with ideas developed through discussions with Pettitt dating back to 2014, I knew AMP could serve as a standard for content syndication across the open web in a way that maintains a publisher’s control over monetization and analytics and at the same time works across both mobile and desktop.

Through strong early traction, the experience from our first product has been invaluable in understanding how to optimize AMP for engagement and revenue. It also helped inform a tangible vision for the original goal of providing a publisher-centric distribution platform based on a publisher-to-publisher syndication network that could scale infinitely across the open web with absolute efficiency.

Now we are launching two new products to serve as the foundation of that vision.

Those products are Relay Links™ and Relay Collections™. For a fuller product description check out our Product page.

We knew our approach needed to be simple. Simple solutions to complex problems are more likely to scale efficiently, so we thought a lot about how to make Links and Collections sufficiently — if not super — simple. This was hard given the complexity of the industry problems we wanted to address.

But we think we got it.

Now, as we are about a year and a half into this startup adventure reflecting on our mission to shift the economics of content on the web in a way that will support journalism at industry scale, we are extremely excited to be launching products we hope will play a foundational role in pursuing the goal we set out to achieve back in 2015.

Of course time will tell if we in fact got it right. But our hope is that we are able to support quality publishers by giving them greater control over their own digital distribution destiny.