So HuffPost is closing down its contributor platform, which is pretty huge news in the content world. It was really the original “platisher,” which employed what I often called the “mullet strategy” of publishing: business in the front, party in the back. In other words, you hire professional journalists to do serious journalism while also allowing a much larger group of amateur writers to have at it in a publishing free-for-all.
I think you’re seeing fewer and fewer publishers embracing the platisher model, and ones that employ it have scaled their contributor networks back (for instance, Forbes significantly cut down on the number of contributors to its network a few years back). There are a few reasons for this.
1. It dilutes the brand. Readers of your website have a hard time distinguishing between the professionally-produced content and what’s written by the unpaid writers, and, over time, this makes users less likely to trust the publisher. In my own experience, I’ve found myself less likely to click on Forbes links because I know that, more often that not, they’ll lead to a random contributor who I don’t necessarily trust to be delivering me the highest quality information. There’s a reason Wikipedia editors have listed Forbes in its “potentially unreliable sources” and cautioned other editors from citing articles from its contributor network. It’s not uncommon for journalists who draw salaries at these platishers to feel shame that their work is appearing alongside shoddily-argued, unprofessional content.
2. It’s an ethical nightmare. Let’s leave aside for a moment that contributors are often unpaid. I’ve always considered this to be a fake scandal and that any writer should have the agency to conduct a cost/benefit analysis as to whether writing for such a site is worth it. No, what I’m referring to is the open secret within the PR world that these platishers serve as an easy way for brands and advocacy organizations to sneak in their products or positions without scrutiny or proper disclosures. The Outline did a good exposé on this seedy underworld. While the pay-for-play articles are the most egregious forms of ethical breaches, a lot of the contributors simply use these platforms to further their own businesses or strengthen their networks; offering, for instance, to conduct an interview with an executive that they want to nail down as a paying client sometime in the future.
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3. It doesn’t scale that well. If you want to avoid problems #1 and #2 as much as possible, then you have to hire experienced editors who can not only carefully vet who’s allowed into the a contributor network, but also keep tabs of everything flowing through it. This means everything from basic copyediting to rewriting headlines to identifying potential red flags and problematic content (like when a Forbes contributor tried to portray frat boys as the true victims in the college rape epidemic). The larger your contributor network gets, the more of these community editors you need to hire. On top of that, most contributor pieces just don’t attract that much traffic. Sure, you have the occasional breakout hit, but most of these articles don’t generate more than a thousand views a piece. It’s just really hard to scale a platform without letting it become a free-for-all.
So I’m sure all of these things were part of the calculus when HuffPost decided to ditch its contributor network. As its editor Lydia Polgreen notes in the announcement:
The platform, which launched in May 2005, was a revolutionary idea at the time: give a megaphone to lots of people ― some famous, some completely unknown ― to tell their stories. At that time, social networks barely existed. Facebook was a nascent dating site for college students. Twitter had not been invented. The platforms where so many people now share their views, like LinkedIn, Medium and others, were far in the future.
And that’s the thing: HuffPost or Forbes or Fast Company or Inc (all publications that rely on a large volume of unpaid contributors) aren’t going to be able to out-platform Twitter, Facebook, Medium, or LinkedIn. A decade ago, when these platforms were much less prevalent, it made sense to try, but in 2018, as the huge platforms eat up a larger and larger portion of our internet consumption, publishers need to focus on doubling down on what they do best: creating great, differentiated content.
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