The internet has changed a great deal in the mediascape, from the kinds of stories journalists cover to the complex challenges faced by editors running mainstream and startup publications. But it’s fair to argue that nothing has changed so much as the role of a publisher today, versus what their job was before the dawn of the internet.
It used to be that a publisher was responsible for the logistics and practicalities of delivering newspapers, magazines and other printed materials into the hands of its readership. In a pre-digital world this had far more to do with aspects like printing presses, delivery trucks, newsstands and subscriptions; in other words, their focus was all on things rooted in the physical world. Today, publishers who want to be successful—that is, get their content to reach as many people as possible—have to actually be based on the opposite of the physical: impressions, page views, data, comments, bounce rates etc. In the space of just a decade the role of the publisher has gone from being focused on the entirely tangible to entirely intangible.
As Emily Bell, writing in the Guardian recently put it, “publishing is actually flourishing, just not for publishers.” That is to say, now that the physical constraints of publishing don’t really exist, anyone with an internet connection and a laptop can publish, disseminate and share their own material. For consumers, this is a win; it means there is more content to consume from a wider array of sources and voices. However, for legacy publications who have built up expensive operating costs to deliver news to their readers, it’s a challenge. it has meant they have to shift a lot of their focus and metrics of success to other areas. While many people still have a nostalgic association with print, the reality is that if you don’t modernise accordingly, you’re likely to be left in the dust.
Now that we’re firmly into the digital age, it’s clear that some publishers have excelled at this more than others. Buzzfeed is an online-only publisher who is rooted in data and feedback from its readers in real time. In fact, it thinks of its readers more as users who actually have a role in publishing its content. But for newspapers like the UK Independent, which just announced it is ceasing its print publication, a failure to adapt meant it couldn’t stay relevant in the digital age.
Here’s a look at a then versus now at some of the key aspects of publishing.
The Newsstand: This is essentially where readers find your content. While it used to be a physical place where readers could browse and decide what to buy, it is now a social feed where a reader can scroll through and pick which articles they want to read individually, rather than an entire issue.
The printing press: Probably once the most expensive part of a publishing operation, the print press has been replaced by a Content Management System, or a piece of software that allows users in a publication to upload and edit content in real time. Unlike the days of typos that live forever, a CMS means pieces can be edited even after they’re published.
Delivery trucks: There’s no need to physically move issues of a newspaper around a city any more: your readers do it for you when they post articles to their own social feeds. This method is arguably more powerful, because sharing an article not only disseminates it to more people, but endorses it as a piece of writing.
Letter to the editor: Piles and piles of mail stacking up in an editor’s office is a thing of the past; today readers can offer their opinions right after reading a piece, directly below it in the comments section.