Same Conversation. Different Location.

online_publishing_vxwndNote: This is my first OnlineSpin column for MediaPost.

First of all, let’s get the pleasantries out of the way. I’m Gord. I’m new to Online Spin, but not to MediaPost. If you don’t know me, I have been writing over on the Search Insider side of the house for the past 10 and a half years.

Nice to meet you.

Now, on to business. Just before the switch, I took online publishing to task for sacrificing it’s ability to communication for the sake of advertising revenue. The user experience on most online publications is so littered with intrusive ads and misleading click bait that it becomes almost impossible to actually read the content. My point, which is probably obvious, is that the short-term quest for revenue is jeopardizing the long-term health of the business model.

Among the comments posted were a few asking for guidance rather than just criticism. Fair enough. It’s much easier to criticize that it is to create. So, where does the future of publishing lie?

The problem, as it is in so many other cases, is that technology has annihilated the proverbial publishing apple cart. Publishing as an industry began because of the high transactional cost of publicizing information. Information began to be stacked vertically, because that was the only cost effective way to do it. These vertical stacks of information attracted audiences because it was the only place they could get this information. Limited access points created large and loyal audiences which in turn allowed ad supported revenue models. Because transactional costs were high, information was scarce. Scarcity enabled profit.

Today, technology is, one by one, leveling the vertical stacks of information. Transactional costs of publishing have dropped to essentially zero. Yes, I’m publishing this post through a “publisher” but it would be just as easy for me to publish to my own blog. And while MediaPost’s audience is probably larger than my own bog’s, the gap between the two grows less every day. The lower transactional costs of publishing have erased the scarcity of information.

This disruptive change has flipped the publishing model on its head. The problem with information used to be that we had too little access. The problem today is that we have too much. What we need now are filters. We need a way to separate the signal from the ever-increasing noise.

Now, think of what this reversal does for revenue models of publishers. If the problem before were access, we would value any source of information that provided this access. We would be loyal to it. We would spend a significant amount of time with it. But if the problem becomes one of filtering, our loyalty level drops significantly. We just want to get to the information that is most interesting to us as quickly and efficiently as possible. If we have any allegiance to publishers at all, it is as a content filter. This is exactly why publishing empires are fragmenting into more and more specific vertical niches. We don’t need access points – we need effective filters.

Now, back to my original point. If the only way to make revenue from publishing is to introduce more noise – in the form of intrusive advertising – we quickly see the problem. We want publishers to eliminate extraneous noise and they add more. And to compound the problem, they intentionally blur the line between signal and noise in an attempt to generate more click-throughs. And, as Joe Marchese rightly points out, this vicious cycle is exacerbated by the bogus metric of “impressions” that publishers seem to have latched on to. The reader’s intent and the publisher’s intent are on a collision course with each other.

Given this, is there a way to save publishing? Perhaps, but it will be in a form much different than any we currently see. Publishing’s role may be in serving both as a filter and a matchmaker. More to come next Tuesday

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