Who Deserves to Be Called a Publisher?
What does it mean to be called a publisher? In an earlier era, the term called to mind the entrepreneurial titans of print journalism. William Randolph Hearst. Henry Luce. Joseph Pulitzer. Condé Nast (the person, not the company). These were legendary publishers who established vast media enterprises. These were powerful publishers who found their ways into the hearts and minds of the masses, whom politicians feared or respected.
More recently, the term seems to have lost its meaning. Companies that used to call themselves “publishers” are now more likely to call themselves “cross-platform content creators” – anodyne and generic though that may sound.
The term “publisher” also has come to describe fewer and fewer jobs in the industry. Indeed, within the last year, Time Inc. and Condé Nast, both estimable companies built on foundations of print media, have all but eliminated “publisher” as a job title, recognizing that by 2016 those functions had become little more than glorified ad sales directors.
At the same time in a different context, the term “publisher” has grown to encompass vast numbers of others who previously would not have laid claim to the title. In the argot of the digital advertising marketplace, all producers of professional-caliber content (whether words, photography, graphics, video, audio) are classified as “publishers” regardless of whether or not they have ever produced anything on a printing press. In present parlance, being a publisher connotes being a content creator who displays a degree of professionalism and who (usually) accepts advertising. So in this context, TV broadcasters are publishers, as are digital-only magazines (like the one you are reading). In this broad and encompassing definition, most bloggers would count as publishers. So perhaps would controversial YouTube stars and purveyors of fake news.
As we recently learned, Cameron Harris fabricated a fictitious but professional-looking story about the discovery of thousands of fraudulent ballots pre-marked for Hillary Clinton, promoted it until it went viral on social media by appealing to those already pre-disposed to dislike Clinton; what’s more, Harris earned $5,000 from Google for the automated ad placements that resulted. Professional-looking content + ad revenue. Does he deserve to be called a publisher?
Perhaps our definitions need to be reconsidered in a way that restores some honor to the title of publisher. Perhaps we need some kind of quality scale that rewards good behavior. Does the website have explicit standards of journalistic verification and fact checking for the content it produces? Does it screen its suppliers and its content partners to uphold those standards? Can it honestly claim that most of its traffic comes from “organic” sources – ie. humans who really want that content. Does it buy traffic from third parties in order to meet advertising obligations (a notorious source of fraudulent ad impressions).Does it employ strong bot filters? Does it submit to frequent audits from industry accreditation bodies like the MRC and the AAM? Does it use any form of copy acceptance to screen out abusive misleading ads or phony content recommendations (e.g. “Trump authorizes new mortgage lending”) designed to tempt unwary consumers to click through. Can it demonstrate real consumer value by getting people to pay for the content they consume?
This is just a partial list, but you get my drift. There are very specific, auditable criteria that could separate quality publishers from nefarious bad actors in the content creation business. How many of the top 500 or the top 100,000 in the Alexa list would pass muster with such a quality scale?
In the past few months, we have seen many articles commenting on the “flight to quality” taking place both among consumers and advertisers. In the wake of the populist-inspired Brexit vote in the U.K. and the election of Donald Trump in the U.S., the “quality media” in both countries have seen an enormous upsurge in paid consumer demand. The New York Times ended 2016 with 1.6 million digital subscribers, up 47% for the year. The Washington Post reported a 75% gain in subscribers in 2016, more than doubling their revenue from digital subscriptions. Similar upticks were reported by such publications as The Guardian, Financial Times, and The Wall Street Journal.
On the advertiser side, the “flight to quality” was prompted as some advertisers discovered, to their horror, that their programmatic ad buys had inadvertently been funding terror sites or the propagation of fake news. Already alarmed at the continued presence of fraud and junk in the digital advertising supply chain, these more recent discoveries added insult to injury. Hence, demands for probity and quality rang loud and clear at recent industry meetings.
It’s time for a re-set. It’s time to restore a bit of honor to the term “publisher” and thereby restore more trust and comity to the digital advertising marketplace. More explicit and transparent indices of quality are needed.