The only pivot that might work

“It’s easy to blame the platform monopolies for publishers’ quandaries, but it’s time to also acknowledge that there are simply too many of us in the digital news space.”

Let’s face it: Digital news publishers have little reason to feel optimistic heading into 2018. There’s no shortage of ominous headlines or hot takes from the pundits and media prognosticators who, despite the fact that digital advertising will surpass $90 billion in the U.S. in the coming year, are predicting more pain for publishers.

Only 15 years ago, before the hyper-migration to digital began and a wave of consolidation swept across the print media space, U.S.-based newspapers raked in $67 billion in advertising. As many traditional publishers and newsrooms began to transform their businesses (and continue to do so today), meaningful digital advertising growth proved elusive to most, simultaneously contending with both the fickle demands of the marketplace and having to support an inordinate number of online publishers, platforms, and adtech companies.

Then came along a slew of “digital natives,” backed largely by venture capitalists, and the promise to invent a new publishing model. They stood up modern websites, relied on the social web for content distribution, and chased audiences and advertising businesses that could flourish, free from the shackles of a legacy business. Or so they thought. In reality, what many of these startups succeeded in doing was to launch new media properties, in an already over-crowded space, and produce content the world never needed. If companies like Mic, NowThis News, or even BuzzFeed never existed, would the state of news and journalism in this country look any different?

It’s easy to blame the platform monopolies for publishers’ quandaries, but it’s time to also acknowledge that there are simply too many of us in the digital news space. Digital ad spending continues to soar, but the lion’s share remains hijacked by a handful of companies, and exceedingly, gets vacuumed into the programmatic abyss. But if there’s one silver lining, it’s this: For too long, an excessive number of VC-backed publishers and adtech companies have been able to survive by siphoning off the digital advertising hose. Those days are winding down, however, and 2018 will be a year of reckoning for many. We are already seeing it via reports of missed revenue forecasts, shrinking company valuations, big M&A activity, and of course, pivots!

In today’s digital news economy, either you are a buyer or a seller. It’s time to decide which you are, and act accordingly; getting caught somewhere in between means being dealt a knockout blow, and the VCs won’t pull you off the ropes. 2018 will be all about pivoting towards consolidation, and creating strength-in-numbers alliances. That’s likely a good thing, as it should open up wider lanes for many heritage-based news publishers to maneuver. Those who can look past the headlines and sprint towards the opportunities.

Michael Kuntz is president of advertising sales and brand partnerships for the USA Today Network.

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