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Aug. 11, 2016, 1:05 p.m.
Business Models

“It feels antiquated”: The job of the publisher is evolving (and even disappearing) at media companies

“When you hear it, you think of someone at a company publishing books or periodicals. We’re a digital-first company now, and the job titles should reflect that.”

The old days of media are going away, and the traditional role of publisher is going with them.

The last few months have been a time of major upheaval for the publisher gig. For magazine and newspapers, the publisher has traditionally been a executive charged with overseeing all parts of a publication’s business operations, particularly sales, circulation, and marketing. That, however, is quickly changing. Last month, Time Inc. said that it was phasing out its publisher jobs as part of a reorganization of its sales teams. In place of publisher, Time Inc. appointed a handful of ad sales execs in charge of advertising sectors (food and beverage, beauty) rather than specific media brands.

The move marked a major shift for Time Inc., which has traditionally oriented its sales structures around its tentpole titles. But Time Inc. sales and marketing president and COO Mark Ellis said that the company had to respond to the way the way brands and agencies are increasingly looking to do deals. Rather than buy ad spots alongside specific brands, the industry is moving towards buying audiences across brands. And sales structures have to reflect that shift, said Ellis.

“Changing the name is just a small piece of larger structural change, which is to to serve customers better,” he said. “Agencies regularly tell us that they don’t have the bandwidth to see 20 different sales leads, so we want to give something more integrated.”

Time Inc. hasn’t been the only media company that’s seen the writing on the wall for the publisher role. Tronc said in March that it was combining the editor and publisher roles at newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, reflecting the new ways that editorial and business roles are overlapping. Gannett also pulled a similar move earlier this year, when its local market publishers were retitled as “presidents.”

Still, while traditional media organizations are ditching the publisher title, at digital-first companies, the role is merely evolving. Last month Vox Media named Melissa Bell, formerly its vice president for growth, as its first publisher in over two years. The role comes with a diverse list of responsibilities for Bell, who will be charged with connecting and overseeing the many parts of Vox’s organization — including sales, editorial, and product. She’ll also be charged with evaluating new distribution opportunities on existing and up-and-coming platforms. Running sales, its worth noting, isn’t in her job description, which is a departure from the traditional approach to the publisher role at media organizations.

“My role is to help all of the groups think more holistically about the product experience in all its forms. I’m here to make sure we’re all marching in the same direction and making sure the right people are connected,” Bell said.

Bell said that Vox’s approach to the publisher role was inspired in part by that of BuzzFeed, which promoted Dao Nguyen as its first publisher in late 2014. Nguyen, previously BuzzFeed’s head of growth, has taken on a more analytics-focused approach to the job, with a focus on tech, data, and product — putting energy into social and mobile distribution more than sales and business operations. (BuzzFeed declined to comment for this story.)

“We are redefining the role of publisher to reflect the way the world works today where technology is the core of publishing,” BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti wrote in a staff memo at the time. “Dao is a new type of Publisher. She isn’t the heir to a newspaper baron and she won’t be responsible for the business, selling ads or physical newsstand distribution.”

Still, there’s a real semantics element here that shouldn’t be ignored, particularly for legacy publishers. Time Inc.’s Ellis said that at least some part of Time Inc.’s name change was driven by the “antiquated” nature of the publisher destination. “When you hear it, you think of someone at a company publishing books or periodicals. We’re a digital-first company now, and the job titles should reflect that.”

Photo by Patrick used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Aug. 11, 2016, 1:05 p.m.
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