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Publishers build a common tech platform together

“From a business standpoint, publishers aren’t competing with each other so much as they are with the big technology platforms — Google, Facebook, Apple, and so on. Yet publishers expend huge amounts of energy optimizing competitively against one another.”

I believe that publishers will attempt to collaboratively build interoperable technology products in order to survive.

Over the past several years, many publishing companies have tried to differentiate themselves by building their own technology platforms. Smaller publishers have also been forced to focus more on technology just to keep pace with a quickly evolving industry, but they’re usually priced out by the competition.

In this environment, consumers have benefited from generally improved user experiences: better mobile experiences, faster page load times, and improved ad targeting. But the many other necessary areas where publishers have invested in technology — content management systems, asset and workflow management, various kinds of data and knowledge management optimizations, and so on — aren’t readily apparent to the user and have not yet substantially improved the bottom lines of these companies.

Therefore publishers — especially legacy print companies — are facing some hard truths:

  • Publishing and monetizing content in the digital age requires covering a large surface area of technology needs. Unless publishers are willing to invest substantially in digital product development, they risk falling behind in the technology arms race.
  • By and large, legacy publishers are also not culturally positioned to transform into technology companies. Most legacy publishers’ decision-making is grounded in editorial intuition. That’s appropriate for journalistic efforts, but it doesn’t effectively translate to digital product development — and in fact often impairs it.
  • Small publishers certainly don’t have the resources to build everything in-house. At best, they continue to survive by leveraging other publishers’ tools or cobbling together a patchwork of third-party products.
  • Off-the-shelf publishing products, while sometimes valuable — even occasionally indispensable — aren’t integrated with each other or with the increasingly proprietary technology stacks in use across the industry.
  • From a business standpoint, publishers aren’t competing with each other so much as they are with the big technology platforms — Google, Facebook, Apple, and so on. Yet publishers expend huge amounts of energy optimizing competitively against one another.

I believe what publishers have in common — how they do business, the ways they serve their readers/viewers, who they truly compete against — is far more important than how they differentiate from one other. Consumers don’t really care about the internals of the business. They just want the best, most valuable editorial content delivered as quickly as possible with a minimum of friction.

One way to meet the many needs that most if not all publishers share would be to collaboratively develop their digital products. Specifically, they should build for interoperability. One publisher’s CMS, another’s content APIs, a third company’s data offering — they might one day all work together to allow all ships to rise and to reclaim advertising and subscription revenue from the platforms. This might allow publishers to refocus on differentiating where it truly matters for the user: in the quality of their content.

Jonathan Gill was until recently a director of product at Condé Nast.

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