What should we call a publisher — like Gawker — that provides a tech platform on which anybody, not just its staff, can create content? What should we call a tech platform — like Medium — that has a team of editors and pays some contributors to create content?
It’s something in between a publisher and a platform — something that weaves together the strengths of both.
Don’t laugh. Okay, you can laugh, but we still need a name. There’s something new going on right now. A new generation of media companies is experimenting with opening their content-management systems to outsiders. Tech platforms are realizing the benefits of combining algorithms with editors and experts. This is resulting in a new hybrid.
The question is whether this hybrid will thrive, or whether it’s ultimately an unstable synthesis.
First, some background.
In the post–America Online era, Internet media brands divided themselves into platforms and publishers. Platforms enabled some mix of discovery and communication, whereas publishers made content.
Google quickly emerged as the main platform of this era, and when the Web 2.0 startups came along — Digg, Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, YouTube, Reddit, etc. — they followed that Google model. Nobody did both, and there were a lot of strong reasons for this separation.
The first was an emotional reaction to the failure of AOL and Time Warner. AOL was seen as an ungainly media-plus-tech hybrid, and the horribly botched merger with Time Warner, the ultimate media company, only made things worse. The lesson learned was that tech and media couldn’t live happily under the same roof.
The second was ideological. What Google meant, at least partly, by not being “evil,” was that they shouldn’t try to do and be and control everything. The idea was that they (the platform) should be happy sending users off to the best content, and the way to do that most fairly was to leave the decision-making to an algorithm, not an editor or a biz-dev dude.
Another reason was legal. By the mid-2000s, there was a decade of legal practice that protected platforms from complaints of indecency, libel and piracy, provided that the platform was entirely automated and took down the bad stuff quickly. This made the pure-tech approach safer.
Then there was the scalability argument. When tech folks looked at the media-business model, they saw its prospects choked by the cost and time to hire writers, designers, photographers and editors. They believed it could never have the hockey-stick growth that investors and options-holding employees require.
And, perhaps most importantly, there was the question of organizational focus. What were you going to be really good at? Engineering or “content”? You couldn’t do both, because that would mean that one would be subordinate to the other. And if you were going to attract the best talent in the world, they wouldn’t go for that. Great engineers want to work for great engineers.
You might notice that most of these reasons were reasons for tech companies not to do content, more than the other way around. But it’s also true that media companies internalized these views and accepted that they should be technology adopters, not inventors. Partner with platforms; don’t try to compete.
And yet, despite this bevy of biases, this now appears to be changing. It’s not just Medium and Gawker. A flurry of well-funded media founders are ignoring the schism and plunging into ambitious projects that embrace the platform as a concept. Suddenly, we have lots of … yes, platishers.
BuzzFeed is built on a unique publishing and analytics system with which any contributor can aim to create viral content. Vox Media has an army of developers working on its content-management system, making it possible to quickly launch new affiliate sites like Ezra Klein’s Project X. Rafat Ali calls Skift, his travel-information business, a “mediata” company, referring to its deep investments in technology to capture and analyze travel data. Pierre Omidyar’s First Look Media is organized as a cutting-edge, for-profit technology company, which in turn funds a not-for-profit journalism organization. My own company, Sulia, is a platform for subject-matter experts that combines traditional editorial categories with algorithmic ranking.
So why is this happening now?
One reason is generational. For the most part, the entrepreneurs building these platishers have spent their entire careers on the Web. They don’t suffer from the doubt of their print predecessors. They believe they can hire great technologists and build great products. Perhaps more importantly, they grew up in Web 2.0, and live on social networks. They understand the power of providing platforms that other people can use to make stuff.
But the bigger reason is the rapidly changing landscape of media distribution and revenue. The combination of mobile’s small screens and programmatic ad buying has made it clear that successful consumer properties need to have enormous amounts of traffic, and ad units that are essentially content.
The platisher addresses both of these requirements. First, by leveraging partners and users to create content, the platisher can grow much faster than it can by relying on only the newsroom. Second, by enabling marketers to create content, it will be faster to sell, worth much more, and perform much better than banners. And, ideally, the editorial DNA of the platisher — insightful curation, unique content, differentiated brand — makes it a more desirable place for an influential creator or a brand-conscious marketer to publish than just a plain ol’ tech platform. That’s a very exciting idea, and it’s what Medium, BuzzFeed, Gawker, Vox and Sulia are all pursuing.
Of course, we platishers still have a lot of issues to figure out. All of the original questions are still in play: Emotional, legal, ideological, organizational.
Can platishers hire and retain Google-class talent? Do they need to?
How will platishers police brand-damaging content on their platform? How about plagiarism and copyright?
What is the right balance between algorithm and editorial judgment in prioritizing content?
What is the right balance between staff, freelance, partner and “community” contributors?
But there’s also one more question to consider:
If the platisher model is a stable formula — that is, if it can scale to massive audience numbers and motivate marketers to pay a premium for presence — what’s to stop the pure platform players like Facebook, Twitter and Google from embracing it? YouTube has already gone the furthest, fostering subject-based “networks.” Facebook’s latest creation, Paper, employs editors to curate and organize content. And on Wednesday, Dick Costolo told Wall Street, “We want to do a better job organizing content for our users along topical lines rather than just chronological lines.”
Media people, like me, tell ourselves that pure platforms won’t be interested in doing what we do, or that they won’t be good at it, and perhaps that’s true. But it’s also true that enterprising organizations adapt to opportunities. Traditions and biases can be overcome. The rise of the platishers is evidence of just that.
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