OFF THE GRID

So the Publishing Business Didn’t Die, After All

Jul 9, 10 | 7:34 AM   byMichael Wolff
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What is there to conclude from the recent ranking of the top 100 publishers by the online trade magazine, MediaPost?

It’s a ranking that claims to figure in traffic, plus “prestige, share of voice, content quality, overall design and UX, innovation and, well, importance.” In other words, it’s as sketchy as any ranking. But it does illustrate the obvious, albeit hard to quantify, fact that the consumer publishing business—the business of gathering audiences by aggregating information and then selling those audiences to advertisers—has in a remarkably short period of time been turned on its ear.

While many traditional publishers still figure on the list, with the New York Times at number one, and the Wall Street Journal at number four—Google and Wikimedia are respectively at two and three—more than half of the list consists of publishers who didn’t exist 10 years ago, half again of which did not exist five years ago. Three-year-old Newser is on the list at 25; 88-year-old Time is on the list at 100.

A curious aspect of the list is that it invites you to think of these 100 fairly diverse sites as part of one business. In other words, in the middle of the random and anarchic information outpouring of the Web, you can start to see a structured, relatively consistent, more and more identifiable and measurable business model and branding strategy for propagating information. Indeed, it is a business quite similar to the old publishing business, except with a remarkable number of new faces.

It’s a useful list—or at least a useful notion of a coherent industry—as various companies on it decide to try to significantly alter the consumer model and begin charging for content. The trade off of traffic and influence and, in effect, brand, for dollars is going to be a hard one to value—especially if, as one might expect, the early money is equivocal. But if the New York Times finds itself moving down the list—or, perish the thought, like Time, at 100, rather than 1—after it puts up a paywall, that could well alter the value of its incremental earnings. Likewise, it will be curious to see—compared to one’s peers—the power of the app strategy. Does the iPad itself, as it is promising, further revolutionize the business? Or does the iPad turn out to be a retreat from the ongoing revolution which is the Web—another limiting redoubt, and bad call, on the part of traditional publishers.

The publishing business is not only how some of us have always made our money, but it is too a social measure of what and how we think. While there are myriad other influences on us, publishers are dogged in trying to make a business out of reflecting and shaping the views of a more or less consistent audience.

The business has become unstuck these last number of years. Many of us have believed that it is altogether disappearing, subsumed by a new sort of information paradigm that includes the obsolescence of publishers. This list, however, presents quite a precise look at a distinct and evolving business. We’re still here.

More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at michael@newser.com. You can also follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWolffNYC.
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