What Does a Modern Publisher Do?

Sep 03, 2020

3 min read

Historically, publishers have have sought to understand their audiences in service of more effectively monetizing them through both subscriptions and advertising sales. Some publishers have historically boasted outsized roles on the editorial side — Luce, Hearst, and Pulitzer would not be denied — but between the rise of the national magazine in the late 1940s and the arrival of search and social platforms a little over a decade ago, the majority of publishers focused reconciling reader and advertiser feedback. But as the internet facilitated hyper-growth and rendered conversion rates easily measurable, many if not most publishers drifted towards sales and hired more junior executive types to focus on audience development.

The person selling the audience and pushing the claim of endemic expertise in demographic capture ceased to be the person doing the capturing. The reality of readerships diverged from their sale. Publishers became salespeople and salespeople, through no fault of their own and to the detriment of their organizations, were shut out of the work of publishing.

Over the last several years, as search and social platforms have ceased to deliver reliable audience growth, a renewed focus on reader revenue has led to the launch of numerous premium subscription products and paywalled newsletters. For audience development personnel charged with treating publications’ extant audiences as upper funnel leads and driving conversion, this represented an opportunity to step into a quasi-Publisher role. But making that step in the absence of client-facing sales conversations proved hazardous. Few truly ambitious and audience-centric efforts emerged.

Predictably, the addition of conversion metrics failed to drive the creation of transformative editorial.

Where publishers were once in a position to bring editors word from the front line of sales, those responsible for new reader revenue within most media orgs are largely charged with optimizing marketing collateral rather than thinking alongside potential readers about what kinds of information and reporting supports a price point.

There’s an ongoing and necessary focus within the journalism community on the separation of church and state. Church is generally understood to mean editorial functions (the keeping of the reportorial faith) and state is generally understood to encompass all business functions. This is helpful in any environment in which advertising sales drives growth for two reasons. The obvious reason is that institutional insulation protects editors from having to wildly recast their publications to suit advertisers and whatever claim was made in the meeting. The second is that is allows sales people to make wild claims in meetings.

This sort of editorial independence is from sales is inarguably good, but it’s fundamentally different than editorial independence from reader demands.

At Paperwork Studios, we’re working to resurrect an older model whereby publishers have dual roles, selling to our target readers (largely on an enterprise basis) and using personal sales conversations to better understand what readers value. While our editors remain fully independent, tasked with making the best decisions they can in service of their audiences, our publishers provide a steady stream of feedback from the marketplace. Are metrics involved? Naturally, but so is a nuanced conversation had and had again.

We believe that conversation, a relentless and consistent dialogue about how best to serve an audience, is not just a feature of a well-designed media business, but its beating heart.

So what is a publisher’s job? At Paperwork Studios, it’s to bring audience feedback and insight into that conversation, connecting the concept of payment to the behavior of service. Our publishers work hard to ensure that our readers pay for personal consideration as well as content and that they consistently receive both.