I would have been out of business quickly if I promised and didn’t deliver. I’ll be honest. I’m upset and nervous, and I’m writing this while repeating to myself, “I knew it.”

Like many in the publishing sector, I make a living from publishing companies that rely on my team’s services for digital product development and advice. I’m in the same boat with publishers in that I’m struggling to find a viable business model. But my distress continues to mount as platforms lure publishers with promises they never maintain.

If it was me, or my company, making promises without delivering, I would have been out of business quickly. Yet when it’s a multi-billion-dollar tech company, promising distribution, discovery, business models, user data and the like, and not delivering, it’s just fine.

I can live with that though.

What I can’t stand is seeing publishers wandering and hoping to be included in beta programs to be part of someone else’s ecosystem and missing the opportunity to build their value through a strategy and a technology stack that will ultimately bring lifetime value.

Another fad that is going to bust quickly

The promised land, in which publishers do their job of telling stories and being respectable journalists while someone else solves their business problem, doesn’t exist.

A fierce battle, mainly fought among Facebook, Apple, Twitter and Google on the future of publishing has only one loser: the ones who believed Apple News would have distributed that expensive story about refugees. The ones who thought Instant Articles would be promoted to engaged readers over the others. Those who are letting Google mess with their HTML markup to render faster on mobile. The people waiting for Medium to add business models to its platform.

Apple News is just the latest fad from the Apple ecosystem. Ninety million people have a pre-installed App on their devices; someone must be reading on it, right? Nope. Publishers are underwhelmed.

Facebook Instant Articles are live on iPhones only, in the US only, with a select range of content from a select group of large American publishing outlets. And they don’t load any faster than a properly designed mobile site. And publishers can’t sell ads as you wish there; you’re limited to one 300×250 pixel ad unit every 500 words.

Google / Twitter AMP articles are just a markup technology to make rendering times better on mobile devices. Instead of designing uncluttered web experiences that respect readers and promote the brand, now we need to rewrite the markup to load assets from Google, avoid using most of the trackers and analytics providers, limiting ads and making them load seconds after the content, rendering them basically useless.

Medium is providing small publishing operations with a limited set of tools to ease the publishing process. You get a nice visual authoring system, some basic newsletter tools to reach out to followers, a way to organise content in publications. They don’t do promotion for you — you do. Discovery? None; people gather to read posts from big names just like anywhere else. Under-impressed.

From Forbes:

Battelle: How am I going to make money on Medium?

Williams: Not right now. We haven’t solved that problem quite yet. We will. We’re not going to invent some new way to make money from publishing. Will do turnkey premium-content option–with a paywall. We’ll also enable advertising. You can do branded/sponsored content on Medium, but there are no tools yet. We will have them, though.

While everyone waits for big names in technology to save their jobs, it’s now time to rethink our efforts to make journalism sustainable again.

Keep trying

If we sum up the time spent to weigh, adapt and develop strategies to leverage other companies’ platforms in order to distribute and monetise stories, adding brand dilution and uncontrolled events to the mix, we could end up with a pretty big budget to spend on valuable and measurable projects.

Trial and error, continuous development and delivery, and in-house technology development to upscale publishing operations will have an impact in the long term.

Keep trying. It is the only thing to do in the desolate landscape of digital publishing.

‹ Don’t dilute your brand; it’s the only thing people will stay attached to.
‹ Rethink current products from the ground up to add more opportunities to the mix.
‹ Launch new publications with the same content to attract vertical audiences.
‹ Launch new products.
‹ Do agile development.
‹ Teach people to pay for journalism in exchange for not being sold to advertisers.

Focus on business models

The long-term goal of any publication is to have an audience, and make enough money from it to be sustainable. Certainly storytelling and journalism have positive externalities to add to the mere balance sheets, but unless you could go the Silicon Valley way of getting funded, growing and exiting with an IPO, you’ll need a business model to stay on the market.

The lifetime value of your audience should be the target. How are you going to grow it? How are you going to grow the single-user lifetime value? Certainly advertisements aren’t adding to any of them. But what is?

Every publication is different, and it takes experience to recognise the value to be leveraged.

Once upon a time creating a publication simply meant: write, design and print. Being on the newsstand was the target. People would have checked the cover, flipped a couple pages, and decided to buy or not.

Today’s different. A lot different.

Build a technology stack

In the modern age of distribution, having an enabler is a must. Those long meetings where people gather to discuss new projects, figure out new publishing ventures, decide to adopt a new technology or not, they all need an enabler.

The enabler is building a technology stack that allows for content authoring in the first place. The best possible way, with social media feeding in with news, text, pictures and videos coexisting to shape a story.

Then content organising and outputs. In the age of distribution pushing to several channels and mediums is a must. With a modern strategy, being able to feed across several products is a goal.

The technology stack needs to be adapted and designed to grow the newsroom awareness of tools, media and channels, not to work one against the other.

It needs to be customised. Every publication is different, every team needs different tools, every decision on the top floors needs proper execution.

Your technology stack actually costs time and money, which means it’s valued. Build it.

Invest in people

Changing newsrooms, job challenges and evolving goals all conspire against staying put and staying loyal to a decades-old team.

Fresh new talent and diversity is what grows company value in the end. Heritage and traditions are all good things; moving forward is good, too.

Carefully pick and let small businesses enter your organisation. Don’t try to build a startup mentality, but hire the startup approach the company needs to create. Invest in captive businesses focused on your same goals. Cultivate relationships outside your industry. Start conversations and ultimately invest in the human network.

Adapt and spend to acquire customers

Being scared is totally understandable. Being idle is not. Protecting print as the main revenue source so far is fair, but it’s foolish to think it’ll be there forever.

Adapting to new media, devices, behaviours and sets of rules is a must for survival.

I have never seen any business operation with a customer acquisition cost of zero. That’s probably what many publishers are still underestimating. If starting a Facebook page or a Twitter handle costs nothing, how much should a new user cost?

Balancing a strategy for new media with a clear target on customer acquisition cost ratio on a given timeframe is a head start. Throwing things in the air to see what sticks is not.

Arguing that Apple News didn’t give you a return should make you think “how much did it cost me?” in the first place.