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As the line between platform and publisher continues to blur, who wins and who loses?

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As publishing tools have become cheaper and more distributed, many have benefited from this ongoing democratization of distribution — whether it’s Twitter (s twtr) users posting newsworthy updates from war zones, or would-be authors publishing their thoughts on Medium. That’s the power of a platform that allows anyone to publish. It’s when the line blurs between platform and publisher that things start to get tricky, not just for writers but for readers as well.

In a recent post at Re/code, Jonathan Glick of Sulia — which is itself both a social-media platform and a publisher — came up with a rather ugly portmanteau of a word to describe this phenomenon: he called them “platishers,” a term that not unsurprisingly unleashed a storm of ridicule from media insiders on Twitter.

But while Glick’s chosen term borders on the gag-inducing, what he describes is very real. There is a whole category of service that exists somewhere in between platform and publisher, and it includes companies like Medium, Gawker and LinkedIn (s lnkd). I think that list should probably include Facebook (s fb) as well, since it exercises editorial control over content by deleting things — including pages about the war in Syria. It even has a paid staff of editors now for its Paper app.

A spectrum from open platform to publisher

There are a wide range of models along the spectrum from open platform to true publisher. Twitter has made a point of repeatedly telling users that they are the free-speech wing of the free-speech party, and they go out of their way to protect their users’ rights to post content. When they have to, they choose to block certain content rather than deleting it without explanation.

Medium and LinkedIn, meanwhile, allow anyone to publish on their platforms, but at the same time they also actually commission pieces from specific writers and in some cases pay them. Forbes has gone from being a traditional publisher to one that offers its blogging platform to almost anyone who wants it, including brands. Even Digg — formerly a pure aggregator — recently started commissioning content.

A number of issues arise in this kind of environment. From a practical point of view, one of them is the sheer profusion of choices for writers when it comes to where they should publish their content. To some extent, Medium and LinkedIn and Forbes provide an outlet for those who like to write, but only occasionally. Even writers like David Carr of the New York Times and Felix Salmon of Reuters have used Medium, despite the fact that they work for a traditional publisher.

What does a writer get in return?

One of the questions to ask is what the platform gives writers that they couldn’t get anywhere else, and the number one answer is usually reach — something Medium editor Evan Hansen joked about in a response to Glick’s post. It’s also partly about branding: Medium is seen as cool and new, and brings some cachet because it is run by former Twitter CEO and Blogger founder Evan Williams. It also has a great, minimalistic writing interface that many writers admire.

LinkedIn is more utilitarian, and aimed at a more professional market, while Gawker — with its Kinja platform, which turns every commenter into a blogger — and BuzzFeed are on the irreverent end of the branding spectrum. Kinja in particular is a fascinating attempt by Gawker founder Nick Denton to level the playing field between readers and writers.

As a number of people have pointed out since Glick wrote his post, this phenomenon is not brand new: The Huffington Post (s aol) was one of the first to try and straddle that line when it launched in 2005, since it combined “professional” writers with the hoi polloi. But it arguably wasn’t a true platform because it exercised some editorial control over everything that appeared on the site. SB Nation and Bleacher Report have also had various aspects of both platform and publisher as they have evolved over time.

Publishers need to be transparent

We seem to have gotten past the debate over whether platforms or aggregators should pay their contributors — although there is still some criticism of Medium for not making it more clear who gets paid and why. A true marriage of platform and publisher, Glick argues, would ensure that both free and paid contributors are on the same level and are treated more or less equally.

One interesting aspect of these blurred lines is that it often forces platform-publishers like Medium into an awkward position. After a controversy over one recent post, a Medium spokesman said “we stand by her story,” in much the same way editorial outlets like magazines stand behind their reporters — and yet other types of questionable content appear on Medium all the time.

For me at least, one of the most disturbing aspects of this phenomenon is when a platform like Facebook starts to act like a publisher, but doesn’t give its users any way of knowing why it makes the decisions it does. One of the things that I think makes people so upset about Facebook deleting pages (apart from the impact on information about things like Syria) is that the process is so frustratingly opaque — no one really knows why some pieces of content disappear and others remain.

In that sense, the process is a black box (a very old media approach), and that’s disturbing. For any publisher/platform, the bottom line is that it’s our content, which we are lending to these platforms in return for something else — reach, feedback, etc. What are their duties or responsibilities toward us? Without our content they would have no business, and they would be wise to remember that.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Thinkstock / Worac

10 Responses to “As the line between platform and publisher continues to blur, who wins and who loses?”

  1. If you were the only content guy then you would be in the driver seat but your not. As a writer you are not the tail wagging the dog therefore you become subservient to the system. Unfortunately for writers platforms rule and we are entering an era that platforms will dominate.

  2. “Reach” is not pay. Fewer and fewer “publishers” pay for good writing. Writing and research is no longer something that is seen as a skill, a skill that requires experience, talent and time. While traditional publishers have issues, they also provided distribution, editing and fostered writers and research. There are barely any editors left, so many long form works, both fiction and non-fiction, are much longer than necessary and much less coherent.

    i would argue there’s not a greater choice of what to read, there’s more mediocre writing that says similar things, like this article, for example. Just because you see more doors doesn’t mean they open onto different places.

  3. Lewis Dvorkin


    “Forbes has gone from being a traditional publisher to one that offers its blogging platform to almost anyone who wants it, including brands.”

    This is NOT an accurate statement. We have a vigorous vetting process for contributors that begins with our channel editors, many of whom have been at FORBES for a decade or more. We check clips, references and much more, right down to phone or in-person interviews. Nine out of 10 people seeking to be a FORBES contributor are not accepted. As for our BrandVoice program, each marketer interested in publishing on must be approved by a four-member panel that includes myself.

    As I’ve written, FORBES is a curated network of content creators and we provide the distributed publishing tools that certainly make us a platform of voices more than a Web site of old. Here’s one of the many posts I’ve written on our model.

  4. Nicholas Paredes

    I’ve got to agree with the Tweets in that this has been a long time coming. One has to admit however that industry changes take much longer than a few years. It took this long for the web to be entrenched in business and for e-commerce to become a threat to physical stores.

    In 1999 I gave a presentation to a publishing client that essentially stated that they had to stop producing “products” and begin developing a “service.” A platform is a service. And in educational publishing, data would have to become the primary access point to content. This took quite a long time, and is still not complete.

    Markets have to change, and all of those billions of dollars of value (printing presses and distribution networks) have to be shed. This leaves smaller companies able to compete. It creates customers who will access the content on their monetary terms. We are far from complete if personalization is any indication.

  5. =) lovely post, <3 the old skool twr.
    there are no winners and there are no losers in a truly collaborative world says the idealist. the reality is the publishers and platforms steal content and ideas constantly from the artists and the creatives (read: general public) who give free of themselves alllllllllllllllllllllllllllll the time. the best things in life are free, but sometimes like when people try to assume positions that do not exist in order to control thoughts of process . . . sigh. sorry for the mini rant!

    the internet is a oneness that is in constant motion, its only a blur until you truly connect (in 3D world) its all just a game, really, that the lawyers and politicians play with one another until the people start reading the words that are actually written and hold a common meaning thereof ….. oh i could go on, but i've already written too much about this kinda stuff for about 5 people's lifetimes! #movingon