Is publishing about to get Spotified? The platform publishing future

Publishing could be Spotified within five years. iTunes only needed a year to take ascendancy over record labels, and now Google Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) and Facebook Instant Articles (IA) promise the same fate for publishers.

The implied end goal for both is a platform publishing future that mirrors the platform-dominated present of the music industry, where publishers are pure content creators with exclusive output channels. At this stage however, that future remains hypothetical, rather than a reality, and here’s why:

The new formats aren’t being used by everyone

The key groundwork for iTunes was having all the major record labels signed up. Having some, but not all content, is a headache for platforms, with Spotify’s ongoing spat with Taylor Swift only the most high profile instance of this. Publishers are looking to emulate key features of AMP and IA in their own offerings, without committing to the new formats.

The Daily Telegraph unveiled a new mobile app in October, designed to focus on speed, the key driving force behind AMP and IA, by stripping away unnecessary features and providing a higher quality experience for their users. Bloomberg has the same view that there’s nothing to stop publishers creating “a really fast mobile template,” independent of the platforms, which brings them all the benefits and none of the shortcomings.

And even those who are using them, aren’t totally convinced

Some of Facebook IA’s earliest adopters are becoming more sceptical of the promise of the platform. In its current form, they’ve seen that for a swifter experience, they’ve sacrificed analytics and the mobile traffic they could command before IA was introduced.

National Geographic and NBC News, which were both in the first wave of publishers on the format, have dropped their output. After initially posting in high volume, they are now adjusting their strategy based on initial learnings: it works as a format in their arsenal, but cannot be their only tool if they want to maintain control over distribution. Publishers more generally are unwilling to become totally dependent on the format without greater control and incentives for them.

So they’re looking at alternative revenue streams

Apple's iTunes was a way for “music to reach consumers,” that record labels desperately needed. Publishing, on the other hand, has alternative revenue streams open to it, foremost of which is 'comtent' (commerce-related content), which was a key factor in The New York Times purchase of The Wirecutter for $30m in September. Where advertising only drives value for brands themselves, comtent is valuable to readers and publishers alike. Entire publications like Wirecutter and Refinery29 are based around it, and even more traditional publishers such as Hearst and Business Insider have gone as far as building entire editorial commerce teams from it.

So while publishing could be Spotified, that fate isn’t a foregone conclusion

It’s tempting to imagine a platform publishing future where publishers are content creators instead of destinations, but the publishing industry isn’t yet facing the same distribution and revenue challenges that led the record labels to Apple 15 years ago. It lacks a clear incentive to fully commit to AMP or IA, beyond improved load time offered by the formats, and there isn’t yet the same urgency that pushed labels into signing up to iTunes.

Instead, AMP and IA offer faster load time and streamlined experience in exchange for a decrease in already dwindling ad revenue and less actionable insights for publishers to better inform their content creation and curation with. Publishers also have multiple lucrative revenue streams open to them, including comtent, which through they can use to maintain themselves and keep control of their distribution out of the hands of platforms.

Until AMP or IA offer more than speed for publishers, convincing them that a platform future is the right one is going to be an uphill battle.

Alicia Navarro is chief executive and co-founder of Skimlinks