Image by Everett under CC BY 2.0

Will the Publishers of the Future Even Have Websites?

On Monday morning, New York Magazine published a powerful story featuring 35 women who allege they were assaulted by Bill Cosby. A few hours later, their site went down.

Whether the outage was the result of a massive influx of traffic to that story or a separate hacking incident isn’t quite clear. Either way, the magazine had a fantastic back-up plan: They directed frustrated readers to Tumblr and Instagram.

In coordination with the story being published, New York Magazine began adding small snapshots from the story, images of the affected women with quotes, soundbites adn lengthy captions taken from the article, to their Instagram account. These Instagram posts were a powerful stand-alone tool to promote their story; but, when the website went down, they became the story.

Joyce Emmons, 70, was allegedly assaulted by Bill Cosby circa 1979. Emmons managed a comedy club and became friends with Cosby. They had known each other for about two-and-a-half years when Emmons and her friend went out to a club with Cosby and one of his friends. “I had a terrible headache, and I said, ‘Bill, do you have some Tylenol? I have a mother of a headache.’ And he said to me, ‘I have something stronger.’ And I said, ‘You know I don’t do drugs.’ He said, ‘You’re one of my best friends. Would I hurt you?’ And I believed him. All I remember is taking the pill; I don’t remember going to bed. But I do remember waking up in a fog and opening my eyes, and I had no clothes on, and there was Bill’s friend totally naked in bed with me. I said, ‘What the F did you give me?’ He said, ‘Oh, you had a bad headache, you were in so much pain. I gave you a quaalude.’ I was hurt with Bill more than angry at his friend. Bill let him take advantage of me. That kills me. That’s why I know the stories of what he did to the other women are true, because if he didn’t have the respect for me, who was really a close friend, then he could do that to anybody he didn’t know very well.” Tap the photo to hear Joyce Emmons tell her story, and watch her video interview at nymag.com/cosby-women.

A video posted by New York Magazine (@nymag) on


And when they got hit with the hack, they published the entire story to their Tumblr page, where it has accumulated thousands and thousands of shares.

Of course, it wasn’t the original intention of the publishers to essentially ‘host’ the story on their Instagram and Tumblr page. Within a few hours the website was back up with the full story taking over the limelight once again. But this situation is still a perfect illustration of where the publishing industry may be headed: a future where social networks replace websites.

Are websites essential to revenue?

If you were starting a small business in 2015, without much budget for marketing, what would you do first, build a website or create a Facebook page? People are increasingly choosing the latter—it’s a lot easier to reach your intended audience inexpensively. But publishers aren’t like most businesses. Without website traffic, most currently have no source of revenue.

Publishers know social media is an essential part of promoting all types of content. But hosting content on social networks? That seems to go against the business side of publishing—driving people to your websites in order to capitalize on sign-ups and advertising revenue.

In terms of sign-ups, many publishers have turned to paywalls in order to try and earn revenue from their content. The reality is that paywalls, as they exist today, aren’t having the effect publishers are hoping for. We’re not all the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. Most people just aren’t willing to pay for access to content—even content they really enjoy—when there are so many free alternatives.

Journalist Jeff Jarvis may have said it best:

“I have never seen a business model built on the verb ‘should.’ Customers pay for products and services based on the value to them in a competitive market. The arguments in favor of maintaining paywalls around content tend to ignore the new reality of a media ecosystem built on abundance, no longer on a scarcity controlled by media proprietors who have long since lost their pricing power. In such a market, someone will always be able to sell a product like yours cheaper than you. Some spoiler might even figure out a way to make that product free, and it’s impossible to compete with free. Nevermind that the competitor’s product may not be as good.

In the market, what matters in the end is this: Is it good enough?”

So what’s the alternative? Jeff isn’t sure, and neither is anyone else. But hosting content on social networks would certainly simplify the experience you provide your readers.

If people like your page or follow you on social media—two very simple actions that require no form fill or information dump—your content could be delivered to their feeds every day without forcing them to seek it out. Content would load more quickly, and keep them on the page that they’re already browsing. In other words, you’re meeting them where they already are, creating a passive experience while giving them the opportunity to be in control.

A simpler experience usually means happier customers and a stronger relationship with your brand. That can’t be a bad idea in a climate where media brand loyalty is falling off a cliff.

Still, publishers are a business. How does social media make them money, if not through subscriptions?

The solution may lie in ads. Social media ads are far more effective than the traditional banner ads that you’ll find on many publisher sites. Publishers may be able to host their content on social networks, and then capitalize on the ad space around that content, much like they currently do on their website.

That, of course, would depend on the social networks actually handing over a cut of that revenue, and that’s exactly what Facebook has started to do.

Facebook is pushing us towards social network hosting

In May of 2015, Facebook launched Instant Articles, a new product that allows publishers to host content on the world’s biggest social network. Instant articles differ from simple posting in several ways: they can be more creatively designed or made interactive, specifically with mobile in mind; they can include certain widgets and HTML code; and, they can be surrounded by ads.

 An example of Facebook Instant Articles
An example of Facebook Instant Articles

Facebook allows publishers to sell ads in their articles and keep the revenue. They can also hand over the reigns and use Facebook’s Audience Network to earn some revenue from their content, with a 30 percent cut going to Facebook.

As an added bonus, Instant Articles allows publishers to continue to collect data about their readers using external tools, in addition to whatever data Facebook provides.

Instant Articles seems like a powerful solution that would allow publishers to host articles on social media and still earn revenue from their content. This is likely why Facebook’s launch partners included some of the biggest media companies in the world, from Buzzfeed to the New York Times.  And yet, many in the industry—even some of the launch partners—still questioned whether the tool was in fact a positive for publishers.

The Atlantic’s editor-in-chief, James Bennet, explained the fear was of “losing control over the means of your distribution.” Even those who thought the service looked great raised concerns that Facebook could just switch up the Instant Articles deal whenever they pleased, taking a bigger cut of ad revenue or changing how many people see these posts.

These concerns are understandable, until you realize that the status quo is probably even more bleak. Publishers are already struggling to stay afloat. Job cuts are rampant, and many newspapers and magazines are closing their doors. Those that survive seem to be the ones that have resonated with the social media audience. Facebook already drives 14-16 percent of the New York Times’ traffic. National Geographic gets about 25 percent of its traffic from the social network. Buzzfeed gets even more of its traffic from Facebook, and approximately 75 percent of its traffic is generated through social media. Why wouldn’t these publishers try and host revenue-generating content where the readers are?

The times, they are a-changin

Facebook’s Instant Articles are probably the biggest sign that we’re moving to a social network-hosted web. But there are others.

Countless publishers already post videos to YouTube where their followings rarely, if ever, end up on their websites. More than a million posts have been published directly to LinkedIn. Snapchat’s Discover platform hosts content from some of the world’s biggest publishers as well, and, like with Instant Articles, these publishers can sell ads in order to earn revenue from this content.

Other publishers have started to create content specific to social networks. Refinery29, for example, has built content with consumption on Facebook in mind. But none of these examples have seen publishers actually ditch their websites though. For that, you have to look to smaller sources.

 A screenshot from SAC Media's Medium page
A screenshot from SAC Media’s Medium page

Earlier this year, the journalism school at Mount San Antonio College decided to stop printing a physical newspaper and to host all of its content on Medium. Since the switch, several stories have far exceeded the readership numbers that they were ever able to attain in print. While a student paper doesn’t exactly carry weight when it comes to the publishing industry as a whole, it’s a powerful symbol of where things are headed.

The value of websites to publishers has been questioned before, many times. As those in the industry continue to struggle, that’s a debate that isn’t going away.

Though relinquishing power is a scary notion for publishers, it comes with many advantages, including making life as easy as possible for readers. If they can establish deals to protect their control over the substance, publishers may not be so hesitant to move towards social network-hosted content. And, as today’s New York Magazine hacking illustrated, they may not even have a choice.