Digital Publishing Top Stories
4 mins read

The case for optimism if you’re an online publisher

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I can’t really blame you if you work in digital publishing and don’t feel exactly optimistic about the state of the industry. After all, the last year has treated us to a near constant blast of bad news for online media organizations. Vice, BuzzFeed, Verizon Media Group, and Gannet have all announced substantial layoffs in recent weeks. Venture-back publications like Mic and Mashable have been subjected to fire sales at prices much lower than their initial valuations. And some companies — Little Things, for instance — have shut down completely.

But when it comes to measuring the health of the digital publishing industry, I think it can be easy to fall victim to a form of confirmation bias. It typically doesn’t make news when a media org hires a new staff member, whereas layoffs, because they involve dozens of people losing their jobs all at the same time, tend to attract more notice. We also pay a lot of attention to the health of a relatively few large media companies — the kind that employ north of a thousand people — allowing their successes or failures to represent the state of the entire industry.

But if you take a much broader view of what constitutes digital publishing, it’s hard not to conclude that it’s an incredibly vibrant time for online content, particularly for independent creators. In fact, I would argue that there’s never been a time in history where it was easier for a writer, journalist, photographer, videographer, or musician to make a living off their work.

Let’s start with data from the Re:Create coalition, an organization that produces an annual report tracking the money made by online creators in the U.S. Its most recent report found that “more than 16.9 million independent, American creators earned a baseline of $6.8 billion from posting their music, videos, art, crafts and other works online in 2017.” What’s more, Re:Create’s research only accounts for nine platforms: Amazon Publishing, eBay, Etsy, Instagram, Shapeways, Tumblr, Twitch, WordPress and YouTube. “As a result,” the report states, “the numbers of American creators and their earnings are unavoidably understated.”

Not included in the report? Well, crowdfunding sites for starters. Recently, Patreon, the membership platform that allows fans to subscribe to their favorite creators, announced that it has over 3 million patrons who will pay out half a billion dollars to over 100,000 creators this year. It’ll soon surpass $1 billion in total payouts. It allows people like Evan Puschak, a YouTuber who creates fantastic video essays on pop culture and art, to make upwards of $170,000 a year directly from his fans. The crowdfunding platform Kickstarter claims it’s now surpassed $4 billion in pledges to over 154,000 projects from creators.

We’re also seeing the debut every year of new payment platforms that help independent creators generate income. Substack, an email tool that allows writers to easily charge users for access to premium newsletters, launched last year, and soon after was generating six-figure incomes for some of its most high-profile journalists. Co-founder Hamish McKenzie told me that Substack already has 25,000 paying subscribers and is seeing substantial growth every month. Platforms like Anchor, Revue, and Piano Media all launched recently with the explicit goal of helping independent publishers generate revenue more easily.

Influencer marketing, the term used when a content creator publishes sponsored posts within their social media feeds, generated $2 billion in 2017 and is poised to grow to $10 billion by 2020. While the industry is facing a number of ethical issues, it’s also allowing tens of thousands of creators to monetize the content they create for social media platforms.

And finally, we have the content marketing industry, which pays out upwards of $10 billion to creators each year. While some journalists turn their noses up at content marketing, considering it to be little more than glorified advertising, there are plenty of instances in which it produces content with real journalistic integrity. Recently, I interviewed an editor at Atlantic 57, the creative agency arm for The Atlantic, and she maintained that the content she creates on behalf of brands has genuine journalistic value and can be held up next to anything she produced while working for traditional news organizations. “I bring the exact same skills that I was using when I worked at PBS Newshour and ESPN before that and newspapers before that,” she told me. “So I’m approaching my storytelling work the exact same way.”

Has everyone benefited equally from the current ecosystem? Not exactly. “While those who rely on the old legacy gatekeeper system of waiting until you’re ‘discovered’ by a label/studio/publisher and then hoping they’ll do all the work to make you rich and famous, maybe that’s a bit more difficult these days,” wrote TechDirt’s Mike Masnick in reaction to the Re:Create report. “But, for actual creators, today is an astounding, unprecedented period of opportunity.”

I don’t mean to downplay the recent layoffs at major news orgs or the pain felt by those who suddenly find themselves without jobs. But when assessing the health of a particular industry, especially one as amorphous and hard to pin down as ours, I think we’re doing ourselves a disservice in allowing just a handful of companies to represent our fortunes. Publishing is going through a jarring and sometimes uncomfortable evolution, and that evolution has spawned a bevy of opportunities for content creators. The key for any digital publisher, struggling or not, is to figure out how to seize on those opportunities. No use lamenting the decline of display advertising when plenty of other newly-created business models await.

Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at For a full bio, go here.