Online Publishing Paradigms Shift Power to Writers

May 07, 2013

May 2013 Issue

One of the great dilemmas facing traditional print media is the idea that the internet makes everyone a publisher-writers are no longer beholden to publishers who guard the gate to large printing and distribution systems. In the mobile age, publishing capabilities literally sit in the palm of your hand--and when you add the ability to develop large networks via social media and substantial self-funding sources, the game has changed completely.

The self-publishing part isn't a new phenomenon, of course. It's as old as Web 2.0 itself. We have seen a generation of publishers such as Rafat Ali of paidContent, Michael Arrington of TechCrunch, and Richard MacManus of ReadWriteWeb (now known as Read-Write) become millionaires after launching their publications in their living rooms with a laptop and a credit card.

What these early internet publishers were able to do was take advantage of the new medium. I learned the power of self-publishing in 2003 when I met Ali at a business blogging conference. As soon as he told me about the power of this new medium I was hooked, and I've been blogging ever since.

When you've grown up knocking on the door of big publishing concerns, begging for a chance to get inside the editorial fencing, it's a heady experience when you can create your own publication with a few free tools and send it out to the world. I've never taken it as far as Ali, Arrington, or MacManus, but I've recognized the power inherent in the digital disruption of publishing as we knew it in the 20th century.

Yet for all that power, there is still a cachet that certain publishing brands carry. What writer, for instance, would not want to have a byline in The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal? These brands still have weight and reputation, and being published under these mastheads usually means being exposed to a much wider audience than most of us typically enjoy.

But the balance of power is still shifting, even today. Writing stars suddenly carry great influence-and sometimes even great control-which was never seen in the days of print journalism. Take the case of, for instance, where Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg lead an all-star team of writers. AllThingsD is published by Dow Jones & Co., Inc., owners of The Wall Street Journal.

As I wrote this column, there were reports that News Corp. might be shopping AllThingsD around, but it's not a simple matter of finding a buyer because Swisher and Mossberg have final approval over any sale (which is fairly remarkable when you think about it). Back in January, popular writer Andrew Sullivan announced that he was leaving The Daily Beast when his contract ended and turning his popular blog, The Dish, into a stand-alone publication. He hoped to finance it with a $19.99 per-year subscription. paidContent reported that he had raised $500,000 by the end of January, an astonishing amount of money by almost any standard.

Former TechCrunch editor Sarah Lacy started PandoDaily last year with $2.5 million in investment money.

All these stories point to a change in the sway that individual writers hold. This is very different from the days when writers had to stand on the doorstep of the daily newspaper with hat in hand and beg for access. But as we've seen in the case of Sullivan and The Daily Beast, even the big name digital publications can find themselves being left behind by upstarts. Today any writer can turn to crowdfunding sites such as don't even need to find angel investors with big wads of cash-to cover whatever their costs may be. They can use social media to distribute their content and build an audience and use free tools to track their analytics and even post ads to their sites.

When you combine the power of social networking, the ability to self-fund, and the capacity to self-publish, you have a powerful disruptive force that changes the entire notion of how we think about the industry. If writers no longer need those publishers or can simply use the powerful brand recognition of the publishing platform to build their own influential individual networks to drive funding, they are no longer beholden to any type of publishing entity at all. In this new scenario, in fact, the writer has become the publisher-a notion that has to scare the heck out of traditional publications still struggling to adapt to the internet age.

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Andrew Sullivan's decision to leave The Daily Beast and take his blog, The Dish, with him at the beginning of the year was bold. Sullivan decided to support The Dish with a subscription model, and now six months in he's updating us all on the site's progress.