For as long as I have been advising researchers (25 years as of next year), research communicators have said the same thing:
We’re not publishers.
Yes, we publish stuff, absolutely, they all add. But we’re not publishers.The Times and the Journal and The New Yorker and the Atlantic—they’re publishers. NPR and Spotify (maybe) are publishers. YouTube and JoeMedia and NowThis are publishers. We’re not publishers.
Saying “We’re not publishers” lets you off the hook for performing like a publisher — i.e., measuring your content’s success. But it has also made sense for years, because if we broke down “what is a publisher?” into its simplest terms, it has been about millions and billions, about numbers research-driven orgs couldn’t reach and shouldn’t try for. Publishers reached for millions of new subscribers, most of whom would never renew. For millions of clicks, none of which would stay more than 30 seconds. For billions of views, which strained both planetary carrying capacity and credulity. (NowThis, the short news feed video pioneer, once claimed 2.6 billion video views per month.)
Well,that’s all over, says Brian Morrissey, former CEO of Digiday who now writes the Substack newsletter The Rebooting on publishing trends in the post-viral age. “The simple truth of digital publishing is most top line audience numbers are nonsense,” Morrissey writes. “Instead, the name of the game in the coming years will be what one digital media veteran called ‘primary-engagement media.’”
What is “primary-engagement media”? The good news: It’s what you already do as a public expert. Here’s how Morrissey defines it:
- Primary engagement is people subscribing to your newsletter or podcast, it’s people actively coming to a publication instead of arriving from a random link on a tech platform.
- Primary engagement media knows its audience, even to the degree that audience is a community.
- It has the kind of differentiated point of view that breeds loyalty. In publishing, this is content written for people rather than for algorithms.
- Primary engagement media companies obsess more about content quality than distribution gimmicks.
- It is often tied to an individual versus an institutional brand.
- Primary engagement media can get people to take meaningful actions.
- Primary engagement rewards content that goes narrow and deep on topics important to specific audiences.
These bullet points could be the playbook for being a public expert.
You know your audiences. You regard them as a community. You attract them with a strong, “differentiated point of view that breeds loyalty.” With content quality you obsess over, and by going deep and narrow on topics they care about.
Morrissey’s definition of primary-engagement media — the new publishing — explains why so many research-driven organizations still have trouble succeeding in this new publishing landscape. It takes discipline to hold an entire organization to high standards of quality content with strong POVs that’s also strongly affiliated with individuals rather than the organization. It takes discipline torch for enduring success, measured not by “how much” but by “how deeply.”
You already have that discipline. (If you’re not spending too much time trying to win Twitter for the day.) You might have viral success. But your enduring success comes as a producer of high-quality insights for a much smaller number that grows fast enough to benefit your career and your organization and catalyze the change you want to make.
So, no, your organization might still not be ready to be a publisher. But congratulations — you are. What are you going to do with it? Try it on and let me know.