Fraser Robinson is founder and CEO of

At the end of last year, the New York Times delivered one hell of a punch to the online publishing industry, with its multimedia extravaganza “Snow Fall”.

It was heralded a “journalistic triumph” that only a media giant could be capable of producing. Produced on a grand scale and requiring a huge investment of resources, “Snow Fall” is an epic piece of online journalism, as well as a highly visual and interactive feast of content. (It really is worth looking at if you haven’t already seen it.) And at a time when the publishing industry is facing challenges from all quarters — including declining readership, fragmented loyalty, and flailing revenue streams —  the New York Times was sending a clear message that it could produce outstanding content for the digital age.

But is this really the future for online publishing?

Increasingly, it’s difficult for traditional publishers to compete with the quick-fire, high-volume, and often high-quality content of blogs and leaner social news sites. Surely a project that takes six months to produce with a team of 11 is not replicable on any great scale, even by the likes of the New York Times.

The reality is that content is becoming easier to produce —  not just by competing social media sites, but by brands and retailers, too. Recognizing that their expertise in producing high quality content is rapidly being eroded by much smaller organizations has been a  difficult pill for publishers to swallow. This is because they can no longer gain confidence or security from their size or ability to scale up quickly.

One useful example is the fashion retailer Net-a-porter, which revealed recently that it will be publishing a major fashion magazine later this year. The retailer already has an online magazine and a tablet app, but it has ambitions to compete on a much broader scale and take on existing media owners in the fashion segment. This year the retailer has made some significant hires in the media space, including the former group publishing director at Hearst Corp, Tess Macloed Smith, and the former editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar UK, Lucy Yeomans, who is now in the newly created role of editor in chief of and heads up the newly launched NET-A-PORTER Group Media division of the company.

Richard Sambrook, former director of global news for the BBC, told PR Week earlier in the year: “The forces shrinking traditional media are the same that are feeding opportunities in brands. There will be a transfer of skills from journalism into PR agencies and direct to firms.”

So I wonder if the time has come for the larger online publishers to stop trying to compete with each other, and instead find a better way of working together, positioning themselves as more of a united front?

The fact of the matter is that one hundred percent of a publisher’s readers are going to leave their site and go elsewhere. Surely it’s better to try to influence where these readers go next, and make some money when they leave, introducing a much-needed new source of revenue? Accepting this requires a change in mindset and a big cultural shift, which is always difficult to secure buy-in for internally. But there’s no point in trying to stop a leak which can’t be fixed. It’s so much better to accept the leak, and sell the water! Sometimes it really pays to challenge existing business models, turn them on their heads and do what previously would never have been thought possible.

Publishers are undoubtedly worried about preserving authorship of their content, but actually, do they need to be? In a recent interview with Mashable, Burt Herman, co-founder of Storify, claimed authors will always hold the clout, saying “the world does belong to creators”. But he went on to add that “curators [also] play an important role, especially as we’re living in this age of information overload, to help find what people should be reading and care about. They are the tastemakers in some way too.”

For publishers desperately seeking new sources of traffic and revenue, stepping in as content curators by recommending each other’s content could prove the easy and affordable solution they’ve been looking for. All it requires is a mindset change, which in some places is already beginning to happen. In the digital space, it really pays to embrace growing trends in user behavior, instead of trying to fight against them.

Digital publishing image via Shutterstock

Fraser Robinson is  founder and CEO of Taggstar.