What is Publishing's Original Digital Sin?

By: Rob Corbidge, 27 April 2023

Once bitten, twice shy is how publishers' treat the technological powerhouses of the online world. But we should not assume it would always be better that way.

Publishing's Original Digital Sin is a reoccurring leitmotif in our industry, even if sometimes we don't realise it. 

This Original Sin is variously thought of as the moment we gave all our stuff away for free to voracious tech companies; how we didn't see the tech giants for the actual advertising businesses they were or, as Simon Owens theorised recently, it was all over the moment grubby old programmatic advertising was allowed into publishing's sanitised palace.

From personal experience, it wasn't one thing, but a number of things, that when taken together make an obvious trend. Yet at the time, that trend wasn't apparent.

By way of example, I have a confession. At an early point in my career, to subsidise my earnings, I wrote advertorial copy for a classified jobs section. I was approached by a company who were pioneering employment services online. Fascinating stuff right? It was back then. I met them, and wrote up a piece accordingly. Of course a rocket came down to me from the jobs advertising department I was writing for about puffing up a rival. 

Such was my lack of commercial sense, and my focus on an interesting tech story, that I had unwittingly lit a warning beacon for my employers. Rather than sending a rocket at me, the advertising department probably should have seen the writing on the wall, not waited until it appeared in their own publication and acted surprised at the news. 

This is just one unpicked thread from when the fabric of the publishing status quo was torn asunder.

The reason for raising the idea of the Original Digital Sin is that publishers' can probably now stop thinking about it, or simply use it as a lesson, as to continue to think about it solely in terms of power relationships - the big them vs the small us - does our industry a great disservice. Big tech doesn't ultimately care for our content the way we do and never has, it simply feeds an advertising machine that returns a fairly paltry sum to the originator thanks to the way the machine is built.

(I will add here that the nature of that advertising machine is of course under some global study at present, by legislators and lawmakers eyeing the breakup of Google and the reshaping of the online ad business, so who knows - maybe online ad revenues will start to have some a resurgence in appeal and value.)

Yet, we are potentially in position to fully come back into our own as curators of order and sense on an internet that seems, at least in the short-to-medium term, to be heading for an increasing amount of thin, cheap content, much of it likely to be Generative in origin. 

Faced with such a potential onslaught of pure mince - to use a phrase drawn from the finest tradition of Scottish literary criticism - publishers, every publisher, can prepare to become an island where consumers will be able to enter the world of the real, of structured thinking and immersive content flows, of human creation and curation. 

In a sea of cheap content, our own brands are the best guarantee of quality for our customers. We must not short change them.

The Original Digital Sin, whichever flavour of it you prefer, will never be undone as such. Yet the basis of that sin, not understanding what was happening as the tech tide rolled in, isn't the case anymore. One bitten, twice shy.

Not realising what incredible value we have in our content is the greatest sin of publishing.