To encourage families to buy more personal computers, in the ’80s and ’90s tech marketers billed desktop publishing as a simple activity: something a child could master. This narrative has driven personal and business technology use since the rise of the connected web, coupled with the notion that “anyone can publish a website for basically free.”
During the aughts and teens, massive amounts of venture capital funded rapid digital adoption. Google gave workplace software and email away to publishers for whom Microsoft Office was too expensive. Self-hosting a WordPress website on GoDaddy promised to be easy forever.
The introduction to online publishing still feels “free” for consumers, especially those who are too young to pay their own bills. Schools and universities provide fast access to the ol’ info superhighway, with cloud storage and digital publishing tools included in tuition.
Anyone who started a website business in the first two decades of the 21st century knows: digital publishing is anything but free. Maintaining a website is costly and complicated. Growing a digital audience for a non-web platform, whether it’s an email newsletter or on a social network, is intensive, challenging work that requires constant content creation and audience outreach.
So why do executives, investors and pundits think digital publishing is free or lower cost than its print counterparts? Why do “analysts” like Ben Thompson, whose Stratechery newsletter allegedly has thousands of paid subscribers, insist that digital publishing is somehow lower cost compared to its print peers?*
On September 12, 2022, Thompson wrote that compared to the printing press, “the Internet reduced distribution costs to zero.”* When reading through the post, it’s clear Thompson has never actually worked at a media company or held a leadership position at any company besides his own solo operation. Anyone running a digital business or a marketing website knows: the costs aren’t fucking zero.
*I cite Thompson because he routinely makes arguments about the nature of digital publishing that have no basis in fact. In the 9/12/22 post he argues, “I make my living on the Internet as a publisher effectively competing with the New York Times,” a point of view that devalues the civic purpose of newsgathering and positions his email newsletter “ideas” as some innovative, replicable business model.
Since the invention of the printing press, sycophants have always distributed and profited from their own bloviating, capitalizing on the novelty of a new format. The free Stratechery reads like conference presentations from “idea guys” in tech and advertising: You wish they experienced a bit of impostor syndrome, since they clearly have no idea how to build sustainable value through executing quality creative work.
Yet the myth of digital publishing as free or low-cost persists.
It persists at legacy media businesses, where execs understaff digital teams because they either haven’t solved how to make websites profitable (understandable!), or because they think digital content is inferior to physical media (ok boomer).
It persists at brands that were early adopters of tech, who remember when PPC and early paid social ads brought in massive return on investment. It persists at companies who want to “invest in SEO” but not do the work of website maintenance or pay for creation of high-quality content.
It persists because many remember the promise of open source, the idea of the free internet before big tech. It persists because, like the millennial lifestyle subsidy that incentivized ride-sharing and grocery delivery, young would-be publishers operated for years under the digital work-life subsidy of cheap or free access to collaborative cloud-based tools.**
In 2022 digital publishing is not any cheaper than print publishing. The operational costs may have shifted—to Amazon Web Services instead of the printer, to Google instead of the distributor, to hours spent optimizing for multiple devices instead of press checks—but at the end of the day, the expenses for publishers are the same. For all but the smallest publishers, maintaining a website is every bit as expensive as maintaining and distributing print content.
That said, digital publishing remains a worthwhile investment. Email newsletters are excellent direct lines to an attentive audience of readers, especially if you attract subscribers organically. Well-maintained web content grows in visibility and profitability over time. Social media publishing builds brand and reaches new audiences with different browsing behaviors.
But take it from a pro who has worked with web brands of all sizes, from tiny indie publishers to enterprise content operations: digital content, especially web-based content, is neither free nor simple to maintain. It’s a practice and effort with its own unique set of ongoing business challenges.
If you’re thinking about purchasing a website, starting a digital publishing business, or launching a new internal digital brand, keep in mind the following costs when building your budget.
**This year many established digital businesses received notice that the email and docs software they’d been using for a decade, good ol’ GSuite, would no longer be free. In the aughts, Google sought to establish a user base who just could not live without Google Docs and email, so they gave the whole thing away for free. Small businesses who were grandfathered in prior to 2012 had access to free email and Google docs for years, assuming that it would be free forever.
But the myth of digital operations as “free” didn’t last. The free business services were discontinued on June 27, 2022. Companies on the grandfathered plan now have to pay per user, per month, which adds up extremely quickly.
Digital overhead: SaaS, servers, structure, and security
Where do costs come from if we’re not using a physical printing press and post to deliver content? The list begins here:
- Website hosting expenses, which rise when a site receives more traffic and consumes more data with images, video and rich media
- Additional production or workplace software, like Slack, Adobe Creative Suite, HubSpot, or the gazillion other SaaS tools that publishers and digital businesses started on free trial and are now paying for
- Email service providers, whose costs rise significantly the more emails you send and the bigger your audience gets (like print distribution, there discounts at scale, but if the email is free, a scale discount doesn’t matter much)
- Building and maintaining a secure, useful database for first-party user data
- Staff with knowledge of how to operate and manage all of the above
- Digital security, often neglected and waiting to be exploited. Just ask Fast Company!
If you’ve ever worked in a business with a seemingly smoldering server closet, you know that many early digital publishers tried to cobble together their own hosting, servers and security from hardware up before realizing that tech’s rapid development made their investments obsolete.
Because of their wide reach and access to personally identifiable information, publishers are especially prone to hacks like the one Fast Company experienced last week. Many publishers who were early to web use outdated, self-hosted open source systems… and treat digital security as an unnecessary expense, or procrastinate because security is challenging. Some publishers have yet to upgrade from http to https because it’s an extremely difficult implementation, especially if your website is larger than 100 pages.
Meanwhile, the workflow tools that underpin digital operations continue to rise in price and grow in complexity. Many digital businesses still do not adequately plan for operations software expenses, which have shifted from fixed unlimited billing to per user, per month subscriptions.
How can businesses mitigate digital operations expenses and prevent hacks?
- Instead of trying to self-host, which ultimately gets neglected because there’s no way that small companies can keep up with tech security requirements and manage a normal business, I recommend that businesses use Managed service providers. Managed services are bundles that outsource hosting, security and data maintenance. It’s like digital rent, or paying protections to the mob, however you want to think about it: expect prices to rise each year, but also expect that your Managed Service Provider will keep your systems up-to-date, fast and secure.
- Do not expect freebies to last forever. Remember that Slack and Substack give services away for free to encourage rapid user adoption… and make a plan for what happens once they eventually start charging.†
- Please invest in a password manager. Do not email passwords back and forth. Don’t use dopey shared passwords, which may have been Fast Company’s downfall.
†Substack is the only reputable ESP that doesn’t charge for sending large volumes of free email to more subscribers and… that’s probably not going to last forever, either!
Keeping it professional: Planning for digital production expenses
Some admire DIY publishers for “authenticity” and not over-producing digital content, but as media models mature, the bar for content quality continues to rise. Websites and newsletters are just starting to come into their own as lasting media—like cinema in the 1920s. Audiences enjoy and understand the medium but no longer see the format itself as novel or delightful; their tastes mature, and they expect higher quality. Even in the newest media, shoddy content looks messy under the light when compared to the good stuff.
Many tech companies, marketers, and private equity executives fundamentally do not understand the expenses associated with producing good content that resonates with audiences. They overvalue engineering and rapid “lean” production and undervalue brand longevity: the ideas, values and solid foundation that support good companies long-term.
Even with the recent advances in machine-generated content, creating high-quality digital content is not as simple as putting a few prompts in an AI language generator or crafting a query for Midjourney. Lasting website content requires vision, attention to detail, and collaboration among editors, designers, strategists and developers.
Website and email production budgets need to account for digital editorial and UX design, which have become more refined with digital content, including:
- UX design, which is significantly different from print design and has a higher price point
- Creating quality digital experiences for multiple devices and operating systems
- Editorial quality, including fact-checking, readability, idea refinement, and straight-up good writing
- High-quality visuals and video which, yes, plenty of people also value and seek out
- Information architecture and optimization for digital, which, unlike the standardized formatting of books or magazines, needs custom consideration if you expect profitability
- Tailoring content for distribution on multiple channels (either via bespoke COPE automation or by paying a social media manager)
The line item no one budgets for: Optimization replaces distribution
If “distribution costs are zero,” then they’re completely replaced by the tech industry’s and late capitalism’s insistence on optimization: faster, connected, always shifting in every direction. Websites require significant optimization to keep up with consumer design and speed expectations, and for publishers it’s often easier to just plop your content on the newest social feed.
When digital publishers focus on producing rapid amounts of new content for outside platforms subject to volatile algorithms, the content burn rate goes much, much faster. On social channels, audiences view content once and forget they ever saw it. All the effort that went into creation and design vanishes immediately.
And unlike web hosting and email service providers, social platforms don’t care whether they are working with established publishers or casual users. As long as they keep users in the app, they’re fine.
What digital publishers forget is that readers are often attached to the formats they grew up with. Billions of people search websites for quality information daily. Website audiences seek lasting, resonant content. Website visitors stopped by to read.
Editors spend precious little time optimizing their own web and email content for long-term access and discoverability, forgetting the many readers who bypass social platforms entirely. Publishers fail to see long-term potential for an optimized archive that attracts passive income, entices audiences actively seeking deep content, and builds lasting cultural influence.
For most publishers, I recommend shifting from chasing the newest social channels to investing in topics and archives that make websites valuable. Creating a budget for ongoing optimization of existing content means that when the time comes for a redesign, your website won’t need so much clean-up.
When developing a budget and editorial strategy, remember:
- Regular website readers are far more valuable than those passively consuming social.
- For audiences to believe that your publishing brand is trustworthy, in-depth content should be discoverable on your website.
- Optimized, connected content draws audiences organically over time.
- As with print, digital audiences stick with publishers that have trustworthy information and topical authority.
- Optimization of existing content should comprise at least 25% of total editorial budget and planning.
Frustrated with the moving targets of digital media, publishers continually ignore a tech industry principle that actually works on web and email: ongoing incremental gains through constant improvement.
Set realistic expectations for website publishing expenses
What can digital publishers do to operate more sustainably? Invest in systems and formats that gather value over time and ensure all that quality content doesn’t disappear into the ether. I recommend starting here:
- If you’re still self-hosting and you’re not actively engaged with a cybersecurity professional, consider transitioning to a Managed Service Provider.
- Build business plans that account for changes in audience behavior, new privacy regulations, and good user experience. If you want to be known for good content, design your website so that users want to return even in the face of flashy new channels.
- Stop thinking that you will increase web visitors by creating content for additional channels! Adding a new social channel will attract users on that channel, but you’re starting completely from scratch in building an audience. New channels and domains are highly unlikely to drive additional paying visitors to your website. If you want more web visitors and revenue, optimize your website.
- If any of your SaaS tools are still free, upgrade to a paid software that meets those business needs. Call it inflation or chalk it up to the machinations of the tech industry: Free tools will not stay free forever.
- Develop a content ROI approach that allocates at least 25% of your content production and design budget to optimizing already published web content.
- Play the long game as you engage in the short term. Stop trying at virality and make a plan for sustainability.
- Think of your publishing business as an archive as well as a real-time connector. Remember that digital equity is the result of incremental gains over years of publishing.
A final note: This post considers digital publishing expenses from a business perspective without mentioning another crucial dimension of web publishing: energy use! Digital publishing’s perceived low costs do not take into account the environmental impact of large, content-rich websites. The more streaming video and heavy code on your website, the more energy it consumes.
You can find out your website’s carbon footprint here. For a deeper dive on which web tech uses excess energy and how you can mitigate your global impact, check out Tom Greenwood’s book Sustainable Web Design.
Unlike investors and growth hackers, publishers prioritize quality and sustainability. It’s time to manage our expectations, understand the full costs of digital publishing, and build realistic plans that meet the needs of online audiences.