This is the first in a series of articles that expand upon my essay in Issue No. 1 of Contents.
In the first part of my essay in Contents, I argued that to be a publisher today you must belong to a community. It’s through the act of belonging that you can understand how your readers think and what they want (and need) to read. And, just as importantly, it allows you to connect with your readers in a way that transcends any particular platform or business model; a valuable stance at a time when the business of content is in the midst of a transition, and none of us can predict what’s on the other side.
But there’s a point just a few steps beyond belonging that is perhaps even more important: advocating. Belonging to a community means participating, observing, and generally being in attendance (either physically or virtually). But being an advocate requires stepping forward and helping to articulate that community’s needs, or advance their interests, or—when necessary—protect their rights. You need to both amplify and clarify the values of a community, not merely share them.
In practice, this means identifying what your community needs to prosper, and either providing that directly or advocating for its provisioning. There are many ways to do this. You can lobby for changes the community needs (e.g., by publishing content illustrating those needs and defining how change should happen); you can facilitate discussions (e.g., by hosting and supporting safe, productive forums); you can challenge the status quo (e.g., by bringing in ideas from outside the community and fostering discussion); and so on. It means acknowledging that your content is a means to an end, and making sure the ends are good ones.
It also means making hard choices, because advocacy isn’t always in the interest of your business. Especially in today’s SEO and ad-laden world, publishing only that which serves your community is unlikely to be the fastest way to a dollar. Content that is superficially sensational or contrary (but actively harmful) can bring more pageviews; while content that smartly challenges the ideas or values of a community (i.e., encourages rigor) can draw ire. You have to be able to look past the short-term risks to see what years of trust and support are worth.
More importantly, advocacy is one of the ways in which a publisher remains relevant in a world where the only obstacles to publishing are a reasonably fast internet connection and skill with a keyboard. By filtering and developing the best content—with an eye to how it benefits your readers—a publisher can simultaneously spread ideas both within and without a community. You can strengthen your readers’ ties with one another, and improve their lot in the rest of the world all at once. Think about that, and you can begin to see a much more compelling vision of the publisher of the future: not a gateway, but a representative.