LinkedIn walks like a publisher and talks like a publisher. But is it?February 26, 2014: 9:16 AM ET
The business-focused social network opens its publishing platform to its members, raising lots of questions.
FORTUNE -- Ryan Roslansky, head of content products for the company, strenuously rejects LinkedIn's media ambitions. Or at least he refuses to address them head on. "We are not approaching this from a publishing or media-company perspective," he told me last week.
The "this" in question is LinkedIn's announcement that it is opening its "publishing platform" to all its 277 million members, beginning with a test group of 25,000. The move essentially means providing a juiced-up blogging tool to LinkedIn users, but with a twist. Blogging sites like Tumblr (owned by Yahoo) or even Medium, the new site run by Twitter (and Blogger) founder Evan Williams, are relative free-for-alls. Post your blog, tell other people about it using social media, and hope someone will see it. A post on LinkedIn is targeted at the people already in your professional network. "Your LinkedIn identity is your professional profile of record," Roslansky says. Adding the ability to post long-form professional information, he says, "helps to ensure someone can stand out and look better in their career."
LinkedIn is looking pretty good already. The platform-for-the-masses strategy expands on the wildly successful rollout in late 2012 of the LinkedIn Influencer program, a tightly controlled, invitation-only publishing platform for well known LinkedIn users. It started with 150 contributors and now has about 500. Their posts are viewed an average of 31,000 times, provoke 81 comments, and attract 200 "likes," or expressions of approval by readers. Acknowledging that the data for posts by Richard Branson and Bill Gates skew the average, Roslansky declines to divulge median statistics for Influencer posts, which would be a more meaningful measurement. (This seems like a good place to note that I am a founding Influencer and that LinkedIn's editorial director, Daniel Roth, is a former Fortune magazine editor and current friend.)
As for whether LinkedIn is becoming a media company, the answer seems obvious. Roslansky notes that LinkedIn makes money three ways, through premium accounts (like other journalists, LinkedIn provides one of these to me free of charge), advertising on its site, and tools for recruiters. He says that to the extent the new publishing tool encourages people to use the site more, it will increase advertising opportunities, encourage more premium accounts sign-ups, and improve the quality of information for recruiters. As for whether the new publishing platform is a money-making opportunity, he demurs, saying, "An engaged member is a good story for all three of our revenue lines."
The fact remains that LinkedIn's "publishing platform" looks more and more like a media property. Dan Roth was slightly less circumspect with Readwrite's Owen Thomas last week, telling him that LinkedIn hoped to discover its own Nate Silver, the statistician-turned-writer, first for the New York Times and now for ESPN. Lest there be any confusion, the Times and ESPN are media organizations; the publisher of the next Nate Silver is a media organization too.
Like any good competitor, LinkedIn isn't shy about borrowing ideas, including from traditional media companies. It latest Influencer "package" on best advice—my contribution ran here—will have a familiar ring to subscribes of Fortune magazine. Our franchise on the "Best Advice I Ever Got" cited by prominent leaders first ran in the March 21, 2005, issue of the magazine, with Warren Buffett on the cover.
Don't be surprised if LinkedIn's next moves include hiring real journalists to complement its amateur-writer contributors. Another natural extension of the LinkedIn "media" offering would be hosting live events around its Influencers.
In one critical way, LinkedIn certainly is different from other publishers. Perhaps because it pays nothing for its content, and also undoubtedly to avoid liability, it grants full ownership rights to its member-writers, while promising to remove, annotate or edit posts that violate its policies.
What a great business model: Make a ton of money off content you don't pay for and distance yourself from its quality, reliability or accuracy by never owning it. LinkedIn absolutely is becoming a publisher—a Teflon publisher, perhaps the most profitable kind of all.