Publications certainly help you reach audiences that you may not have access to, otherwise. But they certainly don't work wonders. Your stories still have to resonate with those audiences to gain some traction. By the way, I noticed that once I got over 100 followers or so, I started to do better with self-publishing too. These days I alternate submitting to publications with self-publishing. And when I choose where to submit, I prefer to look at the engagement rate on that publication, more than at its followers count. Small pubs with active followers are way better than the really big ones, if you ask me :D
I think I only had one article manually curated. All the others got the "chosen for further distribution" label instantly. Even the ones I self-published, hence my assumption that certain topics may benefit from auto-curation.