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Scott Karp: Clay Shirky’s right that syndication’s getting disrupted — but not in the ways he thinks it is

Editor’s Note: For our year-end series of predictions for 2011, we started out with a piece by Clay Shirky in which he predicted “widespread disruption” for the traditional syndication model in journalism. As Clay put it: “This kind of linking, traffic driving, and credit are natively web-like ideas, but they are also inimical to the older logic of syndication. Put simply, syndication makes little sense in a world with URLs.”

Not everyone agrees. Scott Karp runs Publish2, which is trying to build its own syndication model for journalism. Here’s Scott’s response to Clay and his own set of predictions for syndication in 2011.

Clay Shirky predicts that in 2011 traditional news syndication will see widespread disruption. I couldn’t agree more. But I don’t think the disruption will happen the way Clay describes it.

Clay’s prediction assumes that news consumption will continue its shift from traditional media to the traditional desktop web, where the hyperlink rules and news consumers bounce from hyperlinked page to hyperlinked page and from site to site to site. I think that assumption is wrong. In 2011, we’ll see open acknowledgement of what has long been understood about the traditional desktop web as a platform for consuming news content — it sucks.

The desktop web has been a revolutionary platform in terms of access to information, the democratization of publishing, and the socialization of media. But as a medium for consuming news content, from a user interface and user experience perspective, it’s problematic at best and downright awful at worst. News consumption has begun a major shift from the traditional desktop web to apps for touch tablets for a simple reason — the user experience and user interface are so much better, as the recent RJI survey of iPad users reflects. Consumers are choosing tablet apps over the traditional desktop web based on the quality of the user experience and the overall content “package.”

News organizations are already shifting their strategies to take advantage of that consumer shift. But few have thought about the role of syndication in news apps. With the immersive, hands-on experience of a tablet news app, the value of syndication changes entirely. Apps that deliver nothing but one news organization’s content will not compare favorably with the content richness of the web, no matter how good the UI is. And apps that bounce users around from site to site with an in-app browser, mimicking the traditional desktop web model, will fail for precisely the reason why users chose the app in the first place.

But news apps that can deliver full content, curated from a wide range of sources, within a cohesive, optimized — even breakthrough — UI for news consumption, will win because users will have the best of both worlds. Syndication in news apps will not be about republishing news that everyone else has. It will be about combining curated news with original content in order to create consumer packages that are deeply engaging and in many cases worth paying for. With this shift, news organizations will stop ceding to aggregators the huge value creation of curating and packaging news. Instead, news organizations will start defining their editorial brands as curators as much as they define them as original content creators.

It’s important to note that this new paradigm for news consumption isn’t necessarily anti-web on the back end. It can work with an HTML5 site that creates the same immersive UX/UI as a platform-native app, and can be distributed with an app front end via app stores to support the news org’s business model. Web pages are also still necessary for links shared via social networks. But for a news consumer’s primary daily news consumption — for news orgs they have a direct relationship with — syndication that includes the full content in an immersive app experience will be an essential driver of success.

The other reality that Clay overlooks, on the other end of the news evolution, is that syndication for print newspapers still matters because the print product is generating the cash that’s funding the digital transformation. Reducing the cost of filling the news hole in print with disruptive syndication models will generate more cash for digital. In the near term, that will have a significant impact on how the business of syndication is reshaped.

In that context, here are four predictions for how traditional news syndication will be disrupted in 2011:

Social network for news distribution

Traditional syndication is based on a hub-and-spoke model, where a newswire middleman takes in content from many sources, combines it with original content, and redistributes it. This is an inefficient, obsolete model and will be replaced by a model that has proven wildly successful in the consumer world — the social network.

News organizations have already been forming direct distribution networks to route around the traditional newswire middleman. In 2011, these networks will evolve beyond ad hoc email distribution to become truly scalable in a way that only a Facebook-like platform can enable. News organizations will create a network of trusted sources, the equivalent of “friends,” but where the relationships are based on distribution and the affiliation of editorial brands. I call this the “Content Graph,” the analogue to Facebook’s “Social Graph.”

The business of syndication and news distribution will be reshaped by the power of network effects. Why is that important? Watch this Sean Parker talk.

Human editorial judgment redux

Contrary to Clay’s devaluing of the wire editor’s judgment in selecting content, the value of human curation is actually becoming more important in defining the value of news brands. Google’s algorithm has dominated news distribution on the web (ask any news site what percentage of traffic comes from Google), but it’s being overtaken by social curation — links shared through social networks (ask any news site what percentage of traffic comes from Facebook and Twitter).

The same will happen with news organizations, as editors curate their Content Graph and create better editorial products than any algorithm can ever hope to create.

What social networks have proven is that people value most the judgment of other people they trust. You can trust a friend. You can trust the editor of your favorite news publication. But it’s about people. Syndication based on human curation will prove far more valuable to consumers than syndication based on faceless algorithms.

Free content disrupts again, but differently

The news industry has been disrupted by the explosion of content on the web and having to compete with free sources. A new model for syndication turns this disruption on its head by enabling news organizations to publish free content from high quality web publishers in exchange for branding and links back (a model that Yahoo, for example, has used for years).

News organizations can also barter content with partners to trade the value of content they have already paid to produce for content that they need. Syndication based on a barter economy will be extremely disruptive to traditional newswires charging for content.

Free syndicated content will also help the print product generate more cash in the near-term. (Never underestimate the importance of cash flow in business transformation.)

News organizations take back control

News organizations will increasingly take back control over how their own content is syndicated. This begins with taking back their rights from newswire middlemen, so they can have full control over the business strategy for their content syndication, whether they choose to barter, sell, or keep some content out of the syndication market entirely.

News organizations will also take control over how their content is packaged by aggregators, starting by taking control of their RSS feeds. The first big realization will be that RSS is dead as a consumer technology but has growing value as a B2B syndication mechanism. News organizations will start to take down the consumer feeds from their websites as they realize 99.9 percent of their audience who wants their “feed” is following them on Facebook or Twitter.

Instead of working ad hoc with aggregators and other partners, with no control over their B2B RSS feeds, news organizations will look for ways to more efficiently manage the commercial syndication of their content through a common platform that gives them both control and network scale.

                                   
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