Those Pew research numbers — 11 percent of U.S. adults owning a tablet, tablet news-reading numbers off the charts — make everybody even hungrier.
Yahoo is the latest to try to get in on the growing banquet of reading riches, with its long-awaited Livestand tablet news product launch Wednesday. It joins the summer-launched AOL Editions news aggregator and sets up the next one to join the dinner party, Google Propeller.
It will take awhile to plumb around Livestand and figure out what’s what, what’s where, who’s in the product and who’s not. And yes, it earns the sobriquet of would-be Flipboard-killer, with a lot “less” — less busyness (which some readers will like), less elegance, less apparent news variety and fewer flips — than the market leader.
As a tablet news aggregation product from the No. 2 U.S. web property, it demands to be taken seriously. In addition, we’ve got to place it into some kind of context among Flipboard, Pulse, Ongo, Editions, and coming Google products, as well as the dominant single-brand news sites that have enjoyed fledgling tablet success.
With the launch of Livestand, we see the beginning of Aggregator Wars 2.0, to be fought on a tablet near you.
Livestand pushes the question: How are we going to receive news and features via the tablet, through individual apps (paid or free) or through an aggregator? And how are publishers going to monetize their content and audiences, as those audiences move dramatically from newspaper, magazine and broadcast to the tablet? A Pew data point: “A majority, say the tablet takes the place of what they used to get from a print newspaper or magazine (59 percent) or as a substitute for television news (57 percent).” (See “The Newsonomics of the Missing Link.”) So let’s look at the newsonomics of Livestand.
We start with this proposition: The app world Steve Jobs bequeathed us broke the old web paradigm. Where most news sites have seen no more than 35 percent of their traffic coming direct (the majority coming from Google, Facebook, Twitter, and the rest of the sideways web), apps reasserted singular brand access. The Digital Dozen — the leading global and national news brands — quickly took Apple’s early invitation and have building out news products ever since. They love the fact that readers come directly to them; those that are charging for digital access find tablets (and smartphones) tailor-made for single-brand, All-Access subscription plans.
On the other hand, the Livestand proposition says: You want more, and we’ll provide it. That aggregator’s creed has been enormously successful on the web — five aggregators take in 67.7 percent of the U.S.’s digital ad revenue — and they’d like extend that winning formula to the tablet. Alas, the tablet is not the same as desktop or laptop web (or the smartphone), so how easy or hard will the aggregators’ extension attempt be? Here’s what I’ll be watching for as the tablet aggregators go forth:
These early tablet aggregators are walled gardens, to borrow a portal metaphor from the pre-Google web. Yahoo says it has assembled about 100 content sources (it’s unclear if that number includes Yahoo-owned brands) that provide whole content for the company to host within its HTML5-driven app. They range from Consumer Reports and Forbes to Scientific American, the NFL, and Surfer, a magazine that may have benefited most from the launch PR. For national and global news, you’ve got AP, Reuters, and Yahoo’s new top partner, ABC, along with a few others. There are some link-offs, but not too many, with the product strongly advantaging Yahoo’s own content and that of its third-party partners. Of course, Yahoo is a significant content producers, given the hundreds of content creators it employs, and sports a mind-boggling array of sites.
Flipboard, too, is a walled garden, but looks to have — it’s hard to measure — more wildflowers among its partners. That $60 million venture startup now has 50 content partners, with more diverse global/national news (The Economist, USA Today, The Guardian, BBC, The Daily Beast, and lots more) than Livestand, and seems to offer more links to non-partners as well. For instance, News Corp.’s All Things D (a free site) is a partner, with full content on Flipboard. The Wall Street Journal (a mostly paid site), which is not a partner, can still be found if you troll through the business section. Flipboard, of course, can lay claim to another overused portal metaphor of the ’90s: “We’re Switzerland.” That’s true to an extent; it doesn’t create its own content, and says it can therefore better aim at just pleasing readers. Yet, it, too, must find a business model to survive.
Right now, Flipboard looks stronger in news, with a good set of feature content. Yahoo looks like it covers the major bases in news — through wires and ABC — and is heavier on feature sites.
Raise the content wall, and you can provide a more, whole (no need to link off) experience, with better benefits to key partners, but create a more limited experience for readers. Lower the wall and provide more content, and you will need to link off more and have a harder time showcasing partners and building a business model.
Tablet aggregator news products are, by their nature, dependent on advertising to be successful. Livestand enjoys the advantage of being part of Yahoo, with the country’s second-highest levels of digital ad revenue, though its sales are in decline. Just this week, it bought ad-matching company Interclick for $270 million to bolster its arsenal. In addition to display, one big hope with Livestand is video ads, a significant growth sector. It seems to have launched with fairly little ad support, a surprise for a product long-planned and backed by Yahoo. Flipboard, too, is hoping to break the code, or more precisely, to have its content partners do it. Surprisingly, though, only about a half dozen of its 50 content partners are actively selling ads on the site. Yes, tablet advertising is fetching ad rates 5-10x higher than online ads at single-branded sites, but they are a work-in-progress at Flipboard, despite the interstitial beauty of the ads. Publishers says they need more audience volume before they start selling in earnest. That points to an early challenge: Publishers may enjoy the relative non-competitiveness of Flipboard, as compared to Yahoo, but they see Flipboard as an experiment, one to help gather data on reader usage — and maybe a long-term revenue play.
In the end, publishers’ direct participation in these products — and they are being cautious now — will directly depend on how well they can monetize their audiences on aggregator sites compared to on their own sites. Their analytics are much better now than they were five years ago. They’re experimenting with Facebook sites and Apple’s Newsstand and seeing if the new Kindle catches Fire. If aggregator-related ad revenue is good, they’ll play. If not, the aggregators will be left with uneven, feature content, or their products will be composed of a lot of link-offs — not an experience that makes use of what the tablet does best.
Yahoo is quite strong in local news aggregation, given its five-year-old partnership with more than half the industry through the Newspaper Consortium. It has pitched partners on joining Livestand — I’ve heard of one near-comic presentation that turned off newspaper publishers — but I don’t see much local in the product. That’s probably due to publisher wariness — why cede audience to aggregators or to Yahoo’s product development timetable? Local would be a great differentiator for Livestand — especially given its deeper relationships with newspaper companies. It could also be valuable whenever AOL’s Editions patches its local Patchs into its mix. An aggregation that reaches from global to local makes reader sense; who will deliver it?
Ironically, local should be a green field for the tablet news aggregators. While the big national and global news sites have established powerful app platforms, most local news publishers are way behind the curve, and falling farther behind every day. Yes, sites from The San Francisco Chronicle to The Dallas Morning News to the Memphis Commercial Appeal to The Boston Globe have put up live (non-replica or replica-plus) tablet sites, but they are in the minority. By the count of the Newspaper Association of America, there are only 87 U.S. daily newspaper apps in the iTunes store, and many of those are replicas.
If aggregators can aggregate local on the tablet faster than local publishers claim their own tablet turf, they’ll be a long way down the road in the battle for local digital ad dollars, a battle coming to the tablet in 2013.
With more than 150 news titles and dozens of consumer magazine titles going digital-paid, figuring out the link between free aggregated content and paid, full digital access is a must. If the aggregators can feed the paid digital access business, publishers are more likely to buy in and provide more content. Flipboard’s Economist partnership, with its lead-out to Economist products, services, and games, is the model to watch. Could aggregators work with publishers to jointly authenticate paid customers? Sure, they could, but it’s a significant tech challenge.
It’s easy to forget Ongo, which seems to have gotten little traction in the popular mind, or in audience or revenue. A consortium put together by Gannett, The New York Times Co., and The Washington Post Co., it suffers from at least two on-the-surface issues. Number one: It charges $5.99 a month for some subset of news company content, with upcharges from 99 cents to $9.99 for each local title, many of which don’t even have digital paywalls of their own. Number two: While it’s improved its poor launch design, it’s still nowhere as flippin’ cool as either Flipboard, Pulse, or Livestand.
So how do these companies decide what to show us? That’s a fundamental question we don’t have to answer when we open up The New York Times, Financial Times, or BBC. We know editors have used their judgment to decide what to include and how to play it. On the tablet, especially, it’s a witch’s algorithmic brew of editorial, business, and social curation. Business considerations — what do we own? — color Livestand and AOL’s Editions. There’s some traditional editorial curation going on at all the aggregator sites, but it’s hard to see or navigate. What’s being picked by editors, driven by business deals or by our social graph, when we sign in with Facebook or add our Twitter list to filter the news? We don’t know at this point, and we don’t have handy levers to adjust the mix.
The wizard behind the curtain appears to be in charge of our news experience. That’s both pleasing and anxiety-making: Am I missing something? Just how did this page get in front of me? Those questions will color the single brand vs. aggregator experience on the tablet. I may be willing to trade single-brand certainty of news judgment for some aggregating algorithm, or I may not. Down the line, we’ll end up with much more knowable and personalizable systems that let us harness both editorial and social intelligence, but we’re not there yet.
Will Livestand work? I think the answer is that it will take all of 2012, at least, for news consumers to sort out the competition. The big issue Yahoo faces is habit. It would love to translate the Yahoo News web habit to the tablet, but it’s clearly not a one-to-one transfer, as Google News will find. As The Daily (80,000 paid circ or so) has found, it’s really hard to change or establish new reading habits. There, incumbents like the Times, Journal, the BBC and Guardian have built strong one-click news habits, verified by the Pew study that found that “90% of app users went directly to the app of a specific news organization, compared with 36% that went to some sort of aggregator app like Pulse.” Those early habits will get harder and harder to displace. My guess: We’ll each pick a single news aggregator to complement our top two to three top single brand choices. Those will be the buttons, the apps, on the first page of our iPads — and the second page won’t matter much.