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March 24, 2015, 12:06 p.m.
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A wave of distributed content is coming — will publishers sink or swim?

Instead of just publishing to their own websites, news organizations are being asked to publish directly to platforms they don’t control. Is the hunt for readers enough to justify losing some independence?

Editor’s note: The new issue of our sister publication Nieman Reports is out and ready for you to read. I write a column for the print edition of the magazine; here’s mine from the new issue.

It deals with distributed content — a very hot topic given the Facebook news of the last 24 hours (though I wrote this before that news broke).

Last August, when BuzzFeed announced a new $50 million round of venture capital investment, a lot of journalists heard a new phrase for the first time: distributed content. The company announced it would be spending some of that new money to start a new division, BuzzFeed Distributed, which it described as a team of 20 staffers who would “make original content solely for platforms like Tumblr, Imgur, Instagram, Snapchat, Vine and messaging apps.” In other words, a team of people producing content that will never even appear on buzzfeed.com.

Being on social platforms isn’t new to publishers, of course, but most news sites use Twitter and Facebook as marketing tools to drive traffic back to the mothership. BuzzFeed Distributed lives only in social streams, self-contained and freestanding. It’s an imperfect analogy, but imagine if The Seattle Times hired 20 reporters whose only job was to write stories for The Miami Herald.

nieman-reports-cover-winter-2015Why would BuzzFeed spend millions on producing content for other people’s platforms, with no obvious financial benefit? Well, VC firms do keep handing them money — they have to spend it somewhere. But more importantly, BuzzFeed wants to follow its users’ attention. And those users are increasingly moving to social platforms where publishers’ old tricks don’t work any more.

“I think there’s a good chance that in five to ten years the Internet is going to look really different, just like it did five or ten years ago,” BuzzFeed Distributed head Summer Anne Burton told a reporter last fall. “And one of those trends might be that people consume media within the places where they’re also networking with their friends. We just want to figure that out and figure out what people like and people share, and establish an audience in those places and show that we’re the best at making things that people love to share.”

Building on other people’s property

If you’ve watched for it, you might have seen a few other steps in a similar direction in recent months:

Reported.ly, the new startup from Pierre Omidyar’s First Look Media, was born in December without a website of its own. It has something like a core home on Medium, but its work lives primarily on social platforms. “We don’t try to send people away from their favorite online communities just to rack up pageviews,” editor-in-chief Andy Carvin wrote in its first post. “We take pride in being active, engaged members of Twitter, Facebook, reddit — no better than anyone else there.”

— In January, Snapchat, the visual chat app mega-popular among teens, debuted Snapchat Discover, a new space where around a dozen publishers publish stories directly into the app, specially designed and formatted to look Snapchatty. Official numbers are hard to come by, but all indications are that Discover is reaching huge audiences and successfully charging astonishingly high ad rates.

NowThis, a touted startup that creates short videos designed for social platforms, abandoned efforts to build a website audience in February in a rather direct way: It killed its homepage. “We were having an easier time getting people to consume our video if it was placed in-feed, rather than linking them back our website,” its V.P. of social media said.

— Facebook, arguing that linking out to news stories provides a bad experience for users, is currently trying to convince news organizations to publish their stories directly to Facebook rather than on a separate website. The lure: Facebook will use its advanced data and technology to make more money selling ads against their content than publishers could on their own — and they’ll each share in the take. “We want to try and make that a better experience for publishers,” its chief product officer said in February.

You can see the common line through all these: The triumph of the social platform. In one sense, nothing new — Facebook colonized the world’s eyeballs some time ago. But the pitch to publishers has changed. It used to be: Spend some time cultivating a following of our network — we’ll send you a ton of traffic. That’s now evolving into: Give up some of your independence and step inside our walls — we promise we’ll make it worth your while.

This shift is a predictable result of the rise of mobile devices. When I started using the web in the 1990s, every website — whether NYTimes.com or someone’s food blog — lived, in a technical sense, on the same level. Each had a URL I could enter into any web browser. The largest megacorp and the smallest site could live in browser tabs side by side, and the link — the humble blue underline that defined the medium — connected them all as equal citizens of an open platform.

But the iPhone and the rise of smartphones that followed it repackaged the Internet into apps. The open web became just another app, living alongside all the others. Of every hour an average American spends on his or her smartphone, only about 7 minutes are spent in the web browser.

Devaluing the link

And an increasing share of teens and young readers aren’t just digital natives but smartphone natives. Social platforms are their centers of attention. And later iterations of these platforms are — intentionally — not designed to be friendly to news or anything else that wants a share of that attention.

Facebook and (especially) Twitter are built around links — they’re hubs that points you elsewhere. That’s what can make them such great engines of promotion for news. Instagram, Snapchat, Vine, and others are all about keeping you contained inside the experience. Instagram, for example, doesn’t allow linking; the only way to add a link to an Instagram post is to buy an ad. Snapchat doesn’t do links either; the only way to direct its users to news stories is to strike a business deal to become part of that Discover platform.

Even apps that might seem more friendly to publishers typically aren’t interested in optimizing for their needs. A few news outlets have experimented with WhatsApp, the popular chat app, using it as a sort of breaking-news broadcast service. But the app doesn’t make that easy, limiting messages to small groups of users and just generally being a pain. When asked about the complaints of publishers, a WhatsApp spokesman said, essentially: This app isn’t for you, and we’re not going to shape it to your needs.

To distribute or not to distribute

So you have these apps and platforms that draw a huge share of user attention. Fewer people are seeking out a news source directly; they stumble across news in social streams that are decreasingly aligned with the interests of news publishers. That’s the context in which distributed content — publishing under someone else’s roof — is happening.

What’s a smart publisher to do? There are no easy solutions, but here are a few ideas.

Bet on native advertising. This is BuzzFeed’s edge; its argument to advertisers is: We know how to make content for social better than anyone else. Not relying on banner advertising means not relying on pageviews in the same way as most. If it can build successful editorial content on Instagram, it can build successful advertising content there. Native is only going to get bigger in the near term.

Focus more energy on the platforms that are still open. Why have we seen a boomlet in email newsletters? One reason: Email is still an open platform, and no one controls access to your inbox. Podcasts? An open standard that anyone can publish to. In both cases, the customer gets to decide the relationship with the publisher, not a middleman.

Consider going premium. Competing for attention (and ad dollars) on the open web will keep getting harder. Figuring out where you can create high-value products you can charge a smaller audience for is key.

Go for scale. The reason so much venture capital is pouring into the BuzzFeeds and Vox Medias and Business Insiders of the world is that investors believe they have the chance to achieve truly giant scale — to be the next-generation Time Inc. or NBC or Reuters. Navigating the world created by these social platforms is a task made easier when you’re big enough to get noticed.

Photo of a Greenville, North Carolina content distributor (er, paperboy) in 1963 courtesy Joyner Library at East Carolina University.

POSTED     March 24, 2015, 12:06 p.m.
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