Nieman Foundation at Harvard
After criticism over “viewpoint diversity,” NPR adds new layers of editorial oversight
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE

Brand balance and the rise of middleform

“The most successful media companies have figured out how to translate their core ideas into any number of forms.”

Predictions! Change, the poets say, is the only constant. But I think that we’re going to see several slow-moving trends solidify rather than another Big Disruption in 2014.

reyhan-harmanciSocial media, for instance, will continue to dominate discussion of both how news is reported and disseminated. BuzzFeed, of course, exists at this intersection: It is what people are talking about, and then it reports on what people are talking about. For my organization, a new media company called Modern Farmer, this means that we will continue to remain sutured to our phones and computers, trying to stay on top of Facebook algorithm changes (which seem to be about to undergo the same sort of fundamental shift Google’s did with Panda in 2011) and begging Twitter to verify us. As a publisher, it means using more and more analytic tools to zero in on who is sharing what content. (Google Analytics’ new demographic information should be helpful, and should make companies like ComScore and BlueKai nervous.) The why will likely remain mysterious, because humans are weird.

Print media, online media, audio, events, books, pop-up stores — extensions of brands — will all get even more jumbled, in a good way. It’s fun to think about how a story could live as an event, as part of a digital package, as a data app, etc. At Modern Farmer, we got really excited at the news that Pitchfork would be doing a print quarterly. We have a print quarterly and I feel strongly that there is value in a physical product. (It still commands ad revenue, for starters.) But for us, the print quarterly is only the beginning. The most successful media companies have figured out how to translate their core ideas into any number of forms (think Vice and video or Rookie and its yearbook).

Another slow-moving change is the developing relationship between institutional media brands and individual employees. At one point, the conventional wisdom seemed to dictate that media brands would be subsumed by personal brands — that The New York Times would just be a collection of “voices” like The Huffington Post. But now that The Huffington Post has made its persona-driven blog content only part of its larger staffed enterprise, it seems that these two models are not a binary split. You can love Bill Simmons but go to Grantland for Katie Baker’s New York Times wedding power rankings (as I do.) I doubt Nate Silver will be sticking his face next to every FiveThirtyEight post. At Modern Farmer, we are less interested in elevating any particular writer as creating a healthy mix of stories with a recognizable style. Is that old-fashioned? Plus ça change.

A bonus prediction from Modern Farmer’s digital director, Jake Swearingen:

Social media will continue to be a bigger and bigger chunk of how digital publishers get traffic, and Facebook will continue to dominate who gets what traffic. At our publication, and most publications I’ve worked at, Facebook delivers about five to ten times the amount of traffic as Twitter — even if most edit types (myself included) tend to spend a lot more time on Twitter.

But the territory of viral memes has been so thoroughly colonized that publishers who haven’t already figured it out are probably too late to the game. BuzzFeed and Upworthy might have figured why people share stories on Facebook — no haters, basically — but imitators abound. Even The Washington Post’s Know More seems a bit like when AOL-Netscape launched Propeller back in 2006 to chase after Digg, and then quietly killed it a few years later. (And beyond the diminishing returns of meme traffic, a world of unending Upworthy is too depressing to consider.)

So publishers will have to go for other ways to make things go viral. To crib from Annalee Newitz, there’s busting common myths or digging up an unknown truth about a common item. There’s also digging up new trends, reporting on a new bit of tech that’ll actually help the average consumer, or (luckily for us at Modern Farmer) finding ways to work pictures of very cute animals.

So assuming Facebook is truly serious about being the Only Website You Ever Visit and wants to make its News Feed a place of unendingly interesting news, how will publications respond?

One of the keys, I believe, is nailing the middleform. If Facebook is serious about designating high quality sources and publishers (even though there’s a lot of debate about what they actually mean by that), churn-and-burn aggregation artists will take a hit. And longform, while admired by journalists, is only sometimes successful. It’s putting tremendous amounts of resources in one basket, which is a risky bet at best.

Which is why sites like The New Republic, The Atlantic, the online version of The New Yorker (and, ahem, ourselves) all seem to be settling in on middleform stories. By which I mean around 750- to 1,000-word pieces that introduce a topic, explore it, and then quickly get out. It’s not a blog post with an intro, a block quote, and a snarky kicker, but it’s also not a deeply reported story with 14 sources and the manpower of a research desk behind it. Middleform is the five-minute read, not the one-minute list of GIFs or the 30-minute deep dive. It allows online publishers who (barring some seismic shift in CPMs) will always remain resource-strapped to deliver interesting, original, reported pieces without spending the tremendous amount of money and time longform requires.

Online publishing is, unfortunately, a lottery. It’s very hard, with a few exceptions, to know exactly what will hit. So the more tickets, the better your chances. For a long time, that meant whoever could push out the absolute most content, regardless of quality, got the most traffic. If Facebook holds true to what they seem to be saying, quality and originality will suddenly start to matter quite a bit more for publishers that rely on social traffic. Middleform will allow publishers to continue to push out content at a speedy clip, while hopefully capitalizing on whatever changes Facebook’s algorithms will bring us.

Reyhan Harmanci is executive editor of Modern Farmer.

Updating regularly through Friday, December 20