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April 29, 2016, 9:20 a.m.
Business Models

Newsonomics: In the platform wars, how well are you armed?

“Think about platforms as fishing places where you can find large, engaged audiences and build a relationship with them by providing content. Then offer these users some other services off-platform.”

Feel like you are in a social stupor? Facebook getting you down? Have that vague feeling that your website and your mobile apps just aren’t getting the job done. Perhaps, an old Polish proverb applies:

When someone tells you that you’re drunk, she might be wrong. When three different people tell you, you’d better shut up and go to bed.

Grzegorz Piechota would like to see his chosen industry — news — recognize its failings and reform, in order to get on with the digital remaking of the business.

That proverb just one of the lighter nuggets found in Piechota’s new report, “Evaluating Distributed Content in the News,” released Thursday. He knows his Polish proverbs, and he knows lots about the web world in which we live. I first met Piechota at a conference in Sydney several years ago, as he wowed the crowd with the innovation and thinking of Gazeta Wyborcza, the leading daily of Warsaw-based company Agora. (“The newsonomics of aggressive, public-minded journalism”)

Gazeta sprung out of Solidarity’s liberation of Poland from the Soviet Union. In that DNA, it has been both an independently minded media company and a social force, and Piechota’s wide-ranging experience with both informs his now global take on the changes of the media business. If his name is familiar, Piechota, 40, has served as global president of the International Newspaper Marketing Association (INMA), an increasingly innovative organization, which publishes this current work. (He’ll formally present the report at INMA’s World Congress in London next month. Next week, he’ll talk to the World Media Economics and Management Conference 2016 at Fordham University, around the notion of better organizing media labor in the onrushing on-demand economy.) And he’s spent the past academic year at Harvard as a Nieman Fellow.

In this new report, he chose one of the knottier topics of the day — how best to deal with the platforms — to tackle. Perhaps the pithiest advice comes in a single sentence towards the end of the 70-page report. Piechota quotes Clayton Christensen, the esteemed chronicler of corporate change, saying: “Never outsource the future.”

That future may now be the present. I asked Piechota Thursday what his biggest surprise was in doing the research for report. He gave me two.

First, he fleshed out Christensen’s outsourcing thought: “Innovation in news products is today designed often by tech companies and not by publishers anymore. And quite often this innovation — despite being significant from users’ perspective — needs to be almost forced on publishers. I think this really illustrates how deeply disrupted and weakened the industry is. Our value chain is under assault, but we seem to be happy to outsource everything, even our future.”

Second, though he’d been enmeshed in a world of Facebook Instant Articles, Apple News, and Snapchat Discover before taking on the fellowship, he had an epiphany. “When I compiled all the data,” he told me, “I realized the market had completely shifted.” That combination of mobile and social has, in short order, redefined the news landscape.

That makes this report a great primer for news organizations just starting to tackle the distributed world and a good checklist for those more experienced with its questions. (While the report is free to INMA’s 7,000-plus members, it costs $695 retail.) For the former, assembling a small, interdepartmental group of energetic staffers and asking them to react to the report’s summations would be a good start. In fact, that’s akin to how The New York Times produced that Innovation Report a couple of year ago.

Overall, consider it a well explained on-the-spot textbook, one that offers some insights, if not the model for how to proceed. But it’s also more: a cry to fight back smartly.

“Today we pay the price for the sins of the past. Users are destroying publishers’ revenues with adblockers. Internet giants have sniffed the opportunity to drag us into their walled gardens and eat us alive. It’s high time for news publishers to give strategic priority to mobile and improve the user experience…Can we stop discussing in our newsrooms whether every reporter should be on Facebook or Twitter and move the debate on social media to the boardroom?”

Piechota makes an early point that “Facebook’s algorithms seem to value content produced by media more than content posted by non-media brands.” Exactly: One big fact in this exploding off-site platform wars is how much the byways of our digital time value news content. News is much more interesting — and changes far more quickly — than the personal life details that it replaced (or downshifted in the News Feeds of Facebook old). The big question, poked at in various ways in the report, is how to benefit from that value.

That harvesting can’t be accomplished by partial attention, as Piechota makes clear. Gone are the days when “mobile” or “social” can be assigned to one person, or a few people, on the side.

It’s no secret, writes Piechota: “Publishers whose content enjoys the highest reach and engagement on social platforms have dedicated teams that repurpose and produce content tailored to specific platforms, their audiences, contexts of use, and styles. Just to prepare for Snapchat Discover, magazine publishers have built newsrooms of up to 10 full-time employees: editors, video editors, and graphic designers. CNN’s team has three members; The Wall Street Journal, five; the Daily Mail, eight; and Refinery29, a magazine for female millennials, 10. Social video operations employ many more: There are 35 people on the video team at Elite Daily, a millennial site, and more than 100 at BuzzFeed.”

Writes Piechota: “While some publishers take an ad hoc approach to managing platforms, or cede it to their newsroom or marketing social media staffs, it’s high time to appoint someone to own the relationship [with the Facebooks and Apples] on an operational level.” Clearly, the platforms’ expertise and staffing can seem overwhelming, as is their corporate self-interest. Piechota reminds us the platforms’ various strategic changes, shifts, and dekes over the years in his “7 Deadly Sins of Platforms” chapter.

The question on the table for all publishers, as Piechota profiles the platform initiatives of five (BuzzFeed, The Washington Post, Agora, France’s Libération, and Austria’s Russ Media): What is your strategy?

“Platforms” as a phenomenon aren’t new; they’re just newer to the media business, which has long been accustomed to connecting directly with readers, viewers, and listeners.

Piechota quotes Sangeet Choudary, founder and CEO of Platform Strategy Labs, with this commonsense advice, drawn from wider business modeling. It’s as good a single piece of advice, as any, to draw from in the report:

Think about platforms as fishing places where you can find large, engaged audiences and build a relationship with them by providing content. Then offer these users some other services off-platform. No publisher’s strategy will be complete without a clear plan to take users out of the platform and bring them to the publisher’s turf for monetization.

Photo of train platform by hakzelf used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     April 29, 2016, 9:20 a.m.
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