The year of self-improvement

“2016 and 2017 have been the years of news organizations fitting our content into other companies’ boxes in the quest for The Answer To All Of Our Problems — only to realize that tech giants get bored quickly and have no qualms leaving us holding a dozen additional mini-problems.”

Facebook Instant Articles. Facebook video. Facebook Live video. Snapchat Discover. Google AMP. Google Stamp. Messenger bots. Slack bots. Alexa skills. Google Assistant Actions. 2016 and 2017 have been the years of news organizations fitting our content into other companies’ boxes in the quest for The Answer To All Of Our Problems — only to realize that tech giants get bored quickly and have no qualms leaving us holding a dozen additional mini-problems. It’s a vicious cycle, and if Silicon Valley isn’t careful, we’re only going to fall for it another ten or twelve times before doing something about it.

But what will we do instead? 2018 will be the year to look inwards and reflect on the state of our own glass houses. There is going to be a huge opportunity for innovation on the web next year, as Apple will join Google in bringing or improving app-like features such as push notifications, offline browsing, and home screen shortcuts to mobile browsers. Rather than wait for these companies to tell us what to do, we can take the tools they provide and improve coverage on the platforms we own. But before we can do that, we need to make them a place readers actually want to visit: no more full-screen takeover ads, newsletter signup modals, or arbitrary “click to read more” buttons. It will be difficult to overcome our dependence on programmatic ad dollars and pageview counts, but we must.

As the web gains app-like functions, native apps will be reevaluated according to what makes them unique and worth the sizable investment they require. For some, that will mean incredible visual journalism that incorporates AR, VR, and the like. For others, it might mean gathering external signals like commute time or location in order to deliver a truly personal news reading experience. But an app that pairs simple article reading with push notifications won’t cut it any more.

The problem: This all costs a huge amount of time and money. Which will be acceptable for the more well-funded media organizations (though they too will be cutting costs), but unrealistic for smaller, less well-funded ones. This divide between the digital haves and the digital have-nots has been widening for years — maybe 2018 will finally be the year to fix the trickle-down knowledge sharing in tech and come up with open, industry-wide tools that solve our big problems and are easier to set up than a bare repository of source code. It’s in everyone’s interest, because if we want to regain the trust of our readers, fixing one website is not enough. We need to restore their trust in the ecosystems that let us succeed.

Alastair Coote is a developer at the Guardian Mobile Innovation Lab.

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