Distributed news: future or threat?

I went to a meeting organised by The Digital Editors Network this week that discussed distributed content; or the kind of content put out onto Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the like.

The network had done a great job of getting along the people who head up media partnerships at these organisations – plus Google Play Newsstand.

They all had lots of exciting projects for helping journalists to find contacts, eyewitnesses, and news stories on their platforms, and for publishing written and video content back to them.

News matters

News is important to these companies – a third of the searches on YouTube are for news, apparently. So it’s easy to see why they want news on their platforms.

Making sure that users can find the coverage of big events or debates that they are after keeps them coming back – and putting themselves in front of advertisers.

However, for a host of reasons that the debate didn’t dwell on (but which self-evidently include cost, libel issues and the associated “messiness” of news), they don’t want to be content producers or publishers.

Asked directly whether they wanted to be publishers or commissioners, three of the four companies present said “no”, with just one breaking ranks a bit to say it was “mostly a technology company.”

Instead, they all want to develop easier ways for journalists and others to post content, particularly video, particularly via mobiles. A host of new live services are imminent. Everybody wants an easy to use 360 platform.

For reporters, all this is genuinely exciting. Who doesn’t want to use the latest kit, tell stories in new and innovative ways, and reach an audience that could be in the millions?

But for publishers, the big question is: what’s in it for them? When challenged on this point, the tech cos all talked about the great reach of social platforms, and the new readers or viewers they can get to.

Show us the money

In other words, exposure. But, as my partner always says when he’s invited to work for free, people die of exposure. At some point, publishers need cold, hard cash to pay for all those expensive reporters using all that expensive kit to go out and generate all this wonderful content.

The publisher of a local paper group (the event was Chatham House rules) got down to brass tacks on this point. He understood, he said, that the idea was he should publish content, promote it on Twitter, Facebook, etc, and then clean up as people followed links back to his site by selling them ads or services.

But it’s not working. While he can make £30 from selling 1,000 copies of his paper, he makes just 82p per digital user. “People talk about this tipping point at which it is going to be worthwhile ditching the costs of paper and moving to digital; but I am not seeing it,” he said.

Worse, the money that his group is making from digital is mostly coming from ads bundled in with print sales.

Exposure does not help with any of this. There are only so many people in the wet, mountainous bit of the country that want to read his local news. Yet, with many of these readers already on social media and used to sharing stuff for free: “if I put up a subscription wall I’d immediately lose 92% of my audience.”

Huddling together for warmth

So what’s the solution? Later in the afternoon, the editorial director of a national newspaper’s online offer argued the ball was in the publishers’ court.

They needed to find a way to monetise hits – and everybody was in agreement that allowing advertisers to run ever bigger and more intrusive ads on news sites is not it, because it just encourages users to install ad blockers.

Members of the network argued that to do this they would need far more detailed information about the users coming in from distributed content platforms than the platforms are releasing at the moment.

There were many protestations of how keen the tech cos are to ‘engage’ and help at the event; and one or two useful sounding ideas, such as ‘native’ calls to action (‘sign up to our newsletter’, ‘join our gardening club’) within Facebook posts.

But there were no promises to open up the data; and it’s fairly hard to see why the platforms should do this. After all, this kind of data is one of their key selling points to advertisers.

Perhaps, the imminent demise of the providers of content they definitely value will be what shifts them. But at the moment, individual newspaper groups and broadcasters are working with individual platforms; and that won’t save an industry.

The head of audience engagement at another national newspaper group suggested it was time for the industry to band together and work out what it needed to stop publishers being picked off one by one.

At the moment, she said, they were stuck in a “prisoner’s dilemma” – their future depended on decisions being made by others in the same situation, with little insight into what those might be.

Snog, marry, avoid?

Yet the local publisher had already pointed out another problem; many smaller groups (and, I would add, B2B publishers of the kind that I work for) will simply not be invited to the table, or be able to stump up the resources to play along with any response.

His group had spent £4 million on a new content management system, he said; yet it still can’t run a website that will compete with the bells and whistles being offered by the big distributed content platforms.

In these circumstances, he was wondering whether to give up, ditch the digital front page, and use the platforms to promote things that do make money, such as the papers, for which there continues to be a loyal if ageing audience, and the gardening club.

Another member of the network argued that publishes should go in the opposite direction, and stop pushing their content onto distributed platforms, since that is just “giving them the keys to the kingdom for nothing.”

Overall, the event focused in on a critical, painful problem. Publishing was traditionally a combination of editorial content, the advertising that paid for it, and the publication platform (print or digital) that packaged up both and delivered them to readers.

The internet effectively split content from chunks of ad revenue, by enabling new entrants to grab classified ads, and companies to promote themselves. And now distributed content is kicking away the publication leg of the stool.

What it didn’t have was a solution. The distributed platform companies had exciting ideas that will make it easier and more interesting for journalists to do their jobs; but nobody had really concrete ideas about how to make sure publishers can continue to pay for them.

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