The following is an excerpt from James Breiner’s chapter of a book on digital news media that will be published shortly, in Spanish. It first appeared on News Entrepreneurs and also appeared on IJNET.
Among the most important developments in digital journalism in 2015 was the emerging practice of creating, distributing, and monetizing news known as “distributed content.”
What it means: News media organizations hand over their content to platforms like Facebook without linking back to their own websites so that smartphone users can get nearly instant access to the content without having to wait five to 10 seconds for it to display — an eternity for impatient mobile consumers.
Snapchat was the first platform to stake a claim in this new territory of competition when it launched its Discover channel in January of 2015. Facebook followed in June with its “Instant Articles,” and others such as Google, Instagram, and Apple quickly jumped on the bandwagon.
These social and technological platforms had at least three motivations, according to Josh Constine of Tech Crunch. They wanted to avoid having users abandon a link to news content because of a slow download; they wanted to keep users in their own walled gardens to prevent them from going to other platforms; and, finally, they wanted to take advantage of the audience’s attention to send them targeted advertisements, tailored to their personal tastes, preferences, and buying habits.
The stampede to mobiles, social platforms
The growth of distributed content is a symptom of the migration of internet users to mobile devices. In just two years, that migration has changed the balance of power between news media organizations and the platforms that distribute their contents.
The steady loss of audience and revenues to Facebook and Google has begun to accelerate at a dizzying pace. One indicator is that Facebook users are spending 50 minutes a day, or 25 hours a month, on that application. (The Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report 2016 surveyed news consumers in 26 countries and found that 46 percent were getting their news through social media, compared with 24 percent from printed sources.)
The debut of Snapchat’s Discover and Facebook’s Instant Articles touched off a stampede by other platforms to develop their own channels of distributed content with similar objectives: Use the content of news organizations to attract more users, gain their loyalty, and monetize that attention. Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages offers news organizations a way to make their pages more mobile-friendly and thus more likely to appear high in mobile search results.
If you can’t beat ’em…
News media organizations, already weakened by the loss of audience and revenues, recognized that a growing percentage of their traffic was coming from digital platforms like Facebook, Google, Snapchat, Instagram, Apple News, and other intermediaries. Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times described the situation well with his “The Frightful Five will dominate digital life for the forseeable future,” as did Adam Fraser of Echo Junction with his “The future looks like Facebook and Google.”
Many publishers have come to accept the notion that they need to make a Faustian bargain: They would give up some control of their content in exchange for greater distribution and some revenue from those platforms. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, they seemed to be saying.
The trend toward distributed content and the growing influence of digital platforms over news distribution has touched off an intense debate among those inside and outside the industry. Emily Bell of Columbia University — “Facebook is eating the world“– perhaps expressed best the worries about the loss of influence of news organizations in liberal democratic societies. Critics warned that by adopting these new strategies, the news media were transforming themselves into mere syndicators or content for these giant platforms.
Mathew Ingram of Fortune was worried that the big media brands would lose their identity and their importance by handing over their content to Facebook:
“What the social network has to offer is unquestionably going to help any of those publishers who sign up (and that in turn will create an incentive for others to do so). The risk is that it will wind up helping Facebook more, and that eventually Facebook—a for-profit company that has shown no evidence that it actually understands or cares about ‘journalism’ per se—will become the trusted source of news for millions of users, rather than the publications that produce content.”
For some, the growth in the number of publishers taking advantage of distributed content meant that the platforms and social media — especially Facebook with its 1.6 billion users and Google with its near monopoly of search — were creating a new monopoly of public discourse and the flow of information.
For others, the trend meant that publishers were losing their role as the Fourth Estate, the watchdog that represents the interests of the public at large and not the politicians, business people, and social organizations.
In a commentary on the migration of audiences to mobiles and applications, Nilay Patel, editor of The Verge, described how Google, Facebook, and Apple had positioned themselves to monopolize digital advertising. In his opinion, these three businesses in particular overwhelmingly dominate the technology of targeted digital advertising to the point that small independent publishers do not have the possibility of competing and achieving sustainability.
Patel pointed to the closing of GigaOm and The Dissolve, as well as the difficulties of The Awl, as evidence that the internet of the future will be dominated by those platforms with less space for independent digital publications.
Where are the watchdogs?
It could be that this migration to distributed content represents the final step in the evolution of news media from leaders of public discourse to a role of mere syndicators of content to the giant internet platforms.
With traditional media weakened, which institutions will act as a counterweight to the existing political and business interests? Which media will act as watchdogs for the public interest? We are all adjusting to the new dynamics in the world of digital media.
The big internet platforms appear reluctant to accept the reality that they are now news publishers, with all the public service responsibility that goes with that role, and which goes far beyond satisfying only the interests of their shareholders. As Emily Bell reminds us, it is time that they took that responsibility.
James Breiner is a digital media consultant, bilingual in Spanish and English. He specializes in journalism innovation, entrepreneurship, and multimedia. He is currently visiting professor of communication at the University of Navarra in Pamplona, Spain. [email protected], @jamesbreiner. He has done consulting and taught in more than a dozen countries in Europe, Asia, and the Americas.