Content might be king. But a king needs a kingdom. Where is that kingdom for content in the age of digital media? Social media sure wants to build a kingdom and wants journalism to be part of it by providing new products and services for media houses on their platforms. This poses a very sharp question for publishers: Platform player or content provider? Jan Helin, publisher at Aftonbladet, shares his thoughts on how to play the game of news without losing the king.

Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Snapchat – in the last year we’ve seen how they all have extended their content offer to their users by luring publishers on board their platforms. Make no mistake about their endgame: They are trying to reach the position of a primary news source – a key position to any digital ecosystem. Digitally underdeveloped, but well established media houses are the perfect targets.

This spring, Facebook did a groundbreaking deal with nine of the most well respected publishing brands in the western hemisphere: BBC, New York Times, The Guardian, Der Spiegel, National Geographic, NBC, The Atlantic, Bild, Buzzfeed. They have now dedicated themselves to contribute with their news and stories to Facebook’s product Instant Article. This fall Washington Post joined and at the same time declared that they will go all in – all their content is to be found on Instant Article on Facebook.

What does this really mean? Forget the current deal and business model that Facebook is now offering and stretch your thought to the more longterm important question: Is it a good idea to seek a position as a content provider in the value chain? I believe this is the most important question for publishing since the breakthrough of Internet as news distributor.

Content providers or platform players? Who will be eating whom when old value chains break in the digital ecosystem? Or to to put it more bluntly by quoting the businessman and rap artist Jay Z when he broke up from his old deal on streaming to start his own platform: “What you eat don’t make me shit.”

One app to rule them all

Facebooks strategy is basically trying to give you no reason to leave their newsfeed ever. And jostled publishers are willingly helping out, hoping to get a throw of the ladle. It’s very much a “One app to rule them all”- strategy. (Or two if we count Messenger, which we definitely should.)

From this strategy they start buy- and sell groups, they’re building a payment solution on the Messenger platform inspired by the superior digital ecosystem created by Chinese Internet Giant Tencent on WeChat. They also gear their algorithms consistently towards video to take on Youtube. This summer Facebook passed Youtube with more than four billion video views per day and are now introducing live video.

And of course, there’s Instant Article – the collaboration with major news producers that might be the game changer for publishing. Facebook’s stand is this: It’s all about a better user experience so stop linking to your own destinations, just put your content up and we take care of the rest. There is one little catch they forget to mention in that business proposal: As a publisher you will lose your relation with your user to an algorithm that you don’t see, don’t understand and don’t control. This is in essence the problem with social media for publishers. And as a consequence, you lose possibility to in depth data and learning about the user.

New sources of information

If you ask teenagers in Sweden today, what their most important sources of information are they will answer Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Youtube and Spotify, according to research by the Swedish institute Ungdomsbarometern.

You might just shake that off, thinking that this has nothing to do with real news consumption. But looking under the hoods of these players you’ll find another story, not only at Facebook.

  • Youtube, with 300 hours of videos being uploaded every minute day and night, declared earlier this spring that they now have 27,000 news channels.
  • Instagram, the platform that started out for sharing pictures from your family barbecue, have released numerous tools to create editorial content and have declared that some of their preferred partners soon will be able to link out from the platform and have access to all advertising technology from Facebook on Instagram.
  • And then there is Snapchat, the youngest of all these platforms, that attracts teenagers in a massive scale, putting up hundreds of pictures of themselves every day that disappears in ten seconds. In January, Snapchat released Discover, an impressive mobile video experience. And impressive news outlets went on board – CNN, Daily Mail, Vice and Bleecher Report.
  • Spotify, the Swedish hope among the big five, announced in June that they were going into video. They had another group of interesting news outlets on board – ABC, BBC, Vice news, NBC.

Different content fulfill different needs

So why are all these social media players all of a sudden so interested in becoming news media and collaborating with publishers to get it? Wasn’t journalism supposed to be almost dead? To find out the answer to that, we have to look at what human needs different content in general, and especially journalism, fulfills.

Facebook, Google and Instagram all started out to fulfill the user’s need for a break or distraction when you are bored. There are a few specifics that come with a position like that. The audience is huge – everyone needs a break now and then, but it’s hard to predict when. The user time spent can be low and their patience is rather low. If you don’t find anything you like right away you will most likely leave. That is the problem if you only cater for the need of distraction. Your relation with the audience is at risk of being volatile. The classic need of an update, a kind of content every newsroom is familiar with, has the same specifics to it as the need for a break. It’s a basic human need and thus a huge potential audience for those who do it good. But time spent is short and so is predictability.

More sustainable in the long run

Other parts of journalism are more interesting for a social media player. The parts that fulfill needs of looking things up and digging deep into a story that you feel passionate about. In these areas the audience is smaller, but time spent, prediction and patience is a lot higher. So a primary national news source, like Aftonbladet or VG is covering more user needs, which engage the audience at different levels than a social media outlet.

This is the reason why social media is so interested in publishing, they want to cover more needs for their users and strive for the positions of a primary news source – simply because it’s much more sustainable in the long run.

But what’s in it for the media houses? It’s quite easy to understand why Buzzfeed went on board Instant Article – their business model is all about branded content, so wherever their content is consumed is fine with them. And BBC is public service, so their content is payed for already. The question is why New York Times, The Guardian, Bild and the Atlantic chose to join. It seems a bit like a white-flag strategy.

“We have to be both”

To understand how they reason at The Guardian I asked Tanya Cordrey, Guardians chief digital officer and also a member of the board of Schibsted, the key question: Should we be content provider or platform players? ”I would say that we have to be both. First and foremost we have to keep providing excellent journalism, because without amazing content, nobody wants to come to our site and nobody wants to read our content on another platform. At The Guardian we spend a lot of time ensuring that we have a fabulous experience on our own site, but we also think it is very important for our content to be where our users are.”

Tanya explains that they work very closely with the likes of Apple and Google and Facebook, to reach a worldwide audience. ”That strategy has been very successful for us. More than one in three Facebook users who sees our content now come to our website. So we see that people are coming back to our content more often than they have previously.”

That is a success in the matter of consumption of The Guardians content, which is of course important. And hands down – The Guardian is a great brand that produces fantastic journalism. But only 20 per cent of their traffic is direct traffic – users that come directly to The Guardian and not by any link from Facebook or elsewhere. The direct pull of The Guardians journalism is low.

”I’m not necessarily saying there’s one strategy for everybody. It is true that our percentage of direct traffic has declined, but at the same time we have seen our overall footprint increase dramatically, The Guardian now has 238 million browsers every month and that’s still growing at 20–30 per cent year on year”, says Tanya.

That is understandable, but the core of what she’s saying is: ”We need to be where the users are”. Is that really the role of a publisher? I would say that’s marketing. Publishing is about being interesting enough, or irresistible enough to be able to pull the audience in. But that is a debatable conclusion. Let’s look at this from another angle.

Vox creates communities

Vox is a tech start-up company moving into publishing. They started out as a sports community on SB Nation and on the same platform they’ve built the Verge, Eater, Vox, Polygon, Racked, Recode, and Curbed. These are all different verticals of content with different brands. Vox in itself is not an ordinary news brand. They don’t break news, they don’t report news, they have taken on the interesting task of explaining the news, all from the analysis that today’s news consumer no more live in a situation of information shortage, the problem for news consumers today is information overload.

Vox product manager Trei Brundrett has another perspective on platforms: “Starting out as a technology company, our approach from the very beginning was to build a platform and to build value and service on that platform for our audience and our users”, he explains.

”One part was around the content and the way we allowed our audience to be part of the media ecosystem. The other part was thinking of the value of community. Our writers can talk to the audience, but the really interesting thing is connecting people with each other around the topics that they are passionate about and that we are covering.”

And Trei Brundrett believes that direct traffic is extremely important. “ I think it’s the primary goal. What you hope to do is to build a platform that is valuable, where you can do reporting, do storytelling that is really meaningful. And over time your audience will understand that the richest and most exclusive experience, at the end of the day, is going to be on this platform where you’re building a very rich community.”

Two different conclusions from two of the world’s most interesting publishers right now. And two completely different companies, one with a proud legacy of publishing and quality journalism, one with a true passion for publishing and an impressive degree of innovation. In a perfect world they would be married…

In the pending of that world we can make the following observations in deciding who have the best strategy – Vox or The Guardian:

A whole new story

Guardian’s 138 million unique users per month are really impressive. A comparable number for Aftonbladet would be somewhere around 20 million. But looking at page views, which is a better way of measuring engagement, it’s another game. The Guardian produces 199 million page views a week, Aftonbladets on its small market produces 231 million page views a week, and 80 per cent of that is direct traffic. This is the difference between the power of direct traffic and viral traffic.

The high reach, high frequency character of a primary news source not depending on viral traffic creates a foundation of a digital ecosystem. This is why my answer is that we need to become a platform player – to enable the ecosystem that occurs in the relation between our different operations within Schibsted.

It could actually be the beginning of a whole new story for the future of independent journalism. But that is the next episode in the thrilling series of disruption of the media. It will take place in a new territory, on a new platform. It might be a game of thrones, but content will rule it, in one way or the other. If the king is dead – long live the king!*

*The phrase “The king is dead, long live the king” is first known from 1272 when Henry III died and his son Edward I took the throne. The declaration marks the ascension of a new monarch immediately after the death of the old.

The Schibsted Future Report is our outlook at trends and phenomena happening around us. Things we believe are shaping the future and stories that we want to share with you and the world around us.


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