For about a decade, technology has been viewed as the death knell for traditional media. Newsrooms are laying off staff in droves, and local news bureaus are shutting down. During the years of this turbulent transition, traditional media outlets have struggled to find business models that work. They've established paywalls, experimented with native advertising, built mobile apps and watched as social media absorbed their loyal readers.
The issue is not that people are no longer consuming news -- we still consume news voraciously. It's that the source of the content, and the ecosystem where it is consumed -- once combined in the medium of the newspaper -- have been wrenched apart, as social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have come to dominate the ecosystem and aim for ever more control.
In May, Facebook announced Instant Articles, where partner media companies directly publish stories to its platform, instead of to their own sites. Twitter is reportedly in talks to buy news aggregator Flipboard. And Apple just announced at WWDC the launch of Apple News. There's more, involving Snapchat and LinkedIn and others.
Yet while the proliferation of these programs demonstrates the big opportunity content represents for these tech companies, and while the idea of bringing that content and the ecosystem together is anything but new, it is still uncertain whether this trend represents a smart way for publishers to adapt to the times -- or is their first step toward cannibalization.
To acquire or not acquire?
The recent debate over whether Twitter should buy Flipboard brings these issues to a head. Of course, Twitter should be looking to actively partner and acquire content that can be consumed in the Twitter stream. Certainly the company has faced some challenges, but it has hundreds of millions of monthly active users.
Rather than focus on raw user numbers, though, Twitter should look to optimize how much time users actually spend on its platform, and the quality of the experience contained within the context of its 140-character limit. Twitter has the fantastic capability to connect with users around content that they have a great passion and enthusiasm for. As such, there is a valuable opportunity to build on that enthusiasm and passion, by putting interest-oriented content in front of Twitter users in-stream. Cultivating increased interactions with relevant, in-stream content is a low-hanging means for Twitter to increase its value and scalability.
The same goes for the other players. How do Facebook and Apple begin to dominate the content and the monetization experience around content? The answer: by offering in-stream aspects of content that people care about most. And this is the point that all of these companies are missing.
Facebook’s Instant Articles partners include multiple media companies: The New York Times, BuzzFeed, NBC News, The Atlantic and National Geographic. Apple’s partners include The New York Times, CNN, Hearst, Conde Nast, Quartz (owned by The Atlantic) and ESPN. Snapchat Discover’s partners include National Geographic, CNN, ESPN, and Cosmopolitan (owned by Hearst). Notice any similarities? Not only is there a lot of overlap among the publisher partners themselves, but in the types of content they publish. Content-wise, each has little to differentiate it.
The big digital platforms need to operate understanding that headline news is an important, yet tiny sliver of the content that their readers care about most. Rather than the rumored acquisitions that seem to serve to only amplify the same headline churn, Twitter and others should instead devise a new strategy for connecting their users to content that is not already old news.
In fact, a wealth of content is out there -- created by high-quality blogs, specialist/enthusiast publishers, etc. -- and that content represents a refreshing departure from the over-saturated mainstream. Platform-publishers can provide the greatest value to their users, and thus increase their engagement, by delivering in-stream content that is highly relevant, unique and personalized to each person’s unique interests.
So, should Twitter buy Flipboard? No. It should instead think about a new strategy for connecting its users to content that is not already old news.