Mutually Assured Content

Is the media, as it gets ready to supply its product directly to social networks, becoming a “wire service?” Ezra Klein, on/on Vox:

[M]y guess is that within three years, it will be normal for news organizations of even modest scale to be publishing to some combination of their own websites, a separate mobile app, Facebook Instant Articles, Apple News, Snapchat, RSS, Facebook Video, Twitter Video, YouTube, Flipboard, and at least one or two major players yet to be named. The biggest publishers will be publishing to all of these simultaneously.

This sounds stranger than it will feel: Publishing to these other platforms will be automated. Reporters will write their articles, and their content management system will smoothly hand them to Facebook, Snapchat, or Apple News. There’s nothing new here, really — this is already how RSS feeds work.

But there will be more of them, and they will matter much more. The RSS audience is small. The off-platform audience will be huge. The publishers of tomorrow will become like the wire services of today, pushing their content across a large number of platforms they don’t control and didn’t design.

This part of the prediction is reasonable and probably conservative — most large media organizations do this already, to some extent, albeit in ways that aren’t producing revenue. What is a tweet posted by a news organization containing an image, a screenshot of text, an embedded synopsis, and a caption if not some sort of ad hoc Twitter article? How many tweets do you see a day in which the link is the least important component? (Most of them!) Facebook, even before it introduced Instant Articles, recommended to partners that they post a mixture of links, photos, native “notes,” and videos, and its partners enthusiastically cooperated. Show me a large media company working online, and I’ll show you a large media company that is already trying as hard as it can to publish to “some combination” of channels, either intentionally, as a plan, or just because, in each instance, the post that contains more — or all — of the story it refers to seems like it will share better.

Anyway: Klein finds an upside to this wire service scenario in the enormous audiences afforded by platforms. “A longtime problem for the news business is that the people who use our product most often need it least,” he says. “The people who regularly come to Vox, or to the New York Times, are already into reading the news. Some of the people who see our content on Facebook are not. I love that.”

This is also true, and has been clarified in recent months: Websites, Vox included, have been able to accumulate enormous audiences with incredible speed by harvesting referrals from social networks. These rapidly convened audiences felt contiguous because they ended up, eventually, on publishers’ websites; they felt contiguous and useful and real because advertising teams could sell web ads against them. Websites plausibly marketed these people as members of their audiences, rather than temporarily diverted members of a platform’s audience. Wherever they came from, they were counted in the Chartbeat. They saw at least 50 percent of at least one ad for at least one second, and so they existed.

This is changing, somewhat: The illusion of audience ownership is becoming harder to sustain, and the audiences are getting bigger and bigger. 2013 was the year every major site with a social strategy broke traffic records by a mile; 2014 was the year they looked around at everyone else’s sudden success and became slightly less confident touting their numbers, because they all hit them by doing and talking about very similar things; 2015, when a single weird or clever native Facebook video can easily out-traffic a week of a site’s web content, is the year it’s becoming clear to everyone who these audiences really belong to, and what it means to borrow them. 2016 is the year we find out what the price of access will be.

But yes, this is the clear upside of feeding the platforms. Twitter and Instagram and Vine and Snapchat and especially Facebook are larger concentrations of people than virtually any conceivable publication, and these people are clicking, tapping, scrolling and sharing more vigorously than people ever did on websites. Platforms! Where the action is; where the actions are. Companies that are able to work out advertising partnerships with these platforms will be able to extract not just attention but money; those that can’t, or don’t, will find themselves in a position not unlike the one they put writers in during the last period of the internet economy: doing it for the exposure.

Klein also notes a downside: that publishing on platforms could result in a sort of lowest-common-denominator sameness as publishers spend more time and resources on content that works across many platforms. This concern is valid, but probably solves itself. The first thing you notice when you spam your content across platforms is that it’s rare, in 2015, for one thing to do extraordinarily well in more than one or two venues without significant modification. The next thing you learn is that the best way to succeed on a given platform is to write/film/record/aggregate with that platform explicitly in mind. The next thing you learn is that doing so makes that content extremely weird when taken out of context, which makes it incompatible with other venues. A Vine video might work on Facebook, if you’re lucky, but a Facebook video probably won’t work on Vine. Quizzes that explode on Facebook seem strange on Twitter. A tweet might seem powerful and informative in the Twitter timeline, but look small and pathetic embedded in a website; a tweeted joke might do decently on Twitter but function better as a screen-cap on Tumblr, if at all. The article or video or object that functions well across all contexts is either transcendently newsworthy or shocking — and therefore rare — or extensively adapted. I’m not sure this cross-compatible “lowest-common-denominator” content can even exist — that there is some sort of platonic ideal of shareable CONTENT that all platforms respect. Although it would be nice! (Wouldn’t it?) The alternative — lowest-common-denominator content, catered to the formal weirdness of each individual platform — is a lot more work. A suggestion for distressed or miserable media humans: Club yourself in the head until you don’t remember who you are, and then open all these apps again, as if for the first time. They are very different venues. This is perhaps obvious to everyone but the people pumping them full of effortful professional content.

Klein’s other concern is that relying on platforms stifles particular types of innovation, because there’s no incentive to play around with new forms anymore. Facebook probably doesn’t care about Card Stacks, or big interactive features — or it is pretty sure, at least, that it can come up with something better and faster and more appropriate for its platform. This hints at a larger concern: that the energy and creativity used to create new content management systems and layouts and ways to display news and information will be redirected to a narrower — or, at least, externally determined — purpose: getting an edge within the arbitrary confines of a platform. This kind of media innovation is everywhere. It’s screenshotting important paragraphs into a tweet, and creating an app to streamline this process. It’s figuring out how to make videos for Facebook that don’t need sound to get viewers’ attention. It’s a curiosity gap headline. It’s shooting videos vertically instead of horizontally so they look better on Snapchat. It’s figuring out exactly how to interrupt a cascading feed to say “actually!” or “wait…” in order to get someone to stop and listen. It’s “Nine Things You Were Afraid To Ask” explainers and “Perfect Response” tweets and “Myth #1:” debunkers, which is how a site like Vox meets a more specific demand than “explaining the news.” It is explaining the news in a way most accessible and actionable to Facebook users, who see these headlines next to trending topics and breaking news stories and oblique mentions from their friends, Actually, and who want not just to be given explanation but who may want, In One Tweet, within this strange engineered context, and through 11 Maps, to perform their understanding as well (Explained).

These varieties of explainers, which are now everywhere, nestle as snugly into the News Feed as the quizzes that appeared en masse a year or two ago, or as wedding announcements from coworkers. Both are formal innovations; both depend on their contexts to the point of feeling incomplete, or at least awkward, without them; both serve their creators’ interest while also making News Feed either more entertaining or more informative (but above all, really, more engaging). Both must serve a platform’s needs in order to serve their own. This, especially for companies that may have described themselves as “full stack,” or who have touted their technological advantages or advanced CMSes, may be where the anxiety over the exchange of autonomy for audience feels most acute.

All these worries stem from a transfer of power: from publisher to platform; from content creator to content distributor. In exchange for audience, platforms ask for some degree of labor and conformity and control. Their technical access replaces your expensive CMS; their advertising replaces your ad team; their audiences’s sensibilities inflect yours. But their influence extends beyond subtle pressures to do or talk about certain types of things, or to perform your work in certain ways. Ceding your responsibility as a publisher of news gives platforms the power to be proscriptive as well. If Facebook is your publisher — or Instagram or Twitter — then the platforms assumes not just the benefits of publishing but the burdens. It is the host, and it is liable. It is the distributor, so it will be held accountable. What happens if, say, an investigative report prompts a legal threat from its subject? How does Facebook respond to a takedown notice for a sensitive video posted by a news organization? How does a platform deal with an investigation into itself? For tech companies that have, for the most part, backed into (over?) the media industry, expedience will rule. This might work in publishers’ favor: YouTube, which is rarely described in the context of “platform publisher” but which is really the most mature example of such a thing right now, is notoriously quick to pull copyrighted content but has demonstrated an appetite for fighting abuse of the law.

Platform content policies — many of which are short and vague, and written mainly with typical users in mind — will be tested as editorial guidelines. All major platforms have prohibitions against violence, for example, but enforce them to different degrees. Nudity is generally banned on Instagram and Facebook and Vine, but not Twitter, which puts it behind an age gate. (YouTube has an age gate as well, but uses it mostly to contain newsworthy violent videos). Here is Facebook’s most recent content guideline document for publishers, updated this month. They are clear but untested. They are, for Instant Publishers, editorial law:

FB Content Policy

As platforms become publishers, in other words, controversial content becomes the platforms’ fight. And while platforms are new and rich and incentivized to remain as independent as possible from external pressure — tech companies hate outside meddling! — this says nothing about the meddling they might do in their spaces: They make their money by placing ads in front of, beside, and between content. What they’ll find worth defending against the objections of their own advertisers is neither settled nor obvious. Some platforms might rise to the challenge, and will be better equipped to do, given their size and resources, than any publication alone. It doesn’t help that some of our most recent precedents for these types of arrangements read like satire of automated bureaucracy. Take this email our site received three days ago regarding a post published six years ago containing a postage-stamp-sized image of an almost-racy cover of Vanity Fair, a magazine stocked at family supermarkets:

This is a warning message to alert you that there is action required to bring your AdSense account into compliance with our AdSense program policies. We’ve provided additional details below, along with the actions to be taken on your part.

Affected website:

Example page where violation occurred:

Action required: Please make changes immediately to your site to follow AdSense program policies.

This is silly and inconsequential on its own, slightly funnier than it is frustrating. But we removed the image, because the terms of our financial arrangement with Google, which is negotiated on one side by humans and on the other mostly by software, prohibits the following:

Google ads may not be placed on pages with adult or mature content. This includes, but is not limited to, pages with images or videos containing:

Strategically covered nudity
Sheer or see-through clothing
Lewd or provocative poses
Close-ups of breasts, buttocks, or crotches

Google, the advertising company, is in a position to enforce such zoning rules as an external advertising partner. What if they were a host?

So this will be fun! Maybe platforms will decide that the news, or at least its messier fringes, isn’t worth the trouble, and will focus instead on entertainment. Or maybe they’ll become free speech absolutists, somehow, overnight?

This is the question for platform publishers. What does a journalistic church-state negotiation look like when the advertising side is not a valuable partner against whom editorial keeps some leverage (in the form of its control over audience) but an entity that is both vastly larger and owns both audience and the means of producing revenue?

The new media is becoming a wire service in that it depends on partners for distribution and revenue; the new media is becoming a wire service in that its work solves particular problems in another business’s model. Print distribution created thousands of papers distinguished and limited by geography. Wire services gave these papers national and global coverage that they wouldn’t have otherwise been able to afford. They were also more powerful than a vast majority of their clients, for whom they solved a unique structural inefficiency. (It’s no coincidence that, for the brief time that Google News seemed inevitable and dominant, it was wire services that got direct distribution deals, in the form of AP Hosted Stories; newspapers became weird middlemen. Also, on a more comforting note, haha, remember Google News?)

But few media organizations are nearly as powerful as the platforms they will partner with, and most will have no practical leverage at all. To imagine “the media” as some sort of coherent wire service is mostly just too flattering. It’s possible there is no nearby historical precedent for what comes next: Online media companies that make their money by selling ads against their audiences are now entering into arrangements with much larger companies that also make money from selling ads against audiences, and which are increasingly behaving like publishers themselves, hiring editorial staffs and editing — sorry, curating — content into publication-like packages without outside help. These larger firms will insist on calling these relationships “partnerships,” but they will be nothing of the sort. They will be relationships in which one party supplies the entire context for the other, gradually assimilating its most profitable parts and perhaps leaving the parts that are either too labor-intensive or carry too much liability, not out of malice but rather obvious and rational self interest.

To a platform supremacist, online media — traditional online media? — today is no more rational than print media seemed to the first online publishers. Newspapers wrote and printed hundreds of redundant articles a day because their trucks could only deliver so far; websites produce an enormous amount of duplicative content jockeying from the outside for space in search results or social feeds, or simply because they expect people to read their sites like papers, front-page first. Recontextualized within a platform, this level of duplication is easier to see as waste. Fifty embedded John Oliver videos become one Facebook video shared under a few headlines. A hundred slight acknowledgements of the same political gaffe are reduced to a trending topic link. What were heralded as novel and bold content strategies are reclassified as spam; territory where publications could fruitfully mine to subsidize whatever else they thought they should be doing is rezoned or reclaimed under eminent domain. (A strong and sudden consensus about one aspect — bloated, slow, invasive web advertising versus lean, fast, invasive platform advertising — appeared last week: “Why Web Pages Suck,” “The Mobile Web Sucks,” etc.)

The platforms will also determine favored partners. Just this week, Snapchat added a channel from BuzzFeed, which is already doing all kinds of experiments — videos, single-image jokes, screenshot games — and purged Yahoo, which posted Katie Couric newscasts and reformatted Yahoo articles. The companies’ competitively opaque statements offer as fine a rendering of the near future of the internet as I’ve seen anywhere:

“Since launching Discover with Yahoo and Warner Music six months ago, the teams have been continuously experimenting and learning what type of content works best,” Los Angeles-based Snapchat said in a statement. “Although we have new partners joining Discover today, we continue to look at different ways we can work with Yahoo and Warner Music Group on Snapchat in the future.”
A Yahoo spokesperson added: “As we continue to find unique opportunities to reach people with our content, we’re looking forward to continuing to work with partners, including Snapchat, that can bring our live video and other properties to new users.”

So if not a wire service, what is the media becoming? Are media companies like… collectives of stringers? Strange moribund freelancer cooperatives hoping that together they can stay in human and robot editors’ favor? Content taxi dispatchers praying that content Uber really needs them, despite mounting evidence to the contrary?

I have no idea, and the more I talk to people on both sides of these future arrangements, the clearer it is that they don’t know either. Platform employees and leaders are generally optimistic, but curious and even surprised by the power they wield; the mood at media companies that can afford, with venture capital, to configure their operations around the new calculus of platform partnerships and direct distribution at a massive scale are cautiously optimistic as well. If your business doesn’t depend on controlling your audience through subscriptions or front-page reading habits, and if you, say, are able to continuously raise money until your businesspeople figure out how to keep up with your constantly morphing content operation, then you have space to figure out how to garner new types of loyalty: either from readers and viewers, with video stars and sub-brands and entertainment franchises, or from distribution partners, with the platform equivalent of production deals.

But for everyone else — the papers and magazines that became sites, the sites that became blogs, the blogs that became generalist news organizations — accepting the platform bargain is accepting that most of what they did before is legacy and burden. Most magazines never truly figured out the web, and never will. The conversations happening right now in conference rooms at Conde Nast and Hearst this year, about merging Print and the Web, have been on frustrating repeat for at least ten years. The collapse of the newspaper industry is accelerating while maintaining an inverse relationship between the depth of cuts and the coverage they receive. The transition from web to apps, from sprawling web publishing to platform partnerships and captured competition, should it proceed long enough, is more profound than any of these people are prepared to deal with or, for now, acknowledge. It again poses questions of identity and purpose, which have been asked gently but repeatedly ever since Google started sending serious search traffic, but this time more urgently. Sites supported in recent years by cleaved-off viral sideblogs and junior staffers churning out posts only to make sure no spare traffic was left on the table may find, as platforms redirect audience attention inward, their strategies recast as incoherent or precious.

An audience of hundreds of millions is, even with strings attached, or a limited timeline, a huge opportunity for someone. Just… maybe not you.

Gifs from the BugJuggler