Hyperbole is never far away when Facebook introduces innovations. Typically it involves some talk about saving the planet, creating the future or some iteration of “this will forever change the way how we read/write/communicate.” Not this time. The tech giant has just launched instant articles, a service that lets news organizations such as the New York Times, Buzzfeed and National Geographic embed their interactive stories directly on the Facebook mobile app (only iOS so far). Publishers are giving up some control over their distribution; Facebook is giving up some of its advertising revenue. Both Facebook and the publishers are downplaying the collaboration as an experiment. They don’t want to upset their stakeholders: investors (Facebook) or critical news readers (publishers).
If publishers needed any more evidence that their audiences are getting their news on mobile devices and through social platforms, the latest State of the News Media report by the Pew Research Center delivered it. 39 out of 50 news sites get more traffic from mobile devices than from desktop computers. In a previous report, Pew found that almost half of American web users get their news about government and politics from looking on Facebook. Both trends have been in the making for a few years now. Yet, news organizations are still scrambling to develop strategies for creating content, advertising revenue and distribution channels. At the same time, tech giants like Facebook and Google are driving news traffic and sucking up advertising revenue. What are the lessons of this emerging social and mobile news ecosystem? EJO talked to three media scholars for their perspectives.
“The biggest challenge is revenue,” says Tom Rosenstiel, the executive director of the American Press Institute. “Even if your audience is growing, it’s growing online. Digital advertising just doesn’t generate the kind of revenue that legacy advertising did whether it was print, radio or television.” Last year spending on digital advertising amounted to more than $50 billion and is up by 18%, the Pew report found. Rosenstiel argues that both publishers and advertisers have not figured out an efficient way to reach their audiences. Users get their news on different platforms and that makes it hard to focus commercial messages, he says. “It’s not that the population is fragmented, it’s that everyone of us is fragmented in the way we behave.” (Acquiring a digital advertising platform was one of the major motives for the US telecom company Verizon to acquire AOL, writes the Financial Times.)
Pushing content on various platforms remains one of the biggest challenges for news organizations, says Nick Diakopoulos, Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland, College Park College of Journalism and a member of the UMD Human Computer Interaction Lab (HCIL). “One thing I haven’t seen done particularly well,” he adds, “is content rather than just the layout that is written to adapt specifically for mobile consumption. For instance, if an app knows I’m in a mobile context it might give me specific highlights or a summary and an option to pocket the story for consumption on desktop later.”
The need to focus on content is echoed by Zizi Papacharissi, Professor and Head of Communication, University of Illinois at Chicago. “Content drives traffic,” she says. “If media outlets create interesting content and have a presence within Facebook and Twitter, they will get traffic and drive traffic.” She emphasizes that journalists have to compete with multiple sources for delivering news. “This is not an insurmountable challenge,” she says, “but it means that perhaps they focus more on slow news: Being the last ones to tell the story, but telling the most comprehensive, interesting, and meaningful story.”
No matter how much news organizations focus on content, though, they are increasingly competing with tech giants for advertising revenue. Five companies (Facebook, Google, Yahoo, AOL and Twitter) cash in on more than half of all display ad revenue. “Power has shifted to technology and platform companies,” says Rosenstiel. “Owning the pipe is more valuable at the moment than creating the content that flows through the pipe.”
Faced with these growing super powers, it’s no wonder that news organizations are changing course following the motto “If you can’t fight them, join them.” In addition Facebook’s collaboration with news publishers, Google just recently announced partnerships with major European newspapers such as the Guardian and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Diakopoulos cautions publishers not to fall into the arms of tech companies. “Facebook has not yet admitted to being a publisher, yet they do take editorial decisions about content censorship on their platform,” he says. “Who’s to say they might not censor a partner’s content if it ran afoul of a conservatively interpreted policy?” Papacharissi would like to see news organizations partner with digital start-ups—but not necessarily with Facebook or Google—to improve and innovate on content generation and reporting tools.
As Rosenstiel sees it, journalism providers need to further improve their tech expertise. “Media companies need to be technology companies, data companies and content creators,” he says. “You cannot simply produce stuff and send it up in the air and hope that people find it. “
Photo credit: Kroejsanka Mediteranka