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Is the media becoming a wire service?

I'm going to make some predictions about the future of the media in this piece, and they come with the disclaimer that predictions always come with: They could be entirely wrong. The media is moving fast, and what looks like an unstoppable trend today might seem like a hilarious detour a year from now. (Remember, for instance, when the iPad launched, and apps were going to save journalism? Lol.)

But my 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.

The upside of being a wire service is the potential audience: It is vast, and it is diverse. The possible downside is innovation. Wire services have to provide a product all of their subscribers can use — no matter how they publish or design their paper. So wire copy needs to be simple. Stories the Associated Press sends to its customers can't be as innovative in their form as stories the New York Times or the Washington Post lovingly design for their front pages.

The upside to being a wire service

There's a huge benefit to all this, and it's the obvious one: audience! And not just the old audience fractured across more sites. These platforms offer new audiences — people who might never have navigated to Vox.com but, because of their social networks, or their interests, or because of the platform's curation, will now see Vox's stories.

An example is the video Vox did explaining the role the euro has played in Greece's crisis. It wasn't one of the more popular Greece posts on Vox.com, where the audience responds better to long, text-heavy explainers and analysis. But it's been watched about 4 million times on Facebook — including, I would guess, by millions of people who don't read Vox and aren't typically interested in detailed explanations of European monetary policy but who, on that particular day, really did feel confused by the news, and so suddenly became our audience.

Our core mission is to explain the news to people perplexed by it, so that's a huge win. And it's one reason I'm enthusiastic about the coming off-platform world. A longtime problem for the news business is that the people who use our product most often need it least. 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.

The downside of becoming a wire service

My biggest frustration with the new media — including, on some days, Vox — is how much we're like the old media. Most outlets — even the digitally native ones — still publish pieces that could, with few exceptions, be printed out, stapled together, and dropped on someone's doorstep. So long as that's happening, it's a pretty safe bet we're not fully realizing the potential of this new technology.

But there is so much potential! Length no longer matters — it's as cheap to publish 100,000 words as 100. Digital text can be continually updated, so it's no longer necessary to write a new article every time there's a small change to a story. Digital stories can be interactive — readers can enter their information, and the story can change to reflect their circumstances. It's really exciting stuff, and we are just beginning to figure out how to take advantage of it.

So now we're getting products like Vox's card stacks — topic guides that can be embedded anywhere on the web, and updated continually. Or look at the Upshot's social mobility feature, which created a new article depending on where you live. Or think about pop-up annotations, which Vox is beginning to use but that also exist at Grantland and Medium and New York Magazine. Or check out the Washington Post's spread on "The N-Word." Or BusinessWeek's "What Is Code?"

But even now, the rules around off-platform distribution constrain innovation in quiet ways. A daily choice we face at Vox is around updating existing news explainers versus writing a new article each time a story changes. On the one hand, updating the old story is the most efficient way to use our resources and serve our readers. On the other hand, Facebook penalizes us if we repost the same link within a few days, and so an updated explainer is basically useless on Facebook. We could get around this by creating a whole new article (and thus a new URL) to house the slightly different explainer. Facebook would treat that as fresh content, but it would confuse the hell out of Google.

There are lots of these little quirks hidden in the distribution system, and they quietly, but surely, enforce a status quo bias across the industry. That isn't because Facebook, Google, or anyone else is trying to staunch innovation — it's just because these services can't possibly be built to support every new idea.

So fast-forward three years. Imagine it's not just distribution. Now every article has to work in the publishing systems built by Facebook, Apple, Snapchat, Flipboard, mobile app developers, and so on. Even if these systems are great — and, in many cases, they will be — they're not all going to be the same. A lowest common denominator effect will set in quickly: The pieces with the highest possible audience will be the pieces that work across the most platforms. So it won't make much sense to pump endless energy into innovative, custom articles. Why spend so much of your time on a piece or a format that will only be available to a fraction of your audience?

The same goes for site design. Why roll out a powerful new annotations system on your site if the resulting work won't survive on other platforms? Why create an interactive video if you can't upload it to YouTube and Facebook? What's the point of a new method of grouping related content if no one on Snapchat will ever see it?

There are answers to these questions, of course. The on-platform audience will still matter, even if it's smaller. Gorgeous, interactive features can win you prizes. Building something beautiful for Facebook can net more likes for your page. Brand is important, and in some ways might matter more in the coming world. And hell, if all anyone in journalism wanted to do was get audience, they would have gone into TV, and if all they wanted to do was make money, they would have gone to Wall Street — in the future, as now, media organizations will do big, ambitious work because they want to do big, ambitious work, even if it doesn't offer an easy return on investment.

But innovation will slow. The case for massive editorial investment that only benefits the on-platform readership will weaken. The big publishers — at least those that sell scale to advertisers rather than subscriptions to a loyal audience — will become like wire services that operate across many platforms. And like the wire services of today, that will make them absolutely essential, but it will also keep them from being as experimental as was possible when they controlled their own platforms.

Further reading:

  • My thinking on this has been influenced by some very smart pieces other media watchers have published in recent months. Ben Thompson's essays on "The Facebook Reckoning" and "Why Web Pages Suck" are key starting points to understanding why media companies are going to embrace off-platform publishing.
  • You should also read Nilay Patel's take on how the mobile web failed — particularly this sentence: "Apps have become nearly irrelevant on desktops because the web experience is close to perfect, while apps are vitally important on phones because the web experience is dismal."
  • Finally, for a darker vision of the coming world, it really is worth reading John Herrman's "The Next Internet is TV."

VIDEO: Explaining Facebook Instant Articles