The end of news media?

News discovery and consumption happen more and more outside of news sites and apps. People find individual articles, seperate from their original context on social platforms like Facebook. Many publishers gladly provide their content to these platforms to reach a broader audience. But what remains of the news brand, when coverage is fragmented and the source is easy to miss? Should publishers just completely abandon their own sites and apps in the future, and just become producers for technology platforms?

Dutch advertising and media magazine Adformatie wrote an article about this and asked Gonnie Spijkstra, Product Strategist at Nine Connections, and Jeroen Verkroost, former Chief Digital Officer of the Persgroep, some questions. Will native publishing on external platforms mean the end of the news brand altogether? This article is a translated and  re-re-edited version of the original, Dutch interview.

In Adformatie’s ongoing series ‘the death of …’ this week: the news brand. It is a new chapter in the great publishing debate, where the returning question is: how to earn more money with news. After banners, the paywall, DVD sales and digital subscriptions, recently the content platform is added as a proper business model. On social sites like Facebook and Twitter, and new kiosks as Blendle, readers consume their news per article. They get exactly the topics that interest them, and the ones they would like to share with friends. This is convenient for publishers who are assured the optimum attention to their content. Facebook can be a huge showcase for the content of newspapers and magazines. And conveniently, also the platform that hold their visitors as long as possible.

A win-win situation, you would say. But there are many questions to ask. At the moment the content-producing media are pulled apart. The title is still mentioned, but we read at the item level. It seems yet another shift of content in favor of the online players. It would indeed appear that the platforms will be no longer be the passage, but the final destination. This is what tech journalist Josh Constine thinks; he warned on Techcrunch last year that there will be a declining bond between readers and publishers. According to him, Twitter and Facebook will degrade publishers to ghost writers, who fill the smart tubes of social platforms with ‘stupid’ content.

No logo
Someone who has gone through the digitization of a large publisher from the inside and helped shape it, is Jeroen Verkroost, Chief Digital Officer of de Persgroep until 2016. Like no other, he can speak to the tension between publishers and platforms. “Platforms that collect content have gone to great lenghts for publishers to give articles the recognizable visual identity of the news brand. When the link with this brand is lost, the desire to go to the ​​the publisher page decreases and the chance of conversion from an occasional reader to a regular visitor or to even paid subscriber gets smaller.” He sees a benefit to individual writers, because on collective platforms the name of the author is usually more noticeable. Which provides new opportunities for ‘big names’ to establish themselves separately from the news brand.”

Gonnie Spijkstra
is Product Strategist at Nine Connections, a start-up that predicts what content will be shared into ‘your’ network through artificial intelligence. She thinks that the content located outside of the own domain forces titles to look very closely at the brand. “The content must be clearly identified as coming from the sender, without the presence of the logo, font or a URL. So recognition through the content itself. With a specific form, a tone of voice, but mainly by the angle of the story. NRCQ can approach a story very differently from De Telegraaf.” She thinks that every title can hold its own position in the news with a sharp content strategy. “Why do we do what we do? How do we make the life of the news consumer better? What can another title never copy from us? By adding more personality of your brand into the content, it will be widely recognized, wherever the content is read.” Spijkstra previously held the role of social media manager at the Telegraaf Media Groep, where she was to maximize the social reach and traffic of the news site. She sees the current movement not as a threat but rather as an opportunity. “Due to decreasing revenue — caused in part by adblockers and a greater share of mobile — publishers need more reach per article and they need distribution to accomplish that. Moreover, new titles have been added in recent years due to the content platforms, titles which otherwise would not have gotten this big, such as de Speld, de Gladiool and Vice. All unique titles that know exactly what role they play. “

New publishers like to close deals with platforms to deliver content. But the power dramatically shifts in favor of the content platforms. Although publishers receive a percentage of the ad revenue, the content platforms have the relationship with the reader. For BuzzFeed this is not so bad, Spijkstra wrote on last year, because it gets much of its revenue from location-independent native advertising. But New York Times for instance, relies heavily on paying subscribers. And why would readers go go to individual news sites, when all relevant content is already offered on a (social) platform of choice, neatly arranged and in an optimized way? News sites are in danger of losing their direct visitors, and therefore the direct advertising and subscription revenue.

Moreover, the platforms now obtain valuable user data. Spijkstra believes that publishers should demand as much data from content platforms, to extract insights for their content strategy. “And of course they should do a lot of testing: what content should we and what content shouldn’t we publish natively on the platforms? And what content do we post as a good old link post on social media? What do we get out of those different options? What visitors turn out to be loyal in the long run? “Verkroost also believes that every company must do its utmost to get to know its customers as well as possible. “Most customers use the publisher’s platform too, but it is for publishers very wise to receive this usage data from content platforms. To do this, data strategy and infrastructure must be internally well structured. There is another solution, which you see happening with Topics: publishers who develop their own collective platform.

Another mindset
The British title Marketing headlined last month: “Welcome to 2016. Facebook just killed your site forever.” Does this content shift mean the end of the news media, because readers will soon rarely or never visit individual news sites? Verkroost, who is also a board member of IAB Netherlands, agrees that a significant portion of the passers-by, who used to regularly visit the site of the publisher, now get enough out of visiting the collection platforms. His solution: “New media will have to develop destinations and platforms themselves and they need to have added value in relation to the external platforms. External platforms should be the showcase where the core target group of a title should be activated to enter into a deeper relationship. Incidentally, you can build a strong brand on external platforms, just look at Vice or De Speld, just to mention a large and a small example.”

Spijkstra doesn’t see the future for publishers as very glum either. She believes that news can be consumed in many different ways. “Especially on Facebook and Twitter you consume news as something you stumble upon while you actually wanted to know what your friends are up to. That’s a different mindset than wanting to know what is happening in the world, where you directly visit a news site or open an app for.” But also here she sees social platforms as an opportunity”. If a friend shares an item with you, he literally says: I recommend this article to you. If the recommended articles are truly unique and indispensable, the consumer would at some point become a direct visitor, probably he would subscribe to your newsletter or would eventually even become a paying subscriber. A casual passerby can eventually be converted into a relationship in smart places and on smart moments, for instance with buttons to download the app. A spot on someone’s home screen, as well as direct visitors are worth a lot. Many publishers currently use the home page to experiment with different revenue models.”

Whatever the publishers do, they will have to compete with content giants as Facebook, Apple, Google and Twitter in the coming years, and at the same time they need to collaborate with these new media players. The big internet companies each develop new ways to offer new content, which are very different from the old models, Verkroost notices. “I see news and content atomising. Classic newspaper employees are still very concerned with consistency, organizing information in relation to each other, and the hierarchy between the content. But in the future, their stories will appear more and more detached from the context. “He predicts that in particular things like Google AMP are potentially very impactful for publishers, because the vast majority of readers who visit via Google search, will soon no longer arrive at the (mobile) site of the publisher. “For some news brands that accounts for 40 percent of their online traffic.”

Spijkstra expects the trend of fragmented news consumption to continue further. “Soon, every surface such as a window or a table, is a potential carrier of content. This Internet of Surfaces news consumption is even a more secondary activity. It is about distributing the right content at the right time in the right place, with artificial intelligence that acts as a best friend who knows exactly what you like and what your needs are. Content platforms will be much better in playing this game than individual publishers, because of the wide range of content and numerous data. It is up to the title to remain recognizable in the complex network of content.”

This article is a translated and re-edited version of the original article that appeared in Adformatie, February 12 2016, written by Robert Heeg. All credits for the English version go to Gonnie, who has kindly given permission for me to re-use her Medium post