The future of online content: whose side are you on?

By Events


The future of content

Gigaom ran a very interesting piece this week, on how New York Times found great success running a major magazine story called SnowFall. In fact, the feature was so successful no less than GigaOm founder Om Malik wrote about how traditional mainstream media outlets like the New York Times may finally have found a way to compete with Buzzfeed and Huffington Post.
This is huge. This is a complete turnaround from a story GigaOm also published last year about what lessons the mainstream media can take from the likes of BuzzFeed. Heck, this story is timely for the fact that BuzzFeed itself is planning to expand their work and teach ad agencies how they do what they do.
Admittedly, this story may be a little hard to put together for the casual blog reader, even the average social media marketer, so I’m going to try to explain in unelaborate terms the relationship between content, the mainstream media, Google, blogging, and the future of the Internet. This is closer to you than you think.

Mainstream media dilemma

Mainstream media outlets have been seeing their industry decline, not so much on the journalism end of it as the business end. Newspapers and magazines have been slowly dying out, with subscriptions falling and readership declining.
The web has disrupted the business of news, in several ways. Google Ads actually started the disruption years ago proving that online ads were a more effective ad platform than traditional classified ads in the papers. The product called news has also been co-opted by the web, first on message boards, RSS and blogs, and now social media. The web created so many news delivery platforms that had the immediacy news outlets, even 24/7 cable news, didn’t.
Some argue this immediacy from the web has also devalued the quality of news received, as people with no training in journalism or journalism standards provide live updates and do their own news curation using so many accessible tools (the most elaborate being privately owned spy drones providing live camera feeds. No, really).
Still, traditional news outlets have managed to create an uneasy truce with these platforms. Their openness has allowed mainstream media individuals to actually integrate among them, as journalist bloggers, Twitter and Facebook users, etc. Furthermore, the media found the opportunity to themselves take stories from the web, easing the work of investigative journalism and opening opportunities for more introspection, not to mention greater distribution.
And then, enter the content scrapers.

Content reshared or scraped?

Websites like Buzzfeed and Huffington Post don’t want to call what they do content scraping. Scraping is a dirty word on the web, associated with taking precious pageviews, which results in lost revenue to site owners. More likely, they want to be referred to as curators, or aggregators, sharing links to sources when applicable.
In actuality, Buzzfeed and Huffington Post are as different as night and day. Buzzfeed expressly flounts their work in finding viral content on the web to reshare on their own website. Huffington Post, now an AOL subsidiary, is a news site that integrates elements of an aggregator and a blog. However, there is one particular thing both sites do that warrant their being mentioned in this post.
Both sites do find content around the web, often in blogs or even other commercial sites, and reshare them in their own websites. Their effectiveness in using this tactic to drive pageviews to their own site is what drives many critics to call foul and accuse them as scrapers. Interestingly enough, the two sites do have an overlap in staff (Buzzfeed senior staff Jonah Peretti and Ken Lerer both came from HuffPo).
This issue came to a head early this year when the Verge’s Joshua Topolsky complained to HuffPo that they were guilty of ‘theft of our SEO on title and text’ when they reshared The Verge’s piece on “The death of the American arcade.” In so doing, HuffPo reproduced 239 words from the original article, and as Joshua observed, took a sizable number of pageviews, exceeding that from Verge’s own original page and tantamount to compromising their bottomline.

The debate on online content

And so a new debate that’s come about because of the interaction between mainstream media and the new media, comes to a head: how do traditional news outlets protect their own content? Their work is easily made money off of by aggregators, curators and scrapers alike, but the nature of the open web has left content creators without a mechanism to receive compensation for this work. Whatever you call it, aggregation is light years easier than content creation, and the creators found that there were increasingly lower returns for their hard work.
As we talk about the New York Times, they actually came forward with the first possible solution: a paywall. Although initially jeered for allegedly breaking the open nature of the web, as they found success, other traditional media companies like Reuters soon followed suit. The paywall is now considered a viable monetization strategy for traditional and new media alike on their sites.
When I say protect their content, this means more than protecting their source of income, their precious bottomline on those webpages. As New York Times has demonstrated, bringing that subscription model online has allowed them to retain quality control over their content, both in terms of how it is investigated and produced, and in how it is distributed.

Rise of the brand as publisher?

Now, this is relevant to the average social media manager because they, too, are part of this cycle. When I write this, of course I refer to myself as much as you. I am also an aggregator and curator of sorts, when in my work, I find articles to share on social networks like Twitter and Facebook. In this capacity, however, I’m not driving views to my own site, and I am hopeful my work helps the people who make content make a living.
From where I’m sitting, I’ve also seen a change to how people and companies promote their brands online. As recounted here, brands can take control of how their stories are told online becoming their own content creator and publisher. They can tap new media more effectively than traditional media in this regard as well.
I don’t necessarily think the move towards a Buzzfeed model for content creation will be good for brands, and not for the common web user. I worry that brands will get caught up in the drive for more hits and attention, choosing to use campaigns and stories that might dilute the value of their brand.

How Snowfall changes the conversation

And this is where Snowfall changes things. Snowfall is a New York Times feature from December 2012 about the increasing number of deaths caused by ski accidents in the US. The Times recently announced that Snowfall is one of their most successful stories of all time, definitely the biggest one online.
Snowfall’s real values isn’t in the story itself, which is unfortunately tragic in tone, but a necessary one to tell. However, the feature is rich with content, like video interviews, and html5 animations, and the page itself was designed to take full advantage of html5. For example, there is a screen wide animation that identifies mountain peaks that feature in a major accident. The animation does not start moving until you scroll the text down at a certain point.
Snowfall was no doubt a very expensive piece on the production end, and as the Times says, it seems to have paid off. It is not the usual five second read daily blog post either. This is a longform piece that demands time and attention.
Stories like Snowfall can only be created by media outlets with the resources of a New York Times. Although it’s possible for HuffPo or Buzzfeed to create similar longform stories, because of the nature of their business they are disincentivized to do so.

Which side should you be on?

This may seem to be a leading question, but it’s not. A resurgence in demand for quality content will make the work of making content, as well as curating/aggregating it, a lot more difficult. We may see a decline in user generated and amateur content, which comes with its own consequences.
For myself, it would be great to see a return in the valuation of content. The web would become a more discoursed, intelligible place to be in again. Which side are you on? What do you think online content should be like in the future?

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