Among the most important developments in digital journalism in 2015 was the emerging practice of creating, distributing and monetizing news known as “distributed content.”
What it means: news media organizations hand over their content to platforms like Facebook without linking back to their own websites so that smartphone users can get nearly instant access to the content without having to wait five to 10 seconds for it to display — an eternity for impatient mobile consumers.
Snapchat was the first platform to stake a claim in this new territory when it launched its Discover channel in January 2015. Facebook followed in June with its “Instant Articles,” and Google, Instagram and Apple quickly jumped on the bandwagon.
These social and technological platforms had at least three motivations, according to Josh Constine of TechCrunch. They wanted to avoid having users abandon a news link because of a slow download; they wanted to keep users in their own walled gardens to prevent them from going to other platforms; and, finally, they wanted to take advantage of the audience's attention to send them advertisements tailored to their personal tastes, preferences and buying habits.
The stampede to mobile, social platforms
The growth of distributed content is a symptom of internet users' migration to mobile devices. In just two years, that migration has changed the balance of power between news organizations and the platforms that distribute their content.
The steady loss of audience and revenues to Facebook and Google has begun to accelerate at a dizzying pace. The Reuters Institute's Digital News Report 2016 surveyed news consumers in 26 countries and found that 46 percent receive their news through social media, compared with 24 percent from print.
The debut of Snapchat's Discover and Facebook's Instant Articles touched off a stampede by other platforms to develop their own channels of distributed content with similar objectives: use the content of news organizations to attract more users, gain their loyalty and monetize that attention.
If you can't beat 'em...
News media organizations, already weakened by loss of audience and revenues, recognized that a growing percentage of their traffic was coming from digital platforms like Facebook, Google, Snapchat, Instagram, Apple News and other intermediaries. Farhad Manjoo of The New York Times described the situation well, as did Adam Fraser of Echo Junction.
Many publishers have come to accept the notion that they need to make a Faustian bargain: they would give up some control of their content in exchange for greater distribution and some revenue from those platforms. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em, they seemed to be saying. The trend toward distributed content and the growing influence of digital platforms over news distribution has touched off an intense debate among those inside and outside the industry.
Mathew Ingram of Fortune worried that the big media brands would lose their identity and importance by handing over their content to Facebook. Emily Bell of Columbia University perhaps expressed best the worries about news organizations’ loss of influence in democratic societies. Critics warned that by adopting these new strategies, the news media were transforming themselves into mere content syndicators for giant platforms.
In a commentary on audience migration to smartphones and apps, Nilay Patel, editor-in-chief of The Verge, described how Google, Facebook and Apple had positioned themselves to monopolize digital advertising. In his opinion, these three businesses in particular overwhelmingly dominate targeted digital advertising to the point that small, independent publishers do not have the possibility of competing and achieving sustainability.
Patel pointed to the closings of GigaOm and The Dissolve, as well as The Awl's difficulties, as evidence that the internet of the future will be dominated by those platforms with less space for independent digital publications.
Where are the watchdogs?
It could be that this migration to distributed content represents the final step in the evolution of news media from leaders of public discourse to a role of mere syndicators of content to giant internet platforms.
With traditional media weakened, which institutions will act as a counterweight to existing political and business interests? Which media will act as watchdogs for the public interest?
The big internet platforms appear reluctant to accept the reality that they are now news publishers, with all the public service responsibility that goes with that role, and which goes far beyond satisfying only the interests of their shareholders. As Bell reminds us, it is time that they took that responsibility.
James Breiner is a former Knight International Journalism Fellow who launched and directed the Center for Digital Journalism at the University of Guadalajara. Visit his websites News Entrepreneurs and Periodismo Emprendedor en Iberoamérica.
Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via Silke Remmery.