The big players in digital news, like The New York Times, Buzzfeed and NBC News, are struggling with a change in how they make money and how they define themselves as brands.
The cause is the rapid migration of news consumers and advertisers to smartphones. This migration has put the news brands at the mercy of Internet giants Facebook, Google, Apple and others who already monopolize digital advertising.
In essence, the news publishers have discovered that much of their audience — in some cases, most — is accessing their content on smartphone applications provided by the big technology platforms and social networks. This means the publishers are losing control of their users and revenue.
So the publishers have started doing something that looks like syndication of their product to the social networks and platforms. They tailor content to live on each of the platforms rather than their own — distributed content, as described by Joshua Benton of Nieman Lab — to increase the speed that users can access text, photos and video (crucial on handheld devices).
A wave of new products
Google and Twitter are reportedly working on a system of rapid delivery similar to Instant Articles, except that it will allow publishers' own ads to appear within the apps, a plus for the publishers. So far, Snapchat has attracted 15 media partners with its Discover product. The company also adds and drops partners at its own leisure.
The migration to mobile has happened so suddenly that the brands themselves are struggling to figure out what it means for them. But basically, they are now serving the big technology platforms as content providers.
Benton sees the trend as a threat to local news publishers, particularly the daily newspapers and television stations that used to have a monopoly on local advertising:
"And 2015 has made it clear that scale is becoming everything. Smaller audiences had better be very high-value — read: super-rich — to be worth reaching. These distributed content deals, like Facebook’s Instant Articles, Snapchat’s Discover and Apple’s News? They’re all about the big guys. We live in a time when there are honest questions whether companies like Twitter and LinkedIn have a big enough share of our attention to have legitimate advertising businesses. If Twitter may not be big enough for advertisers, how can The Shreveport Times be? The local advertisers who might have been the life’s blood of local news sites seem happy to advertise on Facebook instead."
"What the social network has to offer is unquestionably going to help any of those publishers who sign up (and that in turn will create an incentive for others to do so). The risk is that it will wind up helping Facebook more, and that eventually Facebook — a for-profit company that has shown no evidence that it actually understands or cares about “journalism” per se — will become the trusted source of news for millions of users, rather than the publications that produce content."
If this trend continues, news organizations will now become so dependent on social media for distribution that they will no longer "own" the consumers of their content.
What's more, the social networks and platforms, with their changing algorithms, could make that content irrelevant with a simple programming tweak. They do it all the time.
And let's not even talk about another challenge publishers face — ad blockers. The future of journalism in the digital world is being rewritten so fast that it is hard to keep up.
Update Sept. 14: Evan Williams, cofounder of Twitter and founder of Medium.com, also believes that platforms are taking over. In an interview with Robert Hof in Forbes, he said that publishers' websites will be irrelevant in a few years.
James Breiner is a former ICFJ Knight 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.