Publishers and platforms: plenty of data... but nobody knows anything
Facebook recently tweaked how its news feed works. Their aim? To prioritise news from friends and family over that from news outlets and other pages.
The response from publishers, however, has ranged from edginess to outright panic - as many of their businesses rely on the social network for referral traffic.
But, of course, Facebook isn't the only distribution channel where publishers and audiences click. There's Apple, Snapchat, Twitter, Google and many more. Publishers are drawn like moths to a flame to any online service that boasts a critical mass of potential readers. The question is, how burned are they going to get?
A recent study from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School may have the answer. 'Digital News in a Distributed Environment' examines the relationship between publishers and digital distribution channels, measuring the output of nine large US publishers on 12 social platforms over one week.
There are a host of statistics, as you'd expect. But also interviews with more than 40 journalists and a handful of executives from five major platforms. The quotes from these interviews are like the transcripts of marriage counselling sessions.
"We are collateral damage in the war between platforms," says one un-named newsroom manager. "They're fighting with each other… they will promise certain things to some, they'll give [a publisher] a chance to play, but not to others."
"It's incredibly cut-throat right now, and Snapchat plays it very close to their chest in terms of if they let you onto their platform," says a manager of a digital native publication. "It's like The Hunger Games - because you fight to get on it and you fight to stay on it."
"No two platforms are the same, yet we are placed in the same 'social media' bucket," says one platform representative. "Researchers differentiate between network news and cable news, newspapers versus online news. We are all just labelled 'social media'."
Another points out that media outlets are behind the times: "The news industry hasn't caught up with the fact that we're no longer in an era of editor choice - it's user first. It's all about news personalisation."
Despite all of this negativity and misunderstanding, publishers and platforms still seem to need each other. However, the Tow Center for Digital Journalism found that each publisher approaches each platform in a slightly different manner.
Take Facebook, for example. The likes of Vox and the Washington Post are pushing for engagement, regardless of whether the readers return to their sites. The majority of their posts are instant articles, Facebook's slick and speedy mobile articles, which keep readers on Facebook rather than referring them to publishers' URLs.
The Wall Street Journal, however, clearly relies on Facebook to deliver eyeballs to its own site. It posted 356 pieces of content to Facebook in the week in question - the vast majority of which were links. And despite Facebook's all-out assault on including video in newsfeeds, only Fox News was posting a relatively large proportion of native video on Facebook.
All news organisations were found to post a high number of links on Twitter - even though Twitter didn't offer a great return in terms of referral traffic. And almost all newsrooms wanted in on the Snapchat act, with only the New York Times resisting the faddish temptation. Everyone else, even publishers who hadn't been granted their own Discover Channel, was eager to create ephemeral content for Snapchat's young, mobile audience.
The study also pointed to an issue with a lack of transparency.
Some platforms were found to be incentivising news outlets to use their tools - and at least one platform was found to have demanded a percentage of ad revenue from publishers in exchange for use of its platform.
Another problem raised by the report is the risk to the public record, as more and more content is being published on social channels where older content is impossible to find and 'link-rot' is common.
The conclusion is worrying for publishers. Under extreme commercial pressure, and not wanting to miss the next big thing, publishers are posting a large number of stories to a range of platforms with no knowledge of the lasting effects.
It's hardly the basis for a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship.
Sunday Indo Business