As the fake news crisis persists, we news publishers are hoping distributed platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, and Snapchat will prioritise trustworthy news content. However, with only minor improvements, the distributed platforms continue to be largely unresponsive to the wishes and needs of news publishers.
This was among the conclusions made when 55 media managers from 17 major news brands gathered in Berlin for the third-annual Distributed Content Summit hosted by Bild.
I’d like to attempt to explain why the relationship between news publishers and distributed platforms is so troubled, why it (unfortunately) appears unlikely to improve, and how news publishers (including Ekstra Bladet) are reacting to this realisation.
What’s the problem?
As news publishers, our relationship with the distributed platforms is characterised by a mix of collaboration and competition. The competitive element usually consists of direct rivalry for advertisers’ money and more loosely with the struggle for access to the users’ time and data. At the same time, the collaborative element consists of joint efforts aimed at getting (news) content to the platforms’ users and sometimes sharing the ad revenues generated directly by this content.
News publishers and the platforms’ interests, naturally, are not aligned when they compete in the advertising market. News publishers, so far, have been largely willing to admit their content strengthens the value of the platforms for the users and advertisers, although most news publishers still prefer using the platforms to drive traffic to their own property for monetisation rather than relying on the monetisation options available on the platforms.
The relationship between news publishers and the platforms is, however, further complicated by the fact that their interests are often not even aligned when they collaborate on getting news content to the users. Accordingly, news publishers aim at providing news content to users for commercial and often idealistic reasons.
On the other hand, the platforms aim at increasing the relevance of their platforms for the users with a mix of content in which news content only makes up a small, non-privileged portion reflecting the media consumption habits of the platforms’ users. For these reasons, Facebook has, from 2015 to the present day, continuously announced it is tweaking algorithms to give more priority to personal content. However, YouTube is just as happy with user-generated content and content from influencers and legacy entertainment brands, as this content often generates more views and, thus, more advertising revenues than news video.
What does this mean for news publishers?
Well, quite a lot. But importantly, because of the number of news publishers making their content available on the platforms and perhaps higher commercial value of personal and entertainment content, the platforms are not structurally incentivised to prioritise development of their platforms to the needs of news publishers. For that reason, despite the value news publishers themselves and society sometimes ascribes news content, it is perhaps not surprising the platforms continue to rank low on responsiveness to news publishers’ wishes and needs.
As a consequence, real collaboration with the platforms is unlikely. Further, strategic dependence on the platforms for traffic or add revenues continues to be dangerous for news publishers, as the dependence of the platforms on news publishers is not that high.
The current fake news crisis might provide some incentive for the platforms to embrace news publishers. However, so far, the actions from the platforms to counter this crisis appear only symbolic. And, given the structural incentives described above, there is no reason to expect any real change in the troubled relationship between news publishers and the distributed media platforms anytime soon.
What should news publishers do about it?
Based on the discussions of the Distributed Content Summit, Stefan Betzold, the managing director of Bild Digital and host of the Distributed Content Summit in Berlin concluded: “[The] Distributed Content Summit still rates the cooperation with the major platforms as largely negative, despite some improvements. But instead of resigning, many media brands seem to be reflecting on their strengths again and increasingly focusing on their own channels. This new self-confidence is good for the industry and increases the pressure on the platform operators to act.”
At Ekstra Bladet, we fully recognise and embrace these conclusions. Accordingly, a few years ago and based on the analysis above, we made a conscious decision to prioritise resources to develop our own platform while only using distributed platforms when it is clearly to the benefit of ourselves and our users. In large part because of this strategy, ekstrabladet.dk grew 12.7% in 2017 and 8% in 2018 (so far) measured on pageviews.
Meanwhile, traffic from Facebook now makes up (only) 8% of Ekstra Bladet’s visits and 3% of Ekstra Bladet’s total pageviews. We are very proud of these numbers as they imply growth in the direct traffic we obtain, allowing us to generate 2 billion pageviews in the first half of 2018 while reducing our strategic dependence on Facebook.
Looking ahead, we will continue to focus on making the platforms that we ourselves own (Web sites and applications) better for our users while exploiting the distributed platforms for our benefit rather than being exploited and risk a backlash the next time Facebook decides to change its algorithms without notice. At the same time, we hold no illusions about the distributed platforms that will continue to prioritise personal and entertainment content, often at the cost of news.