Great Article, But What About The Data, Facebook And Apple?

Are Facebook and Apple really threatening the digital growth of traditional news organisations? Or are they offering an exciting new platform to boost readers and revenue? If they are, what's the deal? Does it come down to whether increased advertising revenue from a wider audience will make up for the potential of data leaking from news organisations into the hands of the American tech giants?

These are the truly vexing conundrums facing publishers as they weigh up whether to join in Facebook trials of its "Articles" service, which will begin this summer, or Apple's News app, which will replace Newsstand following an announcement at the start of the month.

What is clear is that Newsstand was a walled garden that was very lucrative in its early days -- but never really "kicked on," as a sporting commentator would say. It kind of sat there in the background while people tended to find it easier and quicker to either dip into a news organisation's app or surf around the articles being shared by friends in social, and hence the very smart Flipboard application, which offers the equivalent of a personalised magazine based on what friends are looking at.

What is also clear is that social sharing takes time and is limited not just by the time lapse in shifting from an app into a mobile browser, but also restricts people to what is proving popular among friends and contacts.

So on the face of it, the proposed Facebook and Apple services look promising. Quicker access from social media to instant "Articles" on Facebook has a lot going for it -- and so does a Flipboard style app where publishers each post dozens of articles a day. Interestingly, Apple is making a lot of the fact that this can lead to sections through which niche interests being followed --  kind of a "Google News Alert" service, but in a section of an app, avoiding all those wasteful notification emails leading to content of varying relevance. From the announcements so far, it looks like readers will get content where the publishers are more in charge of what appears, although it would seem likely some kind of popularity filtering is likely to take place to allow people to prioritise.

The big question will be whether news organisations simply post news and end up offering very similar articles, or whether they put up analysis, exclusive interviews and news as well as specialist interest content. In today's fast-moving media landscape general news has become a commodity that often becomes part of a massive publisher's SEO efforts to get out the right keywords around a story that has just broken by a rival. The crown jewels are the analysis and expert opinion pieces that you can imagine specialist publishers are going to be loath to share beyond their own apps. Sharing an article about ISIS attacks should be easy enough, and the article by a diplomatic insider explaining the why and the how you can imagine would be too valuable to share, unless the publisher has a strategy to be identified more readily with such expert opinion. It's a hard one to call -- but my gut tells me generic news will be shared a whole lot more freely than the one-off, exclusive articles which rivals cannot repeat.

On the face of it, the deal Facebook and Apple are both offering seems like a good one. Publishers get 100% of the inventory they sell against their own content and a share of the revenue made by the host if there is unsold inventory that Apple or Facebook sells.

So it sounds good all around. Consumers get an app where they can seamlessly flick through the news without the walled garden borders of apps, and publishers get exposure to a vastly increase audience. Only around a quarter of a news organisations most loyal audience will check an app for new regularly and so that leaves the vast majority out there ready and willing to consume content as part of their more general, daily journey around the mobile Web.

There is one troubling detail in what is being proposed, however. Data. It's the elephant in the room that has not been addressed, at least not publicly. Who is going to own the data generated by millions of people, whom Facebook and Apple will already know plenty about, as they start to routinely consume the news via Facebook and Apple? It's hard to imagine how the tech giants would not end up holding all the aces, unless there can somehow be a data-sharing principle set up. At the moment, it has not been mentioned or acknowledged, and so one can only imagine it is a bone of contention. If the tech giants are going to fill up unsold inventory, the potential disparity in data between publisher and host gives the tech giants the advantage. 

If consumers are going to consume news in Facebook and Apples' backyards, will the revenue from the extra reach offered to publishers make up for the potential data leakage?

It is a sign of the times that when it comes to household names in the media industry working with the tech giants that the issue isn't one of copyright or sharing readers -- nor is it about advertising revenue, per se. Sharing audience means sharing data and that is going to be where these service either thrive or put publishers to the sword.

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