If we go back to 2004, we first see people talking about the Web in new ways. What was once fixed content, placed in fixed locations, became content and context that were separated. What this mean was that websites became a series of frames that could pull content from other places. Pages were dynamic, not fixed, and content could come from anywhere.
Weather sites became portals pulling weather data from other providers, while stock price sites dynamically changed based on data suppliers.The most obvious culmination of this trend was the app.
What this form of construction has done is reward the topmost layer, the “customer interface.” Kayak sells an incredible volume of hotel, car rental and flight inventory merely by owning the interface between service providers and customers, Zilllow does the same with real estate, Seamless with food. Open table, Fandango, Instacart, Uber, Alibaba — the list goes on. The provision of services becomes commoditized, a dumb pipe, while the interface and aggregation layer is the thin surface, scaling fast, and where much of the profit lies.
With Facebook Instant, Apple News and Twitter, we’re starting to see the same process with news content.
A while back our relationship was with news brands. We trusted companies to supply us with a variety of content within the bundle of the news provider.
Now the homepage is dead, and our readership is at the article level. Often our relationship is with the subject matter, occasionally with the writer — never with the news company itself.
So now we browse content differently. Our relationship has moved to Facebook, Twitter and now Apple as the distributors of the content, since they now own the interface to monetize. Movements like ad blocking stick the knife in further, as the distribution of content is now in-app, where ads can’t be blocked — unlike out-of-app content.
The entire architecture of content is changing.
In past times, our newspapers bundled quality and snackable content, rather like how parents bundled healthy diets to kids. We’d get doses of expensive-to-create investigative journalism, long-form content, and headlines to suck in readers. Metrics were at the paper sales level so we’d no idea what worked. Articles were not shareable with ease, so satisfaction became more important than virility.
The rise of thin “journalism”
This week we saw world-renowned news providers Time and New York magazines cover Milk Shake Squirrel, but do so by writing a half paragraph about the event surrounding a funny video.
We of course saw Mashable and Refinery 29 and Buzzfeed cover Pizza Rat. But since when has Washington Post or NPR merely placed funny videos online, adding nothing, and hoped to benefit from cheap clicks and ad impressions? The New York Times of course went high brow and added more value, by a paragraph extra of investigative journalism about dirt on the subway.
This is the result of news company owners hoping for survival: the cheap, endless repurposing of someone else's content, hosted on someone else’s server, and monetizing that content with the addition of the very smallest veneer of commentary or value.
We’ve now no idea what the editorial brand is, because anything that will get a click is now considered good enough, while the addition of commentary is an unnecessary effort.
The rise of audience buying.
The rise of programmatic buying has been key in extracting the difference between buying media and buying audiences. For years people bought premium eyeballs on premium content, and the content became the proxy for people. This allowed higher rates for more exclusive and more accurately spliced audiences.
Yet the placement of cookies and tracking software, combined with audience buying, now allows us to buy these people’s attention spans anywhere they go, unbundled from premium content. We can now reach people searching for luxury cruises, away from places where such content was placed.
The power lies in aggregation.
Aggregation layers like Facebook, Apple, Twitter and probably soon Google now have the killer advantage of knowing the most about the audience consuming content. They don’t have to make any content, but can now monetize the interface of others’ content.
It’s not just news, it’s TV, too.
In the age of the smart TV, all content becomes digital and increasingly on-demand. The content makers move into the background. Rather than consuming NBC or Fox or FX, our relationship moves to being with the show. We watch “Breaking Bad” or “Empire.”
We’ve moving toward the next stage of TV content, where apps become the new bundle. We’ll watch Netflix or Hulu, but Apple TV and better searchable content will provide the new discovery layer. Our relationship will move again toward the unit of the show’s content and the aggregation layer — and away from the pipes that bring it to us.