News Media and Big Tech – the ultimate frenemies.

It’s not hidden knowledge that big tech companies were once the presses star child now turned frenemy. In the early 2000s big tech companies were held in high regard by media organizations (for the most part), their data, privacy and monetization practices were not questioned but their success stories were flaunted by News organizations.

Executives and management at these news companies never saw it coming. Bigtech was slowing gobbling away the very profitable digital pie that was ever growing. But apart from that, it was devaluing news content essentially moving the attention of readers to one or two spots on the internet.

The Times took out a roadblock, or exclusive, ad on the front page of Facebook with a brief video of Obama and an invitation to submit comments. Heekin-Canedy said the ad was seen by 68.3 million people, and 34,000 comments were shared. The free gift was sent by Facebook users to their friends more than 400,000 times. And in the process, the Times nearly quadrupled the number of fans on its Facebook page — a figure the Grey Lady takes quite seriously:

So in 2008 the height of the crisis for the newspaper business, the New York Times marketing folks were exploring Facebook and organizing giveaways essentially opening up new audiences for sure but at the same time loosing out on their loyal customer base. A problem that took 5 years to solve and a 100+ page innovation report.

Big Tech Aggregation

Over time big tech companies started aggregating all content in one spot, news, sports, entertainment (memes) and personalized content (aka content posted by your friends and family). Attention spans moved away from reading the paper every morning to checking the Twitter feed. Why would you open a paper when you can get a highlight on Twitter (and a more personalized experience)?

The TV industry has not yet faced the rough decline the paper industry faced could be due to either management decisions or sheer luck. Rarely can you find TV content on YouTube or Facebook for free. Yes, you will get the trailer but never the full episode.  Netflix and co has to pay hefty licensing fees for content produced by TV Networks, but the cable news industry is now starting to feel the strain but they’re riding the Trump bump.

A silent and fast-moving aggregator is in the audio industry, Spotify, Apple Music and the like are taking a huge share of radio, from ad dollars to audiences. Spotify aggregates everything from podcasts to music to news reports in one spot, their free version has fewer ads versus radio and their paid version is reasonable at $9.99 to avoid ads.

Tech companies are network aggregators leveraging personalization, data and a huge variety of content to grab audience attention, effectively increasing their slice of “time spent” each day.

More time spent = more opportunity for advertising.

The fight for Attention

Relying on a network or marketplace that is not owned and operated is something new media companies forget. These networks are perfect for audience development but nothing further. Buzzfeed the once celebrated success of new media companies is now struggling to break even. Their heavy reliance on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram to promote their content left them at the mercy of these tech overlords. One bas algorithm update or the like would mean essentially ripping off the business, Buzzfeed had a great strategy when they pushed quiz links from FB to their site, but things went wrong when full versions of videos were available on FB and YouTube

I love Ben Smith’s first story as the new media columnist for the New York Times, the former editor in chief of Buzzfeed ends up at the so cold traditional organizations. If there’s one thing the Times realized is that the number one value, they had was their platform and content, outside that they were just another page on Facebook/Twitter.

The first time I met A.G. Sulzberger, the publisher of The New York Times, I tried to hire him. That was back in the heady days of digital media in 2014, and I was at BuzzFeed News, one of a handful of start-ups preparing to sweep aside dying legacy outlets like The Times. Times stock was still sputtering, and the company had sold off everything but its furniture to keep paying for journalism. Mr. Sulzberger, then the heir apparent to lead The Times, politely declined my offer. And today, after eight years as BuzzFeed editor in chief, I find myself in his employ as the new media columnist.

The fight for the Ad Dollar

Traditionally advertisers have paid for free content, as those budgets move towards Facebook/Google and aggregators where users spend hours per day. Facebook and its billions in revenue rely on 98% advertising revenue. Meaning they have some of the smartest people in the world working on advertising technology. Making ads more effective, less annoying (this is not happening) and connecting points that humans can’t see.

Advertisers in the ruse of brand safety avoid placing ads on news sites but have no issue advertising on Facebook (right next to the anti-vax content and hate speech). They avoid spending on print, because it lacks “targeting” and want all the slots on TV that are not beside breaking news. If there is someone to blame for the decline of the journalism industry it’s the people controlling those advertising budget, yes, they have shareholders to respond to and executives who want performance. The big aggregators allow for micro-level targeting and using of data points that were never imaginable with traditional media. Users are now recognizing that they were the product being sold.

Final Thoughts

Media companies must think like the aggregators, how to get users coming back. No, commenting and a crossword is not enough, To win this race, news media companies need to think like big tech product teams, whenever Google releases a net new product it’s user experience is so seamless and easy that is the first way users end up spending more time. 

It’s time to shift the focus to the audience. For the longest time, the customers were advertisers, as that dries up thanks to limited audience attention – the focus needs to be on the readers. If the readers have a good experience, they will be more engaged, spend more time, return more often and ultimately get more receptive to advertising products OR paying for the content.

I am writing this series as part of National Newspaper Week, I work for a publisher but I have loved news even before I got into this industry. I used to take pictures at events, protests, and where the story was – many people still know me as the photographer or reporter but that’s a story for another day!

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