Platforms are eating the Internet… so where the heck does that leave news?

By Matt Carroll <@MattatMIT>

Ev Williams states in a recent podcast that the future is all about platforms. He claims a handful of platforms will soon distribute the bulk of content. Not that the free and open Internet will disappear or anything, but … you know, if you really want people to see your stuff, you’ll publish on a platform. Besides, that’s where all the advertising is headed, anyways.

Williams may be right. He’s a smart guy with an amazing track record. He’s had a hand founding Blogger, Twitter, and this platform, Medium. Most people might eventually get most of their content through platforms and apps controlled by companies, such as Facebook, Medium, and Snapchat, and not on the free-and-open Web. (I’m defining platforms loosely, as places where content is created on closed systems.)

That might be a very good thing, from the perspective of students or parents who want simple and easy ways of distributing information about their family to networks of relatives, friends, and co-workers.

But from the perspective of a newsguy, it’s scary. It makes me more nervous about the future of independent news sources than I already am. If he’s right, news publishers will face a much rougher ride than they thought they faced.

I’m hoping Williams is wrong — but I wouldn’t bet against him. And I don’t think newspeople, the public, or even the platforms have fully come to grips with what could happen if his prediction is true.

This is the problem: The more news organizations depend on platforms and mobile apps controlled by corporations, the more beholden they are to those corporations. And what do those corporations want? For they most part, they want to maximize profit. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, and news organizations did it exceptionally well for a long time. But the good newsrooms understood they existed to make society better, and took a little less profit to make that the priority. I don’t get the feeling that’s on the agenda for most platforms.

Newsrooms get placed in a tenuous position, if they become too dependent on revenue that flows to them directly or indirectly through these companies. That’s increasingly looking more likely. Whether it’s Facebook or Youtube, Medium or Twitter, news organizations get big bumps in reads and views when a story goes viral on social.

Some platforms offer very generous advertising terms to newsrooms to encourage them to publish directly to their site. That’s great for the publishers — until the platform changes the terms. Then what happens to that revenue stream that the publisher counted so heavily on? With less revenue, what’s the impact on news coverage? Will reporters be put into the position of pen-wielding Uber drivers, squeezed financially, just hoping their corporate masters throw them the occasional bone?

Or what if publishers post stories that a platform, or its backers, consider to be unflattering? Or that back the wrong political candidate? Will they face an obvious pushback, such as getting banned from the platform? Or maybe worse, there’s a not-so-obvious payback, in which they suddenly find their stories reaching fewer readers.

It’s even difficult for publishers to get good analytics from some platforms, which makes if difficult to sell to advertisers.

Not everyone agrees that the rise of the platforms is inevitable. Technologist Dave Winer ☮ argues forcefully that platforms, by their very nature in building their silos, sow the seeds of their own demise. As he puts it:

… silo-makers were able to build something higher level by foreclosing on the openness. Then they stagnate because big companies get stuck in the Way Things Always Have Been, and the users get skilled, a new generation comes along and they see how to make progress outside the silo and enough people use the new open system so it gains traction. It’s always more exciting than the stale corporate silos, so for a while they blossom, until the cycle repeats.

I see Dave’s point. But I fear that even if he is right and that the current Facebooks lose favor and stumble as leaders, they will merely be replaced by new, improved platforms, whether it’s Snapchat or something else. That the cycle will merely swing towards different silos, not return to the open Web.

It’s clear that users, especially on mobile, are spending more and more time in these silos, which are like “closed gardens” — systems that discourage you from venturing outside into the great, chaotic world of the Internet. Take the dad on Facebook who every day posts pictures of his kids and sharing his fantasy football team lineups with his buddies. Or the teen checking out his peers on Snapchat. They aren’t really on the Internet. They’re playing in a space that’s totally controlled by third parties.

Williams makes strong points, too. Platforms have a lot of advantages. They make it easy to publish, easy to distribute, easy to find an audience. These advantages drive growth, which bring in more people, which keep the cycle turning. It’s all good, from his point of view.

Maybe. I certainly see his logic.

What concerns me is where that leaves free and open news on the Web. It’s a particular concern for medium and small news organizations, which might not be able to afford to build strong mobile apps, and keep their sites on the web and off platforms. Google is also concerned about keeping people on the Web (after all, they have their search business to protect). They’ve developed AMP, or Accelerated Mobile Pages, in an effort to make mobile pages load faster. That’s a big concern for news organizations, whose pages are bloated with advertising that take forever to load. Publishers are interested and it’s impressing some media observers. Maybe it will help keep some people from drifting to platforms.

I write this with a certain degree of exasperation aimed straight at news publishers, whose limited vision put themselves in this bind. More than a century ago, publishers created their own powerful distribution systems that could deliver more than a million papers a day, for the largest papers. It was a sophisticated system that evolved over decades. Fleets of trucks would deliver papers to corner stores, to paper boys and paper girls, and to hawkers.

It was incredibly powerful distribution and one of the main reasons newspapers became so strong. Without that system, news does not get delivered to huge numbers of homes every morning. Without delivery, the paper loses its voice and its power.

Somewhere along the line, the system began to be taken for granted. When the Internet came along, bringing the cost of distribution to zero, and making all those fleets of paper trucks superfluous, newsrooms were slow to realize that they needed to get creative about building distribution systems.

They thought it was enough to put the news out there and the crowds would come. Wrong. It was as if, back in the old days, newsrooms had printed up bundles of paper and left them sitting on the loading docks, waiting for crowds to come and get them. It doesn’t work that way.

So instead of newsrooms building their own distribution systems and networks— platforms, in other words — others have done it instead. Now newsrooms are on the outside looking in, and it’s not a pretty picture. They are left begging for attention from platforms, hoping Facebook deigns to build some cool new software that lets newsroom reach new readers. Maybe that will happen. Or not. Even if it happens, why shouldn’t Facebook grab the lion’s share of the advertising?

What’s clear is how unclear the roadmap is for news moving forward. Let’s hope there’s plenty of room out there for strong news organizations, that they find a way to financial stability and excellent reporting. Certainly newsrooms such as the Texas Tribune and Pro Publica have shown that new types of news organizations can thrive in a difficult environment. We just need a lot more of them, for everyone’s sake.

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Matt Carroll runs the Future of News initiative at the MIT Media Lab.