Forget the NYT or The Guardian. Here’s the new league of news providers.
Over the last year or so, a virtual battle has been raging between legacy media and social platforms. As many traditional publications have struggled to adapt to the fast pace of tech developments, a new league of content creators has quietly emerged. Here’s how they, and not the incumbents, can change the world.
“Online” is not just about websites
I can’t remember the last time I clicked on an article posted on The Guardian’s own social pages. I also struggle to recall the last time I visited nytimes.com, even though I have a paid subscription. It doesn’t help that their homepage hasn’t changed in something like a decade. Typically, their content arrives in my inbox via a newsletter, or on Twitter via a friend’s repost. You probably know the drill.
Instead of dot com properties, what I do see, constantly, are short newsy video bites across my social channels. Kim Kardashian gets robbed — NowThis Entertainment is right there to tell me about it, even though they don’t even have their own website. ISIS loses a significant battle and where do I find out? Probably on AJ+. Trump says something outrageous in a speech and I’ll be able to see it for myself — on a video edited by Mic, and posted to Facebook.
Or Instagram. Or Twitter. Or Snapchat.
Slow and steady, say the traditionalists
Last time I checked, The (Sunday) Times lived behind a paywall and, like a pawnbroker, carefully measured out little snippets of content to be posted on social. Everything with the goal of linking to their own web property. “Native” content just for the sake of it? Hardly possible. With the dot com revered as the ultimate altar, distribution platforms are an afterthought.
Would you believe me if I said that The Guardian produces close to zero video news content on their Facebook page? A couple of evergreen-style videos go up, but breaking news and subsequent analysis are mostly left to the written word. For the sake of comparison, Mic releases several breaking news videos per day, plus a context mix responding to current events and debates.
In Tubular Labs’ ranking of top video publishers on Facebook, there is only one traditional media property in the top 25, and that’s The Daily Mail. Hardly a serious news platform, this massive publication is managing to leverage celebrity content into snackable video, but it’s still lagging behind faster, leaner channels like ViralThread or UNILAD. Notably, none of the following names made it to the top 50: USA Today, MSN, Yahoo, WSJ, NYT, The Telegraph, The Independent.
Why the disruptors are a force to be reckoned with
Distributed publishers like NowThis or AJ+ can thrive because they’ve made their peace with social platforms as distribution platforms, instead of fighting against them.
Just as traditional journalists have studied the art of written storytelling, the new league have learned the new tricks of the trade. They know, for example, that an overwhelmingly high percentage of Facebook users watch video with sound off. So, they slap on subtitles. They also know that on Snapchat and YouTube, you probably do have your earphones in, so they use a different video format still. They know that your thumb is just twitching to keep scrolling, so they keep the video short and fast-paced.
Importantly, they benefit from user habits too: they use the fact that users are on social platforms several times a day (and for significant amounts of time: users spend an average of 30 minutes per day on Snapchat; 50 minutes on Facebook and Instagram). You can never realistically check 5 or 6 media properties several times a day just to stay abreast of current happenings. The new league also talk to us in a format we’re willing to spend time with: moving images support the words, provide authentic footage and transport us to the scene of the action. Importantly, subtitled video also supports how well we remember the information we’re served: on average, people retain information presented as image and text much better than the same information as just text. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then surely video must speak whole volumes.
Who will win?
So what? How can a small startup without a website ever overtake an established, legacy news provider? It’s really not a mad assumption. Access to content has never been more democratic than it is now. Today, you decide where and how you want to consume your news. Just ten years ago, a single autocratic voice was responsible for content that ended up on the front page of any paper. Today, for better or for worse, billions of voices move the news machine forward. And when I see 50 million views on a Mic video, with a raging discussion in the comments section, then a day later a video on the same subject from a legacy publisher, in a TV and not smartphone format, it makes me wonder how the hell they expect to survive the coming years.
Online video is no longer a trend. For many users, it’s an expectation. If traditional news companies want to stay in the game, they need to invest heavily into snackable and distributed news content that will find the viewer — rather than the viewer having to find it herself. They need to build up video reporting templates and systems to bring in UGC so that they can process news items quickly, benefitting from the brevity of the format. And, importantly, they need to get off their high horse about news production, and redefine their definition “quality”, where the perfect piece of content isn’t necessarily the most polished.
As for the disruptors, it’s up to them to establish reputations and individual voices. Some, like AJ+, have it easier because of their parent companies. Others, like NowThis, still have a long way to go.
It’s a new world — all over again
If you study the first years of Hollywood, an astonishing parallel emerges between how content producers worked then — and how they do now. The template of the disruptor-incumbent relationship hasn’t changed much. Small, independent disruptors swayed the status quo established by powerful production houses, forcing through new developments and evolving the medium. This dynamic changed the world as we know it.
Are we so arrogant to think this cannot happen in the world of news today?