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Strategic insights
The Trend of The News Platforms That Aren't

Written by on September 18, 2015

Unless you have been living under a rock, you will know about the trend of the news platforms, and the idea that content in the future will be distributed through them.

We have Facebook Instant Articles, and their relaunched Facebook Notes (for Pages), trying to convince people to use Facebook as a direct publishing platform. We have several startups trying to build platforms for news distribution. Apple News, Kindle, as well as sites like Medium. And they are all promoting the same world view:

Here from an interview with Ev Williams:

Battelle: What's the state of independent publishing?

Williams: It is in flux. We never realized the potential of it that we saw with blogging and the open Internet. In the next three years, it's going to look massively different and it will do well.

The idea won't be to start a website. That will be dead. The individual website won't matter. The Internet is not going to be about billions of people going to millions of websites. It will be about getting it from centralized websites.

Battelle: So where am I doing content?

Williams: You're doing it on a number of platforms. It's going to go the way video has. ... deals with Apple, Netflix, HBO.

Battelle: Wouldn't this weigh against search and Google?

Williams: It won't go away. But search barely registers as a driver for me.

Of course, none of these platforms have demonstrated any financial solution yet. As Ev puts it:

Battelle: How am I going to make money on Medium?

Williams: Not right now. We haven't solved that problem quite yet. We will. We're not going to invent some new way to make money from publishing. Will do turnkey premium-content option-with a paywall. We'll also enable advertising. You can do branded/sponsored content on Medium, but there are no tools yet. We will have them, though.

Right...

So, these platforms have even less of an idea of how to monetize news than the newspapers, and they are the future?

But you get traffic, right? And the attention? As Ev says:

We have 300,000 people who have published on the service. Last month we had about 25 million uniques.

I'm sorry, but those are not impressive numbers. 300,000 people sharing 25 million uniques are only 86 uniques per person. Of course, those two numbers are not directly comparable, since the first number is the total number over time, whereas the other is per month.

And you can see it for yourself. Publish an article on Medium and watch what happens. Yep... nothing! It's the same with all the other platforms.

Create an iPhone app, and nothing happens. Publish an ebook on Kindle, and nothing happens. Post an article on Facebook, and nothing happens. Post a video on YouTube, and nothing happens.

Just take a look at the New York Times' YouTube page. These videos were published three to four days ago, and they have almost no views.

And YouTube is one of the platforms that has actually proven to work (unlike all the other platforms who hasn't proven anything yet).

Just being on a platform means nothing. The only ones who benefit from it are the platforms themselves.

To Ev, it's amazing that his website (Medium) now has 25 million uniques. To the rest of us... meh.

We see the same thing with many media startups. There was a time when being a media startup meant you actually produced content. You would create a new magazine, a new series, or something for people to enjoy.

Today, however, pretty much all the startups are based on the concept of building a platform so that you don't have to make anything yourself. And sometimes these startups sound like the next big thing.

One example is Peblish, a new Danish media startup.

What they intend to create is a Medium like publishing platform, combined with a Kickstarter like monetization scheme. Sounds good, right?

In other words, they will create a platform where journalists can pitch their ideas for an article, which people will then 'vote on' by backing them by paying $2 or more. Once the necessary backing goal has been reached, the journalist is paid and he or she will then start to write the article.

And they also have a good purpose. As they told the Danish site Journalisten:

We believe that there is a hunger for quality journalism. With Peblish we will go against clickbaiting, superficial news and so forth. We will tell the neglected stories and cover the black holes in the media.

In order for people to assess whether it wants to support an idea, it is important for us that there is as much transparency as possible. In the columnist's profile on Peblish, journalists must write about their background and education, among other things. And in their pitch they must clarify how many sources they are using and how much research the story requires.

It sounds very good. But then you start to realize how this platform would actually work.

Imagine if I did this here on this site. Imagine if every single time I wanted to write an article, I had to pitch and sell my idea to people, from scratch. Imagine if I just threw out all the momentum I have built up over the past five years.

And mind you, the money I would need to get is something like $2,000 per article, because that is how much it costs to do what I do. If each person pays $2, that's a thousand people that I have to convince, one at the time, 30 times per year.

It just doesn't make any sense. You can do this with subscription, because then you are building up momentum and the value you bring accumulates over time. But on a per article basis? It's just not happening.

Every publisher and journalist are faced with three distinct challenges.

The first one is customer acquisition, which is by far the most difficult one. It takes a very long time to make yourself known, to build up a brand, and to create a reputation that inspires people to follow you.

You don't want to do that every time you write a new article.

The second challenge is customer retention. Or, how you keep up the momentum once you have established a relationship. This is equally important, but it's much simpler to do.

The third challenge is uniqueness. You don't want to become just another item on a list of items. For instance, when I go to Apple News and see the 'For you' page, I'm not really encourage to feel anything unique about any of the articles. It's just part of the package.

It's the same over at Medium. They say they have 300,000 people writing on their platform, but that's not a good thing. It means that there are 300,000 people to choose from, all doing the same thing.

And this is the problem with every platform. As soon as their platform starts to scale, the value for each individual creator drops to almost zero. This is true on Medium, on YouTube, on Facebook and on every other channel.

Try starting a new Facebook page today and see what happens. Facebook as a platform doesn't actually help you distribute anything. In fact, it prevents distribution far more than it creates it.

My email newsletter, for instance, is seen by far more people than when I post something on Facebook. And the value of that connection via email is many times higher too. The reason is that, in order to make enough room in the NewsFeed for everything else, my posts, on Facebook is only being exposed to 4% of my followers, while it's 41% with my email newsletter.

And it's the same everywhere. Here are the stats from one of my articles on Medium. I get more traffic than this to my website simply by tweeting a link. Medium as a platform does not create distribution by itself.

What creates distribution is your reputation, and how that influence others to share what you do.

But are there situations where it does make sense? Well, it's tricky.

First of all, there is a big difference between a one-time thing, and an ongoing activity. Kickstarter is a good example of this. There is no question that Kickstarter is enabling many great startups to realize their dreams. But it's only good at the starting part.

You would never use the Kickstarter model for an ongoing series, because it would mean you have to raise money from scratch every single time. It just doesn't make any sense.

And we see this all too often with publishers. Too many people forget that the key element of being a media isn't that first time sale, but everything that happens afterwards.

This is why the media should be focusing on concepts such as Patreon rather than Kickstarter. Patreon focuses on monetizing momentum over time, while Kickstarter projects focuses on that one-time boost at the very beginning.

However, news platforms often forget about the individual and instead focuses on the mass. One example of this is Vessel.

Vessel, as a concept, sounds quite brilliant. It's like YouTube, but subscription based. You pay $3 a month, and with that you can watch any channel on Vessel, who will then share the revenue. It's like Spotify, you might say.

So several popular channels jumped on-board, including one of my favorite channels, Veritasium:

The problem here is that you are not actually subscribing to Veritasium. You are subscribing to Vessel, the platform. That means that as more and more creators join the system, less and less of the revenue share will go to each.

It also means that you do not have the necessary loyalty. We see this on every platform where your connection is to the platform itself, rather than the people in it. Just look at Spotify. In the past, you would choose which artists you liked, because every time you had to buy a CD, you would choose which one to buy.

On Spotify, because you are not supporting any artist specifically, you also have no specific loyalty. So, you listen to whatever comes your way, without valuing whether it was worth it or not.

This is a big problem, because our world is designed around winners and losers. There is not enough money in the world to support everyone, so you want to get people to pick you specifically, so that you can earn more money than your competitors.

In theory you can still do that with platforms, because the popular channels will naturally get more traffic and thus also a higher share of the revenue, but the reality is slightly different. And this is especially true for media.

To give you a simple example. Look at your own browser history for the past week. If you are like me, you have probably seen a thousand different articles. Some of them were very good and worth paying for. Others were of questionable quality, and some were completely pointless.

Now count the quantity of each group. You will notice that the really good articles, those worth paying for, were in the minority.

In other words. In a revenue sharing system, most of the money goes to those who don't deserve to earn it, while the great publishers are all struggling to make a difference.

We see this again and again and again.

It's happening with music too (and on Netflix), but it's much harder to see. A song by Taylor Swift is pretty much the same value as one from any other artist. They are about the same length and the same amount of work. So, the difference between low-quality and high-quality music is not that big.

With content, however, there is a huge difference between effort and the value of each individual piece.

Here, for instance is a video from BuzzFeed:

It's the crappiest thing anyone can possibly make, and it just screams shallowness for the sake of optimizing social views for people who doesn't give a shit.

Meanwhile, the absolutely amazing MinutePhysics created this video about rainbows, and why we can sometimes see purple colors, even though no such color exists in a rainbow. It's informative, interesting, and quite useful if you happen to be wondering about it.

Both of these videos have about the same number of views (~1 million), but if you had to pay $3/month, who would you give that money to? BuzzFeed or MinutePhysics?

Well, using a revenue sharing platform like Vessel, the money would be split evenly, because both videos have the same amount of traffic. Or rather, BuzzFeed would get 98% of the revenue because they are posting four of these crappy videos per day, while MinutePhysics only publish two of his videos per month.

Is that a fair system?

If you actually had to make a choice, and had to pay $36 per year for videos, would you give $35.27 to BuzzFeed and only $0.36 to MinutePhysics?

You see the problem with these platforms?

And this isn't just about the money. We see exactly the same on all the social channels. Although, on those channels, we pay with our attention towards advertisers.

Is BuzzFeed better, in that it creates one million views, 4 times per day (4 million views/day), or is MinutePhysics better with its one million views, 2 times per month (65,000 views/day).

Well, BuzzFeed is clearly better in terms of exposure. But now we have a disconnect between the interests of the readers and the value for the advertisers. It's a terrible model.

What about platforms like Apple News, Flipboard or Feedly.

They are both interesting and problematic. They are interesting because fundamentally they are based on people making a deliberate choice about what to follow. In other words, they solve the very real problem of convenience, in that people aren't going to visit several different sites manually.

It's the same reason why we have shopping malls.

However, there is a big difference between having a shared placed to follow things, and publishing directly on those channels.

It made no sense for publishers to partner with Flipboard a few years ago, so why should it now make sense to do the same with Apple news? We have been here before. How many times must this trend repeat itself until we realize it isn't actually a trend?

Let me give you an example.

Over at Medium, when you publish something, there is a call to action at the bottom of each article next to your name.

This call to action is no different than the call to action you will see at the bottom of this article. Or rather it is different.

You see, when you click the follow button on Medium, you are following people only on Medium, whereas if you click the button on this site, you are following me on your social network of choice.

I would argue that it's more valuable to direct people towards a social channel where people do many things, than towards Medium alone.

On Medium, however, you can then see the profile page for each creator. Here, for instance, you can see that Susan Cain (a brilliant person BTW) has 7,700 followers ... on Medium.

This, apparently, is the so important distribution we are talking about? Well, at the same time, she has 64,600 followers on Twitter.

What exactly is it that medium is doing for her again?

My point is that the discovery part isn't about the people who are on Medium. It's the link that goes to it.

For instance, yesterday I tweeted a link to an article by Jason Fried, which happened to be published on Medium.

It's a great article but that tweet could just as easily have looked like this:

Would that have made any difference? No, of course not. Whether the link went to Medium or some other site makes no difference in how we interact with it socially.

And I have been saying this for so many years. The power of distribution doesn't come from anything you do yourself. It comes from how other people do things about you. And since all of these other people aren't creators on Medium, they will do things about you outside of Medium, like on Twitter or Facebook.

The trend of distribution is in the link, not in the platform.

What Medium does provide is an exceptionally well made publishing platform. It is incredibly easy to use. It's mindboggingly well engineered in terms of how people interact with it. And it's clutter free in a way that just makes it a great place to read.

I love Medium.

The reason Medium is an interesting platform isn't the distribution. It's because of look, and the ease-of-use. For people who don't publish articles as a job, like Susan Cain (who publish books as a job, but not articles), Jason Fried, and many others, it's a wonderful publishing platform.

But as soon as you start to consider publishing articles to be your job, the arguments for using Medium evaporates pretty quickly, especially considering that you have no real way of monetization. And even if you did, you had to be monetized according to Medium's business plan, rather than your own.

And the distribution you are talking about? As I mentioned before, I get more traffic by tweeting a link to an article here on this site, than I do from publishing something on Medium.

But, you say, what about video (like on YouTube). Are you saying that people could just as easily publish videos on their own sites?

No, of course not. Videos and articles are very different formats. There are two reasons why YouTube dominates.

The first reason is the work and the cost involved.

Trying to do video yourself is exceptionally expensive, both in terms of time and cost. You have to manually convert the videos to all the video formats that you need to support, in all the right qualities. You have to store all those files on a server, easily reaching massive amounts of disk space. You have to have a hosting plan that allows these videos to be seen, and if one video goes viral and reaches one million views (or is embedded on a highly popular site)... you can say goodbye to your bank account.

You also have to build a system for viewing and embedding them, which has to work across all devices, in all formats, and still be very simple to use.

On that basis alone, the infrastructure needed to handle video is very different from managing articles.

Secondly, the way people watch YouTube videos is very different from how we normally consume articles. A big part of the discovery process on YouTube happened when people sit down to watch something as a form of relaxation. It's like TV. And it's this TV like behavior that is the cause of the success of most YouTubers.

However, when we are not in TV mode, like when you just quickly see a video in an article (like in this article), you do not actually cause any additional distribution.

In this article, for instance, I embedded four videos from YouTube, which you may have viewed. But did you decide to view another video that was not on this page? No, of course not (or most likely not).

So YouTube has two discovery modes. One is when people are relaxing on their couch, just spending an hour or more watching videos in the YouTube app. This is a lean-back behavior that we do not really see with articles.

The other is when other people distribute the videos, like what I did in this article. That's exactly like when I tweeted a link to Jason Fried on Twitter.

YouTube wins because it has both behaviors, combined with the very real problem of handling the infrastructure. With content platforms, we only have one behavior (the distribution by others), and no significant infrastructure cost.

It is so easy to setup your own site, using your own domain. Just use Squarespace or something else. Which means we have no real necessity to publish on someone else's platform.

One example is Apple News. I'm sure many old media people think it's going to be very important because they still dream about people sitting down with their iPads, reading random articles over a good cup of tea, for 20 minutes at the time. Just like in the good old days.

That's what Apple news is designed for. It's designed for people who sit down to read random content.

But this isn't really the trend, is it? This isn't really how we connect with people, is it? This isn't really fitting into the specific choices we make about specific articles we want to read.

The real trend is that we consume articles on a per-article basis, and the discovery happens via either very targeted and very specific distribution channels (like email newsletters), or through others who bring specific articles to our attention.

People still sit down to watch video on YouTube (but only partly), but we do not sit down to read articles that way anymore.

This is why the news platforms are missing the mark. They are either designed for the wrong business models, or they make some weird assumption about how we discover content online.

What annoys me the most about all this talk about platforms is when people like Ev says something like this:

The Internet is not going to be about billions of people going to millions of websites. It will be about getting it from centralized websites.

Oh really?

Well, that's good news for all the old legacy newspapers who are based on bringing people everything in one big package. And it will be great for all the old cable TV networks who are also a centralized platforms.

You get my point? Newspapers and cable TVs are the inventors of centralized packages. If that's the future, well... woopty-doo!!

But, of course, it's not.

Mind you, I'm not saying that we won't need distribution. We obviously do. But, as I wrote, there is a big difference between having a shared way to connect and publishing on someone else's platform.

What we need is a better way to connect, and that's the real trend of the future. What we don't need is for a few centralized platforms to become the new internet, where each story just become part of the gray mass of posts.

We already tried that. We called it the print newspaper.

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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