Thursday, September 10, 2015

Apple, Google and Facebook zero in on news

With Apple, Facebook and Google promoting powerful news-delivery platforms, the best days may be in the rearview mirror for the dedicated news apps produced by media companies and a host of independent players. 

Leveraging their enormous audiences, vast troves of user data and state-of-the-art targeting algorithms, the Silicon Valley behemoths have created master applications to deliver personalized feeds to serve everyone’s individual news, information and entertainment needs. They’ll use those platforms – and the rich user data they generate – to deliver premium-priced advertising to the right customer at the right place at the right time. 

Although the emerging news services may delight consumers and advertisers, they pose a significant threat to not only legacy news organizations but also to the many free-standing aggregation services that sprang up over the years to help users discover and organize information. We’ll discuss those challenges in a moment. First, here’s how the technorati are vying to be your go-to news destination:

Google. The granddaddy of aggregators is Google News. Founded in 2002, the site automatically culls, categorizes and personalizes articles from thousands of global publishers. Recognizing the considerable time people spend with their mobile phones, the company has super-charged its Google app so it can serve as both your primary news source and the roadmap to your life by tracking your calendar, your take-out orders, your shopping list and much more. Seeking to capitalize on the popularity of mobile video, Google’s YouTube subsidiary recently launched a news-aggregation site called NewsWire.

Facebook. Facebook ventured into news delivery in a serious way a year ago, when it introduced its well-regarded Paper app. In spring, the social network upped its game with Instant Articles, a system for delivering entire stories, videos and visualizations at speeds up to 10 times faster than previously possible.  Publishers from BuzzFeed to the New York Times are contributing their content to Instant Articles to get in front of the network’s 1.4 billion global users. 

Apple. Apple’s freshly minted News app promises to consolidate and personalize content drawn from far and wide. The app, which is installed by default in the latest version of the company’s mobile operating system, will go beyond acquiring and organizing content from the usual name-brand publishers. It also will carry the RSS feed of any independent content creator who is willing to permit Apple to use her content without payment and to indemnify the world’s most valuable company in the event someone files a libel or copyright complaint against something she wrote.

The Big Three are not alone in focusing on news delivery. Snapchat earlier this year launched a feature called Discover, which contains news and infotainment blurbs provided by a dozen partners ranging from ESPN to Vice News. Twitter and Instagram reportedly are crafting better ways to aggregate and organize news, too.

Taken together, these moves aim to capture as much screen time as possible from the booming audience for mobile news. With the typical owner poking at his smartphone nearly three hours a day, it is perhaps no surprise that two-thirds of the traffic at the nation’s 10 busiest news sites arrived via mobile device. 

The mobile-news frenzy in Silicon Valley poses profound questions for the incumbent players in the media ecosystem. 

Legacy publishers and broadcasters are being forced to decide whether to contribute their expensively produced content to the master apps – or risk being marginalized as consumers forsake their carefully tended digital brands for the convenient and compelling aggregation platforms fielded by the tech giants. 

The argument in favor of sharing legacy content is that media companies can expand their audiences at the same time they share in the fresh revenues generated by the superior reach and marketing power of their newfound technology partners. As discussed above, several major media shops already signed on to such arrangements.

But industry sentiment has not been unanimous. Will Lewis, the chief executive of Dow Jones, recently asked if publishers should “run, headless chicken-like, towards offers from companies like Apple and Facebook to put our content in their walled gardens.” 

While legacy publishers may have options, the techno behemoths could squeeze the life out of many of the independent news-aggregation sites that emerged over the years. Those indie efforts range from Flipboard, the most prominent and innovative of the ilk, to Circa, which succumbed over the summer for want of audience, ideas and cash. The increasing competition from Silicon Valley probably contributed to the Circa’s demise. 

In the final analysis, history may well regard the indie sites as point solutions, which is what folks in Silicon Valley call a spreadsheet that can add and subtract but cannot multiply and divide. Though the innovators in news aggregation pointed the way to better user experiences, they’re probably not destined to dwell in the Promised Land. 

© 2015, Editor & Publisher