No. And yes. Very much.
These are questions that Ezra Klein tees up very nicely in a smart piece in Vox the other week, about how the media is increasingly becoming more like wire services, publishing via platforms others control, like Facebook. (To which my first reaction was: Hey! I resemble that remark!) He frames the issue well as the tension between reach or innovation, taking the discussion beyond the already not-unimportant business model questions about ceding your audience to others.
And I’d push it further: Innovation isn’t just one of those nice-to-have things; it’s core to what news is, and will be, in the future. And letting others define that, via platform standards, means losing a measure of control over what “news” is.
But first, let’s roll back to what Ezra wrote.
My biggest frustration with the new media — including, on some days, Vox — is how much we’re like the old media. Most outlets — even the digitally native ones — still publish pieces that could, with few exceptions, be printed out, stapled together, and dropped on someone’s doorstep. So long as that’s happening, it’s a pretty safe bet we’re not fully realizing the potential of this new technology.
Exactly. Wire services have to provide content that works on pretty much anyone’s platform; bespoke projects like the New York Times’ Snowfall simply can’t be syndicated to a zillion different publishers and platforms, each with their needs and standards. Which is why Snowfall was produced by a newspaper, and not a wire agency; or why Reuters’ Connected China project wasn’t part of the file we sent subscribers. As Ezra notes:
There are lots of these little quirks hidden in the distribution system, and they quietly, but surely, enforce a status quo bias across the industry. That isn’t because Facebook, Google, or anyone else is trying to staunch innovation — it’s just because these services can’t possibly be built to support every new idea.
And that, in turn, disincentives news organizations from trying anything too radically different.
Why roll out a powerful new annotations system on your site if the resulting work won’t survive on other platforms? Why create an interactive video if you can’t upload it to YouTube and Facebook? What’s the point of a new method of grouping related content if no one on Snapchat will ever see it?
True, Snapchat and Facebook can get you much bigger audiences, but what’s the price we pay? Nilay Patel, in a piece in the Verge, argues it’s particularly high one as audiences increasingly move to mobile, and its app-heavy structure.
How do you build Fanboys or Snowfall or What is Code using Apple’s toolset and Facebook’s when they’re entirely different? How do you do a better job of integrating video? How do you build interactive news apps? How do you create new types of advertising that address viewer complaints and draw viewer attention if you’re beholden to someone else’s platform? How do you publish breaking news quickly and update it if your work lives in multiple different walled gardens? How do you innovate in media if you have to spend technical effort just trying to publish?
And innovation matters. Not because it’s a cool thing to do, or that it trumps core reporting and uncovering of facts; but because we’ve really only begun to scratch the surface of what’s possible in discovering, analyzing and disseminating information in a digital age. And that this is a core question of what news is, or will become.
Connected China – OK, I know, there’s personal pride here – couldn’t exist on a host of different platforms. Neither could Homicide Watch, Politifact, Circa, or Vox. Sure, they can write stories, and send them out on Facebook, and attract traffic that way. But the core information they provide is deeply bound up with how their sites, CMSes, and information are created. How well would natural language generation work across a host of platforms? The creation of personalized news-on-demand? Immersive data explorations?
True, great narrative stories – the kind that could have been written 50 years ago, or the multimedia projects that could have been produced five or 10 year ago – are a core part of what journalism is and does, and will be. But there are many new opportunities to take advantage of what digital technology offers us – persistent information, floods of data, the capability to machine-generate prose, to name a few – and it seems be ludicrous to assume that the field will simply consist of more of what we used to do, except faster, with more multimedia, and going to more people.
Technology enables a large part of what we can do, and how we can present it. And technology standards, equally, will constrain what is possible.
This isn’t either/or, of course; there’s a happy medium somewhere in the middle, where agreed-upon standards allow more frictionless passage of content, but there’s still enough experimentation going on to explore the boundaries of what’s possible.
But the more we shift energies away from publishing into providing content for publishers – often platforms that don’t have any great sense of mission about public-interest information – the less investment there is into new forms of journalism.
…begin to see their websites as Just One More App, and realize that fewer people are using them, proportionally, than before. Eventually they might even symbolically close their websites, finishing the job they started when they all stopped paying attention to what their front pages looked like. Then, they will do a whole lot of what they already do, according to the demands of their new venues.
Let’s hope not.