To compete with the web’s giants, news organisations need to become better at sending people away
Hardly a week goes by without a major article scrutinising the dominant role Facebook plays in defining how people consume journalism (the latest came from the NYT). It’s an important issue, but the focus shouldn’t so much be on Facebook’s algorithm. This should be about something bigger. Facebook’s dominance is the result of news organisations’ failure to be entry points to the web.
News sites are optimised for traffic to them. What they should optimise for is traffic they send away, into the web.
For over a decade now, news organisations have optimised themselves into dependence of the big players on the web. News sites have made sure to get as much search traffic as possible. Now they try to get the most out of social platforms by making their pieces as shareable as possible. In short: They have optimised for traffic to their sites. What they haven’t optimised for is traffic from their sites, into the web.
In doing so, news organisations have weakened their own position as entry points to the web and put themselves at the will those companies’ business decisions who are. As more and more news consumption moves to mobile devices, this problem accentuates: According to a recent report by Comscore, users spend 75% of their time with their four favourite apps – usually none of which is a news app. You need to be an entry point to compete.
News organisations have always been entry points to the world. In a less connected world, this meant pulling the world into the newspaper. Today, it means directing the users’ attention and sending them away where fit. To their own disadvantage, most news sites have stuck to the pre-internet model.
Show your users the best stories from the whole web, not the best from your newsroom.
This is not to say a news site needs to be a mere aggregator to be an entry point. But the decision to point a user to a story of their own rather than one by someone else should be a conscious one every single time, based on editorial judgement, not an invisible wall. Show your users the best stories from the whole web, not the best from your newsroom (but of course make sure to have a newsroom that is capable and driven by the will to create as much overlap between the two as possible).
Only when you can promise your users that you will show them everything that is relevant or interesting to them, irrespective of where it was published, only then will you be a valuable entry point. The more traffic you send away, the stronger an entry point you become. Your brand is not the content you produce, but the lens to the world you provide.
So why does this matter?
This is first and foremost about reclaiming access to the audience. Journalism should not be where people end up, but where they start and come back to.
People have much stronger connections to the entities that are their entry points to the web – their trusted lenses to the world – than the sites they are pointed to by an entry point. A stronger connection translates to more, deeper engagement.
Thus, a news outlet that is able to position itself as an entry point will attract more users overall and more loyal users. Those users are more likely to contribute, both their knowledge and their money, strengthening journalism and the business to sustain it.
In recent times, a number of news organisations have made moves in this direction (for more examples, see this list):
- The NYT with their «Now» app and the «Watching» feed on their home page
- FT with «Antenna» and their FirstFT newsletter.
- Spiegel Online with their morning news blog «Der Morgen»
- Quartz by putting their newsletter on their home page as «The Brief»
What those efforts have in common, though, is that they isolate curation within specific formats or features, leaving the rest as is. They provide entry points, but they haven’t become entry points.
We probably won’t have to wait for long until we’ll see an all-in approach to becoming an entry point. Judging by their announcement, Buzzfeed will build their new news app to be just that.
Addendum: Three weeks after I posted this, Emily Bell has pointed out this very issue in her Reuters Memorial Lecture 2014. Key sentence: «The press is no longer in charge of the free press and has lost control of the main conduits through which stories reach audiences.»