The Pew Research Center has come out with a massive new report on the state of media as part of its Project for Excellence in Journalism, and it comes to a number of conclusions about where the industry stands — including the fact that Twitter and Facebook are still driving a fairly small amount of traffic to media outlets (although this segment is growing quickly) and that tech giants like Google, Yahoo and Microsoft control almost 70 percent of online advertising. But one other thing that becomes clear from the Pew report is just how big a role aggregators of all kinds — both human and machine-powered — are playing in news consumption.
Despite the growing evidence to the contrary, many newspaper companies and other traditional media outlets still seem to think the vast majority of their audience comes to them directly and prefers to read their content above all other sources. More than anything else, this is the core philosophy behind the rise of paywalls — which more and more papers are implementing — and also the millions of dollars that media companies have poured into developing iPad apps and other walled-garden-style approaches to news delivery. The assumption is that readers will want only the content that comes from that specific outlet.
Aggregation is a way of life for more news consumers
For many consumers, however, aggregators of various kinds are the way they consume their news now, whether through Web-based portals like Yahoo News or Google News or through a variety of newer aggregation-based apps and services — apps such as Flipboard, Pulse or Zite for the iPad, as well as services like News.me, Summify (which was recently acquired by Twitter) and Percolate. According to the Pew report, close to 30 percent of consumers get their news from a “news organizing website or app,” compared with the 36 percent who go directly to a media company’s website or app:
In effect, many users seem to be looking to generate their own digital-newspaper-style overview of the world rather than accepting one from a single media outlet, and if the content they are looking for comes from an aggregator like the Huffington Post because the original is behind a paywall, then so be it. The problem for media companies is that this kind of behavior is in direct conflict with most of the business models they are relying on for revenue, whether it’s advertising or app- and paywall-based subscription services — which is why media moguls like News Corp. owner Rupert Murdoch continually accuse Google of “piracy.”
And the problem is actually even bigger than that, since the Huffington Post and Google News are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to aggregation and/or curation. Although Facebook and Twitter may not be huge factors in terms of news consumption at the moment — as my colleague Staci has pointed out at paidContent — with only 9 percent of users saying they get their news from those networks, that figure has grown by almost 60 percent in the past year alone, and it is likely continuing to increase.
Social sharing is both an opportunity and a danger
To some extent, that curation phenomenon is helping mainstream news organizations, because people are sharing links that get clicked on and drive traffic back to news outlets. This is especially the case with Twitter, since the Pew report notes that a larger proportion of users follow official media sources there, while a majority of Facebook users get their news from friends and family members. But just as with aggregation apps and services, the content that any single media company produces just becomes part of the sea of content that is distributed through these networks.
On top of that, Facebook itself is becoming much more of an aggregator of news, through the “social reading” apps it offers from outlets like the Washington Post and the Guardian. Although both newspapers have bragged about the number of people who have registered for their apps and shared content through them, the reality is that much of the benefit from that activity ultimately goes to Facebook — in terms of the time users spend on the site, the advertising they are exposed to, etc. — rather than to the news outlet.
Emily Bell, the former Guardian digital editor who now runs the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, noted in a response to the Pew report on Twitter that social platforms like Facebook are becoming “frenemies” for media companies, since they generate traffic but also suck up much of the benefit in terms of advertising:
Social platforms, esp Facebook looknews industry ‘frenemies’ – providing traffic while eating advertising bit.ly/xGdmpm (Pew)
— emily bell (@emilybell) March 19, 2012
What does all of this mean for media companies? More than anything, it means that trying to recreate the scarcity of content that used to exist in print — when media outlets controlled not only the creation of news but the platforms through which it was distributed — by using paywalls and subscription apps is fundamentally a losing battle. Many users want that content to be part of a larger digital experience, whether it’s through an aggregation app like Flipboard or through Facebook or Twitter. If your content is not designed to take advantage of that, you will be missing a larger and larger proportion of the audience you need.
One response to that is to shrink your audience down to those who will pay, as some outlets like the Financial Times have done and several of Rupert Murdoch’s British papers are trying to do. The other approach is to be as open and distributed as possible, to try to take advantage of the democracy of distribution instead of fighting it, and then to find other ways to monetize that audience and their attention, whether it’s e-books or live events or the “reverse paywall” model Jeff Jarvis and others have proposed. Either way, aggregation and curation are the new reality of media, whether media companies like it or not.