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Memo to media: A Facebook app is not innovation

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There’s been a lot of attention paid recently to the new “social reading” apps that were launched by a number of publishers and content companies — including The Washington Post (s wpo) and The Guardian — at Facebook’s f8 developer conference. Some of that has focused on the “frictionless sharing” that these apps enable, where all of a reader’s activity from the app is shared through the social network, and we’ve pointed out the risks of putting so many eggs into a basket controlled by a large platform owner. But there’s another aspect of these launches that’s troubling, and that’s the pride so many publishers seem to take in having produced a Facebook app, as though it’s the pinnacle of media innovation.

Don’t get me wrong; obviously, creating a nice-looking Facebook app the way The Guardian has takes some skill, and I’m not demeaning that ability by any means. (I don’t like the look of the Washington Post or Wall Street Journal (s nws) apps as much, but that might just be a personal preference.) But how much time and effort could these kinds of apps possibly take? There are plenty of people who have created functional Facebook and iPhone (s aapl) apps in a weekend, and some pretty good-looking ones in a matter of weeks. Is something like that going to make a big difference to an entity as huge as the Washington Post or the Journal? That seems unlikely (I realize that most of these apps involved a lot of work and probably took much longer).

Creating a useful or even fun app that allows people to share your content is great, whether it’s a Facebook app or an iPhone app or an app that runs on Amazon’s new Kindle Fire tablet. (s amzn) And Washington Post publisher Graham is quite right that reaching out to readers wherever they are and trying to engage them around your content is a good idea. Experimentation is also a good idea, especially for newspapers — which aren’t typically known for that kind of thing. But if all you are doing is creating widgets for people who live inside a specific walled garden, then I think you are missing the boat.

Why play in someone else’s sandbox?

As I tried to argue in my previous post, doing this is no different from setting up a presence inside AOL (s aol) or CompuServe, or distributing those “multimedia” CD-ROMs that newspapers were so enthused about back in the late 1990s. Having a Facebook app does take advantage of the social-sharing activity that has become a bigger and bigger part of the media landscape over the past few years, thanks to Twitter and other tools, but in many ways it’s no different (and in some ways worse) than having a Twitter button or a Facebook “like” on your content — which has effectively become table stakes for media at this point.

So what does innovation consist of? For a start, it involves rethinking not just where your content lives, but how it’s created and what it consists of — in other words, taking apart your business to really look at what has changed thanks to the web and social media, and how you can adapt to that. No app is going to do that for you, and tinkering around in a “lab” probably isn’t going to do it either.

Some media outlets are trying to do this, and rethinking aspects of what media companies do: Forbes, for example, — has blurred the line between “professional journalists” and other content producers, including those who primarily do marketing or advertising-related content. In the new Forbes, posts from marketers show up alongside posts from staff writers for the magazines, just as blog posts by unpaid contributors at The Huffington Post appear alongside those from paid staff. Not everyone likes the gray area Forbes is living in, but you can’t say editor Lewis Dvorkin isn’t trying to rethink his business.

The Atlantic and some other publications, meanwhile, have been focusing on things that don’t even involve what most people would consider journalism — such as live events that are related to the content they are publishing. That’s helped turn the company’s fortunes around, just as similar real-world events have for other content companies like the non-profit Texas Tribune. And the Journal-Register, which I’ve written about before, is rethinking how its newspapers work from all kinds of different angles, including the launch of a “community newsroom” at one of its papers.

Why not think of your paper as a platform?

But The Guardian has taken by far the most dramatic steps of any newspaper in rethinking what its business consists of, with what the paper called its “open platform” project, which launched last year. Instead of spending all its time trying to put walls or sandbags around its content and control where it appeared, the Guardian released an open API that allowed outside developers to make use of its content — provided they agreed to either pay for the data, or form an advertising partnership with the paper. Instead of doing a deal just with one platform vendor like Facebook, they made it possible for anyone to become a partner.

More importantly, The Guardian‘s approach — along with other innovations like the crowdsourcing effort behind its feature on MP expenses in 2009 — was driven by a fundamental rewiring of the way it thought about its purpose and function as a newspaper. Editor Alan Rusbridger has talked about a “mutualised” newspaper, one that includes its readers as partners in discovering and reporting the news, and one that doesn’t think about itself in terms of what particular medium it uses to distribute that news. In other words, not a “news-paper” company at all, but just a news-distribution company.

The Financial Times (s pso) hasn’t done anything quite that radical, but it has broken its own ground by pinning its online future on a fully open HTML5 version of the site that works on virtually any device, because all it requires is a browser. That feels a lot more innovative than rolling out a Facebook app or an Amazon app so that readers who use one specific device can interact with your content inside some walled garden.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Sandy Honig and Jeremy Mates

11 Responses to “Memo to media: A Facebook app is not innovation”

  1. I see your points but I don’t really agree. The point of media companies is to deliver news in the first place. Doesn’t matter how or where. As far as they are able to get their content to you is all that matters. If more people and more people are spending their time on Google Plus or Facebook or Twitter, then it makes sense to create pages or apps on those sites to deliver content. They can eventually act as portals to your main site depending on how you design your page or app. Me for example, I hardly watch TV but thankfully, I have CNN and NBC apps on my phone and my Xbox 360 so I usually open them regularly to see what they’re saying. I have also liked countless media sites on Facebook. Easy way for me to keep up with them. I do understand what you’re saying about publishers thinking a Facebook page or app is the pinnacle of everything though. Just thought I should point out that it is still very important.

  2. andrewkarpie

    Your general assertion about Facebook apps not amounting innovation seems sound and deserves elaboration. But your article seems to be really about the struggles of “traditional news publishers” to come to grips with the new business, technological, and social realities (a very interesting subject in itself). So which set of substantive issues are you really teeing up for discussion? If Facebook apps are “innovation,” or how the traditional news publishing industry is struggling to evolve to survive in the current enviromenent?

  3. William Mougayar

    Let’s not be fooled by the fact that *any* Facebook App is primarily good for Facebook, second to Facebook users, third to the App owner. That’s the reality, and that frames Mathew’s skepticism that these doesn’t fall in the category of innovation, rather in the “must do now” category or experimentation vs. game changers. I’m with you on this, Mathew 100%.

  4. Sid Barcelona

    While I agree with your premise that a ‘Facebook’ app is not innovation on it’s own, I suggest that you speak with the developers at the Washington Post to get the full story behind their app.

    For the past couple of years they have been working on a news engine that tackles the elusive problem of a true ‘personalized’ news experience. Their initial product soft launched last year under the name ‘Trove’.

    Trove aggregates news for you and creates a personalized homepage based on your interests in your Facebook profile as a start. The more you use it the ‘smarter’ the system gets and it will intelligently present news stories to you based on the type of stories you read in the app and also present trending news from news sources that interest you.

    The great thing about the Washington Post’s Social Reader app is that it is powered by the same Trove news aggregation engine on the backend and it combines it with the power of Facebook’s new social sharing features.

    The Post is on the right path with their app. The combination of their proprietary news engine coupled with the power of Facebook’s open graph will lead to something truly innovative.

    • Thanks, Sid — I’m quite familiar with Trove (I’ve written about it in the past) and am aware that it is integrated into the Facebook app. I’m not saying that doesn’t have value, just that it shouldn’t be seen as the end goal of a newspaper’s efforts at innovation.

  5. Interesting post. I agree individual experiements on new platforms are really the proce of admission vs a cause for full celebration. A real win would be when consumers know and use your media brand across many platforms and hardly recognize the specific platform. “Whereever I am I use their stuff and it is always appearing in smart and interesting ways.”

  6. Shel Holtz

    I know it’s not earth-shattering in the innovation department, but I do like the fact that I’ve become an “editor” on the WSJ Facebook app. What I’m seeing when I visit the app is based on those other readers whose story picks resonate with me, so the overall collection is more relevant. It’s not the kind of innovation you’re talking about, but as my father used to say, it’s better than a sharp stick in the eye.

    • I agree, Shel — it is better than a stick in the eye :-) And I am not saying it shouldn’t be done, or that it doesn’t have value, because it does. But it is not the end of a strategy, nor is it solving any kind of larger problem.

  7. Colin Smillie

    I think “frictionless sharing” is an interesting experiment and creating an experience around it for reading is still pretty innovative. I think its a stretch to position HTML5 version is innovative, especially in an industry so starved for content discovery and monetization.

    Social sharing has enormous potential for content discovery and I think it will be an interesting experiment to the response to browsing history/reading being shared as a social action. Its kind of like sharing a continual stream of GPS co-ordinates without any context on if I stopped, why I stopped and more importantly if I liked what I found…

    • Thanks for the comment, Colin. I’m not saying frictionless sharing isn’t interesting, or that experimenting with it isn’t worthwhile — I think it is. But I am afraid that some media companies think apps are the end of innovation, not the beginning.