Pulling a Medium

Snapchat prioritizes its platform over its original content

Tech companies love to dip their toes into the fetid waters of media production. Sometimes that works out, as Netflix and Amazon have shown. Other times it doesn’t, which appears to be the case with Snapchat following a report that it has permanently shut down the in-house video network it debuted in January.

That network was called Snap Channel. It was supposed to relaunch after its  team moved into a 12,000-square-foot studio in Marina del Rey. Instead the channel has been shut down, the studio will be used by other Snapchat workers, and the 15-person team behind Snap Channel was laid off or reassigned. The channel was part of the Snapchat’s Discover network, which emphasizes byte-sized videos and animated GIFs. The network has been compared to a “cool kids table” that media companies fight each other to access — could that change now that even Snapchat has shuttered its own channel on the network? Probably not.

While some have interpreted Snap Channel’s demise as a sign of Discover’s greater problems, it seems more likely that Snapchat has decided to focus on building its platform instead of creating its own content. That’s hardly a surprise; tech companies often have to choose between one of those two sides.

Just look at Medium, which recently made a series of changes that could allow it to become an even more popular way for people to publish their stories. (It also, ya know, raised $57 million at a $400 million pre-money valuation. No biggie.) That company cut down on its editorial content production earlier this year by killing several sites, laying off writers, and reducing its budget for freelancers. Now it runs just two publications: the tech-focused Backchannel, and Matter, the science website it acquired in 2013 and turned into a general interest blog.

Medium went from a hybrid platform-publisher (please, god, don’t make me call them “platishers“) to being a straightforward platform. In doing so it reduced its costs, made itself less threatening to the media companies it’s wooing with new features, and was able to settle a long-running debate about its raison d’être.

Snapchat is probably doing the same thing. Instead of fussing around with content production — and taking up one of the valuable spaces at a table with intentionally limited seating — it’s focusing on the platform used to distribute that content. It likely isn’t abandoning Discover; if anything, it’s focusing on it.

Of course, there are platforms that have increased their focus on making original content in recent months. Vimeo announced three new shows earlier this month, and Reddit introduced a publication called Upvoted to stop sites like BuzzFeed from stealing content shared to its platform, among other things. These efforts make a little more sense than Snapchat’s, if only because both platforms are well-established and the companies can afford to split their focus.

And even when companies get original content right, like Netflix often does, it’s hard to please fickle consumers. Snapchat is essentially admitting that content is expensive, time-consuming, and hard to target at a broad audience. Owning the digital tubes that deliver that content to a bunch of eager, easy-to-market-to millennials, on the other hand, can be quite lucrative. It opted for the latter.