This Was the Year the Media Started Doubting the Web
In 2015, news on the Internet no longer belonged to the web alone.
This was the year that Snapchat, previously best known as a messaging service for ephemeral photos, launched its own version of the news called Discover. It was the year that Facebook figured news articles on the web loaded too slowly, so it decided to make them instant. It was the year that Apple’s latest version of iOS came with its own app for reading news on iPhones. Meanwhile, Twitter got into the news game with Moments, its attempt to make the service easier for n00bs to understand by using real humans to curate the news tweet by tweet.
It’s no coincidence that the proliferation of platforms serving up articles and videos, a plethora of news, entertainment, and sports, all happened in the same year. Publishers have grown steadily more dependent on Google and Facebook over the past decade for directing attention to their sites. But as audiences spend more and more of their time on mobile, that dependency has become more acute. The biggest tech companies are all vying for mobile users’ attention, which they’ve increasingly lured to apps and away from the web, publishers’ traditional online home. But the Facebooks, Twitters, and Snapchats of the world need interesting stuff for audiences to see once they’re there. And for that they need publishers.
In 2015, publishers cautiously sought to find out whether ceding some control to platforms could yield a beneficial symbiosis. In 2016, we’ll find out whether moving beyond the web helps the makers of news gain bigger, more interested audiences, or if they’re just small-time vassals who have no choice but to pay tribute to their attention-grabbing overlords.
One of the main factors contributing to a shift away from the web is that we’re spending less of our time there. Or, rather, we’re spending more of our time on our phones.
For publishers, that’s a problem. Most people spend the majority of their time on smartphones in a handful of apps like Facebook. They’re not on the web, and they’re also not likely to download and switch among apps from every news organization whose stories they may want to read. Native apps for publishers are not only costly to design and produce, but also unlikely to reach as wide an audience as, say, Facebook already does. Sure, The New York Times and BuzzFeed may find a loyal following with standalone apps. But to reach anyone beyond diehards, even the biggest publishers depend on social media.
But the increasing magnetism of mobile wasn’t the only important shift this year. Even as digital ad spending could soon exceed ad dollars spent on TV, 2015 was also the year that blocking ads on the web went mainstream as even Apple began supporting ad-blocking on its mobile devices.
For advertisers, the popularity of ad-blocking became a very real worry. The Interactive Advertising Bureau, an industry trade group, publicly apologized for the fact that digital advertising has gotten out of hand, stoking demand for software that could block the pervasive annoyance of online sales pitches. “The rise of ad blocking poses a threat to the internet and could potentially drive users to an enclosed platform world dominated by a few companies,” wrote Scott Cunningham, the senior vice president of tech and ad operations at IAB.
Anxiety around ad-blockers could mean that advertisers direct more of their dollars to platforms and less to web-dependent publishers directly. And if that’s where the dollars start to head, publishers see they need to head there as well. Not only do Facebook’s Instant Articles, say, or Apple News offer a more streamlined user experience for consuming news, but many also offer a significant portion of ad revenues—ads that advertisers know can’t be blocked.
There’s Always Next Year…
Even as the ad industry promises new, cleaner ad standards, ad-blockers aren’t going away anytime soon. Google, meanwhile, has challenged the assumption that we’re spending our time predominantly in apps, by showing that this year mobile web searches passed desktop ones. The company is also testing its project AMP, which is expected to roll out early next year, in the hopes of providing an alternative to Instant Articles. Assuming Facebook, Snapchat, and the like make publishers as least some money, there’s little chance of reverting back to a pre-platform-ified web.
For smaller publishers, this prospect is more complicated. On one hand, platforms in theory offer a level playing field. Digital magazine The Atavist, for its part, decided to shutter its native app this year in favor of its website. Stories there can be shared on social media and reach a far wider audience than they could if they were on its native app, though the Atavist hasn’t signed on to Instant Articles nor has it found its way into Snapchat’s Discover. Facebook has, however, made an effort to sign on some local newspapers.
Large or small, the question becomes how much power platforms will exert in determining what content users see. Will Facebook’s algorithm prioritize Instant Articles in users’ News Feeds over links to the outside web? The early answer appears to be yes. Will Apple News show stories from publishers critical of Apple? Though there’s no indication they wouldn’t, the choice is open to them. Will Snapchat monitor what’s allowed in Discover to see if it meets certain standards? It seems likely. Platforms may like to be seen as neutral conduits, but ultimately their owners have control.
Likely this tension will be put to the test in 2016. We’ll see what really happens as publishers become more dependent on tech companies and journalistic ethics collide with business imperatives. If platforms start to bury content they don’t like, those accusations are likely to surface in the new year. If anyone gets a whiff that Facebook or Apple, Twitter or Snapchat, is picking winners and losers, the outcry will come in 2016. The news industry has been forced to reckon with tech since the dawn of the web. Now a new reckoning has arrived.