Should NYT Fear Flipboard? Publishers and The Diversity of Containers

26 04 2011

Let’s start with everyone’s favorite pastime in our current age of agile developed, game changing, paradigm shifts: remembering how things used to be.

In this case let’s remember those days of when most people consumed news via one medium: Newspapers. Newspapers, which have existed to serve various objectives (news reporting, editorializing, political agitation), all had three, seemingly inextricable attributes: the content (the news or opinion you created), the medium (content printed on paper and distributed to readers) and the container (or format, such as pamphlets, newsletters, tabloids or broadsheets). For any given publication, these three attributes were all of a piece. One couldn’t imagine extricating the news from the method of delivering it. Why produce news if you don’t have a way to get that news to people? And attempting to separate your content into multiple, simultaneous containers was unheard of.

But as broadcasting emerged as a new medium naturally suited to news distribution, people began looking to multiple mediums to suit their news consumption needs. And while some would only select one preferred medium for news consumption, most would leverage both mediums for various aspects of their day (e.g., reading the paper in the morning, hearing radio news in the car or during their workday, watching the evening TV news. Still, most producers of news content would specialize in just one medium and container (apart from an occasional marketing partnership, or vestigial business, e.g. CBS radio news) and only really competed with other content producers within their medium.

Fast-forwarding to today, a new medium has emerged (Internet) and become dominant, multiple consumption containers now exist, ranging from devices (PCs, smartphones, tablets) to programs within those devices (browsers, content-specific apps) to services within those programs within those devices (news Web sites, Twitter, social networks, aggregators). And as traditional content producers from print and broadcast mediums rush to find sustainable plays in the Internet medium, the traditional competitive landscape has exploded: The New York Timesnow competes with The Huffington Post who competes with Fox News Channel who competes with the Associated Press.

And in my opinion, this is a great development. In one sense, medium and container are fundamentally artificial. One should create great content that serves a need and provides value, and then offer it via whatever medium suits your target consumers best. But at the same time, this also implies how much the container does matter. Various containers help us consume the content we care about when we want it (on your smartphone during some down-time), where we want it (in our social network, where we may spend a substantial amount of our online time) and how we want it (through innovative readers like Flipboard, which allow you to consume your real-time news and social media feeds on a tablet in a magazine-like format). And just as importantly, these use-cases are usually not mutually exclusive.

And that’s what makes the latest discussion about the threat Flipboard represents to publishers so interesting. Although this analysis by Frederic Filloux is a good one, I think its problem is that it makes the same fundamental assumption that everyone seems to be making: that controlling the containers, as well as the content, is an attainable goal for a content brand.

Today, there are simply too many platforms, technologies, formats and use cases to expect anyone—much less a firm who’s specialty is content creation—to be able to own and control every outlet. To seriously expect to do so is naiveté at best, ignorance and hubris at worst. And worst of all, it seriously limits your ability to effectively execute on the thing you actually do best: create content that lots of people want and are willing to let you monetize in some way (monetization is actually the 4th fundamental attribute here that I haven’t yet mentioned, but as oceans of ink have already been spilled on the changing nature of content monetization, I’m going to steer around it while acknowledging that it’s a fundamentally related issue).

This doesn’t mean that content brands won’t be really effective at owning or creating certain containers. A content producer’s Web site is by definition their own space, and they’ll offer different ways to offer and monetize their content in that space (free, ad-supported, subscription, metering). And some will come up with a kick-ass smartphone or tablet app here and there. And for some users, just that one content site or app may be the only news source they use in their daily life. But for most of us (and here’s the point of that history lesson …) we’ll continue to want a variety of content sources, mediums and containers to fill different use cases within our lives.  As content sources that were once separated by differing mediums now compete with each other across mediums, they often seem to forget that they were always part of a content ecosystem in our lives.

Implying that content or news sources should have invented Flipboard misses the point because they not only would have been highly unlikely to do so (i.e., the Innovator’s Dilemma), but even if so, would have more likely to have been a costly distraction or outright failure to in the end. The NYT isn’t going to want to be pumped into Huff Po’s consumption tool, and WSJ won’t have any interest in ceding that space to MSNBC. Instead, Flipboard succeeds BECAUSE it’s not a content creator. It’s only about giving consumers a great consumption experience. And conversely, technology companies (are you hearing me @Google?) fall flat when they try to own content creation (anyone remember Microsoft’s attempts to become an original content creator in the late-90s?).

None of this is to say that content companies have to cede all control of their destinies. They have every right to try and set the terms of use around their content so as to maximize alignment with their own monetization(e.g. requiring links that drive traffic back to ad supported pages, or pay-walled/metered news sites), and to block access to their content to those containers they feel are at odds with their strategy. But to fume because *gasp* Flipboard or others may claim some ad dollars around links back to their content feels pretty short-sighted.

Interrelators’ like FirstRain also play an important role in this ecosystem. We’re creating real added value for thousands of business users around the globe by connecting them with original business content that, too often, they would not otherwise find—and then driving those users back to those content producers for monetization. And we’re doing it through multiple containers as well (Web, mobile apps, intranet widgets).

Overall, it’s an incredible playground in which we’re all now playing, and our content lives are much richer for it, as long as we can remember that it’s been the emerging diversity of containers—not the attempt by any one content creator to fully control their own distribution—that has made it all possible.

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