Oversupply and the bubble of online newspapers

by Vincenzo Marino – translated by Roberta Aiello

Facebook really wants to become your newspaper

The news of the week is Facebook’s announcement about the launch of the news app Paper, which will be available in the US on 3 February (only for iPhone). For weeks, Paper has been indicated as a standalone application in which the news feed would have a graphic setting like Flipboard and digital “magazines”, capable of aggregating content from various sources. Since Thursday, everything has been officially confirmed. Paper will assemble, mechanically, users’ status updates and content shared by brand news and media partners, categorized by arguments, and will be characterized by a strong editorial touch. As reported by Mike Isaac of Re/Code, Facebook is seeking news editors to build a “little staff” (nobody knows exactly how many people) to manually guide the choice of content, filling the Paper verticals on the basis of the posts picked personally by the future editors. It will be a kind of online journal that will be browsable with content of others and social relationships.

We have already spoken of the aspiration of Facebook to “become a newspaper”. It is an idea that has been nursed by Chris Cox, Vice President of Product at Facebook, since 2009. The app developed by the Creative Lab of the Palo Alto company enriches an already crowded range of applications, which just last week saw the entry of Trove and hailed a $50 million refinancing of Flipboard –  for now, the app leader in the industry with approximately 100 million users. The number of users and dollars available doesn’t scare Facebook because it is well documented that the social network has become essential (perhaps excessively) for newspapers and journalists. This thesis is confirmed by the calculation of the weight of traffic from social networks to most of the news websites, compared to that of other referrals. According to Steve Kovach of Business Insider a project so ambitious, which has yet to have a ‘test drive’, can represent the future of media content creation, reading and distribution, although it may encounter the same failure reserved to Currents, the Google news reading app.

Ezra Klein and the future of the publishing market

The hybridization between content created for the network – and in particular for mobile – and the news is at the heart of a huge evolutionary process which, with the alteration of the editorial standard (and figures), is leading to the creation of a new ecosystem of products, personalities and markets. As we wrote at the beginning of 2014 Ezra Klein, the former Washington Post blogger, has left the newspaper owned by Jeff Bezos after the WP top management rejected his proposal for the creation of a collateral website which would have required substantial financing. This week Klein, who is 29 and received a few million visits on his old WonkBlog, has announced his joining Vox Media, which seems to have the aim of launching a new news website along with two other former WPers Melissa Bell and Dylan Mathews, and Matt Yglesias of Slate. In his announcement on The Verge there is a good part of his ‘government program’ which focuses on networking products and how journalism is supposed to work on the Internet as native professionalism, and not as a mere online declination. Since its launch in 2011, The Verge, the flagship product of the group with SB Nation and Polygon, has increased its unique visitors significantly, reaching 10 million per month.

Klein’s farewell to the Post was the first of the themes discussed at the beginning of 2014, crowning a general trend welcomed by those who saw the choice of the young reporter as a smart move, at least exemplary, in an open and competitive market.  However, there are criticisms. Jack Shafer of Reuters.com warns Klein and anyone who wants to invest blindly in the field, listing the three main problems of the online publishing market:

1. the lack of regulation for the new entrants
2. the cost of entry into the market, which is destined to collapse with the increase of supply
3. the fact that anyone can compete with anyone else, without an inherited tradition to contend with

Shafer warns Klein that in a market like that, whoever works with him could get even (“Any Ezra that Ezra discovers will likely pull an Ezra on him”, as he neatly puts it). Also Trevor Butterworth of The Awl is critical, tracing the history of the emphasis created by the American press (including Krugman, who blurts out “You idiots!” and “is De-Kleining”, a wordplay for the WP) on Klein and the other “wunderkinder” of online journalism. The author is unsure of the true value of the “wunderkind” of Wonkblog without the Washington Post. Being forced to manage alone, it will be interesting to see whether he will be “Übermensch or kaput”.

Oversupply and the bubble of online newspapers

Photo via Flickr

The supply of news has increased enormously. In the last few months, William Launder of the Wall Street Journal notes, in addition to the case of Klein, tens of online news companies have been launched (or have announced their launch), while older platforms, which established themselves only recently, have become realities to beat and emulate (Buzzfeed, Gawker). “It’s becoming a very crowded market”, explains Neil Doshi, an Internet analyst, and in such economic scenarios – Launder reminds us  – revenue from advertising can only decrease, considering the excess of supply and space on which to publish ads. According to the article, the price of banner ads has fallen 30 to 40% during the last few years. This fall justifies the continued search for new advertising standards to sell to advertisers. Among them one of the given examples is Vice Media, which according to internal sources expects to generate a profit margin between 25 and 30% in 2014, with revenues of 500 million dollars.

David Carr of the New York Times, announcing Klein’s jump to Vox Media, agrees with the thesis of Launder and enriches it. Although the barrier to entry in the market is low, the concept of quality still remains an obstacle in the long term, commensurate with the ability of an editorial structure to adapt continuously. Gawker is twelve years old – Carr continues – Buzzfeed is almost eight, AllThingsD, which became Re/code, was founded seven years ago. Vice, which Carr cites in another article, started in 1994 as a Canadian free press, and is now at the center of a dispute (21st Century Fox took over 5%), and the attention of the entire publishing world. In times of continuous technological progress – so invasive in the media sector – the capital invested in this market is moving daily, until it threatens to create what the media critics call a “bubble”, a continuous flurry of commercial and publishing news through which you can see – albeit confusingly – the real future of news, its distribution and its productive and economic sustainability.