Platforms are the future of media
An interview with Ross Dawson
I was recently watching futurist Ross Dawson’s keynote speech at CeBIT Australia, “Platform Strategy – The changing structure of value creation,” and was struck by how the whole world (industries, media, society and governments) is being transformed into a network of platforms.
It reminded me of Ross’s address at International News Media Association (INMA) World Congress in 2015 where he talked about the future of news being trusted aggregation of content + community + commerce (i.e. the future of media as a platform).
As predicted, in 2016 platforms became all the rage, until Facebook started its infamous algorithm tweaking, sending many publishers into a fit of jealous rage over what they believed to be stolen advertising revenues.
I decided to reach out to Ross and find out more on his thinking around platforms and their value in the media ecosystem, and learn about his plans for his newspaper extinction timeline.
Thanks for joining me, Ross. Let’s start by addressing how mainstream media can enable the creation of exponential value through the interactions between journalists and consumers on platforms.
It all goes to the fact that platforms are the future of media. One could argue that a newspaper in the past had its own platform, which was its distribution of paper, primarily. There, it aggregated news, advertising, classifieds and so on. So it was a platform in terms of being able to pull all that content together and distribute it to all of its readers.
But now, in a connected world, we’re starting to see just how many other platforms there are, and single participants are finding it very challenging to be able to play successfully in this world. Most prominently of course we’re seeing the social platforms (e.g. Facebook, Twitter) and now the messaging platforms as being places where people go for all of their media. The way in which we interact with people on social is an entirely valid form of media, along with the more traditional news, entertainment and education from established publishers.
One of the key issues then is, “What are the strategies for publishers to be able to play on these platforms?” What we can envision is a world where platforms bring together those who are creating content, as in journalists and those who collaborate with them, together with their consumers. A key element here is that there are three domains which come together to be able to create high-value content and news:
• Professionals, in a news context that are traditionally journalists and editors who have experience in how we pull together information, how we communicate that and how we vet or fact check information
• Crowds, who are often where news is happening, who bring their perspectives to bear and who can analyze and add to the news
• Algorithms, that can take lower-level data and pull it together into final prism pieces for audiences
In the future we can start to see more and more fluid platforms for news professionals. I think that starts to become a more apt term than journalist. They’re news professionals who are working with crowds, who are working with algorithms and who are working with each other, not necessarily in terms of just being an employee of the news organizations. In order to be able to collaborate with other news professionals around the world and bring together content, sometimes they will work independently and sometimes ad hoc for the right news, event or content. News professionals are supported by a platform where consumers, individuals or organizations around the world can access their content, and where a fair value exchange can happen.
It is possible that some of the existing platforms today, including Facebook and others, could be enablers of this, though I think it is also feasible for some of these platforms to evolve outside of what we have today. This is the space where we can see this potential for exponential value, where we start to see greater and greater value creation for individuals and organizations — those who are trying to understand the world and make sense of it, to live their lives and make business decisions — and the news professionals who bring that together so there’s a feedback loop which will create a positive future for the news industry.
In terms of the end consumer, there’s obviously a lot of mistrust in the media that exists today, and just content in general. There is also a lack of proper vetting done by the general consumer; they tend to go with curation that’s done by the crowd. How do you establish the value proposition for the consumers that this is something that they would have to pay for, given they’re not used to paying for content?
That is the most fundamental challenge we have moving forward. We’ve seen evolving behaviors over the last 15 to 20 years as more and more digital news becomes available. I’d reframe this as the experiment, or the journey to find relevant and valuable revenue models and business models – where for every country, sector and publication, there is going to be a different answer for where the right revenue models lie. This active experimentation, which happens across the domain of news, needs to be driven by individual organizations.
Every organization needs to find, for its own current or potential audience, how it can monetize it effectively. There’s a whole array of different approaches which are possible. And of course there’s been a lot of experimentation with paywalls, leaky and otherwise, over the last number of years. We’ve seen a lot of moves to various ways to price individual content through micro-payments and other structures. We are seeing an increasing shift towards branded content or native advertising of various guises to be sources of revenue. And for each of these different approaches, I think we are going to see different organizations find their own success.
I don’t think we can say at this point what the successful revenue models in the future will be, and I think they will be different. We’ll see more and more variety in the use of those models. Again, we’re seeing some organizations shift to membership frames from subscription frames, looking at events or other ways of engaging people successfully. This is still, as I framed it for some time, a grand experiment, where if we start to see the value creation, which is in terms of personalized use and in terms of news which is highly relevant and localized, we can start to see behavior changes.
I think this is going to be more successful in some countries than others, and also in some demographics/sectors than others as well. I think that’s one of the challenges and opportunities for organizations to discover, and to create the revenue models that are going to be relevant for them given where they stand today, and their current audience base and readership.
“Engage with select platforms because you can’t engage across all of them; but you do need to make a commitment.”
Based on formal research and what we’re seeing at PressReader through our behavioral analytics, trust in brands is on the decline and there is a reduced interest in knowing the naming of the publication in which a trending article is published.
In that sense, can the publishers become platforms of their own, or are they effectively succumbing to working with the third-party platforms that exist today, and perhaps some that will emerge in the future?
Every media organization, and indeed, many other industries need to have two strategies. One is whether/how they develop or drive platforms, and the other is how they participate in other existing platform ecosystems.
There are ways in which media organizations can potentially build their own platforms. I think where the real opportunity lies is in collaborative development of platforms with other media participants. One of the reference points here is Piano Media, which started in Slovakia and Poland; it was able to establish multi-publisher platforms, and build paywall revenue solutions with a single audience base.
There are some markets where that becomes possible, where it is far easier to build a platform which can draw in others. It is a lot harder as an existing player to come in and try to build a platform on its own. It is far easier if you’re already a participant in a market and are able to collaborate with others.
That’s one frame around the building of a platform. It is very challenging and I think it’s only possible for a few. Every media organization needs to make a decision around whether, at this point in time, they will look to create their own platforms, or collaboratively work with others in particular language markets and country markets. Or say, “At this point, strategically, we
don’t have the resources or just find it too difficult a path to build our own platform, so we choose to participate in other platforms.”
If we look at how you participate in other platforms, I think there are four key elements in that:
1. Analyze those platforms effectively; map them. Identify what the costs are of participating in the platform. What are the trade-offs between them? Explore some of the potential paths forward, the different scenarios and how they may play out.
2. Engage with select platforms because you can’t engage across all of them; but you do need to make a commitment. Then establish contingencies that determine in what situations you are going to pull out, and what the trigger will be that moves you into a different space. If you end up choosing to engage with a platform, promote it and then get and understand the data from that.
3. Strengthen your position, given the fact that you are going inside a relationship. Ensure that at all points you are accumulating as much data as possible. You are using platforms to entice readers into a direct relationship, which The New York Times and others have done successfully on Facebook. Yes, promote on Facebook, but always use that to try and create direct relationships with audiences.
4. Apply influence as we saw recently where the editor of Aftenposten essentially changed the policies of Facebook. It was partly through, I suppose, being right, but it was also being able to take a stand prominently, drawing others’ opinions out. It is critical that if you are participating in other platforms, then you need to be able to say, “How can we collaborate with other participants, not as an individual player, but as collaborators and share our data and influence in order to make sure that we can shape that platform as effectively as possible?”
If you’re participating in a platform, you need to monitor the shifts in the landscape, engage with new platforms that are emerging and potentially develop/add onto platforms that are complementary. Once you’ve made the choice to engage with others’ platforms, which is essential in today’s distribution world, you do need to have effective strategies to participate in those platforms in a highly dynamic way, where you can respond to changes as they emerge.
With respect to Piano, I think it’s a fascinating example of publishers being able to cooperate, and come up with a national content monetization strategy. That said, one of the key elements of Piano was that they started with a market that had quite a tight control on their content and linguistically predisposed that content to be hyperlocal. Notwithstanding the fact that Piano has recently shut down their original Slovakian and Polish paywalls, similar approaches in other countries, such as France, haven’t worked out.
Blendle tried to go into France, which required the publishers to cooperate with respect to the pricing of the content and setting out the rules of the game; and despite promotions,
“Once you’ve made the choice to engage with others’ platforms, which is essential in today’s distribution world, you do need to have effective strategies to participate in those platforms in a highly dynamic way, where you can respond to changes as they emerge.”
Blendle hasn’t really been able to penetrate France.
You don’t hear a lot of commentary about the success or lack thereof of Blendle in the U.S. either, which leads me to this next question. Do you think publisher cooperation can work only where the content ecosystem is hyperlocal for linguistic reasons or otherwise, which means that, in the Anglo-Saxon world, this model doesn’t quite work very well?
All extremely valid. I think there’s a very rich discussion to be had around this. I think the high level answer is that it is greatly facilitated if you do have linguistic barriers. If it is a relatively small and linguistically-isolated community, that makes it far easier. For example, even in Scandinavia, where you do have local language markets, people still speak English, which makes something like that harder than for example in Slovakia and Poland, where there are fewer other languages spoken.
I think Piano has basically pivoted on its business model, so without knowing all the issues behind what’s happened with Slovakia and Poland more recently, I still think that it is a valid model for other
“I point to in terms of industry leadership; the role of the industry leader is to demonstrate and take other publishers along the path to show them that there is mutual and greater value for the collaboration, even though that may not be their first instinct.”
markets to look at how one can collaborate in a bounded domain.
Interestingly, I think in Australia, which has two major publishers and one of the most concentrated media ownership markets in reasonably large economies, there is the potential for News Corp and Fairfax to collaborate, but they never would. They basically, institutionally dislike each other, so there would be no chance for effective collaboration there.
I think more broadly, the issue is around collaboration, and so even in English markets there can be the potential to collaborate. Part of this is the distinction around local news versus national news, or regional news, or global news and differing appetites. Again, we see in different parts around the world different balances between the degree to which people are looking to local news or global news.
In France, without having seen the details of what’s happened there, I think what I would suspect is that a very significant element is that there were insufficient number of publishers that were willing to take this approach of a collaborative or collective or cooperative approach.
The reality is that even as a single publisher, you may have an attitude of collaboration, but unless others are also willing to collaborate, it only takes you so far. I think this is part of what I point to in terms of industry leadership; the role of the industry leader is to demonstrate and take other publishers along the path to show them that there is mutual and greater value for the collaboration, even though that may not be their first instinct. Blendle, of course, is a platform and it has been successful in some markets; again, ones which while they are language-bounded still have significant access to English, at least in the Netherlands.
Part of this goes to game theory in the sense, where others have interests in how to either move to block it, to make other potential plays and to be able to compete with that. The reality is that there is greater value to consumers if we do move to a greater consolidation of platforms, but other platforms playing against each other basically slow the development of the market significantly. We’ve seen that, for example in music streaming in various guises, where they’re all aggregators of music, and the competition between them, which has been up until fairly recently, slowed the consumer uptake of these platforms to access broad ranges of content.
Picking up on what you said about Aftenposten forcing Facebook to change how they editorialize content, neither of the big guys really engaged with the publishing community, apart from opening up the doors to distributing content and setting out the rules. It started famously with Apple imposing the, so called, Apple Tax a few years ago. Do you see that changing in the future? Is what Facebook did a few weeks ago, the precursor to potentially a more engaged relationship between the platforms and the publishing industry?
It’s a great question and I don’t have the answer. I think that Apple is far less likely to become deeply engaged, just given its history as an organization, and I suppose its DNA and culture. I think that Facebook is shifting that way as it recognizes that it is in fact a de facto media organization that principally makes editorial decisions. Google I think has the outlook to engage effectively, and again, it needs a shift in attitude. But I think that it will shift to engage in a positive way with other platforms.
I think we have seen that the global messaging platforms, which are growing faster than social networks with younger people becoming
“...the role of the industry leader is to demonstrate and take other publishers along the path to show them that there is mutual and greater value for the collaboration, even though that may not be their first instinct.”
increasingly the primary interface to a digital world, are already significantly oriented to publishers, enabling them to engage effectively with them. I think the jury is still out, but I think the trend, even though it may not be fast or dramatic, is towards general larger platforms engaging more constructively with the publishing community.
In 2010, you published your newspaper extinction timeline detailing “When newspapers in their current form will become insignificant”. You have USA newspapers becoming extinct in their current form as early as 2017. A lot has happened in the last
six years. Can you share how/if your vision of the timeline has changed? Will you be publishing a revised timeline soon?
For several years I’ve been trying to do a revised timeline, and I’ve just never found the time. I’d still very much like to. Six years ago and also within the last year, the point I made was that I didn’t expect it to be right, but I was taking my best guess. I was using it as a provocation to help people think through what were their own opinions around what the timeline might be. At this point I don’t think it’s looking to be dramatically inaccurate, but clearly there are some things which do need revision.
Broadly speaking, some of the countries that are earlier on the list I would push back a little – the US, Norway and possibly Australia (I’m not even sure that I would) by some years. But in my travels over the last six years since I’ve released that timeline, I would say that most of the countries which I predicted 2030 or beyond, I would actually pull back closer.
We’ve seen China, where there was rapid growth of newsprint up until the newspaper timeline was published, has been significantly pulling back with the explosion of mobile news uptake since then. That’s one of the dramatic shifts.
I would pull back countries like Russia, influenced more by Moscow than other parts of the country, where the shift away from printed news has been very significant. Quite a few of the more developed South American countries I would pull in closer, along with Southeast Asia.
In the Middle East there has been a massive uptake in social media and a big shift to social and mobile news. There are some specific dynamics there around government support of newspapers, but I think that there are many countries that are a little further down that list that I would pull back to be closer than my initial estimates.
In terms of republishing it, I still don’t have a specific date in mind, but I am looking to launch a new publication, Creating the Future of News, which is intended to be a community of people in news that can build a positive future for the industry. One of the ways to launch that and get engagement will be a revision of the newspaper extinction timeline.