Who needs a website? Media companies ponder becoming content providers for Facebook

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Go to where the audience is — that’s the common refrain of 21st century media. Consumers are fragmented, and its up to journalists and editors to bring the news to them.

Video startup NowThis News announced last week that it would take that this idea to its logical extreme by eliminating its website. Its audience resided primarily on social media anyway, so that’s where the company now lives. Going forward, it will focus on publishing work directly to platforms like Facebook and Twitter instead of looking to drive consumers to its website.

We just shut down our homepage bc who goes to web sites anymore? (ps you can still get @nowthisnews everywhere, duh.) pic.twitter.com/ojjeLdPS3p

— Sarah Frank (@sarah_frank) February 6, 2015

For years, the digital media model relied on getting people to come back to a website and then showing them ads. Early on, publishers looked to appear high on the results for search engines (so called search-engine optimization) or on major portals like AOL and Yahoo in order to take advantage of their audiences. The emergence of social as a traffic driver in the past few years has caused digital publishers to put resources into building out their followers on platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

As audiences have shifted to mobile, social media's influence has grown.

“The reality is all the action is in the stream, whether it's your Facebook stream or Twitter or Instagram. That's where you're spending your time,” said Andy Wiedlin, an entrepreneur-in-residence at venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz and the former chief revenue officer at BuzzFeed, in an interview with Mashable.

Recently, those platforms have begun to explore how to get publishers to put their content directly on to the platforms instead of linking out. The platforms claim this results in a better experience, particularly on mobile phones. It also allows platforms to make money off this content through advertising revenue that is split with publishers.

Facebook does this with its native video player, and the company’s head of product, Chris Cox, said at Re/code’s media conference that it was in early talks with media outlets to host other content. Twitter’s native video player is just starting to gain steam. Messaging apps are also getting in on the action, particularly Snapchat whose new Discover platform disseminates media content.

Many media companies are exploring this cautiously, uploading some content to platforms but still focusing on generating traffic back to a website. NowThis, along with First Look’s Reported.ly, are two of the first media companies to fully embrace the platform approach. Wiedlin said they won’t be the last.

“I think that it’s inevitable and I think for a lot of people it makes a lot of sense,” Wiedlin said.

Follow the Money

There is little doubt that native publishing to platforms, particularly social media, provides the opportunity to reach a larger audience, but concerns lay in the economics.

“The fact is that the majority of the audience that we connect with on a daily basis is coming from the social feeds,” said Athan Stephanopoulos, who oversees strategy and partnerships for NowThis News.

Digital media companies have worked for years to lay the framework for a new business model based on driving audience to websites. Now, it’s being asked to give that up in lieu of letting another company — the platform — sell the ads and split the revenue. YouTube has done this for years with video.

Snapchat is the newest entry to this burgeoning market with Discover, which features a variety of media companies. Snapchat reportedly takes half of the revenue when it sells ads against this media, and 30% when the publisher sells the ads.

Stephanopoulos said that NowThis wants to capitalize on these different platforms as well as whatever comes next.

“We look at it more as an opportunity for future revenue verticals that don't exist today,” he said. “We don’t call it betting on the future, but betting on revenue streams that don’t only exist in having your own environment.”

The tradeoff comes in NowThis not having control of its business side. It is relying on the platforms to generate money off its content and then giving it a cut.

So why would a media company willingly give up a chunk of its money? The platforms have an ace up their sleeve, Stephanopoulos said. Facebook in particular can tilt its massive traffic flow to favor companies that choose to publish to the platform.

“A lot of publishers who have benefited from Facebook over the past few years in terms of using Facebook as a link driver back to their site are immediately going to have to rethink their strategy now that Facebook is adjusting their algorithm to benefit those that are using the feed from a native content perspective,” Stephanopoulos said.

The price of entry

This model also has ramifications for the content that publishers make.

As John Herrman said in his trenchant essay of this trend in The Awl, tensions arise when one company controls the content and the other handles the business. Platforms that host the content “have no special interest in publishing beyond value extraction through advertising is the early Internet utopian’s worst-case scenario.”

The problem has weighed on Andy Carvin, editor in chief of Reported.ly, a real-time news vertical from First Look Media. Few sites have committed as aggressively to native publishing as Reported.ly, which was conceived to operate and publish entirely on other platforms. Its website forwards you to a Medium blog.

While Carvin said that he sees great value in serving audiences on particular platforms, he also recognizes that it can breed a certain amount of reliance. Like Stephanopoulos, Carvin emphasized the need to be able to shift between numerous competing hosts for its content.

“We want to be able to serve the communities there as best we can without ever becoming beholden to the companies that operate the platforms themselves,” Carvin said. “And we want to be nimble, so that as other platforms come along... we have the flexibility of working on them too.”

The emergence of competition would ideally discourage one platform from cracking down too hard. Still, Carvin acknowledged that native publishing carried with it the need to be vigilant.

“You're ultimately beholden to the algorithms,” Carvin said. “And as algorithms change, I think you need to routinely reflect on your own strategies as to what's worth it.”

Attention deficit

The growth of mobile has made consumers more reliant on their favorite platforms, but don't expect The New York Times to shut down its website anytime soon.

Social is big, but still just part of the larger audience development for mainstream media. A Quantcast study found that social media accounted for 34% of traffic on mobile for news and entertainment websites, twice as much as desktop.

But such is the power that platforms are beginning to wield in the media landscape that newer companies like NowThis and Reported.ly see a future in this new model.

Cenk Uygur has worked in online video about as long as anybody else. He began running his daily show — The Young Turks — online in 2005, almost exclusively on YouTube.

He did this because he saw YouTube as being the best way to get video out to a major audience, rather than trying to develop his own site.

“My analysis was that if you try to do something on your own, like on your own website, that you would be standing on top of a soapbox on a street corner. Whereas, if you put it on YouTube, you were on a new form of television. So I thought it was a terrible mistake for anyone to start up their own website,” Uygur said.

Now, the Young Turks has expanded with Final Judgement — a Facebook-native show. The prospect of YouTube and Facebook each competing for his content is an improvement on the early days, he said.

“For content creators, having people bid for your content is obviously a great development. More importantly, having more platforms where you can reach a wider audience is a great deal,” Uygur said.

As for whether others should follow his example, Uygur said the opportunity to build an audience on any platform right now is one that cannot be passed up.

“You'd be cutting off your news to spite your face,” he said.