Observations on the fight over the future of news
A week ago, I tweeted:
At the time, I was commenting on how most major social platforms have launched or relaunched a significant long-form text publishing tool.
With today’s launch of the Google-sponsored Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) Project, with Facebook’s Instant Articles, with Twitter’s Moments, with Apple’s News Publisher program (including their forthcoming Apple News Format) and Safari’s Content Blocker, and even Medium’s recent $57M raise, we’re seeing the battle lines drawn over the distribution channels of right-now content.
In the recent past, schema.org, Twitter Cards, and Facebook’s Open Graph Markup were about indexing static content and assisting publishers get their content shared.
Now, the above initiatives are about locking in a steady and evergreen flow of content into mobile apps, to keep users glued to their screens and notifications, in order to usher in the development and deployment of alternative and better performing ad formats.
In the history of the development of web formats like HTML, a hallmark design principle has been to separate content from presentation and behavior. The further whittling down of content to its bare form by the above initiatives will neutralize Big News’s ability to control its future in all but a few situations. As far as Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Apple are concerned, it’s all just data. The more data they ingest, the more differentiated surface areas they have to display ads, and the more their businesses grow.
In contrast, the news business is in a subserviant position, offering up their content to (ideally) the highest bidder, but with very little actual control over how their control is displayed, enjoyed, consumed, or throttled in the positions of users’ feeds. Of course, this shift has been ongoing for a long time, but now the writing is on the wall in the design of these formats. For example, AMP strips out all but the most primitive HTML tags from a news story:
AMP also introduces its own ad tag (<amp-ad>) which whitelists these five ad networks:
Is this not the same strategy that Apple is inadvertently taking with Safari’s Content Blockers? All of these things seem to me to ways of privileging certain advertising companies and diminishing the ability for news companies to decide who or what advertising content is shown alongside their content (oh gee, does that remind anyone of social networks?).
All of this is to point out what is probably patently obvious to most other industry watchers — (to reiterate my tweet): Silicon Valley is finally making significant moves to take over the distribution of information from the conventional news industry by creating standards that their content must conform to… to be clear, Silicon Valley is not interested in the production of that content as long as it remains cheap and plentiful (just as it is on social networks). They’re only interested in controlling the pace and flow of that information (for a related analogy, read Buster Benson’s piece on Stock and Flow).
Let me put on my tinfoil hat for a sec and point out one more thing. Google’s post on AMP was written by none-other-than David Besbris (Bez), previously SVP of Google+. A big piece of the Google+ strategy involved ingestion content into the network, so it’s actually not that surprising that this is where he would end up after exiting Plus. It’s also interesting that this initiative is coming out of Search, where Bez is a VP of Engineering. If you recall the launch of the +1 button in 2011 along with the launch of schema.org, the blog post had a similar vibe to today’s AMP announcement. All this is to say that we’re witnessing an extension of the same kind of efforts that have been underway for years, and continue to erode the control that conventional news publishers have over their technocentric future.