2015 is the year in which publishers truly lost control of distribution.

Speaking at the news:rewired conference in London Emily Bell, director of Tow Centre for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, explained that the advent of mobile publishing enabled third parties like Facebook and Snapchat to steal in and usurp the position as news distributors from publishers.

Ominously, she also said that while publishers might make more money from that new hierarchy, what they’ll lose is of much greater value. 

Explaining how the industry came to be this way, she said:

“We’ve seen that social apps is growing, and now we can see how news is growing within social apps.

66% of US adults use Facebook, and 41% of adults get news from Facebook. That is not social network, it’s one outlet.

Within Twitter actually one in ten of all US adults get news on Twitter.”

That’s an incredible concentration of power.”

Life in the fast lane

To illustrate the extent to which publishers have been shut out of the distribution loop, Bell explained that:

“If you’re not in the top 4 or 5 apps on someone’s phone, you’re not going to be used heavily”, and “if you don’t have mobile alerts, you’re basically not in the mobile news game.”

Although the amount of time people are spending on their phones is growing, the data shows that they are not spending much time in publishers’ dedicated news apps. Instead, they’re spending that time in social apps like Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat.

Bell says:

“What we do know is that social networking makes up 14 percent of people’s times on phones. I would be surprised if social networking were only 14 percent of my son’s useage. The 14 percent there is much more considerable than the time people spend looking at news, sport and weather. [That’s] about 3 percent of time.”

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Additionally, when people do consume news, a lot of the time they don’t necessarily associate a link they follow on Facebook as being a ‘serious’ news article. But stats show that one in four US adults now get news from Facebook, and one in ten get it from Twitter.

Bell also contended that for under 25s, “only 15 percent” or so aren’t using Discover on Snapchat:

“Discover in a way was what kicked all of this off. They could see that just by publishing stories from 11 partners but presenting it in a way that was enclosed within the app meant there was huge traffic growth. Every single publisher said they have never seen growth like it.

“Re/code reported that some of the CPM were as high as a hundred dollars. The platforms are stepping into the news business in a way they have not before.”

From the perspective of those platforms, Bell explains that getting into the news game, by co-opting news content:

“…gives them stickiness, means they are able to dominate the mobile phone ecosystem. If you [publishers] don’t integrate yourself in these apps you will miss out on this sort of audience.

It is possible you can make money from a small audience, but as anyone who works in regional media knows… that’s very hard indeed.”

As a model, then, Bell believes that BuzzFeed – the “model of future news” – is successful due to its data-based understanding of how the social web is growing better than anyone else, focused around a central tenet of grokking which platform is most effective at getting content out there.

That same technique is being used by Facebook et al. to cut publishers out of the loop.

But is it so bad?

Initial reports heard by TheMediaBriefing – albeit anecdotal – suggest that when some news organisations finally decided to experiment with publishing to third parties with Facebook’s Instant Articles, they saw levels of traffic far and away beyond anything they’d seen before.

In addition, it’s widely acknowledged that part of the allure of Instant Articles is that Facebook is extremely good at monetising mobile audiences in a way that publishers simply are not.

So is it really so bad that publishers have lost control of distribution?

Bell argues that while it might initially help publishers balance their books, something more significant will inevitably be lost:

The losses are… more significant than the things you stand to gain.

“We’ll all be able to know are whether we’re making more money. The dilemma of ‘how do we deal with the frenemies’ will devolve into two parts. If it is financially advantageous for publishers they will just do it, I have no doubt about that.

“But what about values of journalism that are not about reach and revenue? I think they [Facebook et al.] genuinely believe they can do a better job of publishing than the publishing industry has done. [But] their core purpose is not journalism.”

We are, then, in the middle of what Bell terms the “great reintermediation of the web.”

The handing over of power over distribution to third parties necessarily diminishes the ability of publishers to dictate the news agenda. Since news is a commodity rather than an ideal to those third parties there is no guarantee that they’ll uphold journalistic traditions of holding the rich and powerful to account either, nor that they’ll be transparent about what news gets shared.

The Publishers Dilemma

As Mathew Ingram pointed out last week in an interview with TheMediaBriefing, the attraction of higher traffic numbers through a third party isn’t necessarily beneficial for publishers:

“To the extent that you use a platform to [grow to scale], you are empowering the platform. You’re not necessarily empowering you. To some extent those two things can work together, but in many ways you’re actually helping something that’s in many cases a competitor become stronger.”

So while it remains to be seen if publishing to third parties is financially beneficial for publishers, signs are that it probably will be – at least initially.

But the usurption of the distribution methods through which publishers can reach their audiences has, in Bell’s view, created problems that outweigh any potential benefit:

“Publishing on someone else’s platform is a huge dilemma. What if it is much more effective and profitable than publishing on our own site? Do you not publish so much, do you think ‘we don’t want to put so much power in the hands of third parties’?

“If the development of new tools for expression sits solely within Silicon Valley rather than the free press… then I think that’s very bad news indeed.