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Slate chairman on distributed, integrated content

“There are some destination sites that are growing in the US,” suggests Jacob Weisberg chairman of The Slate Group, “but a lot of them are seeing declines. It is becoming very hard to build an organic audience for a destination site any more.”

Weisberg shared his thoughts today at FIPP’s World Congress in Toronto, and surprisingly, isn't too downhearted. Slate continues to post excellent traffic and revenue figures, “a validation of what we have always believed about quality content” he argues, but he also reckons that changes to content delivery might be very good news for publishers.

He chose to explain what he thinks as being a key component of the future for publishing - distributed content. He describes this as being the way that a number of the big technology platforms are trying to integrate content into their primary feeds. This raises the question – is there any need for the destination suite anymore? 

Weisberg took the audience on a journey detailing the history of content on the web and especially Slate, which was founded nineteen years ago. He explains how once the iPad began to establish itself alongside the iPhone 4 and other larger screen smartphones, consumption of content on mobile devices rocketed.

The rise of mobile and social

“For me the big surprise is what happened to content. I thought that content would have to get shorter - 300 words rather than 1000. Yet smartphones brought about a new desire for longform articles. People began reading novels and non-fiction books on the phones, so longer articles fitted in neatly. They didn’t find the small form factor of the phone’s screen an obstacle.”

While acknowledging that the rise of mobile, coupled with the growth of social media (and the chance of content to go viral) has taken content into new places, Weisberg believes that this has not necessarily been great news for the publishers or even the readers for that matter.

“Content creators returned to quantity of publication rather than quality. Each piece of content you publish is a lottery ticket, so you need to provide more to get viral lottery tickets.”

Distributed, integrated content

Going forward Weisberg sees the big changes in publishing as being driven by the tech companies and they way they are pioneering integrated, distributed content

“Distributed content - which is a term that’s coming into use – describes the way social platforms like Twitter and Facebook offer content in a natural and integrated way. It has been developed for mobile and is a way that the social platforms can serve quality content, but keep readers on their sites.”

Weisberg cites Snapchat whose Discover program, which has so far seen 15 publishers provide bespoke content for the platform, as a key pioneer. Since then Facebook has experimented with its own distributed content format Instant Articles, Twitter launched Moments last week, Apple has its own offering, while Google has AMP. All integrate content seamlessly and all deliver it in a speedy way on the social platform.

Weisberg believes that one of the main reasons for the tech companies offering the platforms for content - fast loading times of articles on mobile devices  -will have profound implications for publishers.

“The platforms eliminate the latency or lag time that it takes a page to load on your phone. With Instant Articles it renders instantly. I expect it will be a standard and people won't tolerate eight second latency which could pose problems for publishers.”

As Weisberg explains, “Publishers have a range of views about working with the tech companies in this way.” He points out that “some see the downside that you don't get the data from users and most importantly you are building your treehouse in someone else’s tree.” He adds that at the moment Facebook is offering a favourable deal to publishers in that they can keep 100 per cent of the ad revenues associated with the content, but warns this might change.

The upside is that if this is where the growth is for publishers. The downside is that ‘you are holding hands and jumping off a cliff as you are hostage to the plans of the giant tech companies.

Ultimately though the new way of consuming content on mobile devices via social platforms is sure to have a profound effect on the future of publishing.

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