Why is it so hard to innovate in online publishing?

Here’s what The Guardian said about UsVsThem in December 2013.

Encouraged by the reaction to the site – which was initially only a three month experiment – the Mirror Group then unveiled Ampp3d, which cleverly used data to debunk the opinions of both politicians and commentators alike, as well as quirky football site Row Zed.

Their success was inspirational. At last a British publisher’s new project was attracting the type of readers, page impressions and dwell times that other socially-driven websites were pulling in on the other side of the Atlantic.

So it was something of a surprise a week or so ago when the Mirror group announced that it was pulling the project and finding other jobs for the team that created it. 

High profile closures

It wasn’t the only recent high profile publishing closure. A few weeks earlier the team behind the innovative news app Circa announced that in spite of raising over $5m of capital it was going to run out of money and was seeking a buyer. The app, which presents news in a short form way optimised for mobile had also been hailed as a breakthrough in digital publishing.

Publishing has something an obsession with innovation. In some ways it has become even more marked since the explosion of blogging in 2005 which clearly threw a gauntlet down to the industry. And one way of differentiating media products from existing publishers with deep pockets as opposed to those from teenagers in bedrooms is to innovate. Hence the rise of tablet magazines a few year ago and the current obsession with making content work on smartwatches.,

Most recently Lauren Laverne and Sam Baker launched the women’s online magazine The Pool which presents content in regular chunks a bit like a TV schedule, breaking away from the traditional more linear approach to online publishing.

Why the failures?

Ultimately though in the light of the demise of UsVsTh3m and Circa it does beg the question why do so many innovative publishing projects falter?

UsVsTh3m was largely a UK response to the success of viral driven sites like BuzzFeed and Upworthy. It might have aped their listicles but in many ways the UsVsTh3m’s games were far superior to their rivals. 

From a financial perspective though things looked less rosy. Last week the Mirror’s editor-in-chief Lloyd Embley justified the closure by saying that: ‘We have identified certain areas of content which carry very high costs in comparison to the traffic they generate.’

Interactive quizzes and data researched articles ultimately don’t come cheap – well when compared with short form news stories. They are a gamble on behalf the publisher which inevitably runs the risk of the content not reaching the levels of traffic required to justify its creation. This is especially true in the light of falling CPMs and the slow adoption of native advertising models.

Yet several commentators have also argued that UsVsTh3m may have actually been a victim of its early success. 

As an article in Online Journalism blog points out its approach was widely copied across British media.

‘A Telegraph staffer says that UsVsTh3m was “inspirational” when they launched its own Project Babb as Row Zed was being planned; The Independent got in the game with i100. More recently The Sun attempted its own Ampp3d/UsVsTh3m clone with Sun Nation and Sky’s Mobile-native election coverage came with a dose of UsVsTh3m too. Even The Times and the FT are willing to devote time to standalone experiments and hackday-driven innovation.’

It is fairly familiar trajectory in online publishing – media company has great idea and then it is widely copied. The original video pioneers have long left YouTube and been replaced by a generation of vloggers who do things in their own innovative way. Similarly many of the high profile early bloggers ended up as social media superstars who you are more likely to find on the sites of newspapers and magazines than their own blogs. 

As for Circa, the app delivered news without frills in a direct and easy to follow way on a striking and simple to use app. So why did it fail? Mic Wright, writing for The Next Web, argued that the service was missing a special ingredient to make it essential.

‘Circa generates stories with no soul. They’re well-made sausages with no seasoning. What it defines as “facts without the fluff” can also be seen as news without the personality. Most readers want and need more personality, not less. People don’t keep coming back when what they find when they visit is bland.’

At the time of writing the future for Circa is undecided. There were whispers that Twitter was going to buy the company while some media commentators have opined that the app would be perfect for those accessing news on wearables.

Similar to UsVsTh3m Circa’s core proposition – in this instance short fast news in chunk – has become commonplace in the media. Even The BBC offer cut down news via its In Short offering. Other Media companies like CNN have also experimented with Instagram. Circa had gone from innovator to just another me too news channel.

The jury is still out on whether The Pool’s innovative programme based content chunks will appeal to readers once the hype of its launch has faded.

If there’s a lesson to be learnt from both UsVsTh3m and Circa it is that innovations in publishing don’t tend to stay unique for too long. Being first with a concept might bring industry acclaim, but the publisher doesn’t always reap the financial rewards as their rivals replicate the ideas and in some instances take them to another level.

Nevertheless, the architect of UsVsTh3m, Martin Belam is far from being downcast. Referring to the decision to shut the sites he said…

‘We’re going to stop doing them, which is sad, but I’d always much rather try something new than sit on my hands fretting about the future of digital media without actually trying to influence or change it.”

The next big idea in publishing clearly isn’t too far away!

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