The battle to control the interface

Pining for the homepage is nostalgia

Thanks to everyone who signed up for “The New Attention Economy” event The Rebooting is putting on with Kerv at the Cannes Lions from June 19-21. We’re starting to settle on speakers for the agenda. We’ll be holding a cocktail party at the Kerv Cafe following the programming on Monday, June 19, from 3-5pm. Sign up to come have a glass or rosé and probably nibble on those little French sandwiches with cucumbers. We’ll have more information about other Cannes events we’re finalizing, so sign up to get those. Hope to see you there.

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The interface is digital media’s commanding heights

If there’s one thread of the many pieces about the “end of an era” of digital publishing, it is the loss of control. Publishers in the analog era controlled packaging, distribution, editorial direction and monetization. The internet changed all that, and mostly because of the interface.

The interface is the front door, and in near-limitless digital media the interface represents the commanding heights. This is why the first epic battle of the web was over the web browser. It took the graphical user interface to make the commercial web viable, and Microsoft took a whatever-it-takes approach in its battle with Netscape, leading up to a long battle with the Justice Department.

As my podcast partner Alex Schliefer noted in our discussion of interfaces, most successful digital businesses are in essence interfaces. Google is an interface to finding information; Facebook is an interface to social media; TikTok is an interface to entertainment; Airbnb and Kayak are interfaces to travel; and so on. For publishers, the loss of control of the interface has put them at the mercy of tech companies. As Troy Young has pointed out, once you lose control of your distribution, you lose control over your business.

There’s a poignancy to publishers pining for the return of the homepage. Jonah Peretti has cited HuffPost’s continued strong homepage traffic – 65% of its visitors are direct, according to SimilarWeb – for why BuzzFeed is focusing its news operations with that brand vs BuzzFeed news. Maybe we’ll return to publishers bragging about their ComScore uniques like CNN would do like clockwork every month for a good decade.

The homepage of yesteryear was a publisher’s interface to its audience. Its real estate was the most valuable. It was where a publisher could nudge the audience in different directions. It also served a critical brand role: The homepage was where you could make a statement about how the brand viewed the world. It was akin to the front page of a newspaper.

That’s been eliminated. Publishers threw their lots in with the “fish where the fish are” strategy and mostly abandoned homepage strategies. Sites like The Drudge Report never budged, of course, but they were the exception. Most publishers chose to move on from what was seen as an anachronism. After all, there was more traffic to be had through search engines and Facebook. (Forget Twitter, it never drove traffic.)

And to be clear, this wasn’t a dumb decision at the time. As Nick Denton pointed out in a recent Recode Media podcast, the market pushed for publishers to get ever more “uniques.” That meant optimizing their businesses for fleeting impressions – just so long as you satisfy some arbitrary viewability standard and keep people around long enough to auto-refresh the ads – that did nothing to build loyalty. At a time of fleeting brands and fleeting impressions, perhaps we will see a throwback to the goal of being “sticky.” That early internet goal got tossed aside as side doors replaced the front door.

Efforts to build attention metrics as proxies for loyalty mostly foundered. The nostalgia for homepage strategies is like all nostalgia unrealistic. The world has changed. Rebuilding a homepage now is more likely to happen through other means, whether it’s email or a ChatGPT plugin. The shift in the dominant interface to being more chat-like provides a new opportunity for publishers to reclaim, to some degree, what the homepage represented: some measure of control. But it’s hard to believe that with the galloping advances of AI, there will be a return to many people firing up their web browser in the morning and typing in a publisher’s URL. Publishers will need to rethink the interface, not to mention the shape of their products, to fit with new expectations that will inevitably be set by chat interfaces.

Check out our discussion on Apple, Spotify or elsewhere.

The state of commerce content

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The march to an AI era, we are told, is inevitable, only the apparent risks of this technology have such far-reaching societal implications that it is unthinkable to leave its development in the hands of a few profit-hungry corporations. Ezra Klein has become fully red-pilled on AI, and returns to the subject with a mind-opening podcast with author Erik Davis about the “weird culture” of northern California from which AI fever dreams emerged. With the “godfather of AI” sounding the alarm of the dangers and estimates of a quarter of the jobs being altered or eliminated, it is inevitable ill-equipped governments will seek to control aspects of AI’s development and deployment. That will bring about its own weirdness. I can only imagine septuagenarian senators questioning Sam Altman about generative AI.

The scrutiny AI will come under will be fraught. And that’s because money and power is at stake. The frayed relationship between the tech industry and journalists will not be repaired. Reporters have an important role to play in holding power accountable. Much of the friction that exists is because leading news organizations like The New York Times shifted to cover the tech industry as a power center as opposed to a source of cool gadgets. The wrinkle with AI is that it looms as a threat to the news industry – and to the jobs of reporters. That will inevitably seep into the coverage of AI and its risks, while also proving tech power players a readymade PR strategy of discrediting news coverage as “biased” as these supposed elites look to box their own corner.

A sustainable news ecosystem is a clear need – just look at what’s been happening to news publishers – but defining it is tricky. FT Strategies boiled down sustainability in news publishing to four factors: 1. Making profits; 2. Differentiated products; 3. Business models that work with editorial missions; 4. Adapting to the market context. The third “pillar” stood out to me in George Montagu’s write-up. FT Strategies has long preached the “North Star” approach to building sustainable business models, and a major challenge for publishers has long been chasing different revenue opportunities that are often at cross purposes or work against their stated missions.

Reader revenue is often thought of as synonymous with paywalls, but there are many different approaches. The Guardian is a good example of a mission-driven publisher that’s been able to lean on its loyal audience to fund operations through a mix of voluntary contributions and some paid products. The Guardian’s been able to attract over 1 million paying readers and operations in the U.S. and Australia, where it marked a decade in the market.

I’ve written about how attractive autonomy is to writers who take the independent path. Being part of institutions mean crafting yourself to the needs of the organization, which is simply the tradeoff of getting paid every two weeks and having health care in a place like the U.S. Going solo allows more control over not just how you spend your time but the product you make. Nate Silver reflected on what’s next for him once he departs ABC News, and notes “ whatever comes next, I’ll want to have a broad portfolio of subjects to write about.” As much as I believe in focus, this is a nice aspect of the independent path.

Barstool is a problematic publisher that requires being able to separate some of its odious aspects from the audience-first approach it has taken that has engendered fierce loyalty and a solid business model. Now part of sports betting company Penn Entertainment, the pirates are part of the navy. Independent brands typically go into decline after they’re swallowed by larger entities, and Barstool thrives on chaos and controversy, which are great for attention but generally not something big companies love, particularly if that controversy works against their business interests. Barstool’s latest controversy involves Penn overruling CEO Erika Nardini and Barstool founder and figurehead Dave Portnoy to fire one of its personalities who used a racial slur on a live stream. Portnoy has done his Portnoy thing and gone public with his disagreement with the move. “Edgy” brands tend to have their heydays and then fade. That’s the risk for Barstool.

Virality has long been the empty calories of digital publishing. Empty calories tend to make you feel full, but they don’t do much for you for your long term nutrition – and you tend to crash after the sugar high. The many “end of an era” pieces that have been written – I did one, and will do another podcast around this theme next week with Peter Kafka and Sara Fischer – have mostly avoided an inconvenient truth: Viral traffic was always garbage. It was obvious in the analytics, which showed people bouncing almost immediately and consuming about 1.2 pages. The “uniques” publishers bragged about were always illusory, and pretending otherwise is disingenuous. In the UK, news publisher Reach is still blaming Facebook for bad results. My recent brush with Elon Musk-induced virality is a case in point of how worthless virality is.

ICYMI: I spoke to Kyle Tibbs Jones, co-founder of The Bitter Southerner, on this week’s The Rebooting Show. We cover the ups and downs of being an independent publisher. Check it out on Apple, Spotify or elsewhere.

Final thing: As much as I believe AI will be a profound change across society, I know that when there’s a ton of money at stake, the silly season will commence. Forecasts like these qualify, via Benedict Evans. I appreciate going to the tenth decimal point to add precision to a pie-in-the-sky forecast for 2032. I’m reminded of how Kendall “encouraged” Pete to “go explosive” with the Living+ forecast.

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