i100 and Babb: the new cargo cults

Rise of the spin-off site

With the launch of Babb and i100 it is clear that news organisations are no longer sticking solely to the content-publishing strategies which work for print: an increased focus on shareable, bite-sized chunks of content has seen impressive returns so far. This is as much the case for the football statistics-driven Babb as it is for the topical data-driven ampp3d, which can be seen as the originator of this type of content publication legitimised by a respected news organisation’s backing.

Though spokespeople and editors for each of these spin-off organisations take pains to differentiate their site from the others – in fact, most specifically claim to be doing something entirely new – in practice they use a lot of the same language when describing their strategies. Invariably there is mention of the importance of the ‘shareability’ on social media and ‘connecting people directly with the content’, or the repackaging of existing content into an ‘easily digestible’ form.

This relatively new approach is driven by an increasing body of research, some of which is directly from social media sites: the Facebook News Survey 2013 found that half of Facebook and Twitter users, and well over half of reddit users, got their news from those platforms. As such, the spin-off news organisations are right to create new or repackage old content into forms which are more likely to be shared via social media channels.

Cargo Cult

Dangers of ‘shareability’

However, the dangers of choosing to publish content this way are that changes to the fast-paced social media channels can negate the value of this type of content – publishing news to Facebook is already subject to the vagaries of that site’s algorithms – and, worse, that all the spin-off sites like ampp3d and i100 are simply cargo cults, trying to recreate each others’ success without a real understanding of why it works.

The first issue, that Facebook and Twitter’s rapidly changing nature could eventually hinder this type of content publication, can be seen in practice even now: news organisations publishing to Facebook must do so in the knowledge that the site’s algorithm currently filters out posts from users you do not regularly interact with. As such its reach is immediately limited, and relies upon readers sharing the content to ‘get around’ that wall.

Additionally, the fairly-recent integration of image content directly into Twitter’s newsfeed means that users can consume news infographics without necessarily having to follow it back to the news organisations’ own site. As such, there is little material benefit to that type of publication for the news organisation.

Neither problem is insurmountable: as interviews with the heads of those spin-off news sites have made clear the challenge is in creating clever content and publishing strategies that genuinely do draw readers to the main sites. While Babb appears to have struggled in its initial forays into publishing to social media (the Telegraph’s head of product for mobile Alex Watson telling TheMediaBriefing that it did not translate into visits to telegraph.co.uk), Trinity Mirror’s Newroom 3.1 digital-first approach has met with marked success, demonstrating this approach can have tangible benefits.

it’s actually a relatively crude idea to think about having a website that’s just going to funnel people back to your main website

– Alex Watson, the Telegraph

Online cargo cults

It is the second issue, that of the cargo cult approach to creating shareable content, which is the greater concern: back when blogs were first becoming recognised sources for news, news organisations would attempt to mimic the look and feel of the blogs, with limited success. As with the original cargo cultists they were simply trying to recreate the look of a thing without the real understanding of why it had worked in the first place, to their detriment.

It is already possible to see something similar working on the spin-off sites: i100 has an ‘upvote’ system for their articles which is specifically modelled after reddit’s system, and ampp3d has a notable Buzzfeed-inspired aesthetic and article titling system. The danger with such appropriation is the same as it was with the early news blogs: that they simply will not work with the type of content produced for the spin-off sites, especially as the means of publishing that content to social media change rapidly as those platforms develop.

All the sites, even ampp3d, are still in the early days of their existence, and it is extremely likely that they will change and adapt as they continue (i100 has a very clear ‘beta’ symbol next to its name, for example). However, the challenge facing them is strikingly similar to the challenge faced by print organisations when they first directly ported their print content to the internet: that just because something has worked elsewhere does not mean it will necessarily work for them now.

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