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What the atomisation of news means for NZ

April 28, 2011

In New Zealand, like in other small countries, web traffic is a bit unusual. If you’re interested in daily news from the country, you have to tap in to Stuff, NZ Herald, TVNZ, TV3, Radio NZ, or a similar site to get it. There’s just not a lot of sources out there to get it.

That’s why such a large proportion of NZ site traffic is direct through the homepage, vs referred by social media or search engines. The homepages of these sites are destinations where people go to get NZ news.

But there’s a worrying sign on the horizon: more and more people are using other sites and services as news portals, instead of a media site’s homepage. They rely on Facebook, Twitter, RSS feeds or apps that curate and filter news web-wide. The trend is called “atomisation”, since people are consuming news not as a package of stories put together by a site’s editor, but one story from this site, one from another, etc. It’s one step closer to the holy grail of online news: the Daily Me – stories individually selected for my interests and location from every publication on the web.

I’m a big fan of iPad atomiser apps like FlipBoard and Zite, less so of News360 and Newsy, and I rarely use Pulse or other RSS apps anymore. I’m interested in quite specific things – online media, science, maths and NZ news – that no one destination site caters for. These apps give me what I’m after in a format that’s really pleasant to read. Zite is almost scary, the way it finds articles from all over the web that really do interest me.

Atomisation both frightens and fascinates publishers. On one hand, apps like Zite (or the slightly scary Chrome plugin Super Google Reader) strip out ads and so incur the legal wrath of media orgs. On the other, it’s a great way to get your news. Readers love it, and because of that it’s not going away anytime soon.

But there’s another issue. The more readers who atomise your content, the fewer that hit your homepage. After all, that’s really all a homepage is: an aggregation of your site’s best content, as chosen (usually) by humans. It’s a package of news. Atomising it is just using a different package.

But the homepage is the plum in the fruit basket of a media website. It attracts the most ad dollars, it’s the page that reaches most of your readers, and it’s the most important page for branding.

So fewer readers on your homepage means fewer ad dollars. How will publishers cope?

They’ll need to move ad spend away from the homepage, toward more targeted advertising that commands better rates. They need to find out what readers want and deliver packages and ads to suit. They need to find out what advertisers are after and create or buy the technology to deliver it.

But wait, aggregators can do those same things. In fact, they can do them better, because they’re technology companies, usually start-ups. That means they can adopt new tech faster, are happier taking risks, and have no legacy relationships with advertisers (or newspapers) to worry about protecting.

An aggregator also knows who you are. Most ask for your Facebook and Twitter profile, which means they can track every story you read, what your friends are sharing with you, and any other info you’ve made public. Compared to a mass-market site like Stuff or the NZ Herald, which either have no logins or not much incentive to login, that’s a huge advantage because it lets the apps target ads. Even apps that don’t have your Twitter login can still passively track what you read because your device ID is unique to your phone or tablet, and these are much more accurate identifiers than the cookies used to denote a “unique browser”. The device ID persists over time, allowing apps to build up a picture of what you’re interested in.

The rarity of news is no defense against atomisation – in fact, it could work against sites in small countries like NZ, because they can’t compete with the amount of news offered by big overseas competitors.

Sites that service tech-savvy niche verticals are already seeing this. More and more traffic is coming via RSS and Twitter. That’s how their readers consume the news. The homepage isn’t yet an anachronism but is heading that way.

And where you live, well, that’s just another niche vertical.

So NZ publishers are at quite a big disadvantage around atomisation. The question now is where things will stabilise. Will any NZ readers treat news sites as destinations in 10 years time, or will everything be atomised?

One thing is clear: atomisation is only going to get more popular. All news sites – but especially those catering to small countries or niche topics – need to embrace it as a core part of their business in years to come.

If they plan now for the changes on the horizon, they’ll be able to adapt when their homepage traffic gives way. If they rely on legal threats and reader inertia, they’ll be caught out and left clinging to another out-dated business model.

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