Blogonomics: Syndication

By Felix Salmon
June 7, 2012

Last week, the Economist’s Ryan Avent sparked a storm in a Twitter teacup with this tweet:

It turned out, over the course of the ensuing conversation, that Business Insider’s material from the Economist — and from Reuters, for that matter — is legally syndicated to TBI through a deal with a company called NewsCred. There’s nothing illicit going on here; it’s just that as ever in big news organizations, the editorial side is generally the last to find out when deals like this are done.

I had a very interesting lunch with NewsCred CEO Shafqat Islam a couple of days ago and his company seems to be very good at signing up publishers. Just about every major publisher you can think of has a deal with NewsCred now; the NewsCred homepage features the Guardian, Project Syndicate, and many others, and Islam talked to me about everyone from the FT to the NYT coming on board as well.

There are two big trends that NewsCred is latching onto here. The first is that publishers are increasingly desperate for revenues, and if someone comes along and offers them essentially free money, they’re much more likely to say yes. And the second is the way in which brands are becoming publishers in their own right: rather than buying ads adjacent to published content, they find it easier and more effective to simply publish that content themselves. If you look at the list of NewsCred clients, yes, it includes Business Insider and Huffington Post. But it also includes Orange, and Pepsi, and Johnson & Johnson, and Zurich Re. None of these brands has any interest in selling ads against content, as Business Insider and HuffPo do. Instead, they want to create websites which are full of interesting, high-quality, relevant content. Producing that stuff is hard; syndicating it from NewsCred is easy.

For journalists, this new income source could hardly come at a more welcome time. Islam told me that if I wanted to syndicate my blog through his platform, I would probably get at least $500 per customer per month, and more if the customer was a big news site. He reckoned he could quite easily find 10 or 20 customers wanting to use my content — which raises the prospect of a $10,000-per-month income stream, just for my blog alone. There aren’t many bloggers, journalists, or publishers who are going to be comfortable turning down that kind of money. Even if Islam was blowing smoke a little as to how much money my blog might be able to get, the fact is that blogs have real value on the syndication market, now, and it’s silly for bloggers not to realize that value.

I’m a fan of syndication — I’ve been doing it for free for many years now. My posts can be found at Seeking Alpha, where I have 59,383 followers; at Wired; at CJR; even at Business Insider. Most of those BI articles are just excerpts and links to my Reuters blog, but occasionally someone at BI will ask if they can run a post in full, and I say yes. As I do to most other people who ask me nicely. And it works the other way too: in September I ran a post from Henry Blodget on this blog.

But all of those deals were done front-of-house, as it were, between me and the editorial staff at those other publications. The big difference with NewsCred is that the deals are done back-of-house, by biz-dev types, who are out to maximize revenues, and who often don’t even bother informing the editorial staff what they’re doing. Islam told me that he thinks he should start reaching out more to the editorial side; I think that’s a great idea. The more they’re on board with this kind of thing, the happier everybody will be.

Syndication of news stories in general and blog posts in particular does have its problems. Islam told me that he doesn’t run into a lot of SEO problems, but let’s take a sentence at random from the story Avent tweeted — “So a falling stock price demographic scenario presumes that younger generations are more risk-tolerant” — and google it. Here’s what I get:

search.jpg

The top article is from BI; the second is a crappy spammy blogspot site; the third is spammier still; and the link to the Economist, the fourth result in the list, ends up directing to a very odd domain, dr.economist.com, and doesn’t actually link to the original blog post at all. Obviously, the Economist needs to work on its SEO. But equally obviously, the more that your stuff gets syndicated, and the more it gets syndicated to high-profile sites, the less likely your own site is to be the top search result for your own content.

The second problem is that comments streams end up appearing all over the shop: Ryan’s the original post* has 19 comments, for instance, while the BI version has 32 — none of which Ryan its author is likely to ever see. There are tools like Disqus which allow the same post to appear in different places and still have one set of comments, but it’s not clear that NewsCred supports them, or can mandate their use, and in any case many original publishers don’t use those tools.

A third problem lies with updates. If Ryan comes back and updates or corrects his the post, it’s far from clear how or whether those changes would ever make their way through to BI and other sites which syndicated the original piece.

And then there are simple technical glitches. Ryan’s the original post, for instance, prominently features a chart comparing stock p/e ratios over time with something called the M/O ratio — the number of 40-somethings expressed as a percentage of the number of 60-somethings. That chart somehow failed to make its way into the BI version of the story.

More vaguely but also more importantly, there’s also the fact that blogs are a conversation, and that syndicating individual blog posts in this manner fragments that conversation. People will end up linking to the BI post rather than the original Economist version; and in general, people reading the BI post will see it in a context very different from that which was intended. I’ve long said that the unit of quality, for a blog, is not the blog post but rather the blog as a whole. If you regularly take post-sized chunks and syndicate them across the web, the blog loses its coherence. It’s a bit like the way in which pop music moved from being all about the album at the end of the 20th Century to being all about the single in the 21st: the way these things are consumed makes a huge difference.

NewsCred is in the same business as Percolate, in many ways — turning brands into publishers, even when that’s not a core competency — but it cuts against Percolate’s model in that Percolate is built on the idea that it can easily determine when lots of people are sharing the same piece of content on social networks. If that piece of content lives on dozens of different sites, it becomes much more difficult to work out when that’s happening.

Finally, the syndication model means that many decisions which I’m sure that the editorial side would love to make are in fact being made by biz-dev types. For instance, let’s say that a large global financial-services company like Goldman Sachs wanted to syndicate Reuters content, including my blog. The business side here would surely love to be able to do that — but then my blog posts could start appearing on Goldman’s website, creating the impression that I was in some way working for them.

None of these problems are insurmountable — and in many ways I like the idea that thousands of different publishers can spring up, putting together bespoke products for exactly the audience they want, with original bloggers and journalists around the world being paid hundreds of times per piece. It’s a very democratic and decentralized vision of what journalism can be, and it’s rather appealing — especially if it provides a healthy income stream to big publishers as well as small ones. I just wish that these decisions were being made and thought about higher up in the org chart, and especially on the editorial side, rather than invading from the lower reaches of the business side. Because if it’s done badly at the beginning, that could poison the whole model.

*Update: I missed this originally, but the Economist post in question was actually written by Allison Schrager, and not by Ryan Avent.

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