Portals and publications

TRYING to ignore the Facebook IPO was like closing your eyes during the train wreck scene in The Greatest Show on Earth, even watching it on TCM 50 years later. The columnists, bloggers and pundits have offered every possible explanation of the kerfuffle, from banker greed to technical hangups. The root problem was simply that they set too high a strike price.

Ross Douthat, who occupies the William Safire desk on The New York Times Op Ed page, wrote with some satisfaction about the IPO fizzle. Like many pundits he doubts the company’s value proposition. “The Internet is a wonder when it comes to generating ‘cheap fun,’ but because ‘so many of its products are free’ . . .  the online world is rather less impressive when it comes to generating job growth.”

Well,  that has certainly been true for journalists, as Douthat points out, but stock prices are seldom a function of job creation, and by itself a low employe count won’t hurt Facebook’s valuation—at a P/E ratio of 100. (Apple’s is around 14.)  Nevertheless, like AOL and Yahoo, Facebook shares will have a great ride despite the awkward IPO. More billionaires will be made before reality sets in. (Fréderic Filloux has a long list of reasons why it won’t last forever.)

In the meantime, we had better get used to it. As the internet continually expands, like the universe, at an increasing rate, there is a need for ways to make sense of it all. And there is something reassuring about having a familiar home page when you open a browser. Facebook can provide that (or the app equivalent) and populates it with your “friends.”

Portals were invented as self-contained places that have everything you want, although now it seems that they are more like Residence Inns than self-contained resort destinations. AOL, MSN and Yahoo(!) are all still doing better than 100 million U.S. monthly uniques according to Comscore—and while they may be in decline, still book revenue in the billions. Yahoo started as a “directory” of web sites, and now has its own newsroom and sports site, and magazines like Shine, which I never hear mentioned. Yet Yahoo it says it gets a 1.65 billion monthly page views.

AOL of course predates the web, and we tend to forget that it started as a PC app with a dial-up connection and internal e-mail (I was assigned the user name Roger1000). As such it provided a series of important early social networks, and was copied by Microsoft (MSN) and even Apple (eWorld). When the commercial web got started in 1994, AOL became the first big internet service provider (ISP), gradually adding more content until now it is a concatenation of its own topical areas, acquisitions like TechCrunch and Huffington Post, and affiliates like Sporting News.

MSN is much bigger and, like Yahoo offers mostly its own content, with a few partners like Fox Sports.

Facebook is a different kind of portal, focusing on connecting its users (who already have e-mail addresses). Its idea of content is really shared content, links posted by users and their friends, and by advertisers. Every company now has a Facebook page, but I hate it when they ask you to be a friend, or even to like them. Most Facebook promotion pages seems to be just that, very thin promotion pages with very little content. But now it is essential for every cause and company to have a Facebook presence, and if they are paying attention it is a way to get some feedback from customers, users, viewers . . . or readers.

My tendency is to think of the online content world as split between web sites, apps and Facebook. This may be too coarse a division. The apps are now divided among iOS, Android (including Amazon’s and the other variants of Android) and soon Windows Phone. Facebook is not the only portal. There are the old portals just reviewed, and now there are bunch of mini-portals, helper-apps or view-portals as I like to call them, all hoping that you will make them your guide to digital content and to the coarsing river of Tweets and Facebook postings. They aggregate content and news in what they hope will be an interesting and useful blend. Flipboard, Float, Zite, Flud, Pulse, Taptu, Trove, News.me, Digg Mixer, Stumblupon, Hitpad, News360, Readability, Instapaper and Pocket, to name a few. (There’s an interesting chart of these players on the Globe & Mail site.

It is this full-tilt rush of aggregation that makes many think that the molecule of digital content is the story, a one-celled organism. We follow links from our Twitter and Facebook feeds, all the recommendations on the web, and in apps, and just go to one article at a time. But this a simplification, too. People want the whole animal sometimes. As with digital music, which has devolved from albums to songs for the most part, written narratives can be found and shared, but often you want the whole album—or the live concert performance (which for musicians is now where the money is).

More to the point, the money for written content providers is still in print, and it is dwindling fast. And, like musicians, writers and photojournalists are not going to make a living from single downloads.

A shared link to a story is analogous to getting an analog clipping from an old-fashioned friend. But sometimes I want to share the whole magazine, or the whole section of the paper. Most the web sites just don’t make you want to keep reading, and if you are at the airport and someone suggest you check out an app, sometimes the bandwidth is just not with you. And the view-portal “editions” (e.g., AOL Editions) all look alike. I want the Economist to look different from The New Republic. And I want a long think piece in the Washington Post to look different from breaking news.

We need to define a more evolved organism in the digital world, a better “publication space.” Readers like a place place where they go to take a short dip in some good editor’s narrative flow, in some fine curator’s collection of pictures, and just get lost in the stories.The New Yorker iPad app comes close (if you ignore the inconsistent UI and the hellish file size). For a news site, I am still happy with the Sporting News Treesaver edition, and when a freind shares a single article there, the link takes you to a story that’s sitting . . . in the publication space.

This is a big design challenge right now, getting this right. If we do, and do it quickly, the business model will follow. An attractive, immersive digital publication can attract real sponsors, and paying readers.

In a future post I’ll try to set out in more detail what it will take make this publication space not only survive but flourish in a world where Flipboard is just a syndication deal for publishers and Facebook is not the destination, but simply an entertaining and sometimes gratifying social layer.

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