Arjun Attam

Publishing and an open format

14 Apr 2016

A Slack discussion on whether we should shift our company blog to Medium made me miss the days when RSS/Atom were popular and Google Reader flourished. Reader shut down in 2013, and RSS has since been extinct. What struck me is how incentives in publishing have evolved since, and how RSS could fit right in.

(I'm using RSS as the representative open format for timely distribution of content, in a standard platform-agnostic format.)

The incentives of readers have changed little over time, and by design, RSS aligns with them. With a standard format, RSS reduces context switching for readers, thereby enabling more content consumption in less time.

Publisher incentives: circa 2013

The prevalent business model for publishing was advertising. The incentive for (most) publishers was to drive up ad views and hence, website page views. As RSS decoupled content consumption from website page views, it was at odds with how publishing worked. While most websites had an rss.xml link (and still do), adoption of RSS by mainstream media existed in name only. RSS was used as a teaser for main website, with incomplete content, which misses the point of reducing context switching.

Publisher incentives: circa 2016 and beyond?

45% of millennials use ad blockers on their phones. Advertising revenue has moved from publishers to Facebook and Google, who have more users, and are a lot better at targetting them. From NYT:

In the first quarter of 2016, 85 cents of every new dollar spent in online advertising will go to Google or Facebook, said Brian Nowak, a Morgan Stanley analyst.

Media organizations are forced to relook their business models—which can be broadly generalized as1:

  1. Subscriptions from a loyal reader base (eg, The Economist or The Information)
  2. Marketing for other businesses, through sponsored content (Buzzfeed) or affiliate links (The Wirecutter)
  3. Marketing for monetizable products of the same business, events (Shekhar Gupta's The Print), podcasts (Bill Simmons' The Ringer) or non-media products (Stripe's blog that markets Stripe).

These business models value the content instead of how/where it is presented. The business model has been decoupled from page views. Increasing a reader base, irrespective of where the reader is, aligns with the new models.

These readers reside on Facebook and similar products, which have increasingly gained market power at the expense of media companies. Facebook alone controls 40 percent of web traffic to media websites, as stated in the same NYT article. The likes of Facebook Instant Articles, and Apple News exist in the industry, deriving their market power through their existing user bases. Powerful and closed platforms bring problems of coercion and control.

That is where RSS, and products like Google Reader that make RSS user friendly, possibly fit it. Full adoption of an open format by content publishers will open opportunities for new reading products, that do not require a Facebook account or an Apple device. Which in turn also create new business models, that make use of content bundling. While competing with a Facebook for reader eyeballs is difficult—with the right tools and infrastructure, we have seen magic happen before on the Internet.

  1. I'm skeptical about pay-per-read models (micropayments). There's little to show they work. ↩︎