Facebook announced yesterday that it will be launching a news reader app in the near future. Considering AOL recently launched a news reader of its own, and Yahoo is working on similar projects, it wasn't altogether surprising.
But to me, it was disappointing. Facebook has 1.1 billion users. It is the most visited website on the internet. It has about $10 billion on its balance sheet. So I wondered: Couldn't Facebook aim a little bit higher?
Not that there's anything wrong with news aggregation, per se. It's a proven model that's been around for over a decade, operates on the notion that if you can find and curate the best content on the Web, you can build a profitable, scalable business with low overhead. And from a user perspective, aggregators are a genuinely helpful utility for discovering stories that otherwise would have been difficult to find. I personally use them all the time.
But in the last few years, the aggregation and curation business model has become a massively crowded space. There's Cir.ca, Summly, Flipboard, Feedly, Newsvibe, Reddit, Digg... the list goes on. Put simply: If you're unable to find a way to curate the news you want to read--on any device--you're doing something wrong. There are more than enough apps for that.
There is, however, a more fundamental problem in the content business that few start-ups have been bold enough to try to solve: actually creating the content. Paying for content is expensive and risky.
As the traditional media business contracts--newspaper revenue is declining at a 4.2 percent annual compound rate--fewer paid writers are writing fewer original stories. Noah Davis pointed out in his epic piece about freelance journalism in The Awl last Friday, "the number of official jobs for full-time journalists decreased from 61,000 in 1997 to 45,500 in 2012." It's tough to get empirical data on the number of great stories written in the same period, but it stands to reason that that figure is on the decline, too.
And as more media brands push towards an aggregation model, readers are growing weary of them. According to a recent poll reported by The Verge, about 61 percent of Americans think news outlets produce "less complete" work than ever before.
For some entrepreneurs, the decline of the traditional media model represents an opportunity to rethink media--and rightly so. The need for great content will never diminish, it's just about finding a way to make it a lucrative endeavor.
A few tech companies have tried. Yahoo has been in the original content business for years, but recent acquisitions suggest the company would rather focus on cheap and easy-to-get user-generated content. LinkedIn has dabbled in fresh content too, though it's coming from unpaid "thought leaders" and it's dwarfed by the aggregated content streaming into users' feeds.
Ev Williams, a Twitter co-founder, is trying a different approach. Last year he founded Medium, a content start-up, for a simple reason:
We love tweets as much as the next person (probably more), but sometimes we long for something meatier. Now that we've made sharing information virtually effortless, how do we increase the depth of understanding, while also creating a level playing field that encourages great ideas coming from anywhere?
Medium commissions articles from known journalists and writers, but it also functions as a publishing platform for anyone who wants to write. It also recently acquired Matter, a content start-up that sells long-form articles on a monthly subscription. Both are innovative ideas but both need traction and proven business models.
All of which to say: There's nothing inherently wrong with Facebook's decision to launch a news reader; it'll likely be a successful product. It's just unfortunate to see a brand with the resources and reach of Facebook aim so low at a time when there's so much opportunity to expand its content efforts.
If the aggregation model continues to proliferate, it will lead to an awkward imbalance in the market: too many companies searching for great content, and too few companies actually creating it.