Media

Why WordPress Isn’t Scared of Facebook, Snapchat, or the Future of Publishing

I reached out to five tech companies for this story: Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Medium, and WordPress.

All five have vested interests in the publishing world. Medium and WordPress are the obvious ones: They’re both well-known content management systems. At this point, Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat are practically publishing platforms, even if they may not define themselves that way.

I approached each company with a simple premise: We live in a world where cell phones and tablets are becoming more popular than laptops and desktops. Google, for example, announced last year that it receives more search requests on mobile devices than computers in the U.S., Japan, and eight other countries. Does this mean that websites are knocking on death’s door? Does the future of publishing lie in the hands of apps?

Snapchat and Twitter ignored my interview request entirely. Facebook asked to comment only on background, which defeated the purpose of receiving the brand’s thoughts. Medium sent me a series of one-sentence answers via email, few of which were specific enough to answer the question.

Frustrating.

WordPress and its parent company Automattic were more responsive. WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg put me in touch with the company’s editor, Mark Armstrong, who is also the founder of Longreads. We had a nice conversation on the phone and continued it via email. As we spoke, Armstrong shed some light on why the other companies were being so cagey.

The lifespans of networks like Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, and Medium could hinge on how they anticipate the future of publishing. The more they court publications to post directly to their platforms, the more they become competitors—and nobody wants to reveal trade secrets.

WordPress has a different goal. “Publishers do want to pursue these social platforms, but they’re not going all-in in a way that they’re going to lose their control of the audience and ultimately what they want to publish,” Armstrong said. “And that’s what we’ve been working on. How do you connect those worlds?”

The publisher’s dilemma

The media experts I contacted agreed with Armstrong. They told me that there’s no foreseeable future in which publishers cede control of their content entirely to social networks. They’ll still need a central hub.

“We want it to be black or white,” Robert Hernandez, an assistant professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, told me. “The truth is, it’s both. Owning your own website, you have control of the narrative and the presentation, aka your destiny.”

The real conversation for media companies, according to Hernandez, isn’t about websites and apps. It’s about audience and control. Platforms like Facebook need the content—otherwise, they wouldn’t be courting publishers to the tune of millions of dollars. Publications need the targeted distribution those platforms can provide, especially since almost half of Americans regularly get their news from social media.

It’s a symbiotic relationship, not a zero-sum game.

“Empires rise and fall,” Hernandez said repeatedly throughout our conversation. “No matter which empire or brand or platform is rising, it will eventually fall. But journalism will be a constant.”

Look at Twitter, which has mainstream cultural relevance but struggles bring in ad revenue and compete with other major social networks. That’s why it killed off its video platform Vine in late October (R.I.P., Vine—you’ve given us some great times).

Or look at Facebook, the largest social network in the world, which remains incredibly valuable and influential, but has started to take on a lot of criticism about political censorship, fake news stories, and inflated video engagement data. “The influence of Facebook, you can see cracks in it as Snapchat has started to amplify,” Hernandez offered. “Empires rise and fall. And who knows what’s next?”

Rich Gordon, a professor and director of digital innovation at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, echoed the thought. “It’s not like we stop innovating new channels just because one of them has become enormous,” he said. “And if you look over history, especially in social media, what you discover is that, ultimately, the dominant platform of yesterday is not the dominant platform of today and will not be the dominant platform of tomorrow.”

However, while article pages on owned sites are still important, they’re not as dominant as they used to be. Features like Instant Articles and Facebook Live have made it easier and more beneficial for publishers to post their content beyond the blog. Four years ago, the Nieman Journalism Lab reported that news outlets were seeing less traffic arrive from their homepages than ever before—and four years is ancient in the internet world. More recently, in 2014, a leaked innovation report from the The New York Times revealed that homepage traffic had fallen drastically over the three years prior.

“The typical person might have, other than Facebook, maybe one or two or three websites they regularly visit with an intent to see what they’ve got today,” Gordon said. “Platforms have to make it as easy as possible for you to publish once and distribute through all of these and other channels.”

This reality leaves media companies struggling with that issue of control. Modern publishers will eventually come to a crossroads. If they want to maximize growth, they need to be where their audience is, staying on top of the social media world’s ever-shifting power struggle. If they want to control their user experience and avoid paying for traffic, they’ll have to invest in their own web presence.

Finding a balance isn’t easy.

Betting on a web-driven future

With all this in mind, Armstrong’s initial question seems pretty important: How do you connect those worlds?

“That’s part of Matt’s initial mission with WordPress and open source in particular,” Armstrong said. “If you’ve got these other closed worlds operating, how do we interact with them? It’s not so much of a competitive thing. Publishers want to make the most of building audiences wherever they can. We want to help facilitate that.”

What does that mean in practice? Armstrong pointed to a couple examples, like integrating Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) program into all WordPress sites, or creating a plugin that allows publishers to automatically adapt their blog posts to Instant Articles. He also listed a few different ways people can syndicate their work on WordPress pages, including “our Publicize feature, a service like Buffer, or a plugin like CoSchedule.”

That’s a little bit of a boring answer. It’s indicative, though, that WordPress’s goal of integration between the various social networks is predicated on one thing: the continued importance of the website.

“What we’re finding is that the web is more important than ever because of this environment,” Armstrong wrote to me via email. “Closed platforms may want to make their content exclusively available to their own users, but there is a tension in their own businesses, because for marketing purposes they need to advertise their content and network across other platforms.”

Armstrong told me that WordPress now powers more than 26 percent of all sites on the web. Think about that for a second. Then, think about the publisher’s dilemma. It looks like media companies will always need websites as central hubs, no matter how popular or important a social network gets.

Or, to put it another way, empires rise and fall, but WordPress expects to stick around for a while.

Image by Bubbers13 / Getty
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