If you haven't paid attention to the past month in the world of digital news, you should have. Here's why:
Jan. 1 -- Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg launch Re/Code
After years of covering tech companies and their investors for the WSJ's All Things D, Swisher and Mossberg secured enough backing to launch Re/Code, a technology news site and events business of their own. The first takeaway here is obvious but worth repeating: big name journalists carry enough value to create brands, and the business models behind these brands are viable enough to attract investors. More interesting however, is the role of the lucrative conference and live events business Swisher and Mossberg have brought with them to their new venture.
Media companies investing in lucrative live events and conference businesses is far from a new phenomenon. Worth noting is that even in the digital media age brands can work on multiple, sometimes old school, levels. Media brand-driven conferences may not reach millions of viewers (though the content they create can), but they do draw in and establish relationships with and between groups of key influencers.
Jan. 8 -- The New York Times debuts site redesign
Though cleaner, better balanced and more responsive than its predecessor, the most innovative part of the Times' digital redesign isn't something readers see upfront. That is because as they redesigned their site's backend systems to support front-facing design changes, the NYT development team rethought the concept of the news website "redesign" itself.
As Fast Company's Rebecca Greenfield writes:
"With the old content management system and technology platform, it took a lot of effort to deploy any new or different designs, like Snow Fall and its successors. The new system, however, is more dynamic. 'We can continually iterate on the site and take advantages of the trends as we see them happening, rather than having to do a big unveil,' [NYT Co. Executive VP of Digital Products and Services] Warren explained. As a result, she says, readers will see more incremental changes over time, rather than a big unveil a few years down the line. (Translation: Get ready for even more Snow Falls, people.)"
We care about this because it's one of the first large-scale examples of a news outlet investing not just in digital platform growth, but in the way those platforms grow. By giving its development team the ability to iterate consistently and integrate new digital features smoothly, the Times has invested in a mature digital strategy which values programmer needs and the process of quality digital creation. This is how good tech startups operate, and how modern news outlets must learn to think.
Jan. 13 -- NBC partners with digital video startup NowThis News
The announcement that NBC had partnered with Lerer Ventures-backed digital news video startup NowThis News should come as no surprise to those following the action in the digital video space. Broadcast news audiences are getting older, and older and older, and NowThis offers NBC expertise in producing news video for the social platforms where tomorrow's audiences spend their time. The best digital news startups are built around compelling answers to difficult questions about the future of the news. NowThis is, in essence, a thesis claiming that traditional broadcast studios are not the most effective origin for digital news video in the age of the social web. NBC just bought 10 percent of that thesis.
Jan. 26 -- Ezra Klein joins Vox Media, announces "Project X"
The "journalists as brands" angle is obvious here, but let's talk tech. Ezra Klein's decision to build his "Project X" explanatory journalism venture with Jim Bankoff's Vox Media is arguably the first high profile instance of a journalist being attracted to a potential brand partner almost purely for its tech development ability.
As Klein told BuzzFeed's Charlie Warzel: "We needed technology and design partners not just to help us make what we're thinking a reality, but a better reality than the ones we were dreaming up. I was intent on only partnering with somebody who could make the product better than I ever could."
Yes, Vox appealed to Klein because it had money to seed a new venture, but so do many other media companies and investors. Beyond money, Vox has Chorus, one of the most advanced content management systems in the business. Whether "Project X" will be built strictly on the Chorus structure remains to be seen, but it's a safe to say Vox VP for Product and Technology Trei Brundrett and his team have the technological firepower to build whatever Klein needs. In modern media, "backroom" programming teams have become talent magnets.
Feb. 3 -- Facebook launches Paper
The Internet has traditionally split between tech companies like Facebook which build the structures through which information flows, and publishers which create the digital content that populates those structures. It's far from being this simple, but if Facebook and Twitter build the "tubes," The New York Times, BuzzFeed etc. create the editorial "filler" flowing through them. (A gross analogy, but it works.) In the past, pure tech companies have cared very little about creating and shaping editorial content, and media companies haven't know, the first thing about building great tech products.
Facebook's release of Paper, a social news app designed to highlight quality content quickly and beautifully, comes as the lines between companies which primarily create content and those which code have become increasingly blurred. Both in its look and feel, and in the design process behind it, Paper is an admission that delivering great content means more than tweaking Newsfeed algorithms. The product was drawn up by Mike Matas, a UI/UX designer with experience at Apple and Nest, whose most recent company Push Pop Press focused on e-books and innovative publishing software. Rather than surfacing links to articles recommended by friends and moving on, Facebook has realized the value of creating a fluid and attractive reading environment around the content which flows through its network. In other words, Facebook now sees thoughtful, news content-centric design as a thing worth doing well.
While Pierre Omidyar's First Look Media has promised plenty of innovations to come, Glenn Greenwald's "The Intercept" launched as a simple WordPress site. This isn't a bad thing, and it perhaps says more where media is today than if the site had gone live packed with interactive graphics and other bells and whistles. Unique reporting and fascinating content still builds brands. Would Greenwald's Snowden scoops benefit from strong technical presentation? Probably, but high profile reporting of Greenwald's caliber attracts clicks no matter what platform it's on. Simply put, great reporting still carries itself without complex tech behind it.
Why this month?
What besides the sheer volume of announcements and splashy launches has made the last month in media different from any other? To start, digital media has become interesting again, and not just because of its issues. Investment dollars and creative minds, especially at the national level, are now willing to tackle what were once bemoaned as "intractable flaws" with news media in the digital age. The fundamental problems brought up at countless "Future of Media" conferences of even a few years ago, declining ad revenues, aging demographics, the lack of value in online content etc. are now seen as opportunities for the right teams with the right backers. January 2014 stands to be remembered as the month investment dollars, technological expertise and editorial savvy in American digital media began to work in unison to create growth across companies and platforms. Will all of these new ideas and hot ventures work out? Probably not. But the media industry has creative people thinking in big ways, and that's a story I'd click on.