SMWNYC 2011 – Publishers as Technologists

Description from the Social Media Week New York schedule event listing:

In the past, media companies were just purveyors of content: they published and the audience showed up. Now, with more content competing for consumer attention, every online publisher has to also be a technologist to some extent. From the actual site design and user experience, to what stories should be published and when, to recommended articles, emerging technology is playing a huge role in every aspect of the process.  This panel will explore the future of UX, design and editorial, as well as assess and troubleshoot current challenges for content companies on the Web.


  • Moderator: Caroline McCarthy, CBS
  • Adam Ostrow, Editor-in-Chief, Mashable
  • Rob Harles, Head of Social, Bloomberg
  • Jon Steinberg, President, Buzzfeed
  • Keith Butters: Co-Founder and Chief Experience Officer, The Barbarian Group
  • Paul Berry, CTO of Huffington Post

Event Recap:

Following the discussion of brands becoming more like people on the social web, the program moved to another transition, that of publishers providing technology as well as content.  Caroline McCarthy, a contributor to CNET and the moderator of the panel introduced the participants, noting that many of them have recently made announcements about new offerings.  This was also demonstrated with a video of The Daily.

McCarthy opened the conversation by referencing the redesign of Gawker in asking if we’re moving past the blog.  Adam Ostrow, Editor-in-Chief of Mashable, disagreed, as he still sees a great deal of traffic for web traffic.  He did note, however, that Mashable is seeing more engagement (as designed by time spent on the site and articles read) by tablet users than by web users.  Paul Berry, the CTO of the Huffington Post, sees application design now informing web design.  An example of this is the new Twitter interface, which was launch subsequent to a similar redesign for the iPad.

There are a lot of questions facing the publisher as technologist as publishers have to deal with different audiences and different platforms and browsers.  Another issue that hasn’t been resolved is whether publishers want to have their tools used beyond their own content.  For example, does it behoove Mashable to open its just announced Follow platform with other publishers’ content?  There is a conflict between openness and ownership.  Publishers are becoming more comfortable with letting Facebook “own” its comment streams in return for the marked increase in registrations and logins to their sites.

A challenge with many of the apps available to content consumer, according to John Steinberg, President of Buzzfeed, is that they are function following form, and not the other way around.  Although Flipboard is a beautiful news reading experiences, the utility appears to have been a secondary concern.  With new feature-driven apps like this, we are experiencing a lot of white noise, according to Rob Harles, Head of Social at Bloomberg.

A fear that Keith Butters, Co-founder of The Barbarian Group, expressed about The Daily is that the app can only succeed as long as the buzz lasts.  Ostrow added that The Daily must provide content that is worth paying for instead of news in a pretty panaroma.  He is happy, for example, to pay for Wall Street Journal access online to get to breaking stories, but he hasn’t seen such content on The Daily.  Another dilemma in this space is a paywall quandary: how does the need to spread content and buzz through sharing coexist with paid content.

As expected, the purchase of the Huffington Post by AOL is a big story for publishers.  Berry is excited about the new reach and audience for the Huffington Post.  Ostow sees technology and ad sales as the biggest advantages for AOL as they add new content streams (thankfully without using the word synergy!)

It’s critical, according to Berry, that publishers find their voice on every platform on which they appear.  This allows them to spread their content and share their brand.  While some publishers are concerned with protecting their brand when their content is shared, Harles recognizes that people will find a way to share what they want to share.  Rather than water down a publisher’s brand, this should serve to communicate the core values of the publisher through the spread of the content itself.

Analysis and Commentary:

With the on-going discussion of media companies becoming content providers, it’s fitting that content providers are taking on the qualities of media companies at the same time.  Without quality publishers, the practice of social sharing is not sustainable.  By playing a lead role in developing the methods by which content is delivered, publishers can ensure that the tools are appropriate for their content and for their audience.

The tablet as a device type is still new (one of the panelists pointed out that we didn’t have an iPad a year ago), so the ecosystem for content distribution is still being developed.  Like in any new social technology, the instinct appears to be to utilize the visual capabilities first, creating the issue of function following form.  As this area begins to mature, function is likely to emerge as king.

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