Building a journalism organization that exists mostly (or only) on social media and other platforms makes a kind of weird sense. After all, where would Twitter or Facebook be without the commercial driving power of media organizations using and advertising on them? After all those years of our words helping them make money, shouldn't they finally save us some in return?

As fun as it is to feel smug in that sort of logic, I doubt it is what is pushing forward the quickly rising Distributed Journalism trend. The first driver of this movement is well stated by Reported.ly's Andy Carvin:

I think too many of us have become complacent when it comes to serving social media users directly. [...] This becomes especially important when rumors run amok on social media – I think it becomes incumbent upon journalists to be active members of those communities to nip rumors in the bud and help them sort out what's true and what's not.

If we want to be good journalists we have to go to our readers where they live, deliver The Truth to their digital doorsteps. Bringing journalism to our audience has been one of the cornerstones in the evolution of digital journalism and here's the logical conclusion. It's not a bad one.

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First Look Media is an organization with a lot of money, being told to spend without worrying about earning. Not everyone adopting this distributed model is as worry-free. There are other reasons besides noble journalistic ones. Adopting publishing independent from platform can also allow the most effective sharing and consumption.

But if you have to justify your costs, why would extra views count if they don't also view your banner ads or turn into email sign-ups?

Native advertising

Native advertising means that for the first time in digital news-land advertisers are paying for unique pieces of content that don't require connection to other bits of content, or any particular platform. While I haven't seen any of these distributed outlets unveiling native advertising quite yet, you can be sure that if someone there is planning for monetization, that's idea one.

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As a student journalism outlet manager I led the organization to sell tweets. We didn't have the community or content numbers to scale the process effectively, but the attraction to advertisers was immediately apparent, far more so then digital display ads. Pushing out deals, coupons and brand ID to locked-to-channel and engaged readers? Yeah, they got it. Not surprising, because on many levels the sales pitch is more like print then digital.

For publishers there's all sorts of additional attractions to running native ads solely through social. Twitter is less likely to go down then your server. No we can't add a special border to the Facebook post, that's on Facebook. Your YouTube piece on our channel doesn't measure viewability, if Google hasn't figured out how to do it, you can't expect us to...

As advertisers continue to move the finish line on qualified metrics, the expense to the network of publishers, CMS providers, agencies, ad servers, video embedders, metrics tools and other pieces of the digital ecosystem get more complex and expensive. That expense gets passed to publishers almost exclusively, digging in to their bottom-line.

When you go distributed, however, the only expenses are the tools and people who are creating the content. Metrics are the problem of the platform you are on. No distributed platform publisher has to deal with the dozens of IAB-member ad analytics platforms and website metrics tools. You live on Twitter, you get your metrics from Twitter. Maybe a little extra from Sprout, Bit.ly or Hootsuite.

There's something delicious about the idea of letting go of Omniture and Google Analytics and never looking back. Especially considering time has shown that we have no idea what successful metrics are to begin with.

The Other Monetization

Reported.ly isn't the first journalism effort to abandon keeping house to live entirely on social media, but it does seem to be the one with the most funds and freedom behind the effort. Looking at what we know about FLM and its mogul-in-chief Pierre Omidyar, Reported.ly (along with some future distributed journalism efforts) may be looking at another way to make money.

We know pretty well how Omidyar-style Silicon Valley types think, they think about platforms as products, not money for content.

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Possibly this is developer training for building a new social media tool. Even after all this time, there really isn't an effective tool for watching and touching all platforms from one place. Mostly because the people who build tools for parsing social media aren't Carvin; they lack the experience of knowing what big storytellers want to do through HootSuite and the metrics don't exist to help them understand how something the Arab Spring could be better enabled by (ugh—the name!) SocialBro.

So Carvin and his team could be taking notes as they go along (or someone could be taking notes for them) looking at how they use the various platforms they touch, what works, what doesn't, what patterns of behavior they repeat, and what things are far too difficult to do effectively. I'm sure that there are plenty of possible points of optimization and with smart collaboration and the right programmers a really cool and useful piece of technology could be created.

Not only is this an interesting possibility, but it could be immensely successful. Carvin's past work (along with the work of the others he has brought on) has two main threads:

  1. Surfacing relevant user generated content.
  2. Telling transmedia stories that retain their integrity through the reuse of UGC and presence on multiple platforms.

Every journalism company is desperately in need of a tool that could do both these things more effectively. Brands need them even more, because they are so awful at it. If good journalism can be funded by making sure DiGiorno Pizza doesn't stupidly drop into a hashtag again, that would be pretty awesome.

There is a problem

Ethical journalism in the post-digital age isn't just about what you write. To run an entire outlet on someone else's platforms is to implicitly support those platforms.

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But those platforms may not be deserving of that level of support.

The algorithms that make Facebook and Google work are famously black-box. Twitter's trouble monetizing itself has turned it into an increasingly closed garden in the same way that Facebook has been for a long time. Whatever positive or negative things can be said about Twitter's userbase, its ecosystem is shrinking. Twitter has made it policy to buy the best tools that touch its platform and favor them heavily. Look no further than the fate of TweetDeck vs Metrotwit.

Facebook basic functionality is so far out of our control that even the daily task of posting and expecting Open Graph data to show up correctly is questionable. I see problems that pop up around caching and formatting monthly, if not more often.

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What will Medium become? How will that change what exists on it? We don't know.

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Then there's the problem that all these social networks are antithetical to aggregation. You can save an entire Twitter account's output or a single one easily enough, but search and scrolling back? This is pretty hard. Compiling all that content by hand? That's time intensive. Archiving it programmatically and publicly? Mostly against the terms of service. The same is true for Facebook.

Medium has an RSS feed, which is exceptional among the social media platforms, but it is summary content. The archive pages eschew dates, making it difficult to understand at a glance what happens when.

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At least with Twitter, we know those archives are all saved somewhere in the Library of Congress in the end. But Facebook? When you don't control the platform, you don't control the archives. If journalism is the first draft of history, what happens when you lose the draft?

It would be nice if Reported.ly turned out to be about the third possibility for monetization: building something that isn't just a better HootSuite. A tool or platform that lets you publish on a home-base but effectively time-share with social networks. A CMS native to this generation of the web.

News is forming on Social media, so it makes sense to interact with and then write about it on Twitter, Reddit, Facebook and Medium. But to be completely homeless? To give up on any chance of dictating the format of your own work? For all the advantages it gives us as makers of content, it may rob us of something as makers of journalism.

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Reported.ly is an experiment, and I look forward to the result. I don't know if it should be the lead for everyone to become distributed journalism-only outlets though. It isn't a success yet and reporting from social media without having a place to report to may turn out to have more disadvantages then advantages for journalists.