A Content Archipelago

Downtown Brooklyn skyline at nighttime

Last week the Pew Research Center published its annual State of the News Media report for 2012. It’s a broad piece of industry self-analysis that documents trends in the field over the preceding year. Pew’s findings focus specifically on journalism, but there are lessons aplenty for publishers and content builders of all stripes. And when it comes to digital and devices, this year’s edition does not fuss about:

Nearly a quarter of U.S. adults, 23%, now get news on at least two devices—a desktop/laptop computer and smartphone, a computer and a tablet, a tablet and a smartphone, or on all three.

And those numbers are growing. They go on to summarize:

All of these findings, which hint that mobile is adding to and expanding rather than replacing news behavior, are reinforced by other data we have seen that track online behavior."

Fancy that. Devices aren’t replacing the Web for content consumption, as some publishers have doggedly asserted, they’re adding to it. The Talking Points Memo headline announcing the report got it wrong. The future of news isn’t just “in your hand”. It’s in your hand, on your desktop, and materializing in myriad flickering transports we haven’t conceived of yet. And users are learning to snatch them all up at the same time.

Despite this, the study notes, “The top priority for many magazine executives in 2011 was building a tablet app.” That’s unfortunate. Throughout the report, Pew’s data reinforces the conclusion that focusing on a single device is heading down the wrong path. Tactics like isolating tablet customers with deliberately obtuse price tiers will cost you in the long run. The Great and Terrible Problem of the Web is not going away. The ever-fracturing multiplicity of devices is not going away. Print isn’t even going away (although it will be greatly reduced). For many publishers, a course correction is in order.

So Now What?

As I’ve been keen to assert, the future of media tends towards access. The ability to meet a user wherever they are with the content they want, on terms of their choosing. Techniques like Responsive Web Design have already helped developers evolve their mindsets. Related ideas, like Adaptive Content, can help writers, editors, and general managers do likewise. Content organizations should be experimenting with and adopting these techniques now. There are smart people working on this stuff. Go see their presentations. Read what they have to say. Hire them.

These approaches aren’t just ends in themselves, they’re transformative mental training wheels, teaching organizations to think content-out rather than canvas-in. And that’s the key to not only surviving, but thriving in a world where you have no idea what the next hot channel for your content will be. A world where a publisher puts out countless permutations of their content, small islands loosely connected—a content archipelago, not a field of closed silos.