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David Sleight on New-School Publishing

The Future is Unevenly Superdistributed

· Published in State of the Web, Workflow & ToolsNo Comments (yet)

Raise your hand if you’re looking at this in an RSS reader right now. Or an orbital content app like Readability, Instapaper, or Pocket. Or if you got here by clicking a link on Twitter or Facebook, or from a search engine listing, or any other means that didn’t involve typing “alistapart.com” directly into your browser’s address bar.

Congratulations, you’re part of the “superdistribution.” (You can put your hand down now.)

In Post-Industrial Journalism, a recent report from Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, co-authors C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell, and Clay Shirky use the term while setting out to diagnose the major challenges facing traditional newsrooms and publishers.

They note that digital content continues to find novel new ways to wander away from its various points of origin. Tools that give users ever more control over formatting, timeshifting, and sharing will continue to proliferate. This steady growth runs directly counter to the simple, one-to-many broadcast model enjoyed by many publishers in the past—one where it was relatively easy for them to control the venue and keep tabs on the conversations happening around their content.

The report’s authors note:

The old model, where most users visited a home page or used a mobile application tied to a single organization, will continue to lose ground to superdistribution, users forwarding relevant materials to one another. We already live in a world where the most widely circulated stories acquire audiences that dwarf the median headcount [of the original site]. Adapting to this increasingly unequal distribution will require that most organizations get better at working with their users to filter and pass on relevant material.

Put another way, digital content lives a life beyond the URL where it was born, one whose boundaries keep getting broader. For publishers still geared towards the far simpler distribution of the past—a model that requires content remain exclusively bound to its original context—this represents a problem. But those publishers need to take note of what’s going on here or risk missing out in a big way.

Consider that these users actually care enough about a particular piece of content to save, share, repost, or reformat it. These are the folks actually making use of content. Just as piracy can be an indicator of thwarted demand, this behavior is an indication of affinity. It’s telling publishers who their most motivated, digital-savvy readers are, and what they’re actually interested in. Rather than trying to hobble this behavior, site operators should be embracing it, reaching out to build partnerships and tools that bridge the gap between these services and their own offerings.

Last year Flipboard inked a deal with the New York Times that lets subscribers sign into Flipboard with their Times account and view the latter’s content in the former’s app. And Pocket recently added a feature to store login credentials for subscription-based sites right inside their apps. Both of these are good starts. As these bridges get built, publishers will get a far more complete picture of how users are really interacting with their content, especially off-site, which was completely opaque to them before. That knowledge will come in the form of data that can be used to guide the construction of better services and tools, ones that align revenue with actual user behavior in the broader world.

To many of us in the audience, this “superdistribution” is just content distribution as we already know it. But the authors of the Tow report were using the word to signal to publishers that something has changed, something publishers should be actively participating in if they are to gain the benefits (to say nothing of staving off decline). It’s time for publishers to start swimming with this tide instead of against it.

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