We take a look at news aggregators in the latest of a series exploring different ways to make journalism pay. Previous articles have looked at membership, philanthropy, crowdfunding and newsletter strategies for newsrooms and individual journalists.
Although news aggregation is one of the oldest services offered by the consumer internet, the decision on whether to join a news aggregator is not always straightforward for publishers. To what extent does the aggregator’s set up mean that the reader relationship is with the platform over the publisher? How much value do these extra eyeballs bring to a publisher’s bottom line? Will it entail a big technical investment to make the content work on a given platform?
The answers to these questions in large part depend on how each aggregator’s philosophy and business model dovetails with the publisher’s own goals. The large exposure provided by news aggregators from household names like Apple might work well for some, whereas aggregators that pay publishers to licence their content or drive traffic back to their site might appeal more to others.
Data insights provided to Press Gazette by publisher content analytics firm Chartbeat show that referrals from some aggregators is growing rapidly.
Analysis of page visit data for a subset of more than 3,400 publishers in the Chartbeat network shows that a number of mobile-first aggregators such as NewsBreak, Google News and SmartNews have seen relative growth in referral traffic since 2019 that outpaces traffic growth for the network as a whole.
"We've been watching these aggregators for four to five years around the time that things like Google News, SmartNews and UpDay started to become highly downloaded apps and we’re starting to see them grow in traffic," says Jill Nicholson, Chartbeat’s chief marketing officer.
In 2019, Chartbeat reported that referral traffic sent by mobile-first aggregators to publishers had doubled in two years.
This growth, says Nicholson, is catching the attention of publishers.
"One of the reasons we started looking at the aggregators was that social is stable and search is growing, but what does this new type of traffic mean for newsrooms and what types of strategies do they have to put in place?" she says.
Aggregators come up in their conversations with publishers of all sizes. "Publishers recognise if people are downloading this app it’s a way that people are finding information and they at least want to test out whether or not they can play on this," says Nicholson.
The 2019 Reuters Institute Digital News Report found that while over four in ten (43%) of people used social media as their news entry point, its popularity had fallen by six points. Use of aggregators meanwhile had grown over the year to 11%.
While older aggregators such as MSN and Yahoo! remain popular with desktop users, data shows that most aggregators are a mobile-driven phenomenon with services that provide customised, curated news experiences tapping into the way that people overwhelmingly consume news on their phones.
Are aggregators mostly a traffic play or can they bring more?
Nicholson says that while most of her conversations around aggregators have so far been driven by volume, publishers, particularly those that rely on reader revenue, are increasingly looking at the extent to which news aggregators can drive brand loyalty or move them down the path to subscription.
"Something we think about with not just aggregators, but all referrers is, 'what is the total lifetime value of that reader to your site?' If you’re going to get them once a month you're not going to make much ad revenue from them and if you have a subscription model, they're probably not going to subscribe," she says.
Although data for two of the biggest aggregators (Apple News and Google News) is not available, the available data suggests that aggregators can potentially support publishers in building relationships with readers.
Almost three in ten (27%) of page views referred by MSN, 23% from NewsNow and 20% from SmartNews are what Chartbeat calls page views from "loyal" visitors - i.e. readers who went back to the same publisher site at least every other day in a given month. This was significantly higher than the 16% of loyal visitors referred from external sources as a whole across Chartbeat's network.
SmartNews: we're 'trying to be good partners to publishers'
SmartNews, which launched a decade ago in Japan is one platform that says it’s designed to serve publishers better.
The free-to-use aggregator says it currently has upwards of 20 million monthly users and over 3,000 official publisher partners. The app is also popular in the US where it includes a "news from all sides" feature that presents multiple viewpoints on a story to help counter political polarisation.
"I've seen a lot of platforms come and go that were essentially using publisher content and publishers to get to wherever else they wanted to go and then moved on,” says Rich Jaroslovsky, SmartNews’ head of content. "We’re in this for the long haul and we are trying to be good partners to publishers and nurture the ecosystem of quality information…But if you undermine the quality information ecosystem you're essentially eating your own future."
Although SmartNews initially largely offered publishers referral traffic, in 2019 the company additionally launched SmartView First , a programme which pays (mostly larger) publishers licensing fees to host their content directly in the SmartNews platform. BBC News, BuzzFeed and the Los Angeles Times are among the outlets signed up. The idea is that audiences receive a smoother reading experience while publishers earn money from their content. Publisher participants are also allowed to sell display ads against their content and keep 100% of the revenue. According to Jaroslovsky around 80% of SmartNews’ page views in the US are through SmartView.
While some publishers have in the past criticised the app (one source told Digiday in 2019 that a feature in the original Japanese app that allowed users in low-bandwidth areas to read streamlined content stripped of ads amounted to a "shady business practice"), Jarosolvsky says that SmartNews prides itself on its publisher relationships.
"Our incentive structure is much more closely aligned with publishers than the big platforms, which really don't care how they get users’ attention as long as they get it," says Jaroslovsky.
Big tech and news
Although their relationships with publishers have been fraught, it's little surprise that big tech platforms dominate the news aggregation space when it comes to volume.
"From a referral perspective Google and Facebook clearly dominate...we're talking about a 10, sometimes 20 times magnitude," says Nicholson.
Yet while the bigger aggregators drive the eyeballs what they offer publishers in terms of their bottom line varies.
MSN which stopped creating original content in 2014 now focuses on licensing, curating, and promoting content from news publishers as well as sharing ad revenue. The company says it has shared over $1b with with more than 4,500 global publishing partners since 2014.
Yahoo also mixes licensing and revenue share. Among the UK publishers with which the platform has struck deals are The Telegraph, the Guardian, The Independent, the Evening Standard and Hearst UK .
Other tech giants have however, proved much more controversial.
Google's $1b News Showcase has been criticised by some as a way to placate publishers given the Silicon Valley giant's dominance of online advertising revenue. The secret Showcase deals reportedly deliver just a dribble of clicks to publishers as Press Gazette revealed in a September investigation.
Facebook News' flat licensing fee to publishers for the use of their content has also been regarded in some quarters as a way for the platform to win friends among the industry as it faces increased regulation.
And while Apple News accounts for 12% of all externally referred page views in Chartbeat’s network, a key reason that figure is not even higher (given that the app comes pre-installed on every iPhone) is Apple's preference to keep readers within its own platform.
Alice Pickthall of Enders Analysis says that the question of aggregators is important in the wider context of how publishers relate to big tech.
"Even though [aggregation] seems like a small portion of an entire revenue mix, those relationships are important because it helps dictate the way in which news will be consumed going forwards," she says. "It's the wider question of 'what's the relationship between tech and the publishers?’"
Pickthall, while supportive of aggregation innovation from within the industry, believes that the key news aggregation questions in the future will be driven by the 'big tech - publisher' relationship since aggregation needs eyeballs to work, she says.
"Do you make deals with the big platforms? Because that's probably where aggregators are heading for the future? Or do you just stick it out alone?" she says.
While traffic volumes for many aggregators are small (less than half of the 17 aggregators we looked with at Chartbeat had traffic that accounted for more than 0.1% of all traffic referred from external sources, search and social media), aggregation is an important part of most publishers' diversification strategies, says Nicholson.
Many publishers are she says, keen to experiment with multiple options given the hit to audience numbers when a large platform changes its algorithm or turns against news outlets as happened last year in Australia when Facebook temporarily banned news companies from the platform.
"Even if it's not necessarily going to be your dominant source, a lot of our partners have taken an experimental approach to aggregators. I think the industry learned a lot from just jumping all in on something," says Nicholson.
In a context of limited resources it is, however, critical for publishers to identify which aggregator is right for them.
"You have to be willing to say 'there is not an audience play for us on this aggregator'", she says. "So I think there is a healthy dose of scepticism, but obviously, it's still a meaningful way that people find information."