Why old-fashioned media syndication deals are making a comeback

This article was originally published by The Drum, on 3rd May 2019.

Syndication deals are making a comeback. The New York Times, i newspaper and the Financial Times are among those striking deals, and more are expected. The move comes as news publishers look to take advantage of the big platforms standing back from steering the user journey through content and brand.

Back in the nineties, my career started in newspaper syndication, so this feels like familiar ground to me. Our team licensed content from The Times, The Sun and other News International titles to various newspapers and magazines around the world. In return, we got money, and brand exposure to readers who we wouldn't otherwise reach with our own paper-and-ink products.

The internet, however, changed the meaning of the word "syndication". Some of the things we used to think of as "syndication" became standard operating procedures for the internet, where companies like Google would copy all the articles from our websites and use them, in parts, in search results. At the same time, companies like Facebook would generate little summaries of those results when people posted links. Nobody paid us any money when they used our content, and newspapers weren't sure what they thought of all that. Mostly, they decided that they would embrace it as part of the internet and try to make the most of it – traffic was highly valued, after all.

Fast forward to the present day and that ambivalence has sharpened a bit. Nobody thinks Facebook Instant Articles, for example, is an essential part of their product mix now. Meanwhile, Google, and its ad revenue, is no longer an unthreatening panacea or unquestioned arbiter of internet norms. However, publishers still want to reach new audiences, expose their brands to people they otherwise can't reach and - ideally - make more money.

So, we shouldn't be surprised by the resurgence of what looks like a distinctly old-fashioned, rational approach to syndication. This rush of interesting and innovative deals includes The New York Times licensing Amazon Studios to show its popular column Modern Life (more than 20 years ago I used to sell options to film companies for big features in our newspapers) and the i newspaper licensing material from The Economist and The Financial Times. We can only expect more deals to come, particularly as publishers increasingly need to think of creating products, not just making content.

The news industry is moving into a more rational era, where business models are expected to deliver real tangible business up-sides. In this era, brands will want to maximise the return they get from their investment into their high-quality content. Traffic is good but revenue is better.

Where they can find commercially attractive outcomes from partnerships with fellow media brands (including rivals), they'll start to forge them. They are being aided by the big platforms, which are playing a less hands-on role in determining what news users view and ads they see. Publishers will find that there's much more opportunity than mere syndication to be found. As the industry moves towards consumer payment as a primary business model, the mutual interest between news brands grows.

Just as no newspaper wanted to set up its own chain of high street shops, preferring to be stocked alongside rivals in newsagents, the ability to move customers (and their money) around between media brands as opposed to in and out of social networks and search engines, will become mutually beneficial for news brands and their users. Outcomes will be decided by consumer engagement, their delight driven by high quality products, and the reward for quality will be revenue.

What we’re seeing is exciting innovation, determined by the needs of consumers and creators, in the vanguard of the third, rational, era of the internet. Like many exciting changes, it’s not a radical reversal of the status quo, but a response to evolutionary pressure which will accelerate.

The first era of the internet was about experimentation. The second era, now drawing to close, turned out to be about exploitation. Our eyes are opening to what that means now the third era is upon us - it’s about what’s good for everyone.