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When publishers’ rights clash with the best user experience

What is most important? Publishers copyright or the best user experience for readers? A fight over the iPad app Zite poses an interesting dilemma.

I have for the  last few weeks fallen in love with Zite, a personalized news magazine for iPad. Zite promises to learn from my reading habits – and serves stories that should fit my special area of interest.

To be honest I have been amazed about the accuracy of Zite. I now use it every day to follow developments in digital media, my particular area of interest. And Zite really is able to serve up the most interesting stories to me, whatever source they may come from.

Add to this that the user experience is very elegant. Ads are stripped away and I am left with the core content: Text and photos. It even allows me to share the stories on Twitter or in other social media without leaving the application.

Within a few weeks Zite has become my most common way to catch up with developments within my area of interest.

But then arrive the publishers! Time, Washington Post, National Geographic and Associated Press are among media companies protesting against how Zite uses their content. Alltogether 10 major media companies require Zite to stop using their content immediately. With good reason, it seems.

Working in the media industry myself (I am editor in Media Norway Digital) as the same time as I love the user experience of the Zite app, I find the conflict intriguing. Apparently it is an example of the media industry’s formal rights clashing with what is the best solution for their readers.

Zite personalized news magazine

The front page of Zite personalized magazine

Let us look at the interests of the two parties:

The user experience

Zite lets users pick topical sections that are of interest to them and then serves relevant stories from all over the web. The stories are presented in a neatly designed magazine layout. Over time Zite will learn what the users find particularly interesting and serve more of these stories. Users are also encouraged to tell Zite whether they liked a particularly story or not – and whether they like more stories from a particular source, thus assisting how the app becomes even more personalized.

To kickstart the selection of stories a user can link her Twitter or Google Reader account with Zite, giving a great personalized experience from day one.

Zite is based on web crawling – and not just aggregating RSS feeds. As default stories are presented in “reading mode” and not as the web page where it originated. This means that ads and a lot of other visual noise is eliminated, making it better for in-depth reading.

For me as a reader it is a very nice user experience. I am presented with a good selection of fresh articles from different sources and in a way that makes them very comfortable to read. I don’t have to move back and forth between many web sites, but get all the content presented in the same, elegant user interface.

I simply love it!

A note: In response to the letters from the publishers, Zite now displays the content from these media companies in “web mode” instead of “reading mode”, thus displaying all the ads as they appear on the web sites. While the media companies may be happy, this makes the user experience significantly worse.

The default article view on the Zite personalized news magazine

The default article view on the Zite personalized news magazine

The publishers’ perspective

Publishers make money by either selling content to readers or by selling ads that are presented together with the content.

An app like Zite omits both those two possibilities to make money. The full content is presented to readers with ads stripped away – and the infringement on the publishers’ right is quite clear.

This is how the publishers describe their position in the letter to Zite:

By systematically reformatting, republishing and redistributing our original content on a mass commercial scale without our permission in your iPad application, Zite directly and adversely impacts our businesses. Your application takes the intelletual property of our companies, as well as the hard and sometimes dangerous work of tens of thousands of people. It depreives our websites of traffic and advertising revenue. We do not know your intentions, but your actions harm our companies and the broader media and news industry on which your application relies for its content.

For publishers it is extremely important to be in control of their own content and how it is being distributed. Most publishers depend on a model where they prefer users to come to their web site to read their content, either after having paid for it or to be the targets of commercial offers by way of ads.

Aggregation services like Googe News, Pulse, Flipboard and now Zite thus have been of great concern for many publishers, who think they should get a cut of the cake when other commercial players are making money on their content.

The dilemma: Publishers’ rights or the best user experience?

The conflict poses a real dilemma, as I see it:

  • First: Services like Zite and Flipboard offer real benefits and a great user experience to readers.
  • Second: Media companies are not able to offer the same user experience to the readers themselves
  • Third: There is no good business model in place for media companies to make money on third parties offering services like Zite and Flipboard.

A service like Zite does not only redistribute content from media companies, but adds new value for the readers in term of selecting content in a particularly useful way. This is a different process of selection that the traditional editorial packaging:

  • An editorial package will typically provide content only from one or very few sources. It will provide more or less the same package to all its readers.
  • A personalized and automatic service like Zite will pick content from numerous sources and the package will be fully personalized for each individual user.

We now see how the best automated services offer a quality in selection that in many situations fit users’ need better than what can be achieved with human editorial editing.

Editorial packaging is great when you want to follow the news from one particular source that you trust, for instance your local paper. But it often fails when you want to a follow a particular topic using a large number of sources. To use myself as an example: There is no practical way that I can visit 100 web sites or more a day to follow news about digital media. I need the content to be aggregated in some way or another, either through a service like Zite, through social filtering on Twitter, Linkedin or Facebook og by RSS aggregation services like Google Reader.

The dilemma is quite clear: Some of the best user experiences offer no way for the content providers to make money.

What should media companies do?

There seem to be two approaches the media industry can take. They are not outruling each other:

  • Protect your rights. Use legal means to stop unauthorized use of your content. Set up regulations, such as ACAP restricting distribution of content.
  • Build new and universal content models allowing revenue share for innovative companies like Zite, Flipboard and others that build great content services.

One thing I am quite sure about: A strategy that only is based on fighting readers’ option to have the best user experience possible will fail!

That means that media companies either must be able to provide the best user experience themselves or partner in some way with those that can do it.

There is an obvious user need for smart and reader-friendly aggregation of content from numerous sources. Stopping people’s access to these kind of services will therefore not work. It will just make people find the content in illegal ways.  Just look at how the music industry for a long time failed to provide efficient ways for users to download music easily in a legal way, paving the way for massive illegal downloading.

In my opinion it will be an illusion to think that the media industry itself will be able to provide the best user experience in all areas.

So we need to find ways to work together with innovative companies like Zite, providing models where publishers get paid and the innovators can develop new products quickly without having to negotiate thousands of copyright agreements ahead of launching.

How can this be done?

It is a hard question – and I don’t really have any good anwers myself.

However, I do recommend that you read this blog post from Damon Kiesow at Poynter.  He identifies three possible winning strategies for media companies:

  • Develop their own innovative apps
  • Collaborate with developers like Flipboard and Zite to display and monetize content
  • Implement robust application programming interfaces (APIs) that allow for controlled distribution of content for use on external sites and apps
His suggestion is to try moving in the direction of the third alternative.
Kiesow writes:

The road to getting there is bumpy and whether it is possible at all is still not clear. But at least we need to find ways that will allow other parties to innovate with our content.

To conclude: Whatever the media industry does, the best option is to contribute in making sure users have the best content experience possible! Because in the long run the best user experience will always win.

What do you think?

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About the author: Experienced media manager and journalist. Enthusiastic about digital media – and eager amateur photographer. Currently Chief Communications Officer at Schibsted Tech Polska in Krakow, Poland.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Erik

    I really enjoyed reading your article, very well observed and written! I see the conflict of interests but as a consumer I care mostly abt. the user experience. What I have trouble understanding is why the large publishers with all their intellectual power and heavy finances has´nt been able to make a top-notch user experience like Zite or Flipboard. They tend to make boring “pdf-like” traditional newspapers, with the traditional sections based on traditional reading patterns. I just don´t get it.

    • http://www.betatales.com John Einar Sandvand

      Actually I think it would be difficult for a single media company to come up with services like Zite and Flipboard. Why is that? Because the core of a product like Zite is aggregating content form thousands of different sources in a smart way, while the core of any media company is to provide the best user experience of their own content. In my opinion it would be smarter for media companies to follow a strategy that would make it easy for innovative companies like Zite to develop great products – provided that there is a business model that would also give a fair share of the income for the content providers.
      Regarding “pdf-like” newspapers in digital formats: Yes, your criticism is fair. Yet, this might still be a smart first step to take for many media companies. The cost is low and the product familiar for readers. But media companies need to move very quickly on to more sophisticated products that utilize the benefits of the new digital platforms.
      I do feel we see a lot of good examples here, though. In Norway, for instance, the largest newspaper Aftenposten (yes, I know I am biased working for the owner company!) launched week launched its native app for iPad, trying to make a new type of products. There are many more good examples out in the market. So it is not all black, I think!


  • http://www.rightssolutions.biz Katy

    I might be missing something, because I’m not familiar with Zite, but it seems obvious to me that Zite should have a licence agreement with the newspapers to re-use their articles in their app. That way the journalists too would get a bit of money from Zite’s customers reading their work. That’s what usually happens when (c) works are re-used.
    Katy Loffman, Digital Rights Consultant.

    • http://www.betatales.com John Einar Sandvand

      Yes, in principle I agree. But how would a startup company go about doing that? Even if a company like Zite wanted to do that, there is really no practical way to do it. They certainly cannot enter into negotiations with each single media company. Then we will never see innovative products like this. So I think the media industry somehow need to come up with a common and easy-to-use standard for how other companies can use our content. The big challenge is how to get there!

  • Softwater Tech

    Oh, I guess Apple will make an iZite store and the problem will be solved. No?

  • http://twitter.com/cliqchris Chris Crockett

    I guess I do not see the conflict. Like the presentation or not, Zite is stealing and repackaging others content. If someone moved into your market, bought your newspaper, cut out all the advertising and reprinted the stories on prettier paper would you have a problem with that? Hell yeah you would! Just because the copy is digital and easy to steal and repackage does not make it right.