Historically, all content was created for a bundle.

The bundle, as seen for magazines and newspapers, was designed keeping in mind, a dual-revenue stream, one, albeit larger from ads and the other from readers. In the case of newspapers, the bundle also presumed some degree of exclusivity of readership (read monopoly) and thereby the need to cater to a wide range of customers.

Thanks to the high profitability that these publishers saw, they were able to invest in, and commission content of extremely high quality. Witness long-form articles in an Esquire, Rolling Stone, GQ, Vanity Fair, or even in the newspapers in mid-tier U.S. cities, often out of place with the rest of content (photofeatures, fashion spreads, local news etc).

Curation was thus built into the very act of creation or commissioning. Such a high degree of filtering at the stage of creation, and the constraints of print (limited pages, and finite titles) meant that little was published, was typically always of high quality, and was well paid for. Most importantly it was still possible (for some one with a lot of time at hand) to read almost every single high quality story.

The internet has however changed things. It removed the constraints of space, it removed the formidable entry barriers that restricted the entry of newer media outlets and lastly, it eviscerated the bundle. This leads us to three very interesting and well-known problems.

Firstly, there is so much content out there, that you can’t read even 1/100th of high-quality long-form content Take science writing alone – I can readily think of 3 high-quality science-only content sites – Nautilus, Aeon and Quanta – I am sure there are more out there. The old ones such as Wired, Popular Science, Popular Mechanics and Scientific American are all there as well.

Secondly, I would hazard that you can’t even discover 1/10th of such content. Volume is also the enemy of discoverability, not just consumption. Thirdly, there is the challenge of compensation for the content – historically ad revenue indirectly paid for the content. Today the broken bundle means the subsidy has entirely disappeared, even as the brakes on creation of content has been lifted.

One way to address the first two problems – too much content, and not knowing which to read, is through investments in curation. You can do so by adding algorithms (and some human editors) to existing content streams to surface interesting stuff. Examples include Twitter’s Moments, Reddit’s Upvoted, NYT Now etc. A little further down the curve are platforms such as Medium and LinkedIn, which build in discovery as a central feature of their platforms and are able to surface relevant or interesting content more easily.

But what if you created a platform that was built, grounds up, to enable discovery of content? For this platform, discovery would be the primary problem to solve, unlike medium where it becomes the second problem to solve. The old way was to think about bringing in content first, and then ensuring discovery via tools or editors. In this rethought platform, you worried about discovery first, and then worked backwards to worry about how content to such a site should be structured. So how would such a discovery-led platform work? How would it look and feel?

It perhaps wouldn’t feature a text or document editor. The point is not to make it easier to write. Enough tools and sites exist for that. Instead such a site would primarily look to
(1) Categorize content well so as to help connect writing to the reader looking for that content. For that to happen, some work would have to go to build an interest graph for the reader, or perhaps use existing graphs such as twitter to understand what he is likely looking for. I am not even sure the site has to host the content itself. Instead it could aggregate links to sites such as Linkedin, Medium or even personal blogs. However what the site does is to encourage writers to submit these links with richer metadata and descriptors. And of course, there would be editors who manually add descriptors and categorize this content.

Tags, you say. Well, yes, tag by all means. But what I am referring to is more akin to the descriptors that we see assigned to songs in Pandora’s Music Genome Project. I am not sure we need to get to that detailed a level of taxonomy, but it would need to go beyond the kind of simplistic tags that exist now to categorize by such descriptors as places detailed in the article or type of analysis (startup postmortems).

Based on the above description, Nuzzel comes closest as a solution that exists today, but it is missing a few key requirements to being a platform. For one it doesnt allow any activity on creating content (or tags / metadata). It is essentially a filter on top of the interest graph generated by twitter and facebook.

(2) Put some kind of constraints on creating or adding posts. Posting new content would be limited to once a week or linked to some other condition such as read ‘x’ number of articles or follow ‘y’ number of people on the network. One concern with this is that this could impact growth of the network. Perhaps a solution would be to go easy on the rules initially to get a critical mass going, and then bring in some restrictions. Which is, in fact, the exact opposite of what Medium and LinkedIn have done. They restricted publishing to a smaller group to create buzz, and then let all and sundry do it.

There are other examples of constrained publishing. THIS is a recent and interesting experiment in curation by constraint. It is a twitter-clone with one big difference. It limits you to 1 post (sharing a link) a day. And there is Wikipedia, which is another interesting example of a platform that constrains creation. It is not easy to create new topics (especially of people) or even edit existing ones easily on wikipedia. The continuous policing of content creation by a strong community of editors, ironically making it much harder to post, has resulted in extremely high quality, trust-worthy content.

(3) Link discovery or distribution of content to contexts. It would push out content by leveraging the metadata or descriptors through data collected from third-party applications / using non-media APIs. I alluded to this in a previous post of mine. The idea is to link consumption of content to certain contexts – such as sending a story equal to the length of my uber ride, or say getting to read a story set in a city that I am visiting, using Uber and Google Maps APIs respectively. Identifying contexts is a matter of ingenuity – one can imagine a scenario where you send breaking news content to a person who is waking up, which is found out basis FitBit data.

Thus the platform would build in discovery into the platform via curation by categorizing, by constraint and by context. Such a discovery-first platform (vs a publishing-first platform such as Medium) is one way in which a new player can create space for themselves in the platform marketplace today.

I would also think that such a platform, where the chances of readers finding the content that they want to read is higher, is also more amenable to a subscription or pay-per-article model. Thus solving for the first two problems – too much content, and not knowing which to read eventually solves the problem of getting people to pay for it too.

Let us now get back to the bundle.

Accompanying the breakup of the bundle has been a parallel trend, that of more and more closed platforms emerging to enable content consumption – Facebook, Apple, Flipboard, Medium etc. As consumers primarily discover your content via these sites, and not the bundle (printed or online), we are really seeing a move towards atomization of content.

Let me give you an example. Historically, to consume a story by Esquire, say this outstanding piece on the MH370 hunters, you went to the magazine or the site, and thanks to that looked at content in and around the story. It was experienced as part of a mix of stories. Today you discover the story thanks to twitter or facebook and you read the story and close the link. In fact after a couple of days, you will remember the story but not where it was published.

What does it mean to be a publisher or bundle-owner in these times? As atomization becomes a reality, how does it impact publishers?

If Washington Post’s content is increasingly being consumed on Facebook, and typically in an atomized format, then it is unlikely that Washington Post will be able to extract any value for the bundle itself, i.e., the collection of stories and the way it has been curated by editorial. The whole was always greater than the sum of its part. That is no longer true now.

Still there will always be value for a distinctive editorial voice, e.g., a story that is so typically New Yorker or WSJ A-Hed. And overtime a kind of marker or brand may develop to signal to readers that it is worth reading. But it will not be a bundle (of varied items), but rather more of the same content.

How should publishers react to the atomized world?

One route is to move from full-stack players to no-stack startups (courtesy Andy Weismann). Can you be a publisher if all you do is source stories and focus on getting it read on other platforms such as Medium or Facebook? There is some precedent here with publishing brands such as I Fucking Love Science on Facebook and The Shade Room on Instagram. Still, these are both bundles of a kind, hosted on 3rd party sites. What I suggest instead is a media company that commissions stories across a multitude of topics and gets to play them across different sites (some ad-led, some paywall sites). There is no website where you can access the entire lot of stories (or there could be, but it wouldnt matter).

Think Random House but for articles. Just as it makes no sense to have a Random House bookstore, but instead focus on commissioning the most interesting books and striking deals with distributors (Amazon or Barnes & Noble), similarly with the rise of facebook, apple news and similar closed distribution platforms, the publisher of the future will gradually extinguish its distribution stack, reducing itself to be a content sourcer + curator.

Interestingly, it is really the platform now which has the power to bundle content in multiple ways. We can see that with Flipboard Magazines or even smaller platforms such as Next Issue. This bundling of content, which after all is really curation of a kind, is now moving downstream closer to the consumer, and it is also in many ways, created by the consumer. He or she is creating the bundle they want to consume.

This post was originally published as part of INMA’s Tech Trends Blog. I have updated it subsequently to include a paragraph on Nuzzel.