The benefit of controlling distribution

Traditional print newspapers own their own circulation pipe.


“Disrupt” seems too benign a word to describe the effect of the internet on the news business. Of the synonyms offered up by Sisson, “shatter” would have my vote.

Say it out loud. Shatter. The word implies an exclamation point, sounds like breaking glass. Shatter. Shattered.

Well. We’re here to pick up the pieces.

Today’s post is about the benefit of owning one’s own distribution pipeline.

In the traditional newspaper model, the paper is distributed from the press to the subscriber by the newspaper’s carrier.

The traditional newspaper model distribution system

The actual distribution system is quite complex — think thousands of papers that must be hand delivered to thousands of homes every single day.

But, if one takes the two-mile-high view, the traditional print model is simple and direct. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. That’s the traditional model — and the newspaper owns the line. It can control what the paper looks like, when it arrives and the costs associated with the distribution system, and it can exploit its daily contact with readers by showering them with excellent customer service to keep them happy.

Alas. In an article in the Columbia Journalism Review, Emily Bell points out that this is no longer so.

“… Two significant things have already happened that we have not paid enough attention to:

“First, news publishers have lost control over distribution.

“Social media and platform companies took over what publishers couldn’t have built even if they wanted to. Now the news is filtered through algorithms and platforms which are opaque and unpredictable. …”Facebook is eating the world

The title of Bell’s article refers to Facebook, but to illustrate her point, we’ll use Google News, because we discussed it in an earlier post (see The new gatekeepers).

One version of the Internet distribution system

1-Google News crawler is sent to paper’s web server to search for news. 2-Crawler returns with news links for Google News search engine. 3-Reader clicks on browser bookmark for; fetch command sent to Google. 4-Google News server sends Google News home page (with search box). 5-Reader types in search term; fetch command sent back. 6-Google News algorithm spins, search results are sent back to reader. 7-Reader clicks on headline, sending fetch command to newspaper server for story. 8-Newspaper server sends story to reader’s computer.

All the pipes are owned by Internet Service Providers (ISPs). The Google News search algorithm is a series of computerized decisions that only Google controls. How the news appears when it’s delivered is subject to the browser settings on the reader’s equipment and on that equipment’s capabilities.

And that’s a vastly simplified version of what’s happening.

(At least, I think it’s what’s happening. If you know better, please comment.)

Author: TAM

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