The Company That's Buying Up All the Key Pieces of the Online-News Ecosystem

By Robinson Meyer

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msmail/Flickr

In the past couple years, an ecology of sorts has come into being among online news sites. It's the blogosphere metastized, maybe, or merged with the money of traditional media.

A web writer, or a newspaper reporter, or a far-afield staff writer finishes a story and files it into their content management system. She tweets it from her personal Twitter; her publication tweets it too. It drops into the topmost spot of the homepage.

And then it begins. Other journalists fall upon it, read it, maybe like it. News consumers find it too. They post it to Twitter. If they're really gung-ho about it, they share it on Facebook, where it accretes likes and trickles down News Feeds. They email it to friends.

Meanwhile, probably somewhere in a coastal city, in the mothership, editors flit between the articles they're writing and the metrics for the whole site. Time to check how that story is doing. So they open Chartbeat, which shows in real-time, splashed across animated pastel dashboards, how many folks are looking at a web page now, or Bit.ly, which tells them how many people have clicked a certain link on Twitter, how that compares to an hour ago, what they're doing with the link after they click it.

And oh, how this hypothetical story is doing! Enough people on Twitter share it that it catches the algorithmic notice of an aggregator, like Digg. Other readers (on a lunch break?) see it there, but don't have time to get through it, so they save it to a Read Later service, like Pocket or Instapaper. Hours later, staring at a phone or a tablet, crammed onto a subway car or recumbent in a living room, they finish it, decide whether to tweet it or excerpt it to Tumblr. They sleep.

The nighttime algorithms awake. By the next morning, if that story was one of the top five links shared that day on their feed, they may receive (in my case, at least) a morning daily digest email from Digg or Twitter. Here's What Everyone Was Talking About Yesterday, it says. Here's What You May Have Missed.

In that open-plan office, meanwhile, those same urban coastal editors squint at the logs, trying to gauge how the story did overnight, what they could've done to make it do better, if they can still do anything to juice it in the morning flurry. And, from semi-cubicles up and down seaboards, they've already begun posting the day's new articles, some of them linking back to that piece from yesterday.

This is the cycle. From a CMS to Twitter to Facebook to aggregator to analytics to Twitter to email then back to the CMS -- and, the whole time, penetrating, delighting, merging with the minds of readers and writers. This is the life of newsy hypertext in 2013, the sequence we've built by accretion.

And -- as of last week -- a big chunk of it is now owned by one company. Last week, the New York-based Betaworks announced it had acquired the first read-it-later service, Instapaper, from its founder and developer, Marco Arment. According to his blog post, Arment concieved and executed the purchase in a day; fans of the service (I count myself one) celebrated (or at least tweeted celebratory things), for recently Arment's development of Instapaper seemed to have stalled.

But with Instapaper's acquisition, Betaworks stuck a hand in another part of the hypertext ecosystem. Think back to our hypothetical, article-beginning story.

  • Any link in any tweet from a news organization was probably shortened to something cute and custom -- and the market leader there is Bit.ly, owned by Betaworks.
  • Even before that, the publication might use a tool to figure out when it should post stories on Twitter -- a tool sold by a company like Social Flow, which is owned by Betaworks.
  • Littorally-proximate journalists will likely use a real-time analytics dashboard -- like Chartbeat, a Betaworks product.
  • The leading social news aggregator of the moment is Digg, which--yes--Betaworks purchased and remade last summer.

And when someone saves a story for later, they're likely to use the oldest product in that space, the product which has advertised on the Howard Stern Show and given itself away as Starbucks's free app of the week: Instapaper.

Indeed, the only part of the cycle where Betaworks doesn't now have a product is the reading stage, the Newsblurs and Flipboards of the world, where power consumers keep up with their blogs sans Twitter -- but Betaworks plans to debut an RSS reader after Google shutters its Reader this summer.

Which means that by this summer, almost every link in our textual, digital news chain will rely on or connect to a Betaworks product. That makes sense for a company based in the world's information capital, for a company whose investors include the New York Times.

And it probably makes sense for readers. Centralization brings simplicity and synergy. Digg has no ads right now; in the TechCrunch article about its acquisition, Instapaper's new bosses seemed particularly pleased by its profitability. For those of us who sometimes exlclaim, with bookfuturist James Bridle, "the Internet is the greatest work of literature I've ever read," Betaworks has become a terribly fun company to watch. (A fun company? In tech? Is it 2009?!) It seems to be a terrific home for Instapaper. May it stay stable enough, and solvent enough, to remain so.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/04/the-company-thats-buying-up-all-the-key-pieces-of-the-online-news-ecosystem/275357/