When The Ringer, a sports and culture publication founded in June 2016 by former ESPN star Bill Simmons, jumped from Medium to Vox Media’s Chorus, it may have appeared to be just another case of a rising internet publishing company adding to its stable. That explanation does not tell the whole story, however, and for companies in the web hosting ecosystem, there is a more important aspect.
The Ringer isn’t simply another Vox Media property, according to the announcement. It is an advertising partner, and to be an advertising partner it must be hosted on the Chorus platform. Vox will sell advertising on The Ringer, and has established a revenue-sharing arrangement with the publication.
Media companies, pressured by intense competition and the rapid migration of eyeballs and advertising revenue from print to desktop browsers to mobile, are evolving, and some, like Vox Media and the Washington Post, are moving in on service areas typically reserved for web services companies like hosting providers.
Enter Jeff Bezos
Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos purchased the Washington Post in 2013, with the publication under major financial pressure. It has found a new source of revenue, however, licensing its SaaS platform Arc, which the company describes as a digital platform and suite of tools.
Arc is now used by the Globe and Mail, one of Canada’s largest newspapers, as well as New Zealand Media and Entertainment, which publishes more than 80 outlets including the New Zealand Herald. In March, it signed up Tronc (formerly known as Tribune Publishing), and began integrating the Los Angeles Times.
While a newspaper selling software to newspapers may not be that notable, Arc is designed with ambitions to serve a much wider range of digital publishers, and the software bakes in CMS, data, advertising, and many other tools, all running on AWS.
“Arc spans the range of technology needs for digital publishers, including video, mobile web and apps, syndication to distributed platforms, automatic content testing, data mining and innovative monetization tools. At its core, Arc is about speed: for readers, the newsroom, advertisers and developers,” according to its boilerplate.
Arc’s licensing fees are based entirely on traffic, storage, and professional services use, and unlike Chorus (at least for the moment), it is openly inviting websites to sign up.
Facebook, Amazon, Netflix…Chorus?
Vox Media calls its Chorus platform “the modern media stack.” It provides data insights and analytics, proprietary advertising products, and community engagement tools, as well as its CMS function. Vox CEO Jim Bankoff called it the company’s primary asset at a conference in 2014.
“If you think of the great platforms of our time: Facebook, which is a platform for self-expression. Or Amazon, which is a platform for e-commerce. Or Netflix, which is a platform for film entertainment. We aspire to be a platform for creating professional media brands at scale and also for brand advertising at scale,” Bankoff said.
As for infrastructure support, Vox Media job postings have sought “(f)amiliarity with Amazon Web Services/Google Cloud Platform,” and status report pages show AWS disruptions affecting its services, though Vox Media did not respond to an inquiry about the infrastructure used or supported by Chorus.
“Media is broken”
There are other publishing platforms pushing into the web hosting space as well. Niche publishing platform Maven was founded by online advertising veteran James Heckman in 2016. It provides programmatic advertising to its growing list of blogs and small publications, and may be most comparable to Medium.
One reason The Ringer left Medium, however, is that it made the decision in January to switch direction away from hosting and advertising towards a model paying flat fees for content and offering it up for a $5 subscription. “Media is broken. And we need to fix it…Let’s stop relying on ad buyers and social media echo chambers to determine what we put in our brains,” founder Ev Williams said, in explaining the decision.
Another example of an advertising-focused publishing platforms developed and licensed to other websites by a media company is Kinja. Gawker gave up on its attempts to license the platform in 2015, just under a year before legal issues dealt the company its final blow. Kinja still exists, however, having been picked up along with other Gawker assets at bankruptcy auction by Univision. Some websites have already been moved on to Kinja by Univision, and the company plans to move several more, including The Onion, to the platform later this year, Poynter reports.
As the CMS that still dominates the market, and generates healthy revenues for many web hosts, WordPress launched the JSON REST API last year to engage developers and keep the platform competitive.
Despite the challenges involved in turning a profit, new websites make up the largest category among the top 100 websites by traffic, according to Singapore web host Vodien. Whether platforms like Arc and Chorus will continue attracting news and other media publications depends on how successful they are at enabling those publications to make a profit.