Is Content Curation Killing the “New” Old Media?

Old media is dead. “New” old media is limping. But content curation in all forms is exploding. Here’s how B2C brands are winning the war.

Aaron Orendorff
February 11 2019

Until recently, creators and publishers were unified by a single in-house process: centralized distribution.

In the mainstream, whether an audience turned to Wired, Buzzfeed, BBC, CNN, Mashable, or The New York Times, the game was linear: create, publish, and distribute content through owner-controlled outlets.

The same was also true for B2C content marketers, whether publishers or product companies (i.e., eCommerce).

In fact, most expressions of so-called “new” media involved little more than taking “old” media online through (1) a branded website or app, (2) due diligence with SEO, then (3) hitting it with paid and organic sharing on social.

While the platform changed, the players, roles, and processes remained virtually identical.

That world has all but ended. And the disruptive cause is curation.

The Death of “New” Old Media

The death of old media has long been a foregone conclusion. Digital killed the print star. But now, even “new” old media appears to be on the chopping block.

True, digital e-publishing revenue in the U.S. is projected to tick upwards year-over-year — from $7.9 billion in 2018 to $8.9 billion in 2020 — but that increase pales in comparison to the $49.4 billion digital and print advertising generated for U.S. newspapers back in 2005.

Naturally, outliers exist: namely, The New York Times, whose renaissance has been driven by a model increasingly centered on digital subscriptions rather than ad dollars. Until recently, Buzzfeed was also an exception, having bolstered its publishing with entries into direct-to-consumer eCommerce. All that came crashing down in the last few weeks (along with news of major layoff at HuffPost, Vice, and Gannett).

Still, here’s the funny thing. Even with its rising readership, NYT is a perfect example of why “new” old media is floundering.

Two years ago, The Observer announced: “The Homepage is Officially Dead.” Its central piece of evidence was The New York Times’ dramatic revelation that its homepage had experienced a 50% decrease in traffic over the last few years.

The reason for this sharp decline was clear: internet users no longer visit traditional homepages to get the content they want. Instead, they arrive directly to specific pages through links, search engines, social media, and curation.

What was true then is even truer now.

A study from during July-August of 2018 found that 23.1% of online traffic to articles came from “editorial and recirculation” sources:

At first, the above data may seem to contradict this article’s ominous headline. After all, isn’t “editorial and recirculation” an owner-controlled outlet?

Yes … and no. “Editorial and recirculation” — as the footnote inside the visual reads — includes “homepages, section pages, and other editorial promotions.” More importantly, while editorial and recirculation was the second-largest source of traffic, it fairs far worse when you stack it up against the rest in total:

For brand discovery, owned websites now rank sixth in how consumers “find out about new brands, products, or services”:

And in eCommerce, Amazon and Google’s stranglehold on product discovery is nearly absolute:

The traditional answer for B2C product companies and B2C publishers alike is to face those stark numbers and heavily reinvest in one or both of the “new” old methods of acquisition:

  1. Search engine optimization
  2. Paid traffic via search or social

In other words, more of the same. This approach lay at the heart of Buzzfeed’s implosion, as Stratechery’s The BuzzFeed Lesson went to great lengths to point out:

“[T]he only way to build a thriving business in a space dominated by an Aggregator is to go around them, not to work with them. In the case of publishers, that means subscriptions, or finding ways to monetize, like the Ringer, beyond text. For web properties it means building destination sites that are not completely reliant on Google. For manufacturers it means building relationships with retailers other than Amazon and building brands that compel customers to go elsewhere.”

But, there’s also another way …

The Rise of Content Curation

Content curation is the process through which both people and brands find relevant content created by other people and brands and then distribute it themselves.

The phenomenon of direct end-user distribution isn’t new. Anyone who’s shared content — whether through Facebook, Twitter, or even email chains — is a curator.

What’s changed is that content curation has evolved from being an act of casual, organic sharing to a systematic engine that aims to not only provide value but also help companies do more with less.

Curation is big business.

The list of acquisitions and launches runs the gamut of B2C. Back in 2015, SimilarWeb acquired Swayy to help improve discovery and curation at a company whose main focus is reporting on market intelligence. Shortly thereafter, Snapchat created “Discovery” to better hold its audience, Periscope unveiled “Editors’ Pick,” Medium rose to digital dominance, and Instagram has been advancing both sharable and shoppable Collections at a rapid pace.

Image result for instagram shopping collections

Throughout 2018, Bytedance — a China-based enterprise — exploded with Toutiao (a content aggregator-meets-social-network akin to Facebook but with more advanced AI), Zhidian (its own eCommerce marketplace), and a heavily publicized venture into Western markets through TikTok. In every instance, Bytedance’s technological edge has been curation.

Curation is also affecting other forms of digital media: namely, videos, music, and goods. 5by, Findie, Digg TV, Reddit TV, Devour, Brain Pump, Screenings, and Hyper are examples of sites that focus on video curation. Spotify’s Stations and Apple’s acquisition of Shazam apply the same principles to curated music.

Sites like, Hacker News, and (of course) Reddit have become go-to resources in the tech, marketing, and B2C worlds. Product Hunt plays the same role for consumers, hosting everything from apps to Nike’s HyperAdapt 1.0 — the world’s first self-lacing sneaker.

In customer-facing eCommerce, curation takes place in six main forms:

  1. Earned media roundups — not press coverage, but product features and buying guides
  2. Paid or affiliate roundups — e.g., Buzzfeed Shopping, Business Insider’s “Insider Picks,” and NYT’s Wirecutter
  3. Community-led marketplaces like Kik, Houzz, Couture Lane, Stitch Fix, niche-boards on Pinterest, and increasingly Instagram
  4. Active participation in the non-marketplace communities listed above (e.g., Reddit, Product Hunt, etc.)
  5. Unpaid brand evangelism through loyalty programs that foster and incentivize social sharing and user-generated content
  6. And most of all, through owned content that features and provides commentary on other people offerings; tells stories about people, not products; takes a stand on social issues; and solves real problems independent of a purchase

Even email newsletters — once also proclaimed “dead” — have risen from the grave primarily in the form of curated content:

Where’s It Headed?

Content curation is intended to serve two main purposes: the economic role from a business perspective, and the value-adding role from an end-user perspective. “Powered by organic distribution,” explains David Perell, “‘Need Content’ publishers are armed with competitive advantages that cannot be bought on Facebook, Instagram, Google, or Amazon. Content and commerce are converging. Publishers who appeal to owned audiences will win the upcoming pivot to owned commerce.”

Regardless of your answer to questions like, “Should news be ‘upvoted’ the same way a product is or ‘shared’ just like a status?”, one thing is clear: curation’s disruptive force in everything from the press to marketing to music to eCommerce means it’s here to stay. Underutilized? Yes. Powerful? Absolutely.

Aaron Orendorff

Previous the Editor in Chief of Shopify Plus, Aaron Orendorff is now the founder of iconiContent, where he’s busy “saving the world from bad content.” He’s also a regular contributor at Mashable, Entrepreneur, Lifehacker, Fast Company, Business Insider, Content Marketing Institute, and more. Connect with him on Twitter or Facebook.

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