2016 will be the year of the splinter site.
To continue pushing forward and shaping their future, media companies need to be constantly looking for new opportunities, new approaches and new platforms. It’s partly how we’ll crack new markets.
A splinter site is an editorially independent venture, a media product built to stand on its own and designed for a specific audience. They will start modest, and many will fail. Some may take on a life of their own, becoming sustainable in their own right, while others may be folded back into their parent. The splinter site is a way of increasing journalistic surface area. And despite the name, the word “site” is being used rather loosely here — a splinter site doesn’t necessarily mean it has to live on a website or be an entirely sectioned-off space. Some of these “splinter sites” will be entirely distributed or exist only in apps or social products.
News organizations will shift their focus away from trying to adapt the same content for different platforms. Instead, they’ll put their minds to creating entirely new editorial experiences — content designed for specific audiences, delivered through specific channels.
We’ve already seen a handful of media companies pursue this strategy to varying extents. The New York Times revealed a glossy new Cooking site and app. BuzzFeed expanded from entertainment and lifestyle coverage into serious journalism, longform and investigative reporting, and released its news app in July. We saw Vice launch Broadly, its female-centric channel, covering the multiplicity of women’s experiences through original reporting and documentary film.
We also see this splinter site approach in the portfolio of sites owned by Vox Media — Eater for food and restaurants, Racked for shopping and retail, Curbed for real estate, Vox for general news, Polygon for gaming, SB Nation for sports (which is itself a collection of individual blogs), The Verge for tech, culture and science, and Recode for tech. The Awl network, too, is a collection of sister sites — eponymous The Awl, Splitsider, The Billfold and The Hairpin — each with their own unique tone, audience and sensibility.
As readers and distribution mechanisms continue to get more and more fragmented, the less it makes sense to contort and reshape one editorial approach for different groups. We’ve seen the seeds of specificity in the launch of new verticals and channels spun off from existing media companies, but 2016 will be the year news organizations fully embrace this construct.
Splinter sites serve an underlying trend: Publishing is converging on specificity. So much of content online today has been roped into this rat race for growth, competition for mass media metrics like clicks, pageviews and shares. This has led us to a sterile, centralized web. By focusing on a particular, specific lens for content, journalists can create and deliver more meaningful stories. Journalism shouldn’t live or die by the number of eyeballs or the number of shares it attracts. Focusing myopically on scale and continuing to optimize for the largest possible audience compels us to the lowest common denominator of editorial quality.
But a splinter site is an opportunity to start from scratch. It frees a news organization from the weight and legacy of an existing name and gives you the opportunity to think outside your CMS.
When you’re working within an existing brand, there’s a set of associations and preconceived notions you sometimes have to work against when trying to develop new audiences. You can be set up to fail because you’re fighting a deep-rooted notion that your publication — say, my idea of what The Washington Post is as a thing — is not for me.
But what about sites that are built from the ground up for a specific type of reader? This invites a different type of relationship, one that’s more emotionally resonant and compelling, laying the groundwork for developing depth and habit with an audience. Consider BuzzFeed’s Cocoa Butter, a distributed project that “focuses on making fun stuff for and about brown folks.” Cocoa Butter exists in Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts and is a station within Facebook Notify.
Splinter sites are a means of identifying new opportunities and adjacent problems with the potential to impact journalism in a big way. They can help inform future efforts and give better clarity about entering new markets.
In 2015, we saw a continuation of testing, experimentation and iteration in developing novel approaches to journalism. But next year, we’ll see more bold moves — new, edgy, experimental splinter sites from news organizations that break the mold of our expectations and the status quo. They’ll help to chart territory that’s not just down the block from where we are as an industry today, but rather, will survey the broader landscape and see what’s up in an entirely new city.
Katie Zhu is a product manager and engineer at Medium. On Twitter: @ktzhu