Dave Gehring: Local News Sites Can Become ‘Portals’ for Wider Web Sharing

Dave Gehring is a former Google employee who co-founded Relay Media and then sold it to Google in 2017. Now he’s Co-founder and CEO of Distributed Media Lab, which is “building the first frictionless open web distribution platform for quality content.” DML can embed a collection of stories on any local news website that is, in effect, a portal to the wider news web without taking readers off of that site. He talked with the Medill Local News initiative’s Mark Jacob about his work, and how he thinks it can improve the financial standing of local news. This is an edited transcript:

  • Mark Jacob

    Can you explain what Distributed Media Lab is?

    Mark Jacob
  • Dave Gehring

    Distributed Media Lab is a content marketplace powered by a new approach to content distribution on the web that leverages open web standards to scale more efficiently. We want local news websites to become local portals. As a portal, we want them to include the stuff that they’re able to do that’s unique to them, which is local news, but then we also want them to be able to offer to their readers access to content from around the web in a way that doesn’t send their users away from their website.

    Dave Gehring
  • Mark Jacob

    Where does this extra content come from?

    Mark Jacob
  • Dave Gehring

    Back in 2015, Google led the formation of an open-source project called the AMP project. One of the original ideas for the AMP framework for making web pages was to establish an open standard for content syndication on the web. So our platform uses any AMP page. Anything that’s been published as an AMP page can be curated into an available collection and placed on any website.

    Dave Gehring
  • Mark Jacob

    How many news stories on the web are on AMP pages now?

    Mark Jacob
  • Dave Gehring

    AMP is probably about 30% of all the world’s web pages.

    Dave Gehring
  • Mark Jacob

    So your platform builds collections out of these AMP pages?

    Mark Jacob
  • Dave Gehring

    It’s kind of like when you’re on Google mobile search and you see that carousel with search results. Google is actually creating that carousel with search results composed of content from, like, the New York Times or the Washington Post, the Atlantic. Every article in that carousel is an AMP page. So we built the ability for anyone to do the same thing that Google is doing and put a collection that looks like that on their web page.

    Dave Gehring

We didn’t want publishers to be our customers. We wanted publishers to be our partners. … We want advertisers to pay money. We want consumers to pay money.

Dave Gehring, Co-founder and CEO, Distributed Media Lab
  • Mark Jacob

    So it’s your business to sell those collections to local news websites?

    Mark Jacob
  • Dave Gehring

    No. We didn’t want publishers to be our customers. We wanted publishers to be our partners. Because the mission that we’re on is to establish a viable economic framework to support journalism on the open web. We want advertisers to pay money. We want consumers to pay money. But we didn’t want our platform to be an expense to the publisher.

    Dave Gehring
  • Mark Jacob

    Does that mean you offer it for free?

    Mark Jacob
  • Dave Gehring

    Yes. We’ve got two initiatives that are tangible manifestations of the platform. It’s really, really hard to tell people, “Come use this platform so you can curate collections from whatever content you want and put it on whatever web pages you want.” It’s kind of like when you’re in school and the teacher tells you to write a creative piece of work and gives you no direction at all, and you’re stuck and you have no idea what you’re supposed to write about. So what we did is we partnered with the Local Media Consortium and the Local Media Association and we’re using the platform to power two initiatives at this point with them. One is The Matchup, a sports initiative. You can grab collections about a bunch of sports teams and they’re all being curated by a group of students at Temple University that work with Aron Pilhofer. Aaron and I worked together at the Guardian after I left Google a few years ago.

    Dave Gehring
A frame grab from the Distributed Media Lab website shows how the Branded Content Project and The Matchup are designed to be presented on local news websites.
  • Mark Jacob

    So theoretically, if you’re a Bears fan in Chicago, you’d see content about other NFL teams that are rivals of the Bears?

    Mark Jacob
  • Dave Gehring

    Yes. And from local publishers around the country. Like, let’s say the Eagles were playing the Cowboys and you wanted to take an Inquirer article and render it on the Dallas Morning News.

    Dave Gehring
  • Mark Jacob

    You’re sharing local content across markets.

    Mark Jacob
  • Dave Gehring

    Exactly. They still have a lot of local publishers that have strong sportswriters, and that’s a way to leverage the strength of those sportswriters beyond their own market. The Matchup is now embedded on more than 85 sites, with more than 120 publishers. A local publisher who puts The Matchup on its site, soon we’ll be adding the ability for them to go and sell local grocery food chains to sponsor the collection on their site for Super Bowl Sunday or something like that. When the local publisher can embed it for free and then when they sell a content marketing campaign for a local advertiser that needs to run in the experience, then they work with our ad management platform to fulfill that ad campaign. They pay us an ad fee at that point. We’re doing this also with our second initiative, which is called the Branded Content Project, with the Local Media Association. That’s a marketplace that we power where we can go to find a bunch of different collections to embed on your site that you can sell sponsorships against to local advertisers.

    Dave Gehring
  • Mark Jacob

    When a local news website sells advertising related to a collection of articles from other markets, do those originating publishers share in the money?

    Mark Jacob
  • Dave Gehring

    The way it would work is, a local news website embeds a collection of NFL coverage. Whoever gets curated into that NFL coverage, when it’s their AMP page that gets included, that AMP page is basically their web page, so the ads that show up on that AMP page are the originating publishers’.

    Dave Gehring

We’re also working on a distributed version of a reader revenue model so that publishers can actually grow reader revenue outside the market.

Dave Gehring, Co-founder and CEO, Distributed Media Lab
  • Mark Jacob

    So it broadens the reach of the ads they’ve already sold.

    Mark Jacob
  • Dave Gehring

    Exactly. We’re also working on a distributed version of a reader revenue model so that publishers can actually grow reader revenue outside the market. We got a grant from an organization last year to build this into the platform. Can we have a distributed reader revenue model where, say I’m a local  paper and I embed a section on my site that’s composed of sports content from around the country and I upsell my subscribers $2 a month to access that sports section, because it’s premium content from third-party publishers. I keep a dollar of that for the effort and I put a dollar of it into a publisher pool that gets re-distributed to all the publishers that were curated into that experience based on the users’ engagement.

    Dave Gehring
  • Mark Jacob

    How do these embedded story collections deal with the originating news outlets’ paywalls? Is that a problem?

    Mark Jacob
  • Dave Gehring

    Before we launch our reader revenue model, those existing paywalls travel with the publisher, so however the publisher is managing the paywalls on their AMP pages, that’s the way it works in our distribution. So if the Philadelphia Inquirer has a hard paywall and we render the page to Dallas, that person in Dallas would probably get annoyed, and they aren’t going to pay for it. They aren’t going to subscribe. Right now, we’re trying to avoid as much as we can content that is behind a hard paywall because the user experience is so poor.

    Dave Gehring
  • Mark Jacob

    Sounds like you’re benefiting from meter systems where websites allow 3 or 5 free reads per month.

    Mark Jacob
  • Dave Gehring

    If the publisher has a meter with some number of free impressions to a user before they get the prompt, yes. Most publishers realize that the only way you get people to actually pay you a monthly subscription is to get them to fall in love with your content.

    Dave Gehring
  • Mark Jacob

    It seems like this system could help everyone in some way because it creates more exposure to content that’s created locally.

    Mark Jacob
  • Dave Gehring

    Exactly. The Matchup is composed entirely of member-publishers of the Local Media Consortium. Right now we’re not curating ESPN or Bleacher Report or anything like that. We’re only curating content from local publishers.

    Dave Gehring
  • Mark Jacob

    Is The Matchup composed of only local journalism while the Branded Content Project is composed of only branded content, or is there some mixture?

    Mark Jacob
  • Dave Gehring

    Depending on what local news outlets and their advertisers want, The Matchup and the Branded Content Project can include both local journalism and branded content. The broad goal of the Branded Content Project is to help local publishers develop their content marketing business. It’s a new approach to advertising for a lot of local publishers. What DML is doing is powering a marketplace where you can get a content collection that is designed to be easily sold against, so like “Active Aging” or “Women’s Wellness” or “Cannabis” or something like that where you can sell a sponsorship against this collection by embedding it on your site.

    Dave Gehring
  • Mark Jacob

    If there’s branded content in a story collection, is it clearly marked so it’s easily distinguishable from the journalism?

    Mark Jacob
  • Dave Gehring

    It’s pretty clearly labeled. When we’re rendering the curated content from other publishers, we’re rendering their AMP page, so we don’t touch their page at all. The stuff that is branded content is clearly labeled as branded content and very different looking.

    Dave Gehring

About the author

Mark Jacob

Editor

A former Metro Editor at the Chicago Tribune and Sunday Editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, Jacob is chronicling the Local News Initiative’s progress for the project’s website. He is the co-author of eight books on history and photography.

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