Memo to media: A Facebook app is not innovation

There’s been a lot of attention paid recently to the new “social reading” apps that were launched by a number of publishers and content companies — including The Washington Post (s wpo) and The Guardian — at Facebook’s f8 developer conference. Some of that has focused on the “frictionless sharing” that these apps enable, where all of a reader’s activity from the app is shared through the social network, and we’ve pointed out the risks of putting so many eggs into a basket controlled by a large platform owner. But there’s another aspect of these launches that’s troubling, and that’s the pride so many publishers seem to take in having produced a Facebook app, as though it’s the pinnacle of media innovation.

Don’t get me wrong; obviously, creating a nice-looking Facebook app the way The Guardian has takes some skill, and I’m not demeaning that ability by any means. (I don’t like the look of the Washington Post or Wall Street Journal (s nws) apps as much, but that might just be a personal preference.) But how much time and effort could these kinds of apps possibly take? There are plenty of people who have created functional Facebook and iPhone (s aapl) apps in a weekend, and some pretty good-looking ones in a matter of weeks. Is something like that going to make a big difference to an entity as huge as the Washington Post or the Journal? That seems unlikely (I realize that most of these apps involved a lot of work and probably took much longer).

Creating a useful or even fun app that allows people to share your content is great, whether it’s a Facebook app or an iPhone app or an app that runs on Amazon’s new Kindle Fire tablet. (s amzn) And Washington Post publisher Graham is quite right that reaching out to readers wherever they are and trying to engage them around your content is a good idea. Experimentation is also a good idea, especially for newspapers — which aren’t typically known for that kind of thing. But if all you are doing is creating widgets for people who live inside a specific walled garden, then I think you are missing the boat.

Why play in someone else’s sandbox?

As I tried to argue in my previous post, doing this is no different from setting up a presence inside AOL (s aol) or CompuServe, or distributing those “multimedia” CD-ROMs that newspapers were so enthused about back in the late 1990s. Having a Facebook app does take advantage of the social-sharing activity that has become a bigger and bigger part of the media landscape over the past few years, thanks to Twitter and other tools, but in many ways it’s no different (and in some ways worse) than having a Twitter button or a Facebook “like” on your content — which has effectively become table stakes for media at this point.

So what does innovation consist of? For a start, it involves rethinking not just where your content lives, but how it’s created and what it consists of — in other words, taking apart your business to really look at what has changed thanks to the web and social media, and how you can adapt to that. No app is going to do that for you, and tinkering around in a “lab” probably isn’t going to do it either.

Some media outlets are trying to do this, and rethinking aspects of what media companies do: Forbes, for example, — has blurred the line between “professional journalists” and other content producers, including those who primarily do marketing or advertising-related content. In the new Forbes, posts from marketers show up alongside posts from staff writers for the magazines, just as blog posts by unpaid contributors at The Huffington Post appear alongside those from paid staff. Not everyone likes the gray area Forbes is living in, but you can’t say editor Lewis Dvorkin isn’t trying to rethink his business.

The Atlantic and some other publications, meanwhile, have been focusing on things that don’t even involve what most people would consider journalism — such as live events that are related to the content they are publishing. That’s helped turn the company’s fortunes around, just as similar real-world events have for other content companies like the non-profit Texas Tribune. And the Journal-Register, which I’ve written about before, is rethinking how its newspapers work from all kinds of different angles, including the launch of a “community newsroom” at one of its papers.

Why not think of your paper as a platform?

But The Guardian has taken by far the most dramatic steps of any newspaper in rethinking what its business consists of, with what the paper called its “open platform” project, which launched last year. Instead of spending all its time trying to put walls or sandbags around its content and control where it appeared, the Guardian released an open API that allowed outside developers to make use of its content — provided they agreed to either pay for the data, or form an advertising partnership with the paper. Instead of doing a deal just with one platform vendor like Facebook, they made it possible for anyone to become a partner.

More importantly, The Guardian‘s approach — along with other innovations like the crowdsourcing effort behind its feature on MP expenses in 2009 — was driven by a fundamental rewiring of the way it thought about its purpose and function as a newspaper. Editor Alan Rusbridger has talked about a “mutualised” newspaper, one that includes its readers as partners in discovering and reporting the news, and one that doesn’t think about itself in terms of what particular medium it uses to distribute that news. In other words, not a “news-paper” company at all, but just a news-distribution company.

The Financial Times (s pso) hasn’t done anything quite that radical, but it has broken its own ground by pinning its online future on a fully open HTML5 version of the site that works on virtually any device, because all it requires is a browser. That feels a lot more innovative than rolling out a Facebook app or an Amazon app so that readers who use one specific device can interact with your content inside some walled garden.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Sandy Honig and Jeremy Mates