I think what Martin Belam and his team are doing at The Mirror is really interesting. A small team of talented writers/developers/designers working with a significant amount of independence within a large media owner to experiment with disruptive formats, models and ways of working. Their Buzzfeed-style UsVsTh3m site has already gained 7m unique users in a short space of time, and they've just launched ampp3d, a social-sharing focused data journalism site.
The interesting thing about the set up is that (unlike most examples of media owner skunkworks), whilst parameters and targets have been set, the team seems to have an awful lot of freedom to work out what they do and how they get there. Martin wrote a post on his blog a while back telling the story behind UsVsTh3m. There's some interesting learnings around using other people's technology (both sites are based on Tumblr rather than proprietary Mirror content management systems), the value of recycling content and ideas, the differences in traffic generation between platforms, the downsides of design features like infinite scroll. I also particularly liked the blurring of lines between functions in the team. The publishing industry, says Martin, tends to silo people into editorial, pictures and graphics people, and technology people. Instead, they have a lean team of five where everybody to a greater or lesser extent can do words, pictures and code.
Rather than taking a traditional big media owner approach to a launch (lengthy business case building, big budget, lots of pre-launch research, lots of marketing), UsVsTh3m was deliberately set up like a startup. And what could be really interesting now is how the young upstart might influence a rethink of the editorial strategy of the mothership.
There's been some carping of-course about it's lack of revenue generation, but I think this misses the point. The success of Buzzfeed (which surpassed 130 million unique users in November) in growing traffic rapidly and primarily from social sharing has led to many imitators, notably Upworthy (which hit 88m unique users in November after just a year and a half). Upworthy may not be everybody's cup of tea, and there are real questions now around the potential effect of Facebook's change to it's algorithm, particularly as more than half of Upworthy traffic comes from Facebook. But Buzzfeed seems to have benefitted from Facebook's recent algorithmic shift in focus towards 'quality content', with BuzzFeed Video (apparently one of the biggest original content creators on YouTube) a real beneficiary.
Changes to third-party algorithms (check out this good Variety piece on the rise and fall of Demand Media which was punished by Google's algorithm changes), platform user experience, and operating system design (this piece on the impact of iOS7 on publishers) make the dangers of an over-reliance on one third-party source of traffic all too clear. The best option for publishers is therefore to develop improved levels of adaptability and agility, and to really understand how to take advantage of all the myriad individual approaches that are open to you. And it's only through relatively low cost experimentation that you're going to find that out.
Full disclosure: I have recently done a small amount of work with the Trinity Mirror Group board.