I sort of thought (or hoped, anyway) Univision would leave the Onion alone, but nope, they moved it over to the Kinja layout. I figured that’d happen after they moved over the A.V. Club a couple months ago, and yet it strikes me as such a questionable, and almost authoritarian decision. (And not just because Kinja is drab and was supposedly designed to foster better engagement but actually makes it, like, so much harder to read and keep track of comments than any other CMS I’ve ever seen.)
One of my big hobbyhorses is the innate value of diversity, and I don’t just mean in the demographic/social justice sense, although that matters too. Basically, there are smart reasons to limit homogenization. Homogenization makes a lot of things easier, sure. For instance, to use Kinja as a specific example, Univision owns around a dozen different websites with overlapping audiences now (the former Gawker Media sites and now the Onion’s sites) and obviously wants to cross-promote stories across all of them. Using the same content management system makes that easier. It makes it easier for editors to work on multiple sites. It makes it easier (and this is undoubtedly the big reason for getting the Onion sites onto Kinja) for the same ads to appear across multiple sites. And granted, it would indeed be kind of dumb to require different ad formats from a single advertiser who was a good fit for both the A.V. Club and Gizmodo. As a publisher, you want to sell them one package that puts them on as many sites as possible while asking them to do as little work as possible.
And yet. Homogenization also makes you vulnerable. There are some excellent explanations of this in James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State. He talks about how the earliest lumber farms — managed forests, essentially — were a huge success inasmuch as they made it easy for their owners to raise, cut down, and sell wood. The trees were planted in evenly spaced rows. The best soil could be selected to encourage growth. Other species of plant and animal were minimized. As a result, you had nice big trees that were easy to get to and cut down, and that produced lumber of relatively consistent quality.
But these forests were also more vulnerable to disease. If one tree got infected, there was little other vegetation to get in the way and stop the spread of the ailment. Soil quality also tended to decline over time — it turned out that fertile soil required all kinds of ingredients that sort of chaotically accreted over time: animal waste, a dense variety of microorganisms, and so forth. The upshot is, there were all these important inputs that humans not only couldn’t replicate artificially — we hadn’t even noticed them in the first place.
The parallels here aren’t exact, of course. But I wonder if the ad revenue and other benefits of homogenization are going to help or hurt Univision in the long run. The A.V. Club and the Onion each had a strong brand of their own that they’d built up over years; they had loyal audiences. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only reader who has stopped going to the A.V. Club several times a day since they made the switch. So there were already costs. Now what happens if some new development makes the Kinja platform less viable? Mightn’t there have been value in having a couple of popular websites that stood apart? This is pretty straightforward “It’s wise to diversify your portfolio” thinking, so I assume Univision gave it some thought. On the other hand, these days you will not go broke betting on media companies’ lack of foresight and analysis.