Something happened this past week that you almost certainty didn’t notice. Nine media organizations — the New York Times, BuzzFeed and National Geographic among them — began publishing their content directly into the Facebook news feed through a program called Instant Articles.
So what, you say? I already read most of my news on Facebook. Yes. True. But typically what you were doing was reading a blurb of news from, say, the New York Times, and then, if interested, you clicked on a Times link, which opened a browser that took you to the Times’s site. No longer. Now, that entire process — for select articles — will happen within the Internet walls of Facebook.
Here’s how the Times described it:
“Users of iPhones will see glossy cover videos and photos tagged with map coordinates. Most important for impatient smartphone users, the company says, the so-called instant articles will load up to 10 times faster than they normally would since readers stay on Facebook rather than follow a link to another site.”
That might seem like a small change to you, gentle reader. But, in the world of journalism, this shift is creating waves of nervousness about what it might mean for the future of media.
As CNN’s Brian Stelter noted in his piece on Instant Articles, the news organizations involved made sure to signal their hesitancy in their write-ups of the move. “Some of the news outlets are treading lightly, calling it an ‘experiment’ (the word chosen by the Times) and a ‘test” (The Guardian),” Stelter wrote.
The reason for that nervous excitement is this: The way that legacy media organizations have always gotten themselves to sleep at night is by remembering that Facebook (and other massive social media aggregators) still don’t produce content. So, as long as the social giants don’t get into the content business, legacy media is protected: We make content; they need content. Simple.
But now media organizations are giving their content directly to Facebook. This may make more sense for the BuzzFeeds of the world that do lots of journalism, yes, but also have a very active business producing sponsored content — the sort of “stories” that a company pays for to promote its brand.
Here’s how BuzzFeed explained why it made a deal with Facebook:
“In an ideal world, we would be indifferent to the platform where our audience views our content as long as (1) it’s a good experience for the user, (2) we get data and insights back, and (3) we’re able to build a great business.”
On points 1 and 2 above, I totally agree. The number of people who consume their news on a phone is rapidly increasing, and load times are more of an issue on phones than on desktops. So, this IS a good-experience move for the user. And there’s no question that the sheer volume of users that Facebook can provide a news organization is an analytic nerd’s (repetitive?) dream.
It’s on that third point that I — and I think lots of other people in the legacy-ish media business — have questions and concerns. How can this be good business? As in, how can allowing people to view your content natively in Facebook be a good thing for any site except Facebook?
The answer is this, again from the Times piece on Instant Articles: “The news publishers can either sell and embed advertisements in the articles, keeping all of the revenue, or allow Facebook to sell ads, with the social network getting 30 percent of the proceeds.”
Okay. But, the more right (or accurate) explanation might be contained in the BuzzFeed post:
“It is also important to us to be able to build and grow our native advertising business on Instant Articles. . . . From design to implementation, Facebook makes it easy for us to monetize Instant Articles and explain to our advertisers how their ads are distributed across our site and Facebook.”
So, right. That’s a fancy way of saying that BuzzFeed views the main advantage of putting its content directly into Facebook as making that content that much more appealing for its advertisers. That is, Facebook is a terrific launching pad for BuzzFeed content sponsored by some company to get eyeballs to it.
Which is great. For BuzzFeed and other media companies that traffic heavily in sponsored content. That list, as you might have noticed, does not include the New York Times or The Washington Post. And what does it mean if the long-term business model of Instant Articles for media companies is centered primarily around sponsored content?
THAT is the question that is very hard to answer right now. It’s possible that the revenue share via Facebook will produce enough to make Instant Articles a long-term business success for legacy media organizations.
But if it’s not, it may be hard to put the content genie back in the bottle. And then all bets are off.