Imagine a conference in a relatively remote location with an attendance of high-ranking digital journalists, engineers, media CEOs, and start-up entrepreneurs. A conference you’re not allowed to talk too much about, because it runs under the Chatham House rule (only a little looser than the Fight Club rules).

Imagine a conference where the dress code is not even business casual – where your suit definitely stays at home and sneakers are all over the place. Where the average age of attendees is way lower than at any conference you’ve been before.

Sessions are all day long, until 9.30 p.m. Then, suddenly everybody starts playing Werewolf, the infamous strategy group game loved by the tech-folks in Silicon Valley.

Plus, it’s invitation only. Tickets are not sold.

The truth: It’s not even a fully planned conference. The programme is agreed upon among the participants on the first evening of the weekend. (And, thankfully, there are no PowerPoint slides). One-hundred bright minds collectively organise the un-conference.

Crazy, you think? Well, not so much. It was one of my best-spent weekends on the future of news, ever. A gathering of slightly more than 100 bright minds, mostly from across Europe. Each of them could be keynote speaker at traditional conferences.

Google has done several #newsgeists in Phoenix, Arizona. That’s in the spirit of tech publisher O’Reilly’s legendary #newsfoo un-conference, which started it all. It’s officially paid for and organised by Google’s news team, led by Richard Gingras (yes, the Google news team also wants European publishers to become part of its digital news initiative).

Now, on my flight back from Helsinki drinking delicious Finnish blueberry juice (the national drink in Finland), I’m happy to share that the big discussion at #newsgeist was on Facebook Instant Articles, explained in my last post: 5 reasons publishers should think twice about Facebook’s tempting offer. As stated earlier, Chatham House rules allow me to talk about what was said, but not who said it.

Facebook and the devilish offer

Four out of the nine media companies that announced a Facebook Instant Articles partnership are European. Participants saw it as a clear sign that, after Google long ignored difficulties with news publishers, Facebook wanted to make friends in Europe. Participating media executives see it as an experiment, as a way to learn.

There was no discussion about the product quality. Everybody loved the look and feel, the loading speeds, and all other advantages Facebook Instant Articles offer for customers.

But there is a lot of controversy amongst news publishers in signing a deal with Facebook (also described in my previous post). Everybody knows the Facebook Instant Articles feature is a land grab, and it helps Facebook become “the Internet.”

The devilish offer is you keep all the money from ads sold by you, plus you get data. For some, that seemed too good to be true. Honestly, that sets new standards and makes Google think about how attractive its offers for publishers could/should be.

Jeff Jarvis: data crucial part of the deal

The ones that joined Facebook’s alliance tend to say it’s “a new way to reach audiences that would otherwise be hard to get” and that, in 2015, Facebook brought something to the table better than anything else ever offered before.

Of course, the mobile revolution and ad technology have advanced, and it’s possible to show content and ad formats on third-party-platforms (like Facebook). Is it a good thing to board another platform?

Jeff Jarvis, CUNY journalism professor and industry guru, was one of the participants. For Jarvis, Facebook’s offer can be perfect, if the publisher gets the audience data.

“If you are National Geographic, it’s crucial you know who the bee lovers are,” Jarvis said in reference to one of the first Instant Articles from National Geographic ever shown on Facebook. “You need to be able to use that data on your own platform to offer your offering for those audiences.” 

Jarvis has blogged about his proposal on how content and data could travel around the Web and about Google’s #newsgeist.

Need for money

“After listening to the discussion,” an unnamed participant said, “I feel like we are sitting on the Titanic discussing the beauty, design, and ethics of the lifeboats.” The growing need to monetise will drive publishers to third-party platforms, for sure.

However, when working with Facebook, publishers should beware: Their value is not only in an individual article, but selection and commentary around it.

One of the truths is, at this point, the news industry – especially when represented on mobile devices – is more dependent on Facebook than we all would like to be.

“They moved up the game from cocaine to crystal meth” is how one colleague put it.

It’s as simple as that: We’re addicted.