Facebook’s Instant Articles: Repelling, rewarding, or required for media companies?


Things have been tricky enough for news publishers these past few years, what with declining print circulations, paywalls, and then this incessant shift in consumer behaviour toward accessing content on mobile devices, tablets, and now even smartwatches.

What works in a broadsheet print format, of course, doesn’t work so well on a mobile device. And when it comes to a watch, one of the new breed of “glance-able” devices, there’s barely room for a much-truncated headline.

Somehow, news publishers have just had to deal with it as best they can, doing their utmost to see the opportunity in the threat. All of that is challenging enough without the increased pressure traditional publishers face from the new kids on the block, not that Google and Facebook are all that new anymore.

The battles between newspaper publishers and Google are well documented.

Last year, Google closed its Google News service in Spain just before a new law came into force that would have required Google to pay Spanish newspapers for the right to display snippets of their content. Google’s argument was that the snippets it displays drive traffic to the publisher’s Web site, which in turn drives ad revenue.

A similar scenario was due to play out in Germany, where a law was brought in last summer that required Google to get permission to display other publishers’ content.

Events in Germany took an unexpected turn, however. After Google in effect called the publishers’ bluff by ceasing to post snippets from German newspapers once the law had come into effect, a consortium of more than 200 digital publishers announced they would allow Google to reproduce snippets from their publications as they were worried about how much traffic they would lose to their Web sites if they did otherwise.

Now that other Internet behemoth, Facebook, has entered the fray, with the launch of Instant Articles. This will give news organisations the chance to publish their content directly into Facebook’s iOS app, rather than requiring users to click on a link to the story, which would take them out of the app to the publisher’s own Web site.

Facebook representatives say one of the key benefits of the new service is speed. In a blog post, the company noted: “As more people get their news on mobile devices, we want to make the experience faster and richer on Facebook. People share a lot of articles on Facebook, particularly on our mobile app.

To date, however, these stories take an average of eight seconds to load, by far the slowest single content type on Facebook. Instant Articles makes the reading experience as much as 10 times faster than standard mobile Web articles.”

Publishers will also be able to take advantage of interactive content options such as embedded video, animated maps, and such. Publishers can even create bespoke content that will only appear on Instant Articles, not on their own sites, though it’s not clear why anyone would want to do that.

When it comes to ad revenue, the source publisher keeps 100% of the revenue from any ads they have sold. Revenue from any ads sold via the Facebook Audience Network alongside the content will be split 70/30 in the source publisher’s favour.

Now you might think that many publishers would be extremely nervous about a move that lets Facebook users see their content without having to leave Facebook and be driven to their own site. At launch, however, nine publishers – The Atlantic, BBC News, Bild, BuzzFeed, The Guardian, National Geographic, NBC News, The New York Times, and Spiegel Online – are on board.

They are either confident about the benefits that Instant Articles will bring them, or terrified about being left out. Though Facebook insists that it will not prioritise Instant Articles in the news feed, they will naturally rise to the top of a user’s news feed the more he or she clicks on them.

Facebook chief product officer Chris Cox strikes a reassuring tone when he says: “Fundamentally, this is a tool that enables publishers to provide a better experience for their readers on Facebook. Instant Articles lets them deliver fast, interactive articles while maintaining control of their content and business models.”

But perhaps the most telling comment in the blog post comes in the last line of a quote from Tony Danker, international director, Guardian News & Media: “It is great to see Facebook trialing new ways for quality journalism to flourish on mobile. The Guardian is keen to test how the new platform can provide an even more engaging experience for our readers.”

Danker then concludes: “It is then vital that, over time, Instant Articles delivers recurring benefit for publishers, whose continued investment in original content underpins its success.”

Like Google, it seems, Facebook is a publisher’s worst frenemy.


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