Coverage: Publishers post directly to Facebook
Facebook is testing a new way for publishers to post their content directly to the social network. The theory is that it will take less time on mobile devices to load and users will see more robust content.
The New York Times had these details about the plan in a story by Vindu Goel and Ravi Somaiya:
Facebook’s long-rumored plan to directly host articles from news organizations will start on Wednesday, concluding months of delicate negotiations between the Internet giant and publishers that covet its huge audience but fear its growing power.
Nine media companies, including NBC News and The New York Times, have agreed to the deal, despite concerns that their participation could eventually undermine their own businesses.
The program will begin with a few articles but is expected to expand quickly. 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.
Gabriel Sherman wrote for New York magazine that the plans to directly publish to Facebook were making some in The New York Times newsroom uneasy:
Wednesday morning, in what marks a tectonic shift in the publishing industry, the New York Times is expected to officially begin a long-awaited partnership with Facebook to publish articles directly to the social media giant, a source with direct knowledge of the talks told me. According to people familiar with the negotiations, theTimes will begin publishing select articles directly into Facebook’s news feed. BuzzFeed, NBC News, and NatGeo are said to be also joining the rollout, among others. (Update: The Times confirms that Facebook will beginning directly hosting its articles on Wednesday.)
The deal raises all sorts of knotty questions for the Times. How many articles will Facebook get to publish per day? What is the revenue sharing breakdown? How does the Times protect the independence of its journalism, say, if the paper runs a hard-hitting investigation on Facebook? And what happens when the Times allows Facebook to insert itself between its journalism and its readers?
Not surprisingly, the prospect of a Facebook partnership is generating palpable anxiety inside the Times newsroom, with some Times journalists casting it as an end-of-the-Times-as-we-know-it inflection point. When rumors of a deal surfaced last October, the Times‘ late media columnist David Carr articulated this view, writing, “The wholesale transfer of content sends a cold, dark chill down the collective spine of publishers, both traditional and digital insurgents alike.”
Another source of anxiety: the secrecy around the deal. “It’s referred to as the ‘confidential project.’ No one will talk about it,” one senior Times executive told me.
Wired’s Julia Greenberg said the speed aspect of the offering would be critical to its success:
That speed matters a lot—and may have the biggest impact on mobile, where both Facebook and publishers are most eagerly seeking to stake out audiences and revenue. For many sites, readers now consume more news on their phones than on desktops. Facebook is clearly hoping faster loading and more seamless integration of content will keep you on its app for longer. With more stories as part of the stream, you, the reader, won’t be distracted by an outside article, or feel frustrated and leave.
With the long-awaited move, Facebook is reaching for a greater share of the global attention span than it already enjoys. But in the process, some publishers are hoping Facebook will help them, too. Monetizing your eyeballs on mobile can be tough for news. But Facebook has had huge success in recent years inprofiting from mobile advertising. Last year, the company brought in the largest share of mobile display ad revenue of all online companies—at $3.5 billion—beating out even Google. Instant Articles partners will be able to sell their own ads in their articles (and keep all the revenue), or get help from Facebook and give the company a cut.
After listing the benefits of the terms, Peter Kafka wrote for Re/code that there could be a downside to the deal Facebook is offering:
The biggest downside I can see is that the ad inventory Facebook is letting publishers sell may be some of the least valuable inventory Facebook has, since it isn’t giving publishers access to all of the interest and targeting data that Facebook uses when it sells its own ads.
So publishers will have to tell advertisers that the basic*** banner ad they’re selling is an interesting banner ad simply because it’s running on Facebook.
But that’s about it. The rest of the downside is about broad, nagging risk: The risk that Facebook will decide one day that it doesn’t like its terms, for whatever reason, and changes them in a way that undercuts whatever business publishers have built up around “Instant Articles” and Facebook in general. This seems quite likely, since Facebook does it all the time — at this point it’s almost considered standard operating procedure.
And dealing with Facebook is unnerving just because Facebook is already so big and important to publishers — for many sites it has surpassed Google as their chief referral source. Why give it even more power?
Facebook has insisted, publicly and privately, that it’s doing this because it wants users to have a better experience reading stories on mobile phones — not because it wants to own publishing. “We don’t want to try and devour, and, like, suck in the Internet,” Facebook product head Chris Cox told me in February, the first time the company disclosed publicly that it was in talks with publishers.
No matter the reasons, it’s yet another way Facebook is trying to become indispensible to users and those who have either left the site or never tried it. The strategy also takes some power away from content brands and those producing it. Brands are ceding control of their only product to a third party and that’s a slippery slope.