Facebook's Instant Articles are here and they're not so bad after all... Right? Not so fast...
Over the last few weeks, members of the publishing world has been waiting in anticipation -- some fearfully so -- for Facebook's newest feature allowing news organizations to host content directly on the social network. Many observers worried that by giving up their own distribution channels and handing content directly over to Facebook, it made news organizations far too beholden to a company that has no loyalty to journalistic truth-telling and whose business model is even more supported by brands than the most commercially-compromised news outlets. With over a billion users, Facebook is the most massive mass media outlet of all time, and yet nobody expects it to maintain authority or ethics like a traditional media company -- in fact the company actively rejects these assumptions. Add in Mark Zuckerberg's Puritanical streak, plus the power his algorithms hold over what content users see, and you've got a huge platform with too many "morals" and not enough ethics that's on track to rival Google in terms of how people access news and information. No wonder journalistic purists are freaked out.
Today, the company finally unleashed this feature, which it's calling Instant Articles. So is journalism dead yet?
As far as I know, the bust of James Gordon Bennett in my old journalism professor's office is still standing, and so we're safe -- for now. Like many new features, Facebook is taking its time rolling it out. Only nine news outlets -- including the New York Times, Buzzfeed, National Geographic, and the BBC -- are among the launch partners. (One curious omission is VICE, which is usually among the first to partner with tech platforms like Snapchat and YouTube. Guess Facebook really isn't that cool anymore...) Judging by the blog post announcing Instant Articles, news outlets will retain a good deal of control over where their articles live and how they are monetized. Articles will exist on the Instant Articles page -- for now, these are only accessible on Facebook's iPhone app -- and it's up to each news outlet whether it hosts these articles on its own website, on its Facebook page, or both. Moreover, a Facebook spokesman tells Quartz that "no content is exclusive to Facebook," unlike the content shared through some of the partnerships struck between news organizations and other tech platforms, like Snapchat and YouTube.
As for data, Facebook claims that news organizations using Instant Articles will still be able to track traffic through comScore "and other analytics tools" -- as for which specific analytics tools will be at their disposal, that remains unclear, though it's possible that news outlets may be cut off from using more advanced proprietary tools like Chartbeat. (I reached out to Chartbeat -- which, full disclosure, is used by Pando to track site analytics -- and will update this post if I hear back).
And finally, the blog post states, "Publishers can sell ads in their articles and keep the revenue, or they can choose to use Facebook’s Audience Network to monetize unsold inventory." In other words, news organizations can monetize their articles just as they would off-Facebook, or they can piggy-back on Facebook's ad network.
The major selling point to publishers is that Instant Articles will load articles "ten times faster" than the average mobile experience, because the process is all done within Facebook's app using Facebook's server power. And to hear Facebook tell it, Instant Articles sounds like a major win for publishers. Many of their fears -- particularly surrounding access to analytic data and control over monetization on- and off-Facebook -- would seem to be assuaged by this announcement.
So should publishers take their finger off the panic button and skip winsomely into the sunset hand-in-hand with Facebook?
Not yet, and there's two major reasons why. First, even if Instant Articles "aren't that bad," it's a little disconcerting that, thanks to how Facebook's News Feed is set up, the company can essentially bully publishers into adopting this feature. Facebook's algorithm, despite what the company claims, holds a great deal of sway over what articles users see in News Feeds. And it's in the company's best interest to prioritize Instant Articles over every other type of article, thanks to a number of factors. Not only will Facebook retain more data surrounding these articles, it also stands to profit when news organizations choose to monetize these stories through Facebook's own ad network instead of their own. Moreover, keeping users in Facebook's app for as long as possible is always an important strategy for the company. If anyone criticizes the platform for placing more weight on Instant Articles versus non-Instant Articles, it can use the same argument it always makes when taken to task over prioritizing some news content over others -- that it's good for users. The argument won't be hard to make: After all, the articles do load "ten times faster." In other words, news organizations that have become reliant on Facebook traffic may have little choice but to share its articles directly on Facebook through this feature -- which also means sharing its reader data and potentially its ad revenue.
The second concern is that in its dealings with publishers Facebook has often been accused of "bait-and-switch" tactics. For many years, it was not uncommon for the platform to prioritize stories shared by news organizations in News Feeds. But as these news outlets became more and more reliant on traffic from Facebook, the platform has continued to make these stories a lower and lower priority for its algorithms, thus greatly limiting users' exposure to them. News organizations are then all-but required to purchase ad buys on Facebook to ensure users see their stories, thus creating a pay-to-play system wherein only the richest journalistic outlets -- who with their coffers lined with the spoils of brands may lack the bravery of smaller, scrappier news sites -- can reach audiences on what's becoming the biggest distribution channel in the world for news.
It's not out of the question that Facebook could pull a similar bait-and-switch related to its Instant Articles. Essentially, after acclimating both users and journalistic institutions to reading and publishing directly to Facebook, the company could tighten its controls around this feature, by either mandating that news organizations use Facebook's own ad network, by keeping some or all of the data hidden from news organizations, or even by exercising editorial control over what journalists can and can't publish to its platform. That last possibility may sound too extreme even for Facebook. But the beauty of Facebook is that it doesn't need to outright censor articles it doesn't like. It can simply deprioritize them into virtual oblivion with its mysterious algorithms, so that they almost never appear in users' News Feeds.
In its current form, Facebook's Instant Articles are a largely-innocuous way to allow publishers to load articles faster on mobile devices and to allow Facebook to keep users on its site for longer. But based on Facebook's history of promising the world to publishers, only to clamp down the vise once these news brands are fully reliant on the platform for traffic, journalistic institutions may want to exercise caution in striking these content distribution deals with Facebook. Then again, with 88 percent of millennials getting their news from Facebook, along with over half of web-using adults, publishers may have no choice.
[illustration by Brad Jonas]