Facebook launches Instant Articles; why aren’t more publishers on board?

I wrote this article for The Media Briefing.  It can be seen on their website, fully linked to sources, here.  It was also run by Sparksheet here.  It combines original reporting and a lot of desk research.  I had the good fortune to be able to collaborate with The Media Briefing’s acting editor and lecturer in journalism, Damian Radcliffe on the piece.  It took some time as I originally intended to write an article about Jay Lauf’s ambitions to publish outside of his owned and operated qz.com website.  Halfway through writing the story Facebook launched Instant Articles and the piece, all of a sudden, became very topical.

……..

Last week Facebook launched Instant Articles, allowing nine major media players to publish directly to Facebook and the 1.4bn people using the social network.

Those taking first mover advantage are: The New York Times, The Guardian, BBC News, BuzzFeed, NBC, The Atlantic, National Geographic, Bild and Spiegel Online.

So why these nine and not more? Facebook reportedly courted twenty publishers as potential launch partners. If nine have bitten, the majority have not.

Some publishers, perhaps, are still deciding how Instant Articles best fits with strategies dependent on driving traffic to their owned and operated sites. That concern was summed up in a tweet by Fortune’s Matthew Ingram: ‘”We just want your news articles to load faster and look better on Facebook,” said the spider to the fly’.

Other publishers such as BuzzFeed, Quartz and Vox Media, already have strategies focused on platforms other than their owned and operated sites. BuzzFeed is a Facebook Instant partner and Re/code suggest the move “almost seems to have been built with BuzzFeed’s strategy in mind”.

Quartz and Vox, who have similar digital strategies, are not on board. The New York Times claimed that Quartz was approached by Facebook, and The Verge reported that their owners – Vox Media – had too.

If they were approached, but politely declined, then that will surprise anyone present at the Digital Media Strategies 2015 conference hosted by TheMediaBriefing in March. At the event both Marty Moe of Vox Media and Jay Lauf of Quartz were animated about the possibilities of publishing to other platforms.

Marty Moe revealed that “actually producing content that is native to… Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter and YouTube are increasingly becoming things we have a core competency in”.

Lauf linked such moves to the long-term health of your business:

“What if all this incredible content we’re creating, what if actually no one ever came to our own owned and operated sites to read it anymore? What if the only places they read and engaged with it was in all these satellite products being built around us… If you’re able to figure out a business model and ways of serving your readers in places other than your own owned and operated website you might have a chance of survival”.

Given this, it’s a surprise that Quartz and Vox Media are not yet involved in Facebook Instant; and that The Atlantic – part of the same media group as Quartz – is. In doing this, the older dog is first out of the digital traps.

Other publishers are also keen to join – they’re just waiting for their invitations. This includes Hearst, the Texas Tribune and, it seems, The Daily Mail.

“Obviously our brands will be in there, it’s just a matter of time,” said Troy Young, president of Hearst Magazines Digital Media. Digiday predict “Hearst’s flagship Cosmopolitan will likely take the lead, as it has with other digital forays”.

According to Columbia Journalism Review, Tim Griggs, the Texas Tribune’s publisher and chief operating officer, said in an email “Instant Articles is pretty damn interesting to us.”

However, it is perhaps most surprising that The Daily Mail – the world’s largest English language newspaper website – also seems to be waiting for an invite. Jon Steinberg, North America chief executive for DailyMail.com, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying: “We would love to be on Facebook if we are invited”. It’s a theme he warmed to in a TV interview on NBC.

If Steinberg has been left waiting, he’s a surprising absentee.

This desire to be involved is not surprising. Facebook Instant has obvious appeal. It helps publishers who have struggled to create app-like experiences and provides much needed mobile revenues. It is a good use of social media audiences, who don’t always linger long on news sites.

Instant Articles can be used as a shop window, acting as a classic piece of content marketing, advertising publishers’ owned and operated sites.

The NYT are interested in seeking new subscribers, just as National Geographic – another launch participant – aim to advertise for new members. Instants may be a way to bring potential new subscribers through to your site.

Publishers will also benefit from valuable audience data via various analytics tools, and ComScore will count their traffic so it can be additive to headline numbers.

Advertising Age also suggested that publishers could choose to use Facebook Instant to distribute content they have created for brands. This would be a way to avoid Facebook’s “volume and content controls for promotional posts” and a potential shot in the arm for publishers’ native advertising ambitions.

Of course, there are those who see Facebook Instant as bad for business and the thin end of a wedge. News Corp’s Raju Narisetti warned that publishers “will reap later what [they] freely sow now”.

But canny publishers can make small forays into Instant Articles to see what works for them.

Most current partners are starting with only a few articles, allowing them to see how it goes and any impact that it may have on their other communication channels.

Alongside this, they are only publishing content that is on their own site, although Facebook might apply the canonical meta tag, giving the Instant version supremacy in search.

Current partners can also use their own sales teams and take one hundred per cent of the revenues. Some will presumably trial Facebook’s offer of selling ads for Instant Articles too, which means the publisher takes seventy per cent of the revenue. This might ultimately mean more revenue for publishers, due to Facebook’s ability to target advertising very effectively.

Yes, Facebook can change the rules once publishers are more deeply involved but publishers do hold some negotiating power:

Facebook generates a lot of their traffic but not the majority.
They can also take their business elsewhere.
BuzzFeed’s CEO Jonah Peretti talks about handset manufactures, operating systems and app businesses all seeking content from proven providers.
Nonetheless, it seems inevitable that even publishers with reservations will come on board at some stage. As Jeff Jarvis writes: “What are we supposed to do: ignore the audience on Facebook, stomp our little feet, and take our balls and go home, expecting users to always follow us to our home pages?”

Alan Mutter, of the Reflections of a Newsosaur blog, sums up the dilemma by saying:

“It seems fair to conclude that the media companies who took the leap felt they were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t. In the end, however, this was an offer they couldn’t refuse.”

Others might feel the same when Facebook opens its doors to the next wave. We can expect The Daily Mail, Hearst and others to be in this group. But whether it also includes digital-first players like Quartz and Vox Media, who have freely talked about publishing to platforms outside their own sites, remains to be seen. What they decide to do might offer the best insight into the real opportunities afforded by Facebook Instant.

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