[Originally posted 13 May 2015 - keeping up with this issue via updates at the end of the post...]
If you have an iPhone and use the Facebook app, from today you will likely notice an occasional post in your news feed that marks a major development in the distribution and publication of journalism.
It is from "Instant Articles," and looks like this:
"Instant Articles" is Facebook's collaboration with nine major media organisations (The New York Times, BuzzFeed, National Geographic, The Atlantic, and NBC News in the US. Four European outlets are also joining: The Guardian, BBC News, Bild and Spiegel Online).
From FB's perspective, this collaboration offers their users more content and keeps them within the FB iOS app (Instant Articles is not yet available on Android, and won't be present in the mobile web version).
For the media partners, this collaboration gets them to where one of the biggest audiences is, by allowing them to publish direct into the FB stream (so not via links), preserving their brand and format, while receiving both advertising revenue and usage data in return. For example, when you click on the above post, you don't get directed elsewhere - the NYT article opens directly and quickly in the app, and looks like this:
This marks a major development in journalism because it is a collaboration between news and technology. The media companies have "the content" while the social media platforms have the best way to reach a large audience. Which is why NYT CEO Mark Thompson observed:
"We have an interest in broadening the reach of the New York Times, and going out and finding audiences in other environments...We want to fish for new users in the ponds where they are.”
Advocates of this alliance welcome its recognition we are in a new distributed world where media companies are no longer in control. As Jeff Jarvis writes:
“If news and technology can come to terms, we can begin to reinvent journalism in a distributed world with new business models. I’ve been suggesting that publishers consider starting new services — and new businesses — inside Facebook if the company will make that feasible. We in media can’t do it all by ourselves anymore. We are no longer monopolies in control of content and distribution from top to bottom. We now live in ecosystems where we must work with others. Get used to it. Find the opportunity in it.”
The recognition is important. Mobile and apps are the new, powerful gateways to news. But, as Ben Thompson writes, "it is Facebook — not iOS or Android — that is the most important mobile platform." Smartphone users spend the vast majority of their time (88%) using apps rather than mobile browsers, and a similar proportion of that time is spent with just five apps, of which Facebook is the largest single app by far (see here).
Partnering with FB involves considerable risks for media companies. As much as Facebook maintains their algorithms have little impact and users control the content of their News Feed (see the excellent critical analysis of that claim by Jay Rosen), it is clear FB is anything but a neutral machine impartially passing on the news. Moreover, those algorithms regularly change in ways that no one publicly knows, meaning while FB is not an editor in the classical sense, it is a powerful filter of news.
We've seen this filtering power with the decline of organic reach - "how many people you can reach for free on Facebook by posting to your Page" - a process that has been underway for a couple of years. This has meant anyone trying to promote things through getting likes for pages has been progressively less successful. This has been "catastrophic" for non-profit organisation who can no longer get to the vast majority of their FB fans (unless they pay to boost a post). FB is quite open about the high level of selection this involves:
"Rather than showing people all possible content, News Feed is designed to show each person on Facebook the content that’s most relevant to them. Of the 1,500+ stories a person might see whenever they log onto Facebook, News Feed displays approximately 300. To choose which stories to show, News Feed ranks each possible story (from more to less important) by looking at thousands of factors relative to each person."
In the words of Frederic Filloux, FB "is an unpredictable spigot, whose flow varies according to constantly changing and opaque criteria," and is thus not to be trusted.
Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, has spoken extensively on the new relationship between media and technology companies (see her 2014 Reuters Institute lecture and her 2015 Hugh Cudlipp lecture). Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review recently, she concluded:
“The traffic to your stories, the pathways to audiences and even the shape of your newsrooms are changed by this new balance of power [between the news business and the social media giants]. The obscurity of how these systems and algorithms works has not been lifted by agreements that might raise advertising revenues. The locus of power in delivery and distribution of news has shifted, irrevocably, towards commercial companies who have priorities that often compete with those of journalism.”
BuzzFeed is one of the nine companies participating in the launch of "Instant Articles," and it announced its participation in a fascinating post entitled: "Making Content For The Way People Consume Media Today: Becoming indifferent to platforms, but publishing as usual.”
BuzzFeed now thinks of itself as a “network-integrated media company." While they have their own channels, they use others at least as much. Their approach is to say,
“In an ideal world, we would be indifferent to the platform where our audience views our content as long as (1) it’s a good experience for the user, (2) we get data and insights back, and (3) we’re able to build a great business.”
Given that less than 5% of their video views happen on BuzzFeed.com, this indifference to the platform is much more than business jargon. (The Wall Street Journal's video is also distributed across multiple platforms, with half their video views via embeddable players on other platforms).
The idea of network-integrated approach makes great sense given the dynamics of the new media economy. Dealing somehow with FB makes great sense if you want to get to where one of the largest audiences is currently found. But long term success is going to depend on there being many and varied platforms so that no good producer is beholden to one distributor.
UPDATES 14 May 2014
Matthew Ingram, "Is Facebook a partner or a competitor for media companies? Yes," has a good first day overview.
John Herman, "Notes on the Surrender at Menlo Park," has interesting reflections on what it all means, including the conclusion that "Instant allows publishers to hand over nearly all of their mobile business to Facebook."
Herman also focuses on the type and format of story being showcased on the first day - very long, very fancily produced stories it turns out, with very few ads.
Will this continue?
One important issue is that while all commentary has focused on FB being a publisher of "news," such commentary has neither specified nor differentiated the category of what counts as news. The opening round of Instant Articles are features, and very "magazine-like," often with substantial multimedia elements. Given that in the first 24 hours and there are only five articles from five of the nine partners, we don't yet know how this will pan out. Will media partners have a larger and more varied feed as Instant Articles grows? Or is this mainly going to be a select publishing route for features?