Thursday, July 9, 2015

Facebook's Instant Articles : Am I right to be concerned?

If I were the publisher of a newspaper, I'd be thrilled by Facebook's new partnership with newspapers.  And I'd be scared to death of it too.

In May, Facebook and nine media outlets, The New York Times among them, announced a partnership, Instant Articles,  where Facebook would publish the paper's content in Facebook's news feed.  Ads served with the stories sold by the papers will generate revenue for the papers they do not have to share with Facebook.  Revenue for ads sold by Facebook will be shared with the papers, with the newspapers getting 70%.

Eventually, more newspapers will be included.  Maybe even your local paper.

I'm barely in the news business.  I majored in Journalism back in the mid-70's, irritated by many of my other J-School compatriots who were drawn in my Woodward and Bernstein.  My own interest pre-dated Watergate.

After graduating I soon found myself involved with personal computers, and rarely regretted not getting into the news business, but have always followed it closely.  In fact, an early media post on this blog brought me to the attention of the local paper, and lead to my now almost five year old Family Tech column.

Facebook will bring a vast audience to the news.  People spend a lot of time on Facebook, and the news will flow to them naturally as part of the news feed in their Facebook experience.  Otherwise they have to specifically go to a newspaper's (or other news outlet) site to read the news.  People go to Facebook more often.

Facebook also knows a great deal about us.  It's algorithm knows our interests and can be used to better target us with pertinent ads, and even news stories we'd find interesting.

And to repeat, the news outlets still receive the revenue from their own ads, and most of the revenue of ads sold by Facebook to go with their content.

The papers will benefit from this greatly.


But, the papers will benefit from this greatly.  Soon, it is possible most of their eyeballs will come from Facebook.

But, the papers will benefit more than Facebook.  For Facebook, it is just one more piece of content.  Content that came after they already had one and a half billion users.

For newspapers, it may become where most people see their content.

And that gives Facebook a lot of power.

Power to lower the percentage of revenue shared with news outlets when Facebook sells an ad to go with the content.  Power even to demand a cut of the revenue for ads the paper sells themselves.

I haven’t seen anything about Facebook giving the papers the data they have on users, or the data they will collect about what people are reading.  Even if they are offering the data initially, they could cut it off down the road.

What you see on Facebook’s news feed is determined by their own algorithm.  And how it weighs the posts you see is a mystery to all but Facebook, although they recently tried to give us a bit more control.  Will a news outlets stories be seen by all?  What if Facebook knows you have no interest in financial news, will it not show you information you need to know about your job, and your retirement income?  Facebook is not a news organization.  They want to show you what you are interested in, not what you need to know to be an informed individual.

So what happens if a news outlet decides Facebook is no longer a hospitable place for their content?  Will readers follow them back to their own websites, or just idly wonder why they are no longer on Facebook, as they continue to get news from outlets still on Facebook?

Publishers may find they have to go to Facebook if all their competition does, and find it hard to ever leave, no matter how bleak it could get there for them with so much out of the publisher’s control.

Jeff Jarvis, a professor and director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism, has argued on the TWIT Network’sThis Week in Google” podcast that these issues can be dealt with through negotiations now between the news outlets and Facebook.  Contracts though are not forever, and I wonder what the balance of power will be a few years down the road when they have to be renegotiated.d

Update: I've been sent this article that also came out today from MIT Technology Review.

Update 7/21: Medium published an alternative view.

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