Facebook just gave publishers almost what I was wishing for. It is enabling news companies to go to readers where they are (we used to call that home delivery), embedding their articles, photos, videos — and ads — in users’ streams of attention and keeping all the revenue they sell or a share of the ad revenue Facebook sells. They call it Instant Articles because it saves users the time of clicking on links and waiting for web pages to load. It’s a start, a good start.
I wish that Facebook would also work to share data about users at their option so news companies could serve those users with greater relevance and value and learn to build relationships with the public as individuals and communities rather than as a mass. Here, I suggest how that could happen. For now, Facebook is allowing publishers to track some usage data. One thing at a time.
In Facebook’s blog post announcing the deal, its chief product officer, Chris Cox, says: “Fundamentally, this is a tool that enables publishers to provide a better experience for their readers on Facebook. Instant Articles lets them deliver fast, interactive articles while maintaining control of their content and business models.”
The post continues: “Along with a faster experience, Instant Articles introduces a suite of interactive features that allow publishers to bring their stories to life in new ways. Zoom in and explore high-resolution photos by tilting your phone. Watch auto-play videos come alive as you scroll through stories. Explore interactive maps, listen to audio captions, and even like and comment on individual parts of an article in-line.”
I await much gnashing of teeth over the deal. Actually, I don’t have to wait. My Twitter feed was peppered yesterday with fretting over Facebook and news, for example:
— Mark Devlin (@sparkzilla) May 12, 2015
Sigh. 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? Last week, I had this discussion with my students, trying to get them to focus on the business terms of a negotiation with Facebook over embedded content. It was hard to get some of them past typical media emotions: not liking or trusting Facebook, worrying about rugs being pulled out in the future. These are deal points that can be negotiated. And at least Facebook wants to negotiate.
Indeed, at last, both Google and Facebook are ready to talk. Two weeks ago, Google signed a friendship pact with eight European publishers. Now Facebook has made its deal with nine — take that, Google! — publishers, not just in squeaky-wheel Europe but also in America: The New York Times, National Geographic, BuzzFeed, NBC, The Atlantic, The Guardian, BBC, Spiegel, and Bild. Note that the last one, Bild, is owned by Axel Springer, which has led the European war against Google, forcing it — and by extension, Facebook — to come to the table.
This is good news for news. At Facebook, the head of product — which is the center of power at a technology company — has made it clear that news matters to the company. Late last year, Facebook released new products for news media. Meanwhile, Google is promising to develop products with publishers and give grants for innovation and this weekend, it is holding its second Newsgeist summit in Europe (I will be there).
This is only a start. Further negotiation is needed to assure trust and more strategic benefit to news companies. And there is much serious discussion that must be held with these technology companies about their responsibility not to publishers but to society. For now these platforms are taking on the role of not only distributing but even editing the news the public sees. These are not easy questions with easy answers.
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.
LATER: On Facebook, appropriately, my friend Emily Bell asks five questions about the Facebook deal. OK, I’ll take the quiz:
1. How much revenue will this return to NYT vs its other distribution strategies?
First, given that Facebook allows publishers to place their own ads on their content and keep 100% of that revenue, then on an article-by-article basis, the revenue should be a wash. Except that if the paper recognizes a big bump in incremental circulation, then this is additional revenue. If the paper chooses to let Facebook sell the ad and take a revenue share, then I assume it does so because Facebook can get higher revenue and thus it’s a revenue increase.
But, of course, the value isn’t only in the direct ad sales. It is also in the potential to start a relationship with a new customer leading to other revenue: traffic to and ad revenue from visits to the publisher’s site and, in The Times’ case, subscriptions. This is more unknown. I recently spoke with a publisher who started putting videos on Facebook — no revenue yet — but found that they drastically increase the number of people who follow the publisher there, which, it’s hoped, leads to more business in the long run. We shall see.
All this is why I think it’s vital that we begin calculating the lifetime value of individual users and relationships, so we can calculate all this.
2. Who bears the publishing risk for the pieces FaceBook publishes?
That’s a different question in the U.S. than elsewhere. In the U.S., we are blessed with a First Amendment for digital, Section 230, which gives Facebook safe harbor.
Legalities aside, we know that Facebook does take responsibility for policing content, including that from publishers, according to its community standards [as if there could be one standard for one community in the world — but that’s another discussion]. At the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, there was much discussion of Facebook penalizing the respected Scandinavian paper Berlinkse for photos with nudity appropriate both to its journalism and its culture. This, of course, is disturbing: Facebook as editor; Facebook as censor. This is why, as I suggest above, it is urgent that we have a substantive discussion with and about Facebook — and Google and Twitter — in regard to their roles potentially as gatekeepers. That is why they need to have more sophisticated voices inside their organizations to grapple with these significant issues.
3. How will it change the NYT’s digital journalism given that richer interactive presentations won’t work in this format?
But then again, Facebook is providing new functions appropriate to its platform. We must learn to present news appropriate to platforms, use cases, and user contexts. Katie Couric doesn’t do a thirty-minute show on Snapchat Discover; she delivers what is appropriate there. Same goes for this. The Times and these other publishers should find ways to present news in new ways for new uses.
4. How much data does the NYT get access to from FB?
This is *the* key question. As I made clear above and in earlier posts, I believe we in news *must* get information about our users that enables us to serve them with greater relevance and value and thus to extract greater economic value in return. Now I have heard people from *many* technology companies say in response to this idea that publishers wouldn’t know what to do with that data if they had it. True, tragically true. But therein lies an opportunity for these technologists: teach us in media how to build and serve and extract value from relationships with known individuals; cure us of our mass-media ways … please.
5. How much further is FB likely to go in turning itself from a platform to a publisher? Will it hire editors, other journalists etc?
Facebook, Google, Twitter, et should not and should not want to become publishers, in my view. It creates tremendous channel conflict. It invites antitrust scrutiny. It limits the scope of the content they can present.
That said, I do think that these companies need to import editorial sensibilities — particularly about professional standards and ethics and the issues outlined above. So far, that hasn’t worked terribly well. I do not think that editors should be imported as news cops or consultants. I think they should be integrated into the process of product development, where relevant, to bring a better sense of both the opportunities and the responsibilities.
And while I’m involved in a seminar with my friend, the good Prof. Bell, let me add this from her on Twitter:
Main problem for publishers + FB remains theoretical: can you both be journalistic + be part of a commercial power structure?
— emily bell (@emilybell) May 13, 2015
My answer: Yes, or we are doomed.
Last weekend in the German magazine Focus, a guest commentator argued that publishers in Google’s friendship pact had made a Faustian deal with the devil. (I’d link to the article but I can’t because, like an riddle in an enigma, it’s trapped inside a paywall inside a PDF.) This professor is essentially urging journalists and publishers to become digital isolationists. I say that is both impossible and irresponsible. The means of production and distribution in media made a small oligopoly of rich and sometimes monopolistic owners sole proprietors of the entire chain of value, from reporting to presentation to production to distribution to sales. Well, my friends, those days are over. Over. Once again, we have no choice but to operate inside the new ecosystem of users’ choice and we have no choice but to find new ways to sustain our work. Somebody I know wrote a book about that.
ONE MORE THING: So Facebook’s Instant Articles are available only in iOS? Really, Facebook? Really? So what are the more than half of us using Android phones? Chopped liver? Shit. Here I defend the new product and I can’t even see it. Garg.