Facebook, “Instant Articles” and the Changing Face of Media

Yesterday, the Grey Lady finally opened her arms to Silicon Valley. In a landmark partnership, The New York Times announced it will publish content, including articles, photos and videos, directly to Facebook. Nine other media companies, including NBC News, Buzzfeed and National Geographic, are also part of the initial deal.

At its heart, this union offers a glance into how media companies will survive in an increasingly fragmented marketplace dominated by smartphones and waning attention spans. Forcing Facebook’s mobile users to open new webpages to read articles is clunky, inefficient and frustrating. On the other hand, so-called “instant articles,” hosted directly on the social network’s mobile app and by its servers, load quickly, present a sleek, responsive design that encourages users to stick around and, of course, feature ads that Facebook sells.

This partnership is the latest development in Facebook’s long, often uneasy history with publishers. The social network already drives pageviews (and ad dollars) to every major platform: Facebook accounts for up to 20 percent of traffic to news sites, according to the analytics company SimpleReach.

Yet that spigot can be quickly turned off without warning. In what some saw as a veiled threat to force publishers onto the platform, changes to Facebook’s algorithm resulted in a dramatic drop in news content’s reach last winter: the 100 most shared English language stories had only 10.2 million shares in February, compared with 16.4 million in January.

Other challenges await. Aside from the ethical quandaries (what happens if the Times publishes an expose about the social media giant?), outlets must decide whether a larger audience and a cut of ad revenue justify forking over control of customer relationships, data and the reading experience to an outside platform.

What is undeniably true is the line between publisher and platform is blurring – for whose benefit is still anyone’s guess.

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