How Facebook Could Get More Control Over What You Read

Source: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Source: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Facebook’s control over the news you read may soon extend beyond the mysterious choices of the News Feed algorithm. The New York Times reports that Facebook has been in talks with at least a half dozen media companies about hosting their content inside Facebook, rather than making users tap a link to get to the content on an external site. The Times journalists Ravi Somaiya, Mike Isaac, and Vindu Goel, aptly characterize the plan as necessitating a significant “leap of faith for news organizations accustomed to keeping their readers within their own ecosystems, as well as accumulating valuable data on them.”

The social network, with its 1.4 billion users, is a vital source of traffic for publishers looking to reach a smartphone-centric audience. Facebook plans to begin testing the new format “in the next several months,” and its initial partners are expected to be The New York Times, BuzzFeed, and National Geographic. More may be added as discussions continue. In addition to assuaging publishers’ fears, Facebook is also reportedly sweetening the deal with discussion of ways that publishers could make money from advertising that would run alongside their content.

Facebook has said that it wants to make the experience of consuming content online more seamless. News articles on Facebook currently link to the publisher’s website, and, on average, take about eight seconds to open in a web browser. The social media giant thinks this is too much time, especially on a mobile device; when it comes to capturing and keeping readers’ attention, it thinks that even milliseconds matter. So in addition to hosting content directly on Facebook, the company is talking with publishers about other, likely incremental, ways to speed up the delivery of their articles.

Better for users and Facebook, but not for news organizations

It would provide a better browsing experience for users if they didn’t need to click on links and wait for slow external sites to load, but could instead catch up on the news without leaving their News Feed. Like Facebook, publishers want to improve user experiences, but they’re being cautious.

One cause for their caution is the question of revenue and how Facebook’s plan would affect it. The Times, for example, employs a subscription model that provides a growing portion of the company’s revenue. To get on board with Facebook’s plan, it would need to weigh the benefits of reaching Facebook’s users and getting the ad revenue that comes with them against the possibility of losing the clicks on its own site that would instead stay on Facebook.

Several employees of The Guardian have suggested to colleagues at other publications that publishers should negotiate deals that are beneficial for the entire industry, and should retain control over their advertising, whether or not their content is hosted on Facebook. The new plan would remove the usual ads that publishers place around their content, and revenue-sharing ideas are still in flux. One potential idea would enable publishers to show a single ad in a custom format within each Facebook article.

In addition to the potential loss of ad revenue, the proposal carries the risk of the loss of valuable consumer data. When readers click on an article, tracking tools enable the publisher to gather data on who they are, how often they visit, and what else they do on the web. That data could instead be gathered by Facebook, which targets and tracks consumers for advertisers, and it’s not clear how much of that data the company would be willing to share with publishers.

Where the content lives

Felix Salmon at Fusion writes that some companies, like BuzzFeed, whose chief executive Jonah Peretti says that “it increasingly doesn’t matter where our content lives,” would be willing to use the data from someone else’s platform to optimize the content for that platform. But The New York Times and BuzzFeed are in two very different businesses; the Times builds a loyal readership of news consumers, which it monetizes by charging subscription fees and selling ads. While native Facebook distribution fits well into the BuzzFeed business model, “it doesn’t fit nearly as well into the way that the NYT makes money.”

If Facebook pushes the plan beyond the experimental stage and makes content hosted on the social network commonplace, there could be another caveat in the way that the social network prioritizes content. Some media companies have seen a drop in traffic from Facebook, which could be attributed to the company’s prioritization of video, which is a much more lucrative medium for ad sales. Just as Facebook has changed the News Feed to automatically play videos hosted on the site — giving them an advantage over videos hosted on YouTube, for example — it could give priority to the articles hosted on the site.

News organizations who don’t participate in the program could lose substantial amounts of traffic. It could become apparent to readers that articles could load more slowly than their competitors’, which, over time, might lead readers to avoid their sites and get what they perceive as the same story elsewhere.

Optimizing the relationship with the gatekeeper

Many think that news organizations shouldn’t cede control of their brand, audience, and advertising revenue — or are at least be dubious about the long-term consequences of such a decision. NextDraft’s Dave Pell writes that news sites “should not trust Facebook to deliver the news anymore than Facebook should fear their ability to build a competing social network. Yes, Facebook has built a large and powerful network. But they do not know how to run the news business better than editors, journalists and publishers. And they don’t have the same goals.” Pell believes that news organizations need to figure out how to deliver content to their readers without relying on social networks “who do not know better about what’s best for the news business.”

Joshua Benton of Harvard’s Nieman Lab says that news of Facebook’s plan indicates that “the platformization of news has reached a new level,” noting that speed and seamlessness are hardly the driving factors behind Facebook’s plan. The social network controls a huge share of the traffic that many publishers get, and has assumed the role of “audience gatekeeper” for many. Benton characterizes Facebook’s program as an offer “to optimize that relationship,” or at least as an offer “not to screw it up.” Benton points out that Facebook isn’t just another platform that publishers should be comfortable putting their content on, but is dominant in a way that no other platform is, and notes of the difficult process that publishers must go through in weighing the tradeoffs:

Of course, in the long run, you want to control the customer and advertiser relationships. But today, in 2015, Facebook controls a large share of your audience and has user data you have no hope of matching. Is it worth the tradeoff to get extra Facebook dollars today in exchange for a little of your independence tomorrow? I suspect it might be, in the narrow short term, a net positive for some publishers, especially those with no hope of charging for their content. But it’s also the sort of decision that one might look back on in a few years as the moment you got swindled.

But Fusion’s Salmon explains that while Facebook “could kill the news brand,” the way we consume news is changing. He believes that as readers’ habits change, news organizations will need to make it as easy as possible to read and share their stories, even at the expense of control over exactly how their content is presented and delivered, factors which make their brand unique:

News has become disaggregated, and the thing that people share is not the newspaper, but the news story. Which can come from anywhere. A couple of decades ago, readers would read a story and remember which newspaper or magazine they read it in, while paying almost no attention to the byline. Today, readers read a story and while they might remember that they found it on Facebook, or Twitter, they pay almost no attention either to the byline or to the publication. The important thing is the information itself, rather than the place it came from.

If Facebook could increase the reach of The New York Times’ content, then that could make up for the fact that the Times’ new Facebook readers would care less about the source of the news than its subscribers do. But if hosting news stories directly on Facebook gives rise to a new generation of news organizations, or even individuals, who create news content exclusively for the social network, organizations with traditional newsrooms full of editors and fact-checkers could have an even more difficult time connecting with readers.

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