Facebook came one step closer on Wednesday to changing the way we read the news.
After months of closed-door negotiations between the Internet giant and nine major media companies, Facebook will begin to host its new partners’ articles directly on its site through a page called Instant Articles. But while the plan has been upheld as an innovative way to attract Facebook’s 1.4 billion active users, even some of the media mammoths that signed up for the project have expressed uncertainty over how it will affect their businesses in the long-run.
“The New York Times has been cautious about the Facebook program, viewing it as an experiment that could help it learn more about subscribers and potential subscribers who are reading its articles on Facebook,” wrote Vindu Goel and Ravi Somaiya for The New York Times.
Along with the Times, American news outlets Buzzfeed, National Geographic, the Atlantic, and NBC News will participate in the instant articles project, as will European media companies the Guardian, BBC News, Bild, and Spiegel Online. Starting Wednesday, each of the nine partners will post articles to the Instant Articles page. Facebook users will still need to “like” the Instant Articles page in order to see the pieces uploaded.
The New York Times reported that Facebook had gone to unusual lengths to court the media outlets participating in the project.
The media outlets had expressed concerns that the project could negatively impact their existing advertising revenue streams. In response, Facebook offered outlets the choice of either independently selling and embedding advertisements in the articles or allowing Facebook to place the ads in exchange for 30 percent of the proceeds.
Concerns over whether media companies would lose control over visitor data also have been quelled. Facebook is allowing the news companies to collect data about their readers the same way they track users on their own sites.
Facebook executives have touted the plan as a sure-fire way to streamline user experience by allowing links to load more quickly.
“As more people get their news on mobile devices, we want to make the experience faster and richer on Facebook. People share a lot of articles on Facebook, particularly on our mobile app. To date, however, these stories take an average of eight seconds to load, by far the slowest single content type on Facebook. Instant Articles makes the reading experience as much as ten times faster than standard mobile web articles,” wrote Facebook product manager Michael Reckhow on their site.
Facebook also made new tools available for publishers to display their work, including interactive maps, videos that play automatically as users scroll through a story, and high-resolution photos that visitors can zoom into and view from any angle.
The company also agreed to a rule of no exclusivity, meaning that the media partners can post content on their own platforms and Facebook pages in addition to the Instant Articles page.
Critics of the plan expressed concern that the project could prioritize partner companies and prevent small publishers from reaching their audience via Facebook, which is an increasingly important news filter, especially for younger Millennials.
But some experts say they believe these fears are unfounded.
“Instant Articles won’t receive preferential treatment from Facebook’s News Feed sorting algorithm just because of their format. But if users click, like, comment, and share Instant Articles more often than others, they may show up higher and more frequently in feed like any piece of popular content,” explained Josh Constine for Tech Crunch.
Facebook also has the ability to determine which posts appear in a user’s news feed just by changing its algorithm, a fact that makes companies wary about building a long-term business model on traffic from the platform.
But experts say that Facebook’s role in news consumption has grown too large for media companies to disregard.
A study released by the Pew Research Center last year revealed that almost half of those surveyed said they accessed news about government and politics through Facebook. Meanwhile, Facebook also earns around a quarter (24 percent) of all display ad revenue and more than a third (37 percent) of mobile display, Pew's 2015 State of the News Media report demonstrated.
“Publishers have little choice but to cooperate with Facebook,” Vivian Schiller, a former executive at NBC, The New York Times, and Twitter who now advises media companies and brands, told The New York Times.
“That’s where the audience is. It’s too massive to ignore.”