This is the week when independent journalism finally died. Or so you would think, given the reaction to Facebook unveiling its “Instant Articles” tool, which will allow select publishers to host their content directly within the Facebook mobile app, thereby speeding up load times and reducing friction between the massive social network and the content its users link to. Not since Neville Chamberlain ceded Czechoslovakia to Germany have we seen such dire warnings of the consequences of appeasement.
From the moment the late David Carr reported that Facebook was courting publishers for in-app posting we’ve been inundated with proclamations of a Faustian bargain, one in which Facebook, already the dominant force in web traffic for news publishers, gains final control over distribution and then uses that leverage to squeeze publishers dry. By giving preferential treatment to its initial partners, it would quickly force all other publishers onto Facebook Instant, a scenario that would eventually allow it to control all content delivery on the web. Heeding these warnings, initial partners like the New York Times aggressively negotiated the terms to ensure they retain valuable user data and receive 100 percent of the revenue for ads they sell themselves and 70 percent for ads Facebook sells.
This has done little to assuage the doomsayers. Writing in The Awl, John Herrman predicted that “almost any arrangements, formal or informal, between Facebook and publishers could be declared invalid or irrelevant whenever Facebook chooses, especially if Facebook’s macro internet situation changes.” Contently declared that “This isn’t just a Trojan horse; this is a Trojan horse draped in gold chains and being ridden by Beyoncé.” A widely-distributed web comic depicts Mark Zuckerberg as a spider luring unsuspecting publications into his web.
Lost in all these hyperbolic predictions of the coming apocalypse is that there is absolutely nothing novel or new about a company handling the distribution and placement of content created by another company.
Let’s start with the pre-internet days. For more than a century, the New York Times and other newspapers have relied on newsstands, convenience stores, and other places of business in order to sell a sizable portion of each day’s newspapers. These papers have no say as to where their publications are displayed within, say, a 7/11, nor do they retain any data about who is actually walking into the 7/11 and purchasing the paper. Yet if the New York Times were to suddenly announce it was inking a detail to have its print papers distributed in CVS stores all across the country, nobody would accuse it of making a deal with the devil.
Or take newspaper syndication, which adopts basically the exact same structure offered by Facebook Instant. For decades newspapers have been syndicating columns and wire content from other sources, placing that content in their own publications. The content creators — whether it’s Dear Abby or the Associated Press — supply writing to these newspapers and magazines with the full knowledge that the newspapers will place the columns wherever they see fit, whether it’s the front page or the back of a subsection.
This isn’t a new concept for the web either. When I was an editor at US News & World Report, we regularly syndicated our content to Yahoo News. As far as I knew there was no actual revenue exchanged for this transaction; we received value by placing “related” links within the body of the articles with the hope that a small portion of Yahoo’s massive readership would click over into our other articles. When it comes to mobile, Flipboard and other apps like it have ongoing partnerships with hundreds of publications that allow them to repackage content in an aesthetic, easy-to-load format. Like Facebook Instant, these apps offer up revenue share on ads sold. Combined, they have hundreds of millions of users.
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In nearly all these cases, the publications syndicating out the content are ceding control to distributors and in return they receive almost no data on the users consuming their content, outside maybe raw traffic numbers. Why then are we holding Facebook to a double standard and treating it as anything other than a syndicator of content?
The only difference between Facebook Instant and the examples above is that Facebook has reached a scale never seen before, and there’s this ongoing worry that it will one day crush the open web and envelop the entire internet within its closed, tightly-regulated garden. It also doesn’t help that the Facebook newsfeed, by picking winners and losers, has instilled a high level of paranoia and distrust within in the news media.
But it’s worth remembering that Facebook, while remaining a very large component of the internet, by no means encompasses the entirety of our online lives, and there’s still a lot of media consumption that happens outside of it, whether it’s browsing articles on the open web, perusing through Flipboard, watching television, or reading a print book. I’ve argued before that social media editors have become too obsessed with Facebook reach and I’ve also praised BuzzFeed for how it has diversified its distribution so that it’s not too reliant on Facebook. Ultimately, I think that Facebook, while not completely benevolent, has genuine interest in serving up high quality content to its users, if only to ensure that they stay engaged and coming back to Facebook. Letting Facebook host some of your content will not be the end of independent journalism and it won’t prove the downfall of your company. That is, as long as you continue to provide true value to your readers by serving up what we all crave: good content.
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