Facebook wants to be the Interent, ie, the only place you need to go online. To that end, The New York Times — and a few other news organizations — is getting ready to test Facebook as a delivery platform for its content.
There are many reasons why this is a bad idea in the long run, even if there might be some short-term profit to be made. Other digital skeletons suggest just how short-term that profit might be: AOL, the first walled garden designed to be an Internet gatekeeper; first Yahoo and then Google provided powerful on-ramps to Internet content.
- Who decides what photos (or stories) violate Facebook’s “community standards”? How gruesome is too gruesome? How objectionable is too objectionable?
- What happens to liability once a platform becomes a publisher?
- Who “owns” the reader?
- How will Facebook manage the download-and-re-upload-as-though-I’m-the-content-creator behavior that is pervasive on the platform — by media sites (often radio stations), verified accounts, and just plain normal folks?
- Do your lawyers understand the risks? Because they didn’t with a recent experiment with Facebook called social reader.
The Facebook platform
Facebook has a reported 1.4 billion users. However, it seems to be losing numbers in the key 13-18 year old audience (the age where habits can create deep digital ruts). (See what high school graduates do online daily).
And let’s not forget that most people use Facebook as a way to connect with friends, not where they seek out news. That said, it is important that all publishers make it easy to share their content. And Facebook needs to man up and treat non-native content fairly (ie, stop privileging your own video over YouTube, which encourages digital theft).
Here are a few good questions/observations from others:
Facebook’s new director of news content strategy: pic.twitter.com/wzeOaqK6FS
— Mathew Ingram (@mathewi) March 24, 2015
Don’t Take a Flying Leap
The most difficult part of the transition from old media to new is over. It was plenty bloody and their are still many open wounds to suture. But this is not the time to give up and it’s not the time to give in to one of the most prevalent myths of the era: that people who can build technology know how to run your business better than you do. (emphasis added)
Memo To Publishers: Watch Where You Put That Taproot…
John Battelle has several questions for publishers that focus on a key bit of information: reader data. But I really like this one:
Do you have any proof that publishers using another company’s proprietary platform have ever created a lasting and sustainable business?
6 questions raised by Facebook’s reported deal with publishers
Over at Poynter, Al Tompkins asks about impact on subscription models (right now, the WSJ, for example, provides access to N free articles from Facebook each-and-every day) as well as copyright. Among other things.
Facebook as a press baron
Or consider the following scenario: Facebook selects a couple news organizations and asks them to invest heavily in a native tool that gives news stories—news stories!—an unprecedentedly high-ranking in users’ feed. They do, and for a few months, they see increased traffic in the millions. And then, one day, Facebook’s engineering team realizes that this new tool is cutting engagement and winds it down.
That already happened! It was less than three years ago. In September 2011, Facebook announced at its big annual developer conference that some news organizations had made “social reader” apps, which highlighted their content in the News Feed. The Washington Post made the pilot version of these, and the paper reaped the rewards. Millions more users began seeing Post content.
And then this happened:
Daily Active Users of Washington Post’s Social Reader
On April 9, 2012, more than four million people were using the Post’s social reader app. Three days later, almost none were.
What happens when platforms turn into publishers
“The biggest problem for news sites is that so much of the traffic that comes from Facebook—they read one piece and go away,” says Tero Kuittinen, managing director of Frank N. Magid Associates, a consulting firm that regularly surveys social media. Kuittinen has been studying the mobile sector since 2008 and sees the disassociation from a host site as a bad omen for publishers. “It accelerates the existing trend where people only graze at the news. News organizations want people to stay on their site and click around.” (emphasis added)
But for publishers, where the content is the product, there’s more to lose by shifting from a home site to a social platform. In the case of Facebook, a shift in algorithm can already lead to a huge dip in traffic for a news outlet, and once Facebook starts hosting content it stands to exert even more control. What happens when the company renegotiates the breakdown of ad revenue, or promotes only content of a specific publication? (And how does all this affect outlets’ ability to report rigorously on Facebook without fearing retribution?)
NewsIndustry Shrugs, Prepares to Hand Entire Business Over to Facebook
It’s one thing to live in a country that has an obesity crisis but it’s another to assume the users of your product are so lazy that they can’t be made to “tap a link to go to an external site.” Welcome to… AOL!
But a richer, smarter, more powerful and more terrifying AOL. Setting aside the fundamental issue of allowing a separate, extremely powerful, and extremely rich company to publish, host, present, and package your theoretically independent journalism—and we’ll set it aside because all these poor desperate publishing companies will too, Gawker included, I’m sure—the problem with Facebook seemingly swallowing up news organizations like Ursula in the Little Mermaid is, duh, money.
News Sites Consider Moving Their Content Inside Facebook (Because That Worked So Well In The AOL Era)
[I]n 1994-1995, we got the World Wide Web and a remarkable piece of general-purpose software with which to access it: the browser…
We now face a digital landscape more like 1995 than like 2005, in many ways. Consumers are increasingly using mobile devices for their access, and that means coming to sites and services through a variety of limited-use, narrow-scope apps. One app for your local news channel. Another for the NYT. A third for Facebook. A fourth for sports information. And so on, to infinity. The appification of the internet has taken users — and content companies — back away from the browser and into a series of controlled and curated environments.
The digital strategies change, but the net effects and concerns for consumers are remarkably familiar. What happens if one company — in this instance, Facebook — becomes not just the de facto gatekeeper to the world’s news, but the literal one?
My Kingdom for a Platform:
The Opportunities and Threats of Publishing Direct to Facebook
For stereotypical local news, here’s an argument for Facebook as a platform:
[Justin] Auciello has been the editor and publisher of Jersey Shore Hurricane News since its launch in the fall of 2011. And for most of its life, JSHN has existed solely on Facebook… With more than 220,000 likes, JSHN boasts more likes than WNYC and ProPublica combined… On Facebook Auciello has pioneered what he calls a “two-way community driven news” where participants are all called contributors and he sees his role as much as an editor as a facilitator. One reporter described the site as combining “the crowdsourcing powers of social media with the journalistic screening of an editor.”