Death by a billion clicks?
Many have been sounding the death knell for print and television news since the worldwide embrace of the Internet. Legacy media have been losing eyes and bleeding red ink as more and more readers get their news online, whether it’s from their tablets and computers or, increasingly, their smartphones.
So why, one might ask, would such iconic outlets as NBC News, the New York Times, The Atlantic, and BBC, to name a few, turn their content over to Facebook to direct publish their stories. After all, letting readers take in stories on Facebook will cost the news outlets traffic and ad dollars at their own websites. It’s a good question, and the answer varies depending upon the outlet.
Starting today, Facebook will begin a test of publishing news articles on its site rather than linking to them on the websites of the news organizations. The initiative, called Instant Articles, is fraught with danger while at the same time providing the news outlets with a previously untapped and potentially lucrative source of revenue.
Both Facebook and the news organizations had tried to keep a lid on the deal because of the ongoing negotiations that required not only give-and-take but a build-up of trust – or at the least a suspension of distrust – that the new world order can be a boon for both.
The difference for the reader between reading a story on Facebook versus clicking on a link to the story is a matter of seconds, which in the online world to the current generation is, like, forever. Facebook has created an attractive platform that allows video to play instantly. But for many readers who get their news on their smartphones – and that now accounts for as many as 68 percent of users – the platform is optimized so that the stories and video load up instantly on their devices. It can be as much as 10 times faster to see the story directly on Facebook rather than waiting for a connection when clicking on a link.
The upside is way too obvious. Facebook has more than 1.4 billion members who use the site every month, with more than 930 million visits every day. The users hit all demographics and ages, but especially people under 35 who are increasingly shying away from the sources of news used by their parents and grandparents. Nearly half of millennials say they get their news on Facebook. Just a fraction of those Facebook users viewing a story from, say, The Guardian, dwarfs whatever the circulation is on the newspaper site and through street purchases together.
“The look and feel of this feels more like an app,” says Jonah Peretti, CEO of BuzzFeed, one of the nine outlets in the initial agreement. “I think that our bundle of content will get even more compelling when it loads faster.”
The downside, though, is just as apparent: reduced traffic for the news websites, coupled with the very real possibility of the playing field will tilt in favor of Facebook. Right now, the Times, for instance, is one of the few media outlets with a financial foothold online, with both a robust digital subscription base and a growing pot of online ad revenue.
Some purists are also concerned that Facebook may insert itself into the editorial decisions somewhere down the line. But Facebook officials say their role is simply to help keep the world informed.
“We’re starting with something that we think is going to work for some publishers for some articles and for some business models,” says Chris Cox, Facebook’s chief product officer. “We’re not trying to go, like, suck in and devour everything.”
But the action is also an acknowledgement that the social media giant is the new bigfoot in the world of media. “That’s where the audience is,” says Vivian Schiller, a former executive at NBC, the Times, and Twitter. “It’s too massive to ignore.”
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