‘It doesn’t negate the negatives:’ Facebook’s Instant Articles update ignores revenue issues

Facebook has made updates to its software developer kit so that publishers can design articles that now work across Facebook Instant Articles, Google AMP and Apple News. The update came out of Facebook’s Journalism Project, where Facebook heard from publishers they found it challenging formatting stories to suit multiple platforms.

However, most major publisher’s concerns with Instant Articles have been about monetization and the control of data, rather than any overheads related to tech implementation.

“Most of the bigger publishers can absorb this pretty easily,” said Martin Ashplant, digital director at news publisher The Metro, adding that platforms like WordPress already have plugins for all three. Equally, publishers have been posting to these platforms for 18 months or more and so have already built out their capabilities.

Publishers have complained the money they make off visits to IA pages, for example, do not measure up to what they get on their own sites. Facebook, for its part, has introduced more ad formats into and has been testing units that allow publishers to drive subscriptions and email newsletter sign-ups through IA.

“It doesn’t negate the negatives,” said Simon Haynes, digital director at Northern & Shell, publisher of the Daily Star and Daily Express tabloid newspapers, which ceased publishing to Instant Articles six months ago due to lack of transparency around whether IA diluted natural Facebook referrals.

“It’s a reaction to what happened to Instant Articles,” added Haynes. “I don’t think Facebook is trying to woo publishers back, Facebook’s revenue won’t be impacted massively by the Guardian coming off Instant Articles. It’s good PR; there’s no tangible way in the way they are treating content. The question is why didn’t they do it in the first place?”

For smaller publishers who cover more specific topics, and who have more resource constraints, Facebook’s SDK update will be a welcome improvement. Smaller publishers may be more willing to accept the current value exchange with IA.

For Spanish news publisher El País, this is a huge leap forward. “It means that the big technological players in distributed content are collaborating with each other,” said managing editor David Alandete. “If they make these formats fully compatible across sites and apps, publishers will have an incentive to stay, since more distribution means more advertising share.”

One publishing executive, who wished to remain anonymous, said this was a clever political move on Facebook’s part. “It insulates Facebook against charges that it wants to build a monopolistic walled garden because its walled garden can now be linked to Apple’s and Google’s; but this new approach makes the most sense if you publish all your content into Facebook Instant Articles, not just a subset of it.”

According to Andrew Girdwood, head of media technology at agency Cello Signal, it doesn’t appear as if Facebook’s SDK update means that Facebook will act as a linchpin for publishing to AMP and Apple News, so publishers that post across all three platforms will be able to continue doing so if they then want to retreat from Facebook Instant Articles but not on the other platforms. Although, this depends on the terms that Facebook sets.

On the other hand, this is still a way for Facebook to own off-platform distribution. “[Any developer] would be daft to use anything else, so they will have the lion’s share of the market,” said Girdwood. If Google issues an AMP update next week, it’s up to Facebook how quickly it integrates it, if at all. “Facebook can control that throttle of quality and speed that they add functionality, but they have to get the balance right,” he said. “But they desperately don’t want Google to control it. There’s a lot of competition in mobile-friendly articles. This is round one of the battle.”

According to Facebook, there are around 9,000 publishers currently using Instant Articles.

“It is not Facebook’s job to fix publisher’s broken business models,” said the anonymous publishing exec. “The fact that anyone even contemplated it indicates the desperation with which ad-supported publishers will jump on new revenue opportunities.”


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