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Facebook rolls out its 'Instant Articles' publisher platform 

Update : 2015-05-14 11:05:18
Facebook rolls out its 'Instant Articles' publisher platform 

For a couple of years now, online publishers have enjoyed an influx of readers from Facebook. That traffic has helped boost upstarts like BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post, legacy outlets like Fox News and NBC News, and even helped fuel sites that have come out of nowhere to challenge them both.

The good times continued to roll, but something didn't seem quite right. Facebook was providing publishers with valuable eyeballs for essentially nothing. It stood to reason that at some point, Facebook would begin to insert itself into the equation.

Starting Wednesday, Facebook is doing just that — with its announcement of Instant Articles reports Mashable. Facebook has begun to host stories and other types of content from a series of publishers: the New York Times, BuzzFeed, National Geographic, NBC, The Atlantic, the Guardian, BBC News, Spiegel and Bild. Content that would have otherwise appeared on the websites of these companies will appear as part of Facebook's iPhone app instead.

The company believes native content will make the experience of reading articles on the platform faster, and is rolling out a suite of interactive features that publishers can use within their content. These include zoom and tilt functionality, auto-play videos, audio captions and the ability to like and comment on individual parts of an article.

Facebook has long claimed that this is in the best interest of readers. Many websites are receiving more than half or their visits from people on smartphones. Facebook says the average mobile experience isn't very good, and that they can do it better.

"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," wrote Facebook product manager Michael Reckhow in a blog post announcing the launch. "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."

The risk for publishers is that Facebook might live up to that promise. If they're right, it means that people who once visited a company's website will now not need to leave Facebook. Most media companies make money online from advertising that needs viewers. Publishers that embraced Facebook's offer would be putting themselves at risk of letting the social network have considerable sway over its business and theoretically even its content and reader data.

Facebook said in the blog post that publishers will be able to sell ads and keep the revenue, or choose to use its Audience Network to monetize unsold inventory. It will also allow publishers to track their own traffic using comScore or another tool. “Instant Articles lets them deliver fast, interactive articles while maintaining control of their content and business models," Facebook's Chief Product Officer Chris Cox said in the blog post.

The first inkling of an editorial product came about six months ago when David Carr first revealed in the Times that Facebook had been talking with publishers about putting content directly on to the social network in lieu of the usual way of doing things — posting links that would then take people to the publishers' websites. As Carr, who died this year, put it, Facebook in this situation "is a bit like that big dog galloping toward you in the park. More often than not, it’s hard to tell whether he wants to play with you or eat you."

Media publishers could conceivably just forgo Facebook's media platform (if it opens widely). But Facebook has an ace up its sleeve. It has already shown that putting content into its native applications can lead to an audience that makes its previous referrals look tame in comparison. Facebook's video player has already enticed many publishers (including Mashable) to put content directly into people's News Feeds. The results have been impressive.

The temptation of Facebook's traffic balanced against the risk of giving it too much control leaves media companies with something of a "damned if they do, damned if they don't" situation. In the short term, they're damned if they don't take advantage of Facebook's upside while other companies do. In the long term, they might be damned if they do.

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