Facebook's instant articles arrive to speed up the News Feed

And publishers are bracing themselves for the impact

68

Facebook today is rolling out "instant articles," quick-loading stories from publishers including The New York Times and BuzzFeed that load on Facebook’s flagship app 10 times faster than before. The articles, which are hosted on Facebook’s servers, are well designed and create a genuinely better experience than the typical 8-second wait for an article to load on the mobile web.

But if the format proves successful, and Facebook maintains its dominance in distributing news online, publishers could become ever more dependent on a platform they can’t control. Those concerns may prove valid, but it hasn’t stopped big partners from signing up. Soon, many more publishers may feel that they don’t have a choice. Whatever happens, the arrival of instant articles marks a turning point in the evolution of the news.

Instant articles will be available from nine publishers starting at 10 a.m. ET: the Times, BuzzFeed, The Atlantic, National Geographic, NBC News, The Guardian, BBC News, and Germany’s Bild and Der Spiegel. For now, you’ll only be able to see them on the iOS version of Facebook’s app; an Android version is forthcoming. Many instant articles won’t look much different from the links you’re already seeing as you scroll through your feed. But Facebook has created tools to help them stand out, including video "covers" that autoplay as you scroll.

Once you tap, the article loads close to instantly — at least, it did for the handful stories I tested in a demonstration at Facebook’s headquarters. The app manages this using the same technology Facebook has used to get photos and videos to load quickly. It begins pre-loading the story as you approach it in your News Feed, and is able to show you the top of the story as soon as you tap. On the web, publishers typically lard their pages with dozens of modules for serving advertisements and analytics; one reason instant articles load faster is because they strip most of those out.

Those who expected instant articles to be stripped-down dumps of text may be surprised at the extra features Facebook has built here. Publications get their logo on top of every story, along with a "follow" button that you can click to subscribe to their Facebook page and get more stories. Publishers can also opt to include authors’ and photographers’ Facebook photos at the top of the story; clicking takes you to their profiles and lets you to subscribe to their public posts. The body of the story can contain photos, image galleries, and videos, and publishers can use a web view to embed objects like tweets and interactive graphics.

It's a new publishing format

Facebook also built a handful of special interactions for instant articles, and is working on more. Photos can have audio captions, allowing a kind of internal narration for stories. Photos can also be geo-tagged; tapping the name of the location opens an interactive map. And you can like and comment on individual photos within stories, which gives them a higher chance of spreading throughout your social network. (Every thumbs-up and comment creates the possibility that a story will be created about it in your friends’ News Feeds.)

The result is something more than a new user experience for opening the links you find on Facebook: it’s a new publishing format. And it’s one that publishers are going to take very seriously. "This is a very exciting experiment," says Declan Moore, chief media officer for National Geographic, which has 35 million followers on Facebook. He acknowledged having some concerns about how Facebook’s role as a distributor of news would evolve. But ultimately, he said, it was in the organization’s interest to work with Facebook.

Facebook instant articles

A growing influence

Facebook’s ambitions as a distributor of news have grown slowly but steadily. It has been enormously successful: nearly one-third of Americans regularly get news from the app, according to the Pew Research Center. Along the way, it has become a primary channel of distribution for the media, creating huge new audiences for new media companies while launching the most successful of them to multi-billion-dollar valuations.

Most people surveyed by Pew say they don’t seek out news on Facebook, but they see so much of it there for a reason: it makes them use Facebook more. The more we clicked links to articles on Facebook, the more of them that Facebook showed us. From Facebook’s perspective, though, there’s a significant problem with this arrangement. One is that links take an average of 8 seconds to load in a mobile browser after someone clicks a link — an eternity, by software standards. "Speed is the most important feature for any mobile software," said Chris Cox, Facebook’s chief product officer. "Photos, text, video. We keep learning the lesson that if it’s not delivered instantly, you’re losing a bunch of the goodness that could have happened."

The point of instant articles, then, is to retain the … goodness. By eliminating the lag between tapping and reading, Facebook expects people will spend more time in the News Feed reading articles. While it hasn’t done a formal test of user behavior yet, Cox says, early results from employees’ usage of instant articles has been encouraging.

Work on the format began in earnest about six months ago, and was led by the team behind Paper, Facebook’s effort to reimagine the service as a mobile app geared toward news consumption. Paper’s reliance on interactive gestures — tilting your phone, say, or swiping up to open an article — made it something of a design curiosity, and it languished on the download charts.

"Paper was like a short film that let us explore a lot of things."

But Cox says Paper contained the seeds of what became instant articles. "Pixar spends a lot of time building these short films where they can develop technology that they can then apply to their longer films," he says. "For us, Paper was like a short film that let us explore a lot of things without the constraint of, a billion people need to be able to use this."

Facebook instant articles

Predicting the future

At the same time, Facebook’s growing power as a news distributor creates new revenue opportunities. Starting with the launch, publishers can now let Facebook sell ads on their instant articles, splitting revenue with Facebook. Or they can choose to sell the ads themselves, and keep all the revenue — for now, anyway. I asked Justin Osofsky, Facebook’s vice president of media partnerships, whether that was a limited-time offer that would change over time. "We’re committed to working with publishers in a way that gives them tools to build their business," he said. So eventually you’ll take, what, 20, 30 percent? I asked. "We’re going to work with publishers to give them tools that build their business," he repeated, unblinking.

Here’s a scenario that may play out over the next year or so. Instant articles prove popular, driving significant new traffic and revenue to Facebook’s launch partners. More publishers join the platform, even modifying their publishing tools to let writers incorporate instant-article features into their stories. Meanwhile, traditional links shared on Facebook become less effective as readers migrate toward instant articles. Having hooked readers on instant articles — and publishers on the revenue they generate — Facebook starts taking an increasing percentage of ad revenue. What appeared to the media as a friendly tweak to the user interface was really a trap.

This possibility has been explored with mordant fatalism by The Awl’s John Herrman, whose Content Wars series has presented Facebook’s offer to publishers in the bleakest terms. It is true that Facebook began to explore hosting news not primarily as a means of supporting independent journalism or related civic virtues but rather to maximize the amount of time spent in the News Feed. As Herrman put it:

The prospect of Facebook, for example, as a primary host for news organizations, not just an outsized source of traffic, is depressing even if you like Facebook. A new generation of artists and creative people ceding the still-fresh dream of direct compensation and independence to mediated advertising arrangements with accidentally enormous middlemen apps that have no special interest in publishing beyond value extraction through advertising is the early internet utopian’s worst-case scenario.

At this point it feels necessary to point out that the fortunes of The Verge itself, along with its parent company, Vox Media, are likely to be affected by Facebook’s experiment with instant articles one way or another. Though not a partner yet, Vox has talked with Facebook about a partnership, according to a person familiar with the matter. If Vox adopts instant articles and they become a huge success, The Verge could benefit directly. If it doesn’t, and instant articles become the default mode of publishing on Facebook, The Verge could suffer the consequences.

The arithmetic around risk, revenues, and the future of media distribution involve calculations whose variables are impossible to estimate right now. Yet it’s an equation every publisher of appreciable size — Vox included — must try to solve. Much of the fear comes down to this: Facebook has already established itself as more important than even Google as a referrer of traffic to online publications. Failing to get the math right on instant articles could be tantamount to failing, period.

Facebook instant articles Photo: Facebook

Taking a risk

Perhaps the most important thing to note about Facebook’s instant articles is that they feel inevitable. Content hosted on apps rather than websites isn’t the future of media — it’s the present.

Last fall BuzzFeed started BFF, its "distributed media" division. The roughly 10-person team creates images, videos, tweets, and various other forms of content for every major social network. Nothing links back to BuzzFeed.com. For now, BuzzFeed doesn’t advertise on any of its social channels. But mastering social networks and growing large audiences there will likely allow the company to develop lucrative native ads for those platforms. (The multi-platform approach also gives the company a hedge against an eventual Facebook decline.)

And it’s not the only one. NowThis, a digital video outlet backed by a co-founder of The Huffington Post, has raised $15.6 million for a news organization that famously doesn’t have a homepage. Instead, it specializes in lurid autoplay videos for Facebook designed to be watched with the sound off; the story is told with text overlaid on a mix of news footage and pop-culture memes. Meanwhile, First Look Media last year launched Reportedly, which greeted the world with a manifesto about the virtues of content hosted directly on social platforms. (It hosts its reporting primarily on Medium.)

But while distributed media on other platforms is still experimental, on Facebook it feels inevitable. And while publishers’ concerns about Facebook’s level of control are understandable, they may also be overstated. The good old New York Times, which has endured its share of tectonic shifts in the media landscape over the past 150 years, approached its Facebook deal with an admirable level of confidence. "Our experience has been when you grow your off-platform audience, generally, you grow your on-platform audience as well," Mark Thompson, the company’s president, said in February at Recode’s Code/Media event.

A move that feels inevitable

Thompson noted that the Times had previously struck — and survived — deals with earlier internet giants including AOL and Yahoo. A decade later, similarly dire warnings about the future of media arose when Google began scraping headlines for its Google News service. There were warnings about the end of media then, too, and yet everything turned out more or less okay. Or rather, they turned out as well as anything ever turns out in media, which is to say that smart people still tell great stories, and advertisers still pay to reach their audiences, and most of the paychecks are still clearing. When it comes to hosted content, Thompson believes every case is different. "My starting assumption," he said, "is typically you’re better playing the game."

The best of Verge Video