Why Publishers Won't Resist Facebook's News-Alert App

Word is that Facebook is working on a new standalone app that will blast breaking news alerts provided by partner publishers.

Business Insider -- which first reported the app-in-development, on Tuesday -- thinks the new offering poses a direct threat to Twitter.

It does. While its hardcore user base isn’t likely to budge, Twitter’s broader audience could probably be persuaded to receive its news by simpler means.

Yet, if and when Facebook starts pushing out news alerts, the bigger question will be its impact on publishers. This ties into an ongoing debate over Instant Articles, and whether the news syndication service bodes well for Facebook’s publishing partners.

Michael Wolff, for one, recently addressed the Faustian implications of working with Facebook. As he wrote in the MIT Technology Review: “It is not only that this syndication arrangement gives [publishers like The New York] Times no direct payments, but ‘instant articles’ and other platform distribution deals move the business another step closer toward what Ken Doctor … calls ‘off news site’ reading.”

Not long ago, Ezra Klein also wrote about the negative implications of such partnerships, arguing that once media brands surrender distribution control to Facebook and other platforms, they’ll never get it back.

Sure, notifications sent through Facebook's forthcoming app will link directly to publishers’ Web sites, but it remains to be seen how much traffic this will generate.

Despite these warnings, however, we expect publishers to flock to Facebook’s latest mobile offering.

Why? “Facebook is a huge, huge traffic driver,” Charlie Echeverry, CRO of Latino-focus tech media startup mitú, recently told attendees of OMMA Los Angeles. “Huge,” agreed Jeff Browning, senior vice-president ofsSales for Endemol Beyond USA, and a fellow panelist at OMMA LA.

Facebook’s command over audiences has become so great that some publishers have questioned the rationale for running their own sites. “What do I even need an [owned and operated Web site] for anymore?” Echeverry said was the question on many a publisher’s mind.

What’s more, other social networks can’t compete with Facebook in terms of “shares”: when users share a piece of content with their entire social networks, or a single “friend,” said Kirbie Johnson, a reporter/producer at PopSugar.

Publishers appear increasingly desperate to reach readers by any means necessary.

The New York Times recently used Facebook’s WhatsApp messaging app to deliver updates on Pope Francis’ visits to Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay.

For the Times and other news outlets, doing a more direct distribution deal with Facebook seems like an obvious next step.

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