It will come as little surprise that Facebook's announcement was followed up today with an announcement from Google that it will be using its home page and app to bring users news articles personalised around their search history. It's a move in the opposite direction from Facebook that as good as says that if you are starting to charge, we will be the place that rolls out personalised, free news feeds.
Facebook dominates news discovery. Take a look at media attention and it is a skyscraper next to a house-sized BBC, with every news organisation's app or website a mere pimple on the axis. That is the harsh reality.
Publishers have wanted to monetise the content they allow Facebook to hold within its own app so it can be displayed faster. The Instant Article service is hugely popular among recipients, and why wouldn't it be -- it's fast and free. That gives publishers that rely on a subscription model the headache of deciding whether to let some content go out of the door for free, or insist articles only link back to their own app or mobile website. For me at least, that always seems to involve reading a couple of paragraphs before, yet again, I have to sign in to a site that has promised to remember me.
So a paywall is what publishers want, and that is now what Facebook says it will provide. However, the big questions are left unanswered as the piloting and trialling apparently gets underway.
From the earliest announcement, it sounds like a service where after reading so many articles people will be asked to make a payment. Does that mean that part of the Facebook paywall will be allowing Facebook to be a news aggregator? Tech giants usually like a simple, single payment to buy credits, or in this case, so many articles. That could only surely work if all players aggregate their copy and are then compensated according to their proportion of paid-for articles. Minus a hefty commission, no doubt?
Or does this mean that publishers will be able to host articles in Instant Articles through a system that recognises subscribers? It could be the equivalent of social sign in against which a publishers notes whether someone has paid for access to the article they are trying to access.
It's too early to know what Facebook is opting for but, if I were a betting man, I'd probably suggest they're likely to favour an aggregator role, a Facebook "Plus" News feed that people can subscribe to consume articles from a variety of publishers through one payment.
The point remains that while the notion of a paywall might sound appealing to subscription-based publishers, the pain could come later when they find out what cut Facebook expects to make for opening up its audience to their content.
It could provide a free social log-in, but it's pretty unlikely, isn't it? What would be in it for Facebook?
So if I were a major publisher, I would most definitely be keeping the champagne on ice until the financials of this paywall project are clarified.
Right now, it may look like Facebook has listened to its critics and is planning to protect top-quality content from being shared for free -- but experience with the social giant would urge caution and beg the question, at what price?