Did Facebook Just Save Digital Publishing?

One can almost hear the sound of champagne corks popping around the London media scene. OK -- so with the way print revenue is down more than digital is up, it's probably Prosecco, but today's news is still heartwarming for publishers. Facebook is playing nice. 

Zuckerberg's latest announcement will settle a lot of nerves. The big takeaway is that it will not take a cut from any subscriptions earned through its Instant Articles feature. So if someone comes across an article that they have received free and wants to subscribe for more, or if they need to subscribe to see the entire article, Facebook won't be taking a cut.

To be honest, the advertising deal was already pretty good. If an article running on Instant Articles is filled with ads sold by the publisher, they keep the money. If Facebook sells the ad spots, there's a 70:30 split in favour of the publisher. 

There has always been that question mark, of course, over whether this was just an opening offer from Facebook. Was the social media giant a little like a drug dealer, offering a free fix or two before getting publishers hooked on its appeal and then pushing for more skin in the game?

Since the launch of Instant Articles, however, Facebook has constantly been in the news itself for having to employ more people to remove hate speech and extremist content, and the spectre of fake news is never far away. The social media giant has vowed to put news organisations' logos next to trending news headlines to reassure users that the headline comes from a reputable source. 

All news coming out of Facebook appears to suggest that it has begun to appreciate how difficult decent journalism truly is. They do, of course, have a vested interest in helping out quality publications as they fight a slew of accusations of allowing fake news to not only prosper but to be promoted as as "trending." If decent publishers do well, Facebook's brand image improves.

For now, publishers probably don't have much to worry about with Facebook. Magazines, broadcasters and news sites need extra reach to gain new readers, and if applicable, subscribers. The good news is that they can achieve this using Facebook as what is effectively a free distribution arm.

The question remains, however -- for how long? Publishers are rightly worried about the massive level of attention the social media giant enjoys. All sites fade into insignificance when compared with the collective might of Facebook. And let's not forget -- social media giants have a track record of offering free services to get an audience in and then seek a means of monetising that audience once hooked.

However, all publishers can do is live in the here and now, and Facebook's latest announcement is a significant olive branch to an industry that it, alongside Google, has been widely accused of decimating. Articles that download instantly from a site's content management system and even allow the publisher to retain all the ad revenue and any resulting subscription revenue seem like a deal that's too good to miss.

I'd imagine many will be wary of Facebook's kind offer and do all they can to use Instant Articles to drive subscriptions, so they can carry on a direct relationship -- The Economist stands out to me as a prime expert in this field. No matter what Facebook says, there is always going to be a suspicion that if it will eventually look for a slice of the action.

For now, though, the spectre of fake news and hate means Facebook has a vested interest in offering a free platform to publishers (with the potential for a 30% ad revenue share) and so today's news has be received as a major boost for beleaguered publishers struggling to bridge the gap between print losses and smaller digital gains. 

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