Commentary

Facebook Updates Instant Articles, Adds Pubs To Subscription Test

Anytime I see statements from Facebook executives saying “we care about journalism,” I just have to laugh. Not an uproarious guffaw, more of a nervous titter. I wonder how many ways the social network has found to hoodwink the general public.

After all, Facebook has collected vast amounts of personal information, learning more about people than they likely know themselves. The company has tested ways to manipulate people’s moods or to affect their voting behavior. It also shared information with third parties without the informed consent of users, as the Cambridge Analytica scandal made public.

Publisher suspicions toward the social network were aroused following reports that Campbell Brown, former NBC News correspondent and CNN host who leads news partnerships at Facebook, told a group of publishers that CEO Mark Zuckerberg “doesn’t care” about publishers.

Brown later denied the report, but it was all too easy for many people in the publishing industry to believe. Facebook was built on abundant, freely provided user-generated content. Why should it have to pay for text, photo and video materials?

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Which is why a recent Facebook blog post about an update to its software tools for publishers aroused my suspicions, although most of the information looks innocuous.

“We care about supporting quality journalism on Facebook,” begins a Dec. 6 blog post from Sameera Salari, a product manager at the company.

She goes on to describe updates to Facebook’s Instant Articles, which were first developed in 2015 to help news publishers post quick-loading stories on the social network. Facebook redesigned its platform to make it more accessible to publishers and cut their development time by 75%, or from four to eight weeks to one to two weeks.

The company also integrated the Instant Articles paywall with third-party paywall providers, such as Piano, to make it easier for media companies to implement.

Salari noted that Facebook added a welcome screen to urge new subscribers to follow a publisher and see more of its content in the Facebook’s news feed. The welcome screen boosted the percentage of new subscribers who follow the publisher's page from 54% to 94%. That higher engagement increased the articles read by subscribers on Facebook by 40%, Salari said.

Facebook is testing a feature that lets publishers create posts targeted to their subscribers; it seeks to provide more relevant analytics information for publishers.

Facebook also added more publications to its test of Instant Articles subscriptions:

  • United States: Advance’s Syracuse.com; Business Insider; Gatehouse’s Cape Cod Times, Columbus Dispatch, the Florida Times-Union and Times Herald-Record; McClatchy’s Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle; Newsday; and Tribune’s Chicago Tribune, Fort-Lauderdale Sun Sentinel, Hartford Courant and Orlando Sentinel.
  • Latin America: El Espectador, Estadão, La Nación (Argentina), La Nación (Costa Rica), Nexo Jornal and La Prensa.
  • Europe, the Middle East and Africa: Il Fatto Quotidiano, Haaretz, Libération and Expresso (Portugal).
  • Asia-Pacific and India: Business Standard and Malaysiakini.

While Facebook is taking steps to appeal to a wider group of publishers, those companies still need to be careful about growing too dependent on the social network for traffic. Facebook can easily tweak its news algorithms that determine what users see, resulting in a devastating effect on publishers.

If the past year of digital disruptions is any indication, publishers need to develop diverse sources of revenue to defray risk and build a more solid business.

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