Facebook Instant Articles: 5th estate?


Today’s digital space is very similar (arguably) to the Colonial era. Internet companies are today at war to grab emerging markets such as India and China, bolster their valuation and make money out of a massive users base; sounds familiar? Consider Facebook and Google as the two major powers in the digital space that have been fighting it out in various segments – messaging, social networking, email, entertainment and news. For a long time, publishers and readers have depended on Google News for news consumption. Rival Facebook has already tweaked its News Feed to bring more focus on news, but now it has taken a giant leap in this segment by bringing Instant Articles – natively hosted content that does away with the need to switch to a browser (or another tab) to read the news (inclusive of multimedia). The new Facebook product is likely to have a massive impact on the way news is currently consumed, use of the platform by publishers and more importantly on ‘conventional’ journalism.

First, you need to know little bit more about how Facebook’s Instant Articles works. Thousands of stories are shared on Facebook everyday. With mobile becoming a dominant platform, Facebook sees a growing number of shares from its mobile app. Facebook points out that stories take an average of eight seconds to load, which is slow! And this where the Instant Articles makes the difference. Natively hosted content means reading experience is much faster –  Facebook says instant articles load ten times faster than the standard mobile web articles. From users’ point of view, this is simply great. Content hosted on Instant Articles are not ‘compromised’ version of the content (which we see in the current in-built browser), but will promise a slew of interactive features such as high-resolution photos (that can be explored by tilting your phone), auto-play videos, interactive maps and Facebook’s iconic features, ‘like’ and ‘comment’, on individual parts of an article in-line. For users, Instant Articles gives an easy platform to consume news and share without leaving the social networking site.

Journalism killer or saviour?
Social networking websites such as Twitter and Facebook have long been considered a threat to conventional journalism. These services have been responsible for making readers’ hungry for quick, shoddy and appeasing content on the web. I am not sparing Google either. Google News is now driving news sense and at times a story becomes ‘news’ just because it’s trending on Google News. And then, you have these listicles sites pouring out 10 reasons and you-will-not-believe-what-happened-next clickbait stories.Will Instant Articles revive online journalism? I am very hopeful. I have had a sneak peek at the feature, and as a journalist I would rate the content layout very impressive. Long read, inclusion of high quality multimedia and more importantly a window to see more shares/engagement really appeases my journalistic side. So far, there are only a small number of publishers on the platform – The New York Times, National Geographic, BuzzFeed, NBC, The Atlantic, The Guardian, BBC News, Spiegel and Bild.

“It is great to see Facebook trialing (sic) new ways for quality journalism to flourish on mobile,” said Tony Danker, International Director, Guardian News & Media. “The Guardian is keen to test how the new platform can provide an even more engaging experience for our readers. It is then vital that, over time, Instant Articles delivers recurring benefits to publishers, whose continued investment in original content underpins its success.” What I would like to see is users directly exploring the platform, choosing the news source they want to read rather than a trends based content aggregator. That said, it’s too early to call this feature a killer or saviour!

 Publishers’ tryst with Instant Articles

With publishers taking the platform more seriously and having direct engagement with users, Facebook is likely to monetise the platform sooner or later. For publishers, the platform also gives them opportunity to monetise through advertisements. Facebook is letting publishers keep the revenue (for now) and also gives the option to use Facebook’s Audience Network to monetize unsold inventory. Publishers will also have the ability to track data and traffic through comScore and other analytics tools. “Fundamentally, this is a tool that enables publishers to provide a better experience for their readers on Facebook” said Facebook Chief Product Officer Chris Cox. “Instant Articles lets them deliver fast, interactive articles while maintaining control of their content and business models.” That said, I’m not very sure what will happen to the publishers who choose to stay out of the platform (Another round of Neutrality debate?) and how Facebook will aggregate their content.

What Google should/can do
An expected response from Google will be new efforts to conserve its user base and not lose out on massive revenues from this segment. Not that Google isn’t aware about reading experience on its browser. The company is already testing Chrome reading mode, which is designed to make on-screen text easier to read, by doing away with unnecessary pictures, boxes, buttons and ads. Evidently, Google is focusing on bring minimalism for readers. We can expect Google to bring an alternative to Facebook’s Instant Articles. And what about Twitter? The micro-blogging website is already struggling with the competition, especially after Facebook brought Twitter like features such as hashtags and trends. Well as said above, these digital Colonial powers will make an all out effort to preserve their territories.

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