Publishers’ relationship with the readers or in Facebook language: ‘it’s complicated’

A smartphone user shows the Facebook application on his phone in Zenica, in this photo illustration

Being in the middle of a  ‘Facebook-centric month’ with colleagues and media friends, I read some days ago, Claire Cain Miller‘s article titled ‘Why Facebook’s News Experiment Matters to Readers’.

I am still very sceptical about this ”relationship with the readers” as the article mentions. Of course, the Media Owners’ intention is to enhance this relationship; however I wonder: in a very competitive digital environment, where losing clicks means losing serious money, how exactly will they enhance this relationship when they are already part of Facebook’s ecosystem, hence somebody else is -also- calling the shots? Especially when this somebody else has already shown exemplary eagerness to easily change rules and terms. How are they going to find new readers who will appreciate the ”news judgement” and the ”distinction” between different titles (as the writer mentions), when they will be struggling to compete within the same digital environment, ‘click-bait’ Giants like Buzzfeed? I am sure they have already designed their strategy and taken into account all possible threats, but I do still maintain a critical eye.

Now, taking a step back and looking into ”what matters to readers”, I personally would not consider this thought without having in mind that strong and upmarket publishers like the NYT for example, charge premium rates. This actually responds to a great % of their digital business revenue. However, it is not yet clear how this ”premium rate” will reflect on ‘Instant Articles’ within time. As recent reports show, Facebook drives nearly 25% of the web’s traffic and this is only getting bigger. Justin Smith (global CEO of Bloomberg media group) mentioned recently: ”The list is a lot longer than is publicly known of those that have Facebook delivering half to two-thirds of their traffic right now”. So, it is pretty definite that Publishers cannot really avoid ‘Instant Articles’ and hence Facebook (as long as they do not apply any radical changes to their digital business, at least). So, in terms of premium pricing, what will happen when Brands will decide to focus their audience targeting (and thus, shift a considerable % of their advertising budgets) on NYT, The Guardian, The Atlantic, BBC etc through Facebook, instead of reaching the Publishers directly? How is that going to reflect the Publishers-within-Facebook’s ”what matters to readers” mantra? I really wonder.

And there is still more. For example, ‘native advertising’ in ‘Instant Articles’. After the new partnership announcement, Buzzfeed’s Greg Coleman said that Facebook will allow BuzzFeed to upload its “sponsored posts” (meaning, advertising posts) into its “Instant Articles” format, and treat it just like any other story from any other publisher. Right. So, treat advertising ”just like any other story from any other publisher”. How…convenient. But how does that help Publishers with distinctive editorial content, to distinguish themselves, I am curious to know.

Again, we are still in the beginning. I am very sceptical about what this whole new deal means for the future of media, without really endorsing predictions of a ”Facebook Dystopia”. But I strongly believe that we need to maintain a critical eye and examine all angles (and there are plenty); especially the commercial ones in relation to editorial/journalistic priorities and intentions.

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