Facebook's Instant Articles promised to transform journalism — but now big publishers are fleeing

INSTANT RECALL

Facebook's Instant Articles promised to transform journalism — but now big publishers are fleeing

by Casey Newton  Apr 16, 2017, 11:01am EDT

Inside Facebook's Menlo Park headquarters, the arrival of Instant Articles in the spring of 2015 was presented as a cause for celebration. Talking with reporters, executives described the fast-loading, natively hosted articles as a promising new creative format. A suite of publishing tools incubated in Facebook's now-defunct newsreading app Paper would find their way to Instant Articles, executives said, evolving the news posts shared on Facebook into immersive multimedia experiences.

For publishers — and journalism — the stakes were high. Readers who once regularly visited their desktop websites now got their news from Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and other apps outside of publishers’ control. For many large publishers, survival would depend on whether they could build loyal audiences inside third-party mobile apps.

Publishers were wary. Some feared Facebook would absorb so much content behind its walled garden that the web itself could be at risk. “Platforms are eating our business, and we’re letting it happen,” wrote Mat Yurow, then director of audience development at the New York Times. “Do you have any proof that publishers using another company’s proprietary platform have ever created a lasting and sustainable business?” asked John Battelle, a media industry veteran. (The answer appeared to be no.)

“PLATFORMS ARE EATING OUR BUSINESS, AND WE’RE LETTING IT HAPPEN.”

There was optimism, too. Facebook’s daily aggregation of eyeballs is the largest in human history, and publishers were eager for the chance to capture more of them. It seemed possible that a superior reading experience could benefit readers, publishers, and Facebook at the same time. “In the long run,” wrote Will Oremus at Slate, some might find they’re better off outsourcing their distribution and ad sales to well-funded tech giants and refocusing on what they do best: reporting the news.”

But two years after it launched, a platform that aspired to build a more stable path forward for journalism appears to be declining in relevance. At the same time that Instant Articles were being designed, Facebook was beginning work on the projects that would ultimately undermine it. Starting in 2015, the company's algorithms began favoring video over other content types, diminishing the reach of Instant Articles in the feed. The following year, Facebook's News Feed deprioritized article links in favor of posts from friends and family. The arrival this month of ephemeral stories on top of the News Feed further de-emphasized the links on which many publishers have come to depend.

In discussions with Facebook executives, former employees, publishers, and industry observers, a portrait emerges of a product that never lived up to the expectations of the social media giant, or media companies. After scrambling to rebuild their workflows around Instant Articles, large publishers were left with a system that failed to grow audiences or revenues. Facebook says the adoption of Instant Articles is growing quickly, and that upcoming changes to the platform will lure back some of the major media companies that have abandoned it. But given Facebook’s other priorities, the future of Instant Articles is less certain than ever.

Instant Articles went live on May 13th, 2015, with tools that included 3D maps, audio captions for images, and photos that moved based on the position of the phone in your hand. Publishers abandoned those tools almost immediately, instead focusing on the format’s ability to solve an increasingly pressing problem: attracting and retaining readers. The early signs were hopeful — readers liked Instant Articles’ faster loading times, and they rewarded them with more of their clicks.

Instant Articles was built from the raw materials of Paper, a newsreading app Facebook released on iOS in early 2014. A bold reimagining of the company's flagship app, Paper offered users customizable sections including politics, technology, and food. (The News Feed was there, too — and without any ads.)

Paper was a hit with critics — but not with Facebook's core user base, and it was ultimately shuttered last year. Mike Matas, whose design firm Push Pop Press was acquired by Facebook in 2011, had been responsible for its unique look and feel, and he was tasked with designing Instant Articles.

Though the format would have important financial consequences for the companies who used it, generating revenue for publishers was not a primary goal in its development. "The team is legitimately motivated by making great articles," Matas told me in 2015. One former employee familiar with the matter said media companies' business models had initially been all but an afterthought. "The idea that these products could meaningfully impact the revenue of the news industry just didn’t really come up," the former employee said. "I don’t know that anyone [at Facebook] took that piece all that seriously."

Fidji Simo, a vice president of product at Facebook who oversees news, video, and ads in the News Feed, disputed the idea that the company didn’t take revenue seriously. About 80 percent of publishers’ initial requests to the company involved direct ad sales, she said in an interview last week. Facebook agreed to the proposal: Publishers could keep 100 percent of the revenue of any ads they sold themselves, or 70 percent of the revenue if they wanted Facebook to sell the ads for them. At publishers’ request, Facebook also included analytics tools so they could understand and track their audiences, and customization tools so they could make their articles look distinct from one another's.

PUBLISHERS WERE DRAWN TO THE SHEER ENORMITY OF FACEBOOK'S AUDIENCE — BUT IT WAS NEVER CLEAR, EVEN THEN, HOW MUCH OF THAT AUDIENCE INSTANT ARTICLES WOULD ATTRACT

But the build-first, monetize-later approach that Facebook takes in building so many of its own products made for an awkward fit at media companies, many of which were still reeling from the transition from print to the web, and were now losing their hard-won digital audiences to Facebook's News Feed. Publishers were drawn to the sheer enormity of Facebook's audience — but it was never clear, even then, how much of that audience Instant Articles would attract.

Still, the optimism was real. "This is a very exciting experiment," Declan Moore, chief media officer for National Geographic, told me in May 2015. National Geographic was one of nine publishers, including BuzzFeed and the New York Times, invited to be launch partners. Facebook was careful not to guarantee that publishers would see expanded reach from Instant Articles. But it seemed likely that Facebook would favor the instant links, given that the articles loaded up to 10 times faster and kept users glued to the company's flagship app. "In the beginning, having access to Instant will provide a huge advantage over publications that don’t," wrote John Herrman, whose Content Wars series in The Awl had warned publishers that Facebook would ultimately change the terms of any deal to benefit itself. "Eventually, publishers’ numbers will even out as competition increases."

But it's unclear if any huge advantage ever materialized. Facebook decided from the start that publishing a story using the Instant Articles format would not automatically improve its ranking in the News Feed. In practice, Instant Articles typically do reach more people, because people are more likely to read and share them. But as the format spread, competition increased, and any advantage to using Instant Articles was blunted within months. Given that Instant Articles were designed to carry less advertising than mobile web articles, broad reach was essential to ensure publishers would profit from the format. The reach just never arrived.

Facebook did meet regularly with publishing partners, and gradually implemented their suggestions. "We deeply believe that the only way to have publishers use Instant Articles is if this works for them," Will Cathcart, who oversaw Instant Articles at the time, told me on its 1-year anniversary.

As part of that effort, Facebook added more revenue-generating tools to the format. First it permitted more display ads; then it implemented video ads; then it introduced sponsored posts shared on the publishers' own feeds.

But across a wide swath of major publishers, results have been uniformly weak. "The revenue in no way backed up the amount of time that was being spent on it," says Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next. DCN is a trade group that represents many large publishers, including NBC, the New York Times, Conde Nast, ESPN, Slate, Business Insider, and Vox Media. (Vox owns The Verge.)

At the end of last year, DCN surveyed its members on the financial performance of content published to third-party platforms including Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Google's AMP project. It found that not one publisher reported earning more money through Instant Articles than they did through their own properties. “We make less money on Instant Articles than we do on mobile web, which is probably everyone’s experience,” said Bill Carey, director of audience development at Slate. And while Facebook reported that publishers using Instant Articles saw readers consuming 25 percent more content, most DCN members had seen no such increase.

In a presentation at the Social Media Week conference in February, The Verge's audience engagement editor, Helen Havlak, presented a slide comparing views of traditional Verge links posted to Facebook to Verge Instant Articles as a percentage of overall Facebook traffic. It showed that article views from Facebook were essentially flat in 2016, with Instant Articles representing a larger share of that traffic over time. Viewed in this light, Instant Articles had simply replaced one kind of view with another, less profitable one.

Facebook says that the stagnant traffic is a product of a growing marketplace, and attributes it to increasing competition — there are more posts than ever to read, while readers’ time remains finite. Simo told me the company is building a tool that will show publishers how their articles would have performed if posted as traditional links rather than Instant Articles. (Spoiler: badly.) Were it not for Instant Articles, the company says, publisher traffic would likely have declined even more.

This appears to have been by design. Even as it courted publishers for the Instant Articles program, other teams at Facebook were building the features that would gradually push it out of the limelight. Last June, AdWeek reported that publishers' posts were reaching 42 percent fewer people than they were previously. A few weeks later, Facebook confirmed that it had altered the News Feed algorithm, prioritizing posts from friends and family members over links shared by publishers.

FACEBOOK IS BUILDING A TOOL THAT WILL SHOW PUBLISHERS HOW THEIR ARTICLES WOULD HAVE PERFORMED IF POSTED AS TRADITIONAL LINKS RATHER THAN INSTANT ARTICLES

Another new priority soon emerged in the form of video. In September 2015, just four months after Instant Articles launched, Facebook's ad product lead said that ”a year or two from now, we think Facebook will be mostly video." A massive investment in live video followed, and a video tab was added to Facebook's flagship app. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you fast-forward five years and most of the content that people see on Facebook and are sharing on a day-to-day basis is video," CEO Mark Zuckerberg told BuzzFeed in April 2016.

This month's arrival of Facebook stories, a rolling series of photo and video posts that disappear 24 hours after they're posted, pushed Instant Articles further down in the News Feed. And publishers can't use the Stories format even if they want to — they are currently enabled only for individual users. "The camera is going to be the priority, not news and entertainment content," one former employee told me. "That's just going to keep getting shoved down in the feed." The company has all but confirmed this; “the camera is the new keyboard” is a popular refrain on campus these days.

Simo says that the News Feed is becoming more of a multimedia experience over time, and that Instant Articles — which support video — is part of that. “We live in a world that’s multimedia, where you tell stories using a variety of formats. What we’ve tried to do is bring these things together so publishers can tell stories that combine all of these things.”

And so for publishers that do their journalism primarily by linking to text, the News Feed appears increasingly forbidding. "I'd suggest that links in general have felt weird on Facebook for a long time,” Herrman, now writing for the New York Times, told me in an email. “It's the most obviously dated part of an otherwise constantly modernized platform; it's a big messy border with the web that produces a bunch of difficult and institutionally unusual problems."

While big publishers have been largely disappointed with Instant Articles, the format is propagating quickly throughout Facebook. Since last year, when Facebook began letting anyone publish to the format, the number of publishers using Instant Articles grew 16 times, to 9,000 publishers, Simo said. (That figure has grown 27 percent this year alone.) And a quarter of all clicks to articles on Facebook are now to Instant Articles, Simo said — a number that has grown 50 percent in 2017.

It’s easy to see why readers like Instant Articles (they’re fast and uncluttered). And it’s easy to see why Facebook likes Instant Articles (they keep people on Facebook). But for big media companies, the format has looked like a bad bet.

And after two years of experimenting with Instant Articles, many outlets appear to have had enough. The New York Times, which had been a launch partner for Instant Articles, abandoned the platform last fall. Vice News, Forbes, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and Hearst publications are among the large publishers who have joined it in leaving.

SINCE LAST YEAR THE NUMBER OF PUBLISHERS USING INSTANT ARTICLES GREW 16 TIMES, TO 9,000 PUBLISHERS

Others are publishing a small handful of articles to the platform while pushing the majority of their readers to their own websites, including CNN, the New York Daily News, and the Wall Street Journal, according to an analysis published last month by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. Conde Nast decided not to roll the format out company-wide after all but one of its test titles lost money on it, a company source told The Verge.

Now publishers are turning their attention elsewhere. Google's Accelerated Mobile Pages project borrows elements from Instant Articles while giving publishers more control. (Publishers that use paywalls, such as the Times, can implement them in AMP but not Instant Articles.) Articles published through AMP remain part of the open web, which publishers generally prefer to Facebook’s closed ecosystem, and Google has flooded AMP with traffic from search. Most importantly, it makes more money than Instant Articles. By February, it was serving 7 percent of all traffic to major US publishers.

Publishers are also paying increasing attention to Apple News, which added push notifications as part of a redesign last year and now delivers significant traffic thanks to the fact that it comes pre-installed on hundreds of millions of devices.

The team that built Instant Articles has moved on, too. Matas quit in February 2016. Michael Reckhow, the product manager who led development of the initial version, left for Uber a few months later. Reckhow has been replaced by Mona Chaudhuri, a well-regarded former vice president of product at Chartbeat, who joined Facebook last August. Chaudhuri led a listening tour of publishing executives in New York last fall, and Facebook says it is responding to their concerns.

“ALL OF THESE PUBLISHERS ARE VERY OPEN TO COMING BACK TO THE TABLE ONCE WE IMPLEMENT A LOT OF THEIR FEEDBACK.”

The biggest request: subscriptions. Publishers who rely on a membership model are pushing Facebook to effectively build a paywall inside Instant Articles. Subscribers could read Instant Articles just like any others, but others would be offered a chance to subscribe.

“A lot of the frustrations you hear are business model frustrations, rather than the performance of their content on Facebook or otherwise,” Simo said. Facebook wouldn’t comment on whether it is building such a system, but based on my discussions with publishers, it seems likely. “We’re listening to the feedback and we’re continuing to iterate,” Simo said. “All of these publishers are very open to coming back to the table once we implement a lot of their feedback.” She added: “I want them to find value.”

If Instant Articles can’t build traffic or revenue, perhaps it can at least inspire loyalty in publishers’ existing audiences. This month, Facebook added a module to Instant Articles allowing publishers to solicit newsletter signups or likes to their pages. In the future, Facebook says the module could be used to invite readers to install publishers’ mobile apps or begin a trial subscription.

Slate’s Carey said the company has seen early success in attracting newsletters subscribers this way. The company is shifting away from a pageview-driven business model to one that emphasizes reader loyalty. (Loyal readers are more likely to sign up for Slate Plus, its premium subscription product.) “For us right now, the big question is whether we can bring more people back into the Slate audience, and make them Slate readers,” he said. The newsletter signup module has been a good start. “We’re hopeful that tools they have coming down the pike will be similarly helpful.”

Neha Gandhi, senior vice president of content and strategy at Refinery29, told me Instant Articles “neither helps nor harms” the company’s efforts to build audiences through Facebook. The publisher remains part of the program so it can beta test new features, such as the newsletter modules. “These are products that are testing building daily habit, increasing stories per session, and building loyalty — all of which are core priorities for Refinery29,” she said.

Meanwhile, the News Feed is as unpredictable as ever. The ones who can afford to adapt to every new format Facebook introduces, hoping that, in aggregate, engaging with the platform’s ecosystem will lead to profits. “It’s the constellation of things that we have on Facebook,” said Mark Silverstein, who leads business development at the Huffington Post. Huffington Post was the top publisher on Facebook in 2016, according to NewsWhip, embracing Instant Articles, live video, and video on demand. “Consumers are going to go where consumers go,” Silverstein said. “It’s our job to meet them there.”

Two years later, it’s increasingly clear that Instant Articles won’t resolve publishers’s anxieties about building sustainable businesses. But neither has it led to a cataclysm. Despite Instant Article’s middling results, Facebook’s power over publishers seems stronger than ever. Where Facebook leads, publishers follow — from articles, to Instant Articles, to video, to live video, to ephemeral stories and beyond.

“Facebook changed, and so did publishers,” Herrman said. “The underlying dynamic didn't, at least not that much.”



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