Can Facebook help journalism?

Hitherto, to read an unpirated New York Times article online you had to click on an URL that took you to a site owned and controlled by the New York Times. Today that changed as Facebook began serving, at least to users of its iPhone app, selected content belonging to the Times and eight other A-list media properties directly from within its own walled garden.

The shift, some said, was tectonic, which may sound over the top to the average poster of cat videos and holiday selfies, but to someone with a son about to graduate from journalism school, the deal will be big if it pans out the way the Times hopes. Not everyone thinks it will.

Why would the Times — or the National Geographic or the Guardian or the BBC or Der Spiegel or any of the others who have signed up — want to participate in this “experiment”? (That, for now, is what they are calling it; the official title is Instant Articles.)

It’s not rocket science. Good content costs and has to be paid for. To pay for it, even paywalled publishers like the Times need to sell ads, more than most are selling now. To sell ads, they need eyeballs.

Facebook, with 1.44 billion users as of the first quarter this year, offers a lot of those. Also it’s where 48 per cent of web-using Americans say they get their news of government and politics. Publishers will have free access to them. They will also allowed to embed their own ads (and branding) in whatever they chose to post as Instant Articles — and keep 100 per cent of the proceeds (70 per cent if they use ads Facebook has sold rather than their own).

But aren’t Facebook’s users already posting countless links to the Times’ site, helping it achieve 54 million unique visits in January?

Yes, is the official reply, but those links can often take an age — 8 seconds! — to load on a smartphone. By then most users have moved on. Content hosted “natively” on Facebook, video and audio included, will display instantaneously even with all the interactive bells and whistles it is offering publishers as a further incentive to come inside.

Note that Instant Articles are mobile only. The future looks mobile. 39 of the 50 top US news sites now get more traffic from mobile devices than from PCs, much of it directed from Facebook and other social platforms. That’s according to the Pew Research Centre in its State of the News Media 2015 report, released at the end of April.

For, the PC-mobile split in January was 30 million uniques to 31.5 million (with many visitors arriving both ways and therefore being counted twice). For Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’, which has not joined the Facebook party, it was 21.3 million versus 30.4 million.

Advertisers are getting the message. In 2011, the total digital ad spend in the US was $31.99 billion of which just $1.45 billion was on mobile, reports Pew. Last year, total digital spend hit $50.73 billion of which $18.99 million was on mobile — a 12-fold increase in three years. Over the same period, newspaper ad spend fell from $20.69 billion to $16.61 billion. The trends lines are clear.

Some fear Instant Articles are a siren song: Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is luring publishers into his cave with a promise to help monetize their content while his real aim is to increase engagement with his own platform while theirs wither. There are also worries he’ll get them hooked on the revenue, then jack up his take.

Editors who see their role as putting together a paper or a site that helps readers discern what’s important by the selection and placement of content fret this function will be lost as traditional newspapers and their web versions linger in hospice and content becomes increasingly unmoored from the platform for which it was originally produced.

Times management is surely shrewd enough not to drink Zuckberberg’s Kool-Aid if that is what he’s serving. As for the second worry, Washington Post editor Martin Baron addressed it well in a recent speech: “The transformations is going to happen no matter what…We can do what we must to adapt and — ideally — thrive. Or not — in which case we are choosing to fail.”

As the noted media maven Clay Shirky has said, “society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism.” The Times and the rest are not abandoning journalism by teaming up experimentally with Facebook. They are looking for new ways to present and pay for it and, I hope, render my son employable at what he loves.

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