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March 23, 2015, 11:08 p.m.
LINK: www.nytimes.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   March 23, 2015

This valuable story in The New York Times would appear to indicate the platformization of news has reached a new level:

In recent months, Facebook has been quietly holding talks with at least half a dozen media companies about hosting their content inside Facebook rather than making users tap a link to go to an external site.

Such a plan would represent a leap of faith for news organizations accustomed to keeping their readers within their own ecosystems, as well as accumulating valuable data on them. Facebook has been trying to allay their fears, according to several of the people briefed on the talks, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were bound by nondisclosure agreements.

Facebook intends to begin testing the new format in the next several months, according to two people with knowledge of the discussions. The initial partners are expected to be The New York Times, BuzzFeed and National Geographic, although others may be added since discussions are continuing. The Times and Facebook are moving closer to a firm deal, one person said.

To make the proposal more appealing to publishers, Facebook has discussed ways for publishers to make money from advertising that would run alongside the content.

You may remember the late David Carr breaking this back in October. Why would Facebook want to do this? The article advances this theory:

Facebook has said publicly that it wants to make the experience of consuming content online more seamless. News articles on Facebook are currently linked to the publisher’s own website, and open in a web browser, typically taking about eight seconds to load. Facebook thinks that this is too much time, especially on a mobile device, and that when it comes to catching the roving eyeballs of readers, milliseconds matter.

But as one of the article’s coauthors acknowledges, speed and seamlessness are hardly the driving factors here. The real issue is this: Facebook has far better data about individual users than any publisher has, and it wants to keep its users on Facebook. At one level, that data edge should enable it to charge higher rates to advertisers. But on another, Facebook’s audience is — by nature of its including a nontrivial share of all humanity — the definition of an undifferentiated, programmatic ad base, and premium publishers like (say) The New York Times should be able to outstrip it on a CPM basis.

Facebook controls a huge share of the traffic publishers get — 40 percent or more in many cases. Combine that with the appification of people’s online life — the retreat from the open web toward a few social-media icons on your phone’s home screen — and you start to get at the motivations here. Facebook has fallen into the role of audience gatekeeper for many publishers, and it’s offering (!) to optimize that relationship. Or at least not to screw it up:

And if Facebook pushes beyond the experimental stage and makes content hosted on the site commonplace, those who do not participate in the program could lose substantial traffic — a factor that has played into the thinking of some publishers. Their articles might load more slowly than their competitors’, and over time readers might avoid those sites.

And just as Facebook has changed its news feed to automatically play videos hosted directly on the site, giving them an advantage compared with videos hosted on YouTube, it could change the feed to give priority to articles hosted directly on its site.

I’ll have more to say about this later this week, but in general, the idea of distributed content argues that publishers should be more comfortable putting their content on platforms they don’t control. But Facebook isn’t just another platform. It’s dominant in a way no other platform is, which makes it understandable that publishers might be weighing the cost-benefit — or control-benefit — analysis differently than it does for, oh, WhatsApp or Snapchat.

The game for traditional publishers now is all about short-term/long-term tradeoffs. Of course, in the long run, you want to control the customer and advertiser relationships. But today, in 2015, Facebook controls a large share of your audience and has user data you have no hope of matching. Is it worth the tradeoff to get extra Facebook dollars today in exchange for a little of your independence tomorrow? I suspect it might be, in the narrow short term, a net positive for some publishers, especially those with no hope of charging for their content. But it’s also the sort of decision that one might look back on in a few years as the moment you got swindled.

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