That The New York Times broke the news that Facebook is officially courting publishers to post their content natively on their platform, something that has long been predicted, wasn’t very surprising. That the Grey Lady appears to be taking the role of lead guinea pig, well, that’s news that’s fit to print.
When it comes to optimizing content for social media platforms, new media companies like BuzzFeed and Vox Media have traditionally led the charge. Just in the past two weeks both companies have championed their ability to connect with readers through social media: BuzzFeed founder and CEO Jonah Peretti explicitly detailed their social strategy in an interview with Re/code, and Vox released a blog post that humble-bragged their Facebook prowess.
So while it isn’t that surprising that BuzzFeed plans to be one of the initial partners, the fact that The New York Times is reportedly closest to a deal amongst the three initial partners (along with National Geographic) comes as something of a shock.
At this point, the implications of the Times‘ potential move, and Facebook’s proposal in general, are vast, controversial, and full of hyperbole that may or may not be deserved. The range of reaction is understandable. As the late David Carr poetically wrote when first breaking the news of Facebook’s publishing plans in October, “For publishers, Facebook is a bit like that big dog galloping toward you in the park. More often than not, it’s hard to tell whether he wants to play with you or eat you.”
Of course, posting natively on the Facebook platform is nothing new for either BuzzFeed or the Times: They already do it with Facebook’s astoundingly successful native video player. In fact, examining the effect of Facebook’s native video player on the digital video world may be the best way to understand this news.
One of the biggest explanations Facebook has given for their implementation of their native video player has been improving user experience. It’s impossible to refute their claim: Less load times and less clicking means a better experience for Facebook users, especially on mobile. Improving the mobile experience has been Facebook’s focus for years, and it’s why its transitioned to mobile so successfully—native video and native articles can legitimately be said to fall in line with that goal.
Native video, and autoplay in particular (i.e., videos that automatically play when a user scrolls by them), has meant an exponential increase in views and engagement on Facebook. Part of that is the simple fact that the definition of a “view” is much looser with autoplay, but the ease of use has to be given a lot of credit as well. It’s also meant that third-party video players (e.g., YouTube), which don’t have autoplay and have been made as ugly and difficult to use as possible, have taken a huge hit on Facebook.
It isn’t difficult to see native articles having a similar effect. They’ll pop with the most attractive, prominent design Facebook can come up with; third-party articles, on the other hand, will be marginalized. And Facebook’s algorithm will likely favor native articles the same way it favors native video and favored social reader apps three years ago.
This conjures a future where Facebook completely controls the flow of content on the web. And if the Times dives in, will other publishers have any choice but to follow? However, it’s unlikely that the Grey Lady will do a cannonball; if you look at how they use native video on Facebook, it’s clear they’re much more likely to strategically dip their toe in the water.
At the moment, almost every native video the Times posts on Facebook is a quick 15- or 25-second teaser for a longer video or companion article on nytimes.com. It’s likely that the Times would use native Facebook articles in a similar fashion—either to entice the elusive millennial demographic to become paid subscribers, or to drive further consumption on nytimes.com. The Times has already tried out a similar strategy via native ads on Mashable, remixing their video content with Upworthy-esque headlines to drive paid subscriptions. Considering their aged subscriber base—the average print subscriber is 60—it’s a move that makes a lot of sense, at least in the short term.
Of course, one has to wonder what the ultimate result of this migration to native publishing on social media means for journalism and the media. Again, Facebook’s shift to native video may provide some answers.
As BuzzFeed has already seen with video, publishing directly to Facebook can result in some big numbers—something that is particularly needed if publishers want to scale their growing sponsored content businesses. Given the proper juicing from Facebook’s algorithm, written native advertisements could reach potentially massive audiences, which would allow publishers to charge much higher rates.
That could be hard to resist, even if it means sacrificing a significant amount of power to the “big dog.”
The question, then, is whether the temptation of massive numbers and the promise of ad revenue will prove to be quicksand for publishers. Will small successes lead to a bigger commitment, pulling publishers further and further in? As Felix Salmon posited at Fusion, the move has the potential to kill the news brand. When you lose control over your readers and image by posting natively on social, is it still possible to foster a readership that trusts your brand? And if you’re sacrificing crucial reader data to outside networks, can you serve your audience as well as you have before? Using reader data in insightful ways is something that sets every top-tier digital publisher apart from its competition.
Those are tough questions, and until publishers start to venture into Facebook’s metaphorical walls, we won’t have answers. But it’s not hard to imagine the Grey Lady getting lured deeper in until she stands on the parapet of Facebook’s castle, looking down on its 1.27 billion-strong kingdom. Why would she ever want to leave? And if she does, will it be too late?