In the trail of navel-gazing and soul-searching that’s streaking like condensation on the window through which Facebook and the New York Times are about to shake hands, the debate about the deal that would see the media organization publish content directly to Facebook has boiled down to duel between control and independence versus access to audience. The thermometer stuck into the crowd of most media critics and pundits reads hot with fear over the potential deal. This potential deal, best described as a “leap of faith for news organizations”— words straight from the Times— is built on the idea that Facebook has journalism’s best interests in mind, an idea that Chris Cox, chief product officer Facebook, relayed to David Carr (2014) when reports of the deal first surfaced in late 2014. Fundamentally, it seems unlikely that it’s in the best interest of digital publishers to cede power to a third-party company with its own shareholders to answer to, and ultimately, this partnership is a wedge that could sever the Time’s social audience from itself by allowing Facebook to corral its audience while setting Facebook on the road to becoming a publisher themselves.
First and foremost, this partnership gives Facebook the opportunity to build a fence around its herd of users while making the pen so absolutely comfortable that the herd just couldn’t fathom leaving. When Facebook approached media organizations with the idea of publishing natively to their platform, the conversation was driven with user experience at the forefront. Currently readers click on links posted by media organizations, wait the average eight seconds for the story to load, then consume it. This process of referral has proven beneficial in the way it drives enormous amounts of traffic to media organizations, but as Matt Buchanan (2015) of The Awl sees it, these enormous amounts of outbound links from Facebook are a wasteful byproduct caused by extracting users’ attention spans. With this deal, Facebook has created a way to reduce clicks, load time, and most importantly, referrals (waste), all in the name of improving the user experience, with the fine print reading that media organizations be limited to the infrastructure developed by Facebook and by doing so, cede some level of control over the type and cost of advertising that runs beside the content. Cutting through the PR-speak, Joshua Benton at Nieman Lab writes what should be painfully obvious: “Facebook has far better data about individual users than any publisher has, and it wants to keep its users on Facebook.” This should be no surprise as this company is the same that only permits Instagram users to have one functioning hyperlink on their profile and none in their posts.
The building of this fence is a dance in power dynamics between publishers and Facebook that implicates millennials. These fickle readers do not turn to the New York Times to find out about the world. They find out about the world from the New York Times story that their friends shared on Facebook (Honan, 2014). Reflecting on a strategy group involving millennials and a newspaper he was consulting for, Alan Mutter (2014) of Reflections of a Newsosaur found ideas that fall in the same line: The only media that matters to millennials is social media. They trust their friends for recommendations and aren’t loyal to one brand of media over another. They click on content that interests or amuses them—news, entertainment, advertising: it’s all good. This crowd is attractive in the eyes of the Times for its size and youth. This deal presents an opportunity for the Times to publish a style of article that resonates with millennials in a sphere where they frequent. But how does the New York Times brand benefit from this? Rarely is viral content on Facebook held in the esteem that the New York Times strives for as the hallmark of quality journalism. And do these fly-by Times readers via Facebook leave that ecosystem to find the Times’ owned channels—moreover, do they come to these owned channels with their wallets open?
The end-game is a herd of news consumers (read: hundreds of millions) who turn to Facebook for their news more so than they do now. These future readers may read and trust the Times in Facebook, but what happens if Facebook decides to shifts it posture to hosting content from the Times on its platform? These readers the Times worked on feeding remain behind the fence. Do the loyalists in the herd follow the Times outside of the pasture? Some, sure. All? Surely not.
When Carr (2014) first reported on the makings of this partnership, David Bradley, owner and leader of the Atlantic Media Company, publisher of The Atlantic, spoke of an emerging competition that personifies the perils of the Facebook and New York Times deal: “In my last trip to the Valley, the best minds were talking about the same issue: Is the coming contest between platforms and publishing companies an existential threat to journalism? At least in the Valley, largely the answer I heard was ‘Yes.’”
With their emphasis on hosting videos on their platform and now stories, Facebook is assembling a multi-purpose stage for others to put their content on display while it builds the fence to keep its herd in. Especially in light of Bradley’s comments, it is not unthinkable that Facebook could swap the content on display from the New York Times to, say, their own as the contest thickens. One aspect about this partnership that has critics concerned is the loss of ability to collect data on their readers. While the details of how data about readership (or how advertising revenue would be shared, for that matter) has not been released, it’s presumable that Facebook would share this data in a similar manner to the way they share data about Pages via their Insight program. While this information is invaluable to most media organizations, for organizations like the Times, it may not go deep enough. So while the Times may lose certain reader insights, Facebook gains a whole world of new insight that the company would not have previously been privy to—information like what stories readers of the Times are more likely to read through completion, what authors are read the most, and what stories are read most in certain parts of the world. All of this data puts Facebook in a position to better understand the corral of readers it has amassed, in turn, putting Facebook in a better position to take the reins and publish directly to the audience themselves, not unlike how Netflix uses the data it collects to create shows like House of Cards.
As Mat Yurow, associate director of audience development at the New York Times, wrote, this deal may very well be the publishing industry’s iTunes moment. If Facebook can build an entertaining enough circus for the herd within its pen, the New York Times may be reduced to a bit part in the rotating cast of clowns brought into the seamlessly entertain while Facebook works on replacing those clowns altogether.
Benton, J. (2015, March 15). Facebook wants to be the new World Wide Web, and news orgs are apparently on board. Retrieved April 3, 2015, from http://www.niemanlab.org/2015/03/facebook-wants-to-be-the-new-world-wide-web-and-news-orgs-are-apparently-on-board/
Buchanan, M. (2014, August 11). Content Distributed. Retrieved April 3, 2015, from http://www.theawl.com/2014/08/content-distributed
Carr, D. (2014, October 26). Facebook Offers Life Raft, but Publishers Are Wary. Retrieved March 30, 2015, from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/27/business/media/facebook-offers-life-raft-but-publishers-are-wary.html?_r=2
D. Mutter, A. (2014, December 11). How newspapers lost the millennials. Retrieved April 5, 2015, from http://newsosaur.blogspot.ca/search?q=How newspapers lost the Millennials
Honan, M. (2014, December 17). Inside the Buzz-Fueled Media Startups Battling for Your Attention | WIRED. Retrieved January 15, 2015, from http://www.wired.com/2014/12/new-media-2/
Yurow, M. (2015, February 6). Please, [Insert Tech Platform Here], Take My Business! Retrieved April 3, 2015, from https://medium.com/@myurow/please-snapchat-facebook-twitter-take-my-content-2e1d96897144