— Dan Gillmor (@dangillmor) ，2015年5月13日。
One big reason why there is trepidation in news-publishing circles—New York magazine said there was “palpable anxiety” in the Times newsroom about the deal—is that we already know what happens when Facebook loses interest in something: it withers and dies. That’s what happened with the social games that companies like Zynga developed and promoted through Facebook, a multibillion-dollar business until it suddenly wasn’t. It’s also what happened with the “social reader” apps that publishers like The Guardian and The Washington Post came up with in 2012 at Facebook’s behest.
The similarities between those apps and the current “instant articles” arrangement are many. The apps allowed users to read entire articles inside an app within Facebook, and millions of readers signed up to do so. But then Facebook changed its algorithm so that these articles and apps didn’t show up as frequently, and readership plummeted overnight.
The risk isn’t that an evil Facebook suddenly tries to destroy or pervert the causes of journalism, or goes to war against media entities (although the network’s relationship with news is troubled, as my colleague Erin Griffith points out, and censorship is not uncommon). The big risk is that Facebook plunders the relationship that news companies have—or should have—with their readers, and then destroys their business model almost accidentally, while it is in pursuit of other things. That’s the kind of thing that concerns Facebook-watchers like veteran journalist Dan Gillmor:
Facebook “instant articles” will be good for a few media orgs in the short run. But journalism will be far worse off as a whole.
— Dan Gillmor (@dangillmor) May 13, 2015
Thompson and others are right when they say that news companies don’t really have any choice but to play ball with Facebook, which is why this is actually much worsethan the classic Faustian bargain. As a result of their own incompetence and/or inflexibility, combined with the shifting sands of the digital-media market, they have lost their grip on the audience that both they and advertisers are trying to reach.
That’s why all the cards are in Facebook’s hands. It has the platform, it has the reach, it has the users and it has something to offer to advertisers that most news companies can’t hope to replicate. Publishers like The New York Times have websites that users spend less than 20 minutes on in the average month, apps that no one wants to pay for, and paywalls whose growth is flattening sharply. What does the future hold for them?
What the social network has to offer is unquestionably going to help any of those publishers who sign up (and that in turn will create an incentive for others to do so). The risk is that it will wind up helping Facebook more, and that eventually Facebook—a for-profit company that has shown no evidence that it actually understands or cares about “journalism” per se—will become the trusted source of news for millions of users, rather than the publications that produce content.
Do news consumers ultimately benefit from this deal?Clearly they do, or at least the ones who use Facebook do. And perhaps we shouldn’t shed too many tears for slow, lumbering, inefficient news providers who have failed to adapt. But what does a world in which Facebook essentially controls access to the news look like? We are about to find out.