Facebook publishing for local news outlets could arrive ‘in the coming months’

Photo: AP

When Facebook on Wednesday unveiled its new Instant Articles feature that allows news organizations to publish directly to the social media platform—and, in the process, set off an avalanche of commentary and speculation about the future of digital news—its “launch partners” were a who’s who of major online publishers on both sides of the Atlantic: The New York Times, National Geographic, BuzzFeed, NBC, The Guardian, BBC News, Spiegel, Bild, and, well, The Atlantic.

But smaller publications, including local news sources, may have an opportunity to try Instant Articles for themselves soon. “We plan to work closely with our publishing partners to gather feedback and make improvements with a goal to scale this to local news publishers in the coming months,” Justin Osofsky, Facebook’s vice president for media partnerships, told CJR in a statement today.

So will local news outlets want to be Facebook’s partners? As talk of a deal circulated for months, many journalists and media-watchers—including a number of writers for CJR—have eyed the arrangement warily. Instant Articles—which for now, only appear in Facebook’s iOS app—offer the promise of a faster user experience for mobile content that leads to more reading and more sharing, and Facebook seems to be offering terms on ad revenue and audience data that are appealing to publishers. On the other hand, as the late David Carr wrote last fall, the “wholesale transfer of content” involved in publishing directly to an outside platform “sends a cold, dark chill down the collective spine of publishers, both traditional and digital insurgents alike.”

I reached out to a number of editors, publishers, and corporate executives at local news organizations around the country to see how closely they’re following Facebook’s new move—and if it’s a space they want to enter, if invited. Many didn’t reply, and some hadn’t yet focused on the issue. Jason Zaragoza, deputy director of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, said the prospect of publishing on Facebook hasn’t bubbled up on a listserv of member publications, “and no one has asked us about it yet.” At GateHouse Media, which owns hundreds of local publications around the country, the company hasn’t yet had an opportunity to fully look at the question. But “we will,” David Arkin, senior vice president of content and product development, told me.

But at least some local news organizations are already watching closely. Civitas Media, which has more than 100 publications in 12 states, sounds like it’s open for business, should Facebook be looking for a smaller partner.

“This is an area where our interests align with the interests of big publishers, like BuzzFeed and The New York Times,” said Jim Lawitz, Civitas’ vice president of editorial. “So long as revenue isn’t being sacrificed, we’re open to any avenue where we can further build audience. This seems like a very natural extension of what many of our newsrooms already are doing: using social media to drive readership. I could think of a number of our newsrooms that would be interested in being a beta site for this should that opportunity present itself.”

At Gannett, I didn’t get a chance to talk to the corporate higher-ups. But their top editor in the Carolinas said he’s comfortable taking a more wait-and-see approach.

“We’re watching it intensely,” Josh Awtry, editor of the Asheville Citizen-Times and The Greenville News, said via email. “As much as I like to be an early adopter, this is one I’m OK to hang back and watch for a bit.”

Awtry’s thoughts about both the opportunities to reach a larger audience and the reasons to be wary about relinquishing control mirrored much of the broader media debate.

“I don’t want to repeat any mistakes we made in the ’90s, and this might eerily echo those discussions,” he says. “Back then, we were so nervous about giving up end-to-end ownership of our distribution platform—the printed paper— that our shift to digital was slow and without innovation. Ultimately, we had to decide whether we were in the content business or the distribution business, and, for the most part, we settled on the latter.”

On the other hand, there is reason to worry that a content producer who becomes too reliant on one distributor can lose whatever leverage it had. “Those terms sound palatable today, but once we start placing more of our eggs into that basket, the power of our own channels and brands deteriorate,” Awtry added. “Once that happens, and an outside vendor has a lock on the primary method in which we reach people, those terms could change—and we’d be powerless to stop it.”

Elsewhere in the same region, one digital manager for a local TV station said he would be interested in testing Instant Articles when it becomes available.

“I want to learn more about the ad units and what is involved with publishing our content to Facebook. The same goes for Snapchat,” said John Conway, general manager of WRAL’s digital operations in Raleigh, NC. “We need to experiment with these new mobile distribution channels to determine how they serve the needs of our audience, build our brands, and grow our revenue.”

Of course, many news sites—local and otherwise—already depend on Facebook referrals for an outsized share of their traffic. That raises the possibility that, if Instant Articles expands, some outlets may feel little choice to participate, if only to preserve their share of Facebook’s audience. “If enough partners use Instant, and if there is enough good Instant content to read, [Facebook] users will begin to regard linked-out stories as weird slow garbage that should Not Be Clicked,” wrote The Awl’s John Herrman, describing one potential outcome.

Another possibility: The deal Facebook is offering is a better fit for some types of news outlets, and some business models, than others.

The Texas Tribune is generally seen as the most successful of the crop of state and local nonprofit news sites that has sprung up in recent years. Tim Griggs, the Tribune’s publisher and chief operating officer, said in an email that “Instant Articles is pretty damn interesting to us.”

“Why? Unlike some sites, who depend so heavily on driving traffic for advertising and for subscriber acquisition, we’re very much in brand-building and growth mode,” he said. “It’s not that eyeballs to our site aren’t important — they most certainly are — but we’re not a big scale CPM-based advertising medium, nor are we entirely dependent on paid subscribers…. Part of our business and journalistic M.O. is reaching people where they are.”

“If partnering with Facebook helps extend our reach — particularly if it arms us with data we wouldn’t otherwise have — I’m potentially all for it,” Griggs said.

He added: “Of course, the devil’s in the details.”

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Corey Hutchins is CJR's correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity Investigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.