With promise of audience growth, Facebook pulls news organizations within its walls

With changes announced last week, Facebook aims at making a major transition from a content discovery and sharing engine to a platform for the consumption and distribution of content.

In the old Facebook, we used Like and Share buttons and posted links on Pages to drive traffic somewhere else. In the new Facebook, news, music and video live in Facebook apps, on Facebook.com, fed by a feedback loop of the Ticker activity stream and personalized recommendations.

The Guardian is among major news providers launching apps that put their content within Facebook.

The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and The Guardian are among news organizations that just launched social news apps that place the entire content experience inside of Facebook.

Clearly this is in Facebook's interest. But it raises some important questions for journalists.

Can you trust Facebook as a business partner?

If it becomes the Web's universal content platform, Facebook would have the power to discriminate or play favorites among content creators, though I think it's unlikely to rock its own boat by doing so.

More likely, however, is that Facebook will begin to impose tolls -- asking for percentages of advertising or subscription revenue, or requiring that all transactions use its Facebook Credits virtual currency. (The Guardian and Wall Street Journal already are running ads in their Facebook apps).

There’s also the possibility of guilt by association. As Facebook wrestles with privacy issues and other things that may alienate some users, will that rub off on the news sources that closely associate themselves with Facebook?

One advantage of building a Facebook app is each app can ask users upfront for access to personal data. That’s a better arrangement for publishers than some mobile apps, where individual users can opt out of sharing their information with the publisher while the middleman (Apple, for example) has access to that data.

What happens when a 'news organization' is reduced to a 'content provider'?

In this new model, content creation could become even more commoditized. Facebook becomes the gateway of content, and everyone else is a supplier.

Maybe that frees journalists to focus on great storytelling. But we also lose some control over the product experience and design. The Facebook social news apps are all loaded in a canvas page that the app developer controls, but the pages are framed by Facebook’s always-present navigation bar on top and its ads and activity stream on the right.

There’s allowance for each app to choose its own fonts and design aesthetic, as the early adopters have done, but the Facebook wrapper makes them all look fairly similar.

When will we see the first news provider that exists solely as a Facebook app?

Right now the early social news app builders are major news orgs that maintain their own websites. But it seems like only a matter of time until someone shuts down a website to go Facebook-only, or launches a new product with Facebook as the only channel.

I wrote a while ago about a community news site in Maryland, Rockville Central, that switched from Web publishing to a Facebook Page. And perhaps a larger player like News Corp. would someday try a Facebook-only publication, similar to how The Daily launched as an iPad exclusive. (The Daily itself just released a Facebook app.)

If the medium is the message, what happens if Facebook becomes the medium? Certainly the message (the content) will begin to look quite different.

Is the viral sharing worth what you give up?

The main benefit of moving your news within Facebook’s walls is the potential for huge reader sharing.

When just one person reads one of your stories, all of her friends have a chance to discover that story (and your app in general) through the activity stream. Then all their friends discover it, and so on. A drawback, however, is the engagement is fragmented. Instead of building community around the news organization’s website, much of it takes place within Facebook’s walled garden. For example, article comments left in the news apps now don’t sync with comments left on the news organization’s website.

Is the benefit of increased sharing worth the risks? To answer that, you have to consider whether there might be another way to achieve similar results.

The Huffington Post, for example, has succeeded in making its website a social experience. For some time HuffPost Social News already has been doing on its own site what Facebook is just now adding -- tracking the reading activity of participating users and sharing it with friends.

It seems to me the ideal thing for HuffPost and other news organizations would be to feed to their own sites the reading activity of Facebook users. They can continue to keep the content experience on their own websites, instead of in a Facebook app, and use the open graph API to take advantage of the activity feed referrals.

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    Jeff Sonderman

    Jeff Sonderman is the deputy director of the American Press Institute, helping to lead its use of research, tools, events, and strategic insights to advance and sustain journalism.


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