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Facebook Starts Publishing the New York Times, BuzzFeed and More With Its 'Instant Articles' Program

An "experiment" that's going to be very big for the media business. Here's how it works:

Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

Hey Web publishers! Facebook is coming in peace.

The social giant has finally unveiled the terms of its “give us your content and let us run it on our app” plan, which starts tomorrow. And the terms look very good: It’s hard to imagine any publisher passing on the chance, if they get it, to collect eyeballs and dollars on Facebook’s mobile platform, which boasts 1.25 billion users.

All they have to do is hope Facebook continues to use its enormous power to help, not hurt them. And that it doesn’t change the rules someday.

For now, the publishers involved in the initial rollout of what Facebook calls “Instant Articles” — the New York Times, National Geographic, BuzzFeed, NBC News* and the Atlantic launch Wednesday morning; the Guardian, BBC News, Spiegel and Bild soon — are careful to describe their participation as an “experiment.” There are no commitments from any publisher to run a certain amount of articles with Facebook, and any publisher can walk at any point.

“We’re going in with our eyes open,” says New York Times CEO Mark Thompson. His paper will publish a single story on Facebook Wednesday.

But it seems quite likely that the slow, cautious rollout Facebook has plotted will pick up steam quite rapidly. If you’re a Web publisher, there are good reasons to be wary of giving Facebook too much power over your future — but there are many near-term reasons that will likely make you sign up anyway. Because Facebook has crafted a very publisher-friendly program.

“Facebook really understood what would be important to us,” said BuzzFeed president Greg Coleman. “So instead of acting like someone who would dictate, they came to us and asked us what would be great for BuzzFeed.” For example, Coleman said, Facebook will allow BuzzFeed to upload its “sponsored posts” — BuzzFeed stories it creates on behalf of advertisers — into its “Instant Articles” format, and treat it just like any other story from any other publisher.**

Here are the core terms for BuzzFeed, the Times and Facebook’s other partners:

  • Facebook’s “Instant Articles” are designed to load, um, instantly on Facebook’s iOS app — which is the heart of Facebook’s pitch.
  • Facebook lets publishers use their own publishing tools, and then converts stories automatically into a format that works on Facebook’s app. There are also some cool bells and whistles, like a photo- and video-panning feature Facebook imported from its all-but-forgotten Paper app. Here’s a demo video:

  • Facebook will let publishers keep 100 percent of the revenue they sell for “Instant Articles”; if they have unsold inventory Facebook will sell it for them via its own ad network and give publishers 70 percent of that revenue.
  • Facebook will give “Instant Article” publishers access to performance data on their stuff, provided by Google Analytics and Adobe’s Omniture.
  • ComScore, the Web’s most important measurement company, will give “Instant Article” publishers full credit for any traffic those stories generate on Facebook’s app.
  • Publishers can control much of the look and feel of how Facebook presents their stories; the item BuzzFeed publishes tomorrow won’t be mistaken for National Geographic’s.
  • Facebook says it won’t alter its algorithm to favor “Instant Articles” over any other kind of content. But given their novelty, and the fact they’re designed to be eye-catching, it seems very likely that these things will get lots of attention at the start.

What’s not to like? You’ll have to work hard to nitpick. The biggest downside I can see is that the ad inventory Facebook is letting publishers sell may be some of the least valuable inventory Facebook has, since it isn’t giving publishers access to all of the interest and targeting data that Facebook uses when it sells its own ads.

So publishers will have to tell advertisers that the basic*** banner ad they’re selling is an interesting banner ad simply because it’s running on Facebook.

But that’s about it. The rest of the downside is about broad, nagging risk: The risk that Facebook will decide one day that it doesn’t like its terms, for whatever reason, and changes them in a way that undercuts whatever business publishers have built up around “Instant Articles” and Facebook in general. This seems quite likely, since Facebook does it all the time — at this point it’s almost considered standard operating procedure.

And dealing with Facebook is unnerving just because Facebook is already so big and important to publishers — for many sites it has surpassed Google as their chief referral source. Why give it even more power?

Facebook has insisted, publicly and privately, that it’s doing this because it wants users to have a better experience reading stories on mobile phones — not because it wants to own publishing. “We don’t want to try and devour, and, like, suck in the Internet,” Facebook product head Chris Cox told me in February, the first time the company disclosed publicly that it was in talks with publishers.

For now that argument seems to resonate, at least with the companies it is launching with. The Times’ Thompson argues that he is already trying to court Facebook users — the site now accounts for about 15 percent of its referral traffic, double where it was a year ago — and has no problem trying to recruit more, as long as he believes he can bring some of them to his own site and apps.

“We have an interest in broadening the reach of the New York Times, and going out and finding audiences in other environments,” he said. “We want to fish for new users in the ponds where they are.”

* Comcast owns NBCUniversal, which is a minority investor in Revere Digital, Re/code’s parent company.

** Worth noting: BuzzFeed’s “publish our stuff on everyone else’s platforms” strategy almost seems as though it was built with Facebook, and this program, in mind.

*** A 300×250 IAB-compliant unit, if you’re the kind of person who cares about that sort of thing.

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