Instant Articles were marketed as a publishing game-changer when Facebook first made them available to a select group of major publishers back in 2015. A year later, publishers of all sizes were given access to the new format. Instant Articles promised faster load times, which would reduce the number of users that jumped ship and moved on to the next story when yours took too long to load.
“This is a problem that impacts publishers of all sizes,” Facebook claimed in a blog post announcing the expansion of the feature. “Especially those with audiences where low connectivity is an issue.”
While that may be true, it appears that faster loading times aren’t high enough on the publishing hierarchy of needs in order to guarantee that publishers will continued to use them — especially if they don’t lead to increases in revenue.
Lucia Moses of DigiDay says publishers are “deeply unhappy” with the monetization opportunities for Instant Articles, and major publishers like the New York Times have started to bail, with “many others cutting back the amount of content pushed to the IA platform.”
Simply put, publishers have been making less money from stories published via Instant Articles than stories that appear on their own websites. This is compounded by the fact that there have been few opportunities to insert display advertisements and other money-making elements into IA stories.
I briefly touched on this in a blog post for the NJ Mobile News Lab last year when Facebook first opened Instant Articles up to all publishers. I was mostly concerned with the potential impacts this would have on smaller, independent publishers, but apparently the giants are also raising the issue.
Subscriptions (but really, we’re still ultimately talking about money)
Another big reason publishers are starting to sour on Instant Articles has to do with subscriptions. Publishers increasingly rely on paid subscribers as — you guessed it — a growing source of revenue. Until recently, Facebook didn’t allow publishers to embed paid subscription sign-ups, which created an unnecessary barrier to maintaining a growing subscriber base.
Meanwhile, as Kim Davis writes for DMN, Facebook also “has yet to offer a way to enforce a paywall through Instant Articles, or test embedded paid subscription sign-ups.” This is probably because the process of verifying or enforcing a paywall would likely defeat the purpose of using Instant Articles in the first place, which is to gain instant and easy access to content.
Not to mention, Instant Articles have been difficult to set up — especially for smaller publishers, many of whom have little tech experience. Using Instant Articles also requires publishers to use Facebook as a go-between for their audiences, which many publishers perceive as another step in Facebook’s ongoing encroachment on the traditional publishing business model.
The recent departures seem to suggest that Facebook has been unable to make Instant Articles enough of an attractive or sustainable option to retain some of the larger publishers. Unless that changes, more publishers may start looking to abandon ship.
To be fair, Facebook is clearly making some efforts to remedy these issues. Today’s announcement from Facebook indicates that, at the very least, the social networking behemoth is attempting to address the issues regarding accessibility, ease-of-use, and multi-platform distribution when it comes to Instant Articles. Facebook’s new extension for the open source Software Development Kit (SDK) used to build Instant Articles will allow publishers to also publish IA content as Google AMP and, eventually, as Apple News content.
The updated SDK extension is a step in the right direction, and Facebook says it is committed to “meaningful conversations with publishers as part of the Facebook Journalism Project to better serve the needs of news publishers and readers on Facebook.”
Still, there are other, more urgent issues with Instant Articles that have yet to be addressed — specifically when it comes to the revenue opportunities and challenges mentioned above.
At the same time, the question remains: will Facebook’s efforts will be enough to bring back those publishers that have already left, while simultaneously preventing others — many of whom are already eyeing the door — from leaving as well?
Disclosure: The Center for Cooperative Media is working with a group of publishers involved in part of the Facebook Journalism Project.
Joe Amditis is the associate director of the Center for Cooperative Media. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Center for Cooperative Media: The Center is a grant-funded program of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. The Center is supported with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and Democracy Fund. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism, and in doing so serve New Jersey residents. For more information, visit CenterforCooperativeMedia.org.