Digging into reader and subscription data has led to a boom or bust when it comes to releasing content on external publishing platforms, like the much-debated Facebook Instant Articles. Built to create fast-loading, native mobile articles that streamline the process from newsfeed to news story, the Instant Articles tool launched in 2015, ready to transform how Facebook users consumed news.
Many publishers, hesitant to release content for free without the benefit of traffic being directed back to their sites, tested Instant Articles with a few stories per month. Some liked what they found—that readers were being converted to the site after consuming a handful of articles on the platform. For others, the trial period proved what many had thought to be true: that the publishers’ own sites monetized better than Facebook’s approach. The New York Times, an early publisher to test the platform, recently pulled its participation, as did magazine giant Hearst.
The Washington Post takes a different, user-centric approach. “We give all our content to Facebook Instant Articles. We really want to see how it all works, so we’re going to experiment. And we’ve seen many positives in engagement…and revenue,” says Hartman. “Facebook has immense control over your traffic whether you’re in Instant Articles or not. Wouldn’t you rather lean into that, become a deeper part of the platform and create a better product for the user?”
For digital-first publications, such as Quartz, BuzzFeed, VICE News and Vox Media, Instant Articles would have seemed a natural progression—after all, these platforms had to figure out how to monetize content without a paywall from inception. However, Quartz and Vice News have already pulled out of the program, while BuzzFeed and Vox Media are showing signs of increased engagement on the platform, proving that digital-first publications are on the same trial-and-error monetization roller coaster as traditional news outlets.
“In five years or so, what we’ll likely see more of is how younger people consume news—on mobile and digital media, which is why news aggregation sites are taking hold,” Stone says. “These personalized news sources, like the Facebook newsfeed, will be different for every user and will be extremely relevant for each individual reader.”
News aggregation apps, like the Beijing-based Toutiao and Japan’s SmartNews, are already leading the way in the new market of algorithm-customized newsfeed user experiences. Over 700 million subscribers already use Toutiao in China and the company closed its latest funding round late last year with an $11 billion market valuation; SmartNews has over 20 million downloads worldwide and an estimated valuation of $600 million. Both apps were launched in 2012, making them early adopters of the personalization movement and placing them at the forefront of machine-curated feeds.
For newspapers still recovering from years of sinking money into difficult-to-monetize online sites, using data to deliver personalized news is a challenging, but hopeful next step.
“If you look at the way newspapers have operated traditionally, elements of that certainly are not relevant anymore,” Hartman notes. “There’s other portable, curated ways to get content right now that are very appealing. However, if you can capitalize on the other options and you maximize the opportunity that works for your paper, your business can grow into the future.”