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Could Facebook Instant Articles help hyperlocal news?

by: Amy Gahran |

Community engagement and exposure isn't just about attracting traffic to your website. Increasingly, major media brands are displaying their content directly on social media platforms. Could this strategy also benefit independent community news producers? In Philadelphia, one local publisher is about to find out.

Facebook Instant Articles, launched in May 2015, is a program where a select group of news partners allow the complete text of articles to be displayed directly by Facebook, rather than linking out to their website. This offers the advantage of faster and more reliable performance, especially for mobile users; as well as increased convenience and easier sharing for Facebook users.

That said, Facebook Instant Articles has generated considerable debate in the media industry. What Facebook gives, Facebook can take away. Are publishers giving up too much control? Might they suffer in the long run if they rely too heavily on a third-party platform for content distribution?

So far, Facebook Instant Articles has focused on distributing major news media brands -- and since these brands have generally been sticking with the program, it would appear they believe the benefits outweigh the risks. For instance, the Washington Post now distributes all of its content, not just selected articles, through Facebook Instant Articles as well as on its own website.

This year, BillyPenn.com (a mobile-first news startup in Philadelphia) will become the first local independent publisher in this programs. They've been developing the technical back-end to support this distribution, and will launch sometime in early February.

Founder and CEO Jim Brady said his venue was invited by a former coworker who now works at Facebook. "They were just starting to look at local independents, not just large brands," he said. "I suspect this is a step toward making it easier for more publishers to join the program."

Direct distribution via Facebook seemed relatively low-risk in this case, in part because BillyPenn.com is such a new venue. "We haven't yet invested a lot of money in running everything through our own website," said Brady. "And since we're mobile-focused, faster load time and easier display are very important. Journalism has done a great job of destroying the user experience. We think it makes more sense to focus on producing good content, and use platforms that do a good job of distribution and display."

Ads revenues are one of the touted benefits of this program; publishers can do their own Facebook ad sales, or Facebook can run network ads with distributed news content. This might be a considerable lure to local publishers with limited time or staff for ad sales.

But for BillyPenn.com, the primary draw is access to a larger audience. "It's more of a reach play for us than anything," he said. "People are living their life on Facebook, so it makes sense for us to be more present in that environment."

In NiemanLab's roundup of media predictions for 2016, John Clark (executive director of Reese News Lab at the University of North Carolina) speculated that this year, direct social media distribution might begin to scale down more effectively to local media.

Clark envisions that this might happen with groups of publishers in a local market, rather than one-off deals with individual publishers. "We may see groups of local media band together to work with the platforms," he said. "It strengthens their position to get more attention, and it provides the platforms with easier access to larger, aggregated audiences."

This approach makes obvious sense for major local news brands, especially daily newspapers or TV news. But how might smaller local independents get involved?

"They'd have to find the right partners," said Clark. "Which means it would probably be easier for more established independents that have a larger audience. Or maybe several independents could group themselves together first, as a consolidated bloc. Starting these conversations through local press associations might be a useful first step in finding partners."

One possible obstacle for smaller independents might be the success metrics built into startup grant funding. Some funders measure performance based on website traffic -- and Clark encourages both funders and grantees to think more broadly about reach. "If you're publishing through another platform, that should be considered part of your traffic. Those lines are starting to blur. Funders want as many eyeballs on that content as possible. Platform should be irrelevant," he said.

Facebook Instant Articles does offer analytics for publishers, which can be integrated with popular Analytics platforms -- so it is possible to participate in this program and get total audience statistics, combining all distribution platforms.

This is one strength that Facebook Instant Articles has over a somewhat similar offering from Apple: direct distribution via the new Apple News app, which comes bundled for free on all iOS devices. Apple offers more limited analytics to its news partners, and may be significantly undercountingthat audience.

Currently BillyPenn.com has no plans to pursue distribution via the Apple News app, but they are open to the option later. Right now, they are also preparing to distribute their news via Google AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) -- an initiative in collaboration with major publishers to speed load times on mobile devices.

"I espouse a try-everything philosophy," said Brady. "If you see an opportunity to get word out, I think you should try it if you can.

Is Facebook Instant Articles something that other hyperlocals should try? Brady observed that there are technical hurdles to clear. "It has taken us a few weeks of technical development time to get ready to roll on Facebook Instant Articles, but fortunately we had that resource," he said. "Sites with few or no technical developers might find it harder to participate. But it's also possible that as this program develops, Facebook might make it easier to participate."

Amy Gahran

Amy Gahran is a journalist, editor, trainer, entrepreneur, strategist, and media consultant based in Boulder, Colorado. In addition to writing
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