Facebook has always had a somewhat fraught relationship with the news: Many users seem to think of the social network as just a place where they can see a friend’s baby or dog photos, but research shows a growing number of people also get their news there. And CEO Mark Zuckerberg has made it clear that he wants news to play a much larger role in Facebook, with features like Instant Articles—the mobile-news partnership where outlets like the New York Times publish entire articles directly to the platform.
In a public question-and-answer session that he participated in on Tuesday, the Facebook CEO reiterated his pitch for Instant Articles, saying the new feature is simply an attempt to help users consume more news by making those stories load faster and look better on mobile devices.
“One of the biggest issues today is just that reading news is slow. If you’re using our mobile app and you tap on a photo, it typically loads immediately. But if you tap on a news link, since that content isn’t stored on Facebook and you have to download it from elsewhere, it can take 10+ seconds to load. People don’t want to wait that long, so a lot of people abandon news before it has loaded or just don’t even bother tapping on things in the first place, even if they wanted to read them.”
In other words, according to the Facebook CEO, all Facebook really wants to do is help media companies. Not everyone is buying this explanation, however. When you are as large and all-encompassing as Facebook, even something that seems like a gesture of friendship can take on a much more ominous tone. Veteran media and technology writer Dan Gillmor, for example, thinks news companies are striking a devil’s bargain, calling the race to “feed the beast” an “insane” move:
As I’ve explained before, the risk with an offer like Facebook’s is that it gives media outlets something they desperately need: A chance to reach a massive audience with their content, and a share of the ad revenue. But it also comes at a potentially huge cost. A growing number of users think of Facebook as the place where they get their news, as opposed to the actual news outlets that produce that content. What happens if this process accelerates? Facebook ultimately wins.
In his Q&A, Zuckerberg said that one of the things Facebook offers to publishers who participate in the Instant Articles program is traffic. (Interestingly enough, he didn’t mention the advertising revenue aspect.) When news is as fast as everything else on Facebook, he said: “People will naturally read a lot more news. That will be good for helping people be more informed about the world, and it will be good for the news ecosystem because it will deliver more traffic.”
Not everyone is convinced by this argument either, however. And their skepticism may have been increased by the recent news that The Huffington Post—which says it gets more than 200 million unique visitors a month and produces close to 2,000 articles every day—is reportedly only breaking even on its editorial operations. How much is more traffic really going to help those news partners, assuming it arrives? As Wall Street Journal reporter Jack Marshall notes, traffic alone doesn’t pay the bills:
Zuckerberg also had some thoughts about the form that most news takes, saying he thinks traditional news entities are having difficulty transitioning to a world in which everything happens faster and news breaks in a thousand different ways through social networks and other platforms. In the short term at least, the Facebook CEO seemed to think that speed will win:
“Traditional news is thoroughly vetted, but this model has a hard time keeping us with important things happening constantly. There’s an important place for news organizations that can deliver smaller bits of news faster and more frequently in pieces. This won’t replace the longer and more researched work, and I’m not sure anyone has fully nailed this yet.”
On a somewhat more optimistic note, meanwhile, Zuckerberg also said he’s looking forward to the future of news and “rich content,” because he expects that technological developments like virtual reality will become a bigger factor. Facebook also owns Oculus Rift, one of the leading players in VR, which it acquired for $2 billion last year.