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This new feature could be Twitter’s response to Facebook’s Instant Articles

August 4, 2015, 3:37 PM UTC
<> on November 7, 2013 in London, England.
Twitter's app on November 7, 2013 in London, England.
Photograph by Bethany Clarke — Getty Images

When Facebook (FB) first launched its “Instant Articles” project, a mobile-content partnership with major media entities such as the New York Times and The Guardian, one of my first thoughts was that it seemed like a very real threat to Twitter, since the latter has staked much of its reputation on being a source of news and a tool for journalists.

Now, it seems that Twitter (TWTR) is working on what could become a response to this threat. The company has confirmed that it is rolling out a new experimental feature to users of its iOS and Android apps: A “News” tab that highlights news stories from a number of mainstream media partners, including the New York Times and USA Today.

According to a number of reports, the new feature has been seen in the wild in Japan for some time, and consists of a “Trending News” page that collects some of the top most-shared news articles from the company’s partners. Users in the U.S. are also starting to see the feature.

Twitter News tab

As with most of the news content that appears on Twitter already, clicking a tweet from one of these media partners expands one of the company’s display “cards,” which shows an excerpt from the article with a link to the full version, as well as a photo and a list of related tweets.

The feature appears to be another step in the company’s attempt to add more filtering and recommendations to the service to make it more appealing, including a venture called Project Lightning. The initial response to the News tab from some users both in Japan and the U.S. seems to be underwhelming at best, however, with a number saying it isn’t useful and just adds more clutter.

It’s not clear whether Twitter plans to eventually host the news content from these partners itself, the way that Facebook does with the media companies it is working with for Instant Articles. One of the big selling points for Facebook’s offering is that because it hosts the content, the articles display much more quickly and look better than they would otherwise.

The other main selling points for Facebook, of course, are the massive audience reach it provides—since the network has more than a billion active users—and the fact that it shares advertising revenue with its news partners (100% if the media company sells its own ads, and 70% if they allow Facebook to handle the advertising).

Twitter could certainly match the ad-revenue sharing deal if it wanted to, but that’s likely to be somewhat less appealing than a share of Facebook’s revenue. And when it comes to audience reach, Twitter is substantially less compelling, since it only has about 300 million active monthly users, and appears to be having some difficulty increasing that number.

For at least some media outlets, however, working with Twitter on an Instant Articles-style feature might be an attractive option, if only because it would reduce their reliance on Facebook. The social networking behemoth’s reach is undeniable, but its increasing control over content is a disturbingly Faustian bargain.

For Twitter, meanwhile, offering more features to its partners might give it a bit more of an edge in what is becoming an increasingly competitive marketplace for media platforms, thanks to Facebook and other new players like Snapchat.