After months of rumors, Facebook has announced the arrival of "Instant Articles", an iPhone-only app (for now) that natively hosts publishers' content, allowing users to view content without waiting for outside websites to load. The program will begin with just a few articles but is expected to expand quickly. Users should begin seeing glossy cover videos and photos tagged with map coordinates, and most important says Facebook, Instant Articles will load up to 10 times faster than they other forms of content.
That's the key here. Declan Moore, chief media officer of the National Geographic Society, said the appeal of instant articles was the speed with which content, even those with complex video and interactive maps, loaded once a mobile Facebook user clicked on them. "The No. 1 thing on mobile is it has to be fast," he said.
Instant Articles won't receive preferential treatment from Facebook's News Feed algorithm, but if users click, like, comment, and share them more often than others, they may show up higher and more frequently like any piece of popular content. That could incentivize, or implicitly force, more publishers to adopt the new hosted format.
And what other options are there? Vivian Schiller, a former executive at NBC, The New York Times and Twitter who now advises media companies and brands points out that "that's where the audience is, it's too massive to ignore."
Hoping to alleviate some of these fears, Facebook has said that it will share all of its' analytics, and Instant Articles is compatible with audience measurement and attribution tools like comScore, Omniture, and Google Analytics. Ads can appear inside Instant Articles, with publishers keeping 100% of revenue if they sell them, and Facebook keeps its standard 30% if it sells the ads.
James Bennett, editor in chief of The Atlantic, said that publishing pieces through instant articles means "losing control over the means of your distribution." On the other hand, he said, "we're trying to get out stories to as many people as possible, and at the same time, continue to build a core, loyal, enthusiastic audience."
Facebook has long been seen as the gatekeeper to news. Nearly half of American Internet users said they got news about politics and government on Facebook during the course of a week, almost as many as got such news from local television, according to a survey last year by the Pew Research Center.
Jonah Peretti, chief executive of BuzzFeed, said the Instant Articles format enhances the current approach of simply posting links. "The look and feel of this feels more like an app," Mr. Peretti said in an interview. "I think that our bundle of content will get even more compelling when it loads faster."
But if the format proves successful, and Facebook maintains its dominance in distributing news online, publishers could become ever more dependent on a platform they can't control. Those concerns may prove valid, but it hasn't stopped big partners from signing up.
At the time of launch, users will see rich-media stories from The New York Times, National Geographic, BuzzFeed, NBC, The Atlantic, The Guardian, BBC News, and Germany's Spiegel and Bild.
Soon, many more publishers may feel that they don't have a choice. Whatever happens, the arrival of instant articles marks a turning point in the evolution of the news.