The Facebook Proposition

After a week hosting and attending a conference about the future of the media, Walt Mossberg has a conclusion: “How’s the Media Industry These Days? Confused.

It’s no secret that the media industry has been high on the list of businesses that have been disrupted by the Internet and are struggling to find a new footing.

For a few years, things appeared to be settling down a bit, as the music, written word, and video businesses seemed to be on promising digital paths.

Record labels and artists were selling music on iTunes. TV networks sold new shows there and at Amazon, and sold old ones for streaming to Netflix. Big news organizations churned out iPad apps, and more started charging for their online content, even as some of their star journalists found they could fund their own breakaway sites.

Those tentative paths to digital stability, though, are either faltering, or at least coming under serious question. In their place, media companies and creators seem to be entering a new period of confusion, as the financial, technological and consumer behaviors they counted on are changing rapidly.

This is about right! Internet media companies are behaving in a manner that suggests they are confused. This confusion is passed through many stages of managerial amplification (anxiety’s counterpart to biomagnification) before reaching employees, whose brain-eggs are becoming thin and soft as a result. It’s all very exciting.

So: Here is an informed hypothetical about one way in which things will become less confusing, at least for some publishers.

At the conference, Facebook’s chief product officer told Recode’s Peter Kafka that, yes, as has been widely rumored and reported, the company is working on a way to host publishers’ content.

Facebook is making a pitch to media publishers: Let us host your content for you, and we’ll make it look beautiful (and give you more eyeballs) in the process…

Facebook is actually having these kinds of discussion with publishers, Cox says, to figure out a model that would enable Facebook to host content that would otherwise go on a publisher’s own website. Cox says one of the challenges for publishers — including Facebook — is that reading on mobile is still a crummy experience. He believes Facebook can make it better.

“Reading news on a smartphone is still a very bad experience most of the time,” he said, citing problems like speed and general design. “We want to try and make that a better experience for publishers.”

Facebook already does this with video, and publishers who are embracing it are reaching enormous audiences. The “experience” that Cox is referring to is reading posts, and publisher cooperation would mean publishing posts directly to Facebook using some kind of Facebook CMS, I guess. (The “very bad experience” is spending a second or two loading an external website and then hitting the back button.)

So, if you sense that a media company — maybe your media company — is feeling a little confused, consider how its leaders might respond from such an offer from Facebook.

The “better experience” that Facebook is able to offer is a larger audience and, presumably, a healthy cut of some sort of advertising. Handing over a major source of revenue — not to mention analytics and audience data and the establishment of boundaries — to an outside platform might sound like a risky transfer of power. It would be! But a publisher might be able to dismiss that concern by pointing out that many publishers are already dependent on vendors and ad agencies they don’t control, rather than directly negotiated advertising deals, and that the industry seems to be moving further in that direction, and besides, platform anxiety didn’t really stop anyone from trying iOS apps, right? Six of one, half-dozen of the other, see? I mean not quite, but LET’S NOT GET DISTRACTED.

There will be concerns about reaching audiences outside of Facebook, because not everyone uses the service to find news or entertainment. But this, I suspect, misunderstands how such a system might work: A post to Facebook could be both “native” to the app and available on the web, sort of like a long tweet. You could even share it on Twitter! And so that worry can be rationalized away as well, and publishers can begin to think of Facebook, if it helps, as something like a new version of WordPress with a money plugin. (Although: where does sponsored content fit into this? I don’t know. But it would be strange for Facebook to control one mode of publisher advertising but not the other. YouTube got tired of it!)

A publisher might say ok, fine, let’s do both. Let’s publish our things on Facebook and then also publish things on our website and sell ads against that too! If it doesn’t work out we’ll still have our website; if it does, our website can be sort of like our legacy product — like a print paper!! — which we will keep around until it is no longer worth working on.

A publisher might consider some broader implications. What if this really works, like, as a concept? Facebook would become the professional internet’s de facto CMS, making it more durable even as user attention once commanded by Facebook’s social functions wanders to WhatsApp and Instagram (which Facebook owns) and Snapchat and Vine (which is does not). A publisher might think: We don’t want to miss out on this. A publisher might worry that Facebook could be supplanted as quickly and totally as Facebook replaced its predecessors — and then what? — but then it will think: If we don’t do this, someone else will. A publisher might worry about what the point of that fancy CMS they spent all that money on was if they were just going to switch to Facebook’s, but then can say sunk costs are sunk. A publisher might wonder what happens to all those tech people — and, oh god, the ad sales team! — when Facebook handles most of the deals, and might privately thrill at this thought, and will simply say: we will cross that bridge when we come to it.

And so, given this option, I suspect many publishers will take it. It would be many, many things. But one thing it would not be, for businesses racked with insecurity about their futures, is confusing.

Image from As Valentine