The plan is in its early stages, but Facebook is taking steps to host newspaper and magazine content on its mobile app as it bids to become its users’ own curated newspaper.
The social network views publishers’ websites as slow to load content and thinks people would get a smoother experience if they could open articles through Facebook's app. Revenue from advertising would be shared between Facebook and the publishers.
But caution abounds. Charlie Cottrell, editorial director at We Are Social, says publishers will be reluctant to put content on a platform where they cannot control distribution, as this could compromise editorial integrity.
"Facebook’s success will depend on both satisfying publishers’ desires and allaying their fears," Cottrell says, adding: "When Facebook releases a functionality, it is usually as a first step to something that profits the platform rather than its partners."
She points to the way Facebook drew in brands with the free marketing potential of "likes" from fans, but then brands found they were expected to pay for brand content, with bigger investments needed each month to reach their fan base.
"If Facebook controls news content, publishers could find the platform is in a position to dictate the level of that ad split over time in their favour," she says.
Chris Cox, chief product officer at Facebook, plays down this issue, saying: "Because we play an increasingly important role in how people discover the news, we feel a responsibility to work with publishers to come up with as good an experience as we can for consumers. We want and need that to be a good experience for publishers as well."
Phillip Dyte, the paid social media manager at iProspect UK, warns of a potential backlash. "It’s about editorial integrity and Facebook trying to tell people what to think. People often leap to the worst conclusions about this sort of thing," he says. He believes that, if the idea were to take off, it could benefit writers rather than news brands.
Meanwhile, Andy Pringle, the head of performance at ZenithOptimedia’s Performics division, thinks Facebook is moving away from simply being a place where brands can drive "likes" and connect with customers to being a "mass-targeted-reach channel."
Facebook wants users to see the site as a self-created newspaper where they explore their interests, Pringle says. This seems to move into YouTube territory as a platform to "explore your passions" rather than just a place to connect. Pringle adds that Facebook is now asking brands for "add-vertising," which informs users’ interests through content marketing. Hosting articles on the site would play into this.
Print brands are getting used to adapting to formats they once rejected – offering free publications and giving away content online, for example. Facebook’s results last week showed that daily active users – all-important to advertisers – increased 19 percent year over year to 864 million in September, while mobile now makes up two-thirds of its ad revenue.
Publishers may find they have little alternative but to play ball with the biggest mobile content player around.