Facebook's (FB) Instant Articles was built for speed and efficiency -- not necessarily making money.
That was the central message from a deep dive into Instant Articles by The Verge's Casey Newton, a critical look at the two-year-old news platform that Facebook originally touted as a means to both educate users while offering a much-needed jolt to publishers who have been mostly battered by the transition from print to digital.
Instant Articles, Newton explains, works nicely on mobile devices but that hasn't translated into meaningful revenue for online news organizations. And with Facebook's content algorithms increasingly favoring video over text, Instant Articles doesn't appear to be getting the high profile that publishers first envisioned when the platform launched in Spring 2015.
"Two years after it launched, a platform that aspired to build a more stable path forward for journalism appears to be declining in relevance," Newton wrote. "After scrambling to rebuild their workflows around Instant Articles, large publishers were left with a system that failed to grow audiences or revenues."
A major problem with Instant Articles is that it was built just as the advertising market was shifting. The idea behind behind the platform was that Facebook, with its fire hose of online traffic, could generate more eyeballs for stories from online publishers. Initially, the idea was met with great anticipation.
New York Times (NYT) , Buzzfeed, Hearst, Vice Media and newspapers like the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune signed up. For publications eager to sell advertising, getting boatloads of traffic from Facebook seemed like a can't-lose proposition.
Instant Articles was a technological play meant to solve the problem that story links off a Facebook page were taking much too long to load. To resolve the problem, Facebook told news sites it would build a better platform.
The social media giant also told publishers that they could keep all of the revenue from any ads that they sold, or 70% of sales from ads that Facebook sold for them. Publishers were also given analytics tools to better understand their audiences viewing habits. The ground work for success was seemingly in place.
But in the two years since Instant Articles launched, and in the year since Facebook opened-up the platform to any and all publishers, a strange thing happened in digital advertising. It all dried up. Actually, it all dried up for everyone except Alphabet's (GOOGL) Google and you guessed it, Facebook.
That's the irony. Of course, for publishers in need of cash, irony isn't what they wanted.
"The whole model of monetizing traffic was built on the notion that if publisher give an article away, they'll get the eyeballs," David Chavern, president of the News Media Alliance, an industry group that includes most major U.S. newspapers, said in a phone interview from Arlington, Va. "But monetizing eyeballs is proving to be really hard."