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Facebook May Build Paywall For Instant Articles

The newspaper industry isn’t exactly fond of Facebook. Though it would be unfair to single it out as the sole cause, the social media giant has certainly fueled society’s need for fast, free content, and it’s not uncommon to hear belly-up print publications point the finger at Mark Zuckerberg’s empire as the cause of death, or at least a contraindication.

The New York Times now reports that Facebook is building a paywall to help drive subscriptions to news organizations that use the Instant Articles product. Instant Articles was introduced in 2015 to allow media outlets to publish directly on Facebook rather than linking back to their websites. The intent was to accelerate load times on mobile.

Facebook is leaning toward a metered paywall, the Wall Street Journal reported. The tool could be configured to send users to a publication’s subscription page after they have accessed, say, 10 free Instant Articles. Discussions have so far focused on making the feature available only for stories published natively to Facebook.

It is unclear whether Facebook would receive any cut of the revenue, or simply process the payments and pass all profits on to the publishers.

The Times framed the move as something of a peace offering, but the olive branch could be too little, too late. Readers are already conditioned to getting their news for free, and for those determined not to pay, gaming the system may be all too easy if a lot of publications opt in. All readers would have to do is hop from source to source, potentially reading hundreds of free articles before being asked to pay.

Still, with many publishers shifting toward subscription models with paywalls of their own, the move does have potential to encourage more casual readers to pay for news, the Times said.

In fact, according to the Wall Street Journal, publishers have been asking for a feature like this for a long time. Many urged Facebook to build a subscription option into Instant Articles before it even launched. At the time, Facebook said it did not want to place barriers between its users and content.

But Instant Articles had a major shortcoming: Because of restrictions on the number and type of ads, it was driving less revenue than articles on the publishers’ own websites. Where was the incentive for them to keep using it?

After easing some of the ad restrictions in April and adding a tool for publishers to encourage readers to sign up for their newsletters, Facebook also relented on the idea of charging for content and began working on a payment system.

Publishers are leaning more and more heavily on digital subscriptions to keep revenue on an upward trajectory. The sources cited in this article are just two examples, along with the Washington Post, the Financial Times and many others.

These have long felt that Facebook takes a disproportionate role in news dissemination – and, therefore, receives a disproportionate chunk of online advertising dollars. Together, Facebook and Google are projected to receive well over half of U.S. digital ad spending this year.

“Helping news publishers get paid for their digital content is arguably the most meaningful help that Facebook could provide to global journalism,” said Jim Friedlich, chief executive of the foundation behind the Philadelphia Inquirer, which has lobbied Facebook hard for the initiative.

“If Facebook truly creates a successful platform for the sale of news subscriptions at scale it will be a powerful and historic game changer for the news industry,” Friedlich said, adding that local and regional news enterprises stand to benefit the most, since they have had less luck building non-print revenue.

A pilot program is slated to start in October with a small group of publishers. Facebook has not yet disclosed which ones will be participating. If the pilot goes well, then the initiative could expand to more publications and the general public in 2018.

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