Facebook’s looming role as media kingpin

This is the first story in the series “Making the Mobile Leap,” which explores how the big players in digital media are taking on the mobile question. The series is sponsored by Celtra, the global leader for rich media mobile ad creation, serving and analytics.

Facebook is muscling into Google’s turf as publishers’ best friend.

Yesterday, it rolled out its long-awaited mobile app Paper, a platform that promises to drive even more traffic from Facebook. The platform has already said it is committed to upping the amount of “high-quality” publisher content it presents to its billion-plus users, and many publishers report seeing surges of traffic from Facebook over the past several months. For now, publishers are leaning heavily on Facebook for referrals.

The question is whether Paper will actually deliver on that promise, and if so, whether publishers will continue to benefit once Facebook decides to monetize Paper. Facebook, for its part, seems adamant about helping direct readers to publishers’ mobile websites.

“As much of this content is links, Paper will drive traffic to publishers’ sites,” noted a Facebook rep.

Paper is thought of as analogous to Flipboard, which often has publishers publish directly on its platform. And Facebook in the past has proven more than willing to run roughshod over outside “partners,” particularly when those partners aren’t paying it money. Flipboard itself has a mixed record with publishers. The New York Times publishes directly on Flipboard, splitting ad revenue with it, but major titles like Wired and The New Yorker, both owned by Conde Nast, walked away from their deals. Talking Points Memo founder Josh Marshall once called Flipboard a “scam” for publishers. Facebook dependence could be dangerous for publisher’s health, even if the high is good now.

“It’s very dangerous,” said Bustle CEO Bryan Goldberg. “Publishers should prepare for a future in which Facebook is still a great traffic source, but not as powerful as it is now. For some publishers, the downside could be immense.”

And that’s because Facebook holds the cards. It’s not like publishers are paying it for advertising. Think back to 2012, when publishers like The Washington Post and The Guardian, built “social reading apps” on Facebook. Those proved effective at gathering large audiences, so much so that they were considered spammy and summarily shut down by Facebook. None of this is new, of course. Google has long loomed large for publishers. Now, as GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram notes, Facebook is looming equally large for many publishers.

What’s to say, if Paper takes off, Facebook won’t find that its users prefer staying within the Paper experience when consuming content rather than being sent off to third-party sites? What’s more, Facebook has proven adept at making money off mobile ads. Would publishers feel unease at such a prospect? Of course, but if that’s what Facebook decided, what choice would they have? As Ingram writes, meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

“Historically and culturally, Facebook is not a relationship company,” said one former Facebooker. The company likely has no grand plan, the person said, but it will make whatever move it has to make to keep its platform strong. If that messes with publisher business models, so be it.

The flip side of this is Facebook is clearly wooing publishers at the moment. Katherine Goldstein, innovations editor at Slate, said that Facebook has improved its relationship with publishers over the past six months and has become a “tremendous” source of traffic for Slate. Still, she conceded that that traffic could disappear were Facebook to turn off the spigot.

“That could happen. They definitely have the power in this situation,” she said. “But we’re very happy with how things are going now.”

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