One of the problems publishers face today in making their content more readable on mobile devices is that there are multiple, competing formats available for this purpose. Facebook has Instant Articles, Google is spearheading the AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) project, and the Apple News Format optimizes content for iOS devices. Facebook is today taking a crack at a solution to this problem by rolling out support for both AMP and soon Apple News as a part of its open source Instant Articles software development kit.
The updated SDK will now include an extension that lets publishers build content that’s publishable in all three formats, beginning with support for Google’s AMP in addition to Facebook’s own Instant Articles. In the weeks ahead it will also include support for publishing to Apple News, though the company didn’t provide an exact launch date for when that feature would be added.
At a high level, the SDK will take the markup that’s used to build Facebook’s Instant Articles and use it to create the code that’s needed to build for AMP and Apple News. While the multiple systems aren’t identical, of course, Facebook says it will offer ways for publishers to apply the custom styling templates for the competing services – including the application of things like custom fonts, colors, and captions, which will be mirrored as closely as possible in the other formats.
The goal with this change is to offer a design once, publish anywhere experience – and naturally it’s one where publishing to Facebook is the first priority, in terms of getting things right.
The functionality will be made available through an extension to the Facebook Instant Articles SDK, which is found here on Github. (Documentation on its usage is on the Facebook for Developers site, here.)
The idea for the extension came about as part of the Facebook Journalism Project, a program that aims to connect Facebook with media publishers to help inform the company’s roadmap for upcoming news features on its site. The project’s other ideas include things like letting publishers offer free trials to their paid subscriptions via Facebook, hackathons with publishers’ development teams, digest packages that Facebook users can subscribe to, PSAs to promote news literacy across Facebook, tutorials for journalists, and more.
However, the extension’s launch also comes at a time when a number of high-profile publishers have begun to abandon Facebook’s format, due to its lack of monetization options.
In April, for example, it was reported that Forbes, Hearst, The New York Times and others have backed out of Instant Articles. Other major media organizations including Bloomberg, The WSJ, ESPN, CBS News, NPR, Financial Times, and VICE News have also been holdouts, running little to no content in Facebook’s format. Others who have used the format have been winding down their support; and last month, The Guardian pulled out of both Facebook’s Instant Articles and Apple News.
Publishers are generally unhappy with the deals the platforms are cutting on revenue sharing, and don’t like that the Instant Article format prevents them from having a more direct relationship with their readers. Sending visitors to stripped down, mobile-optimized pages may be a good experience for readers who don’t have to deal with pop-ups and other clutter, but it has historically meant that publishers can’t serve all the same advertisements as on the web, nor encourage donations, push paid subscriptions, promote their email newsletters or events, or make other connections with readers.
Facebook has tried to stem some of these concerns by tweaking the rules for Instant Articles – allowing them to show more ads, for example, or by rolling out new features, like call-to-action units in the articles that can promote email sign-ups or request Page Likes. It lets publishers push free trials and app downloads, among other things.
Now, by tying Facebook Instant Articles to AMP and Apple News, the company hopes that it can lure publishers back to its platform by making it possible to publish to all three major services at once. But without fully loosening its restrictions, Facebook may still have a hard time making the case for Instant Articles, if the format doesn’t match up with publishers’ larger goals.