Google and Facebook envision Stories for news, not social

Stories taught us the joy of dictating the pace of content consumption. We fast-forward in 10-second increments, with a quick trigger finger let loose the moment we get bored. That’s why soon, endless paragraphs of text and time-consuming videos might not be the only ways to get our news.

This week, signs were revealed suggesting both Facebook and Google believe Snapchat’s Stories slideshow format could work well for sharing news. Snapchat has offered Discover channels for publishers to connect with teens since 2015, but its relatively small audience and mobile-only format limits its appeal and reach. Now the juggernauts of journalism distribution have a different dream for the future of Stories.

TechCrunch first reported that Facebook has started letting public figures share Stories to their followers, not just friends. While Pages aren’t allowed to make Stories yet, this feature already allows individual journalists to string together photos and videos to create immersive slideshows from the field or office.

We also broke news that Facebook is now testing Stories viewing on desktop. It’s also testing Stories that let you go Live, which could be useful for breaking news publishers if they get access.

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal reported today that Google is preparing to soon launch “Stamp,” which combines Snapchat’s Stories format with Google’s own Accelerated Mobile Pages. It will let news outlets share slideshows of photos, videos and text that appear in search results, but also can be hosted on a publisher’s website.

Stories beyond teens

The Facebook updates seemed a little perplexing, considering critics have panned Facebook Stories as obtrusive and unnecessary. Facebook already has the extraordinarily popular Instagram Stories and WhatsApp Status products that each see 250 million daily users.

But Facebook Stories make more sense if you think of them as a news-focused complement to Instagram Stories. Because Instagram is all about visual sharing and has long-forbid links outside of Stories, it hasn’t emerged as a journalism powerhouse like Facebook with its links and Trends and Instant Articles. Facebook could open Stories to publishers, and hope their content will make its Stories more popular and lure users into sharing their social Stories there, too.

Google, on the other hand, seems ready to leapfrog past social Stories entirely to focus on Stamp. That may be wise, as it’s historically been terrible at social products like the flopped Google+, Buzz and Wave, plus its mess of fragmented messaging apps.

Google reportedly floated a $30 billion offer to acquire Snapchat both in 2016 and just before its IPO this year, Business Insider reported yesterday. Axios’ Dan Primack and one of TechCrunch’s own sources heard of Google’s interest in Snap, too. Yet Snap’s fiercely independent CEO Evan Spiegel has shown no interest in selling, emboldened by Snap’s continued ascent after he rejected a $3 billion buyout offer from Facebook in 2013.

With Google lagging further and further behind in the Stories war, and Snap not keen on an alliance, leaning on its strength in search and surfacing journalism could get it back in the fight.

If the two tech giants can popularize this new format, they could lure more publishers to their platforms, gain more data on what people care about and serve more lucrative video ads wherever Stories are shown. Anyone can display text or host a video. The technological requirements of Stories could make publishers even more dependent on Silicon Valley for content distribution.

Snapchat might even benefit if the two titans encourage more newsrooms to produce Stories. A year ago it asked publishers to build 10-person Discover content teams. That wouldn’t seem so crazy if they had other places to put those Stories. If Twitter doesn’t get involved, it could be left in the dust. It’s a pivotal moment.

Owning the next journalism platform shift

Facebook and Google both know mobile is the future of content consumption. That’s why they’re competing to be not just where links get discovered, but to be the format that articles live on. Facebook’s Instant Articles and Google’s AMP load faster than traditional mobile webpages, so fewer people abandon them before reading the articles and seeing the ads.

Yet Instant Articles and AMP both mainly port desktop web media into a sleeker, quicker form factor. Neither embraces what’s inherently unique about mobile and the mobile era — better cameras, bigger screens, faster network connections and, most importantly, shorter attention spans.

A wall of text isn’t very inviting if you’re merely looking for a quick fix for your content addiction while on the go. YouTube-style multi-minute videos and TV broadcast news segments can be annoying to consume, as you need sound plus enough time to burn because the value is often buried somewhere in the middle. There’s no coherent way to skip around inside a video other than haphazardly scrubbing.

Stories solve all these shortcomings. They force a more graphical approach to news, where text is broken up by or overlaid on images, and videos are cut as succinctly as possible. Those lengthy, worthless introductions get dropped or condensed. Captions make silent listening on the go easier. Videos can be broken up into sub-15-second chunks, idea by idea, so you can easily fast-forward with a tap if you get bored with certain details and skip to the next pertinent piece of the news.

Plus, the visual communication style harnesses enhanced cameras, screens and connections to show you the news instead of telling it to you. The only problem is that newsrooms today are composed of writers and TV anchors, and would need to staff up on designers and storyboarders to get the content right.

It’s practically impossible to get bored watching a Story because you’re in total control of the cadence. That’s critical for watching amateur content from your friends, who might take five selfies or an endless sequence of concert videos before showing something funny. But Stories also could reinvigorate news consumption with flashier, no-filler style right when publishers are under siege by new distractions soaking up our time. They just have to let us set the tempo.