Some felt it would revolutionize journalism. Others thought it might be the beginning of its destruction. But on Wednesday, what readers mostly saw in Facebook Instant Articles, the new format by which news organizations are publishing directly on Facebook, was an eclectic mix of articles rather than a clear signal of what is to come.
BuzzFeed’s first offering was a list titled “13 Steps to Instantly Improve Your Day.” National Geographic presented an article on breeding a hardier bee, with pictures and videos that revealed the insects in minute detail. The New York Times chose a visually rich article about a Brazilian gymnast turned aerial skier. The Atlantic chose a long magazine report about the death penalty.
It is not clear when the first batch of articles will be succeeded by a more regular stream of offerings from the publishers. Though the news organizations retain control over which articles go onto the service, Facebook will decide when it will begin running full force. That will probably be within weeks, according to a person with knowledge of the terms, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
BuzzFeed plans to put all its content that fits the format, which is aimed at iPhones, on Facebook. When articles are published online, said Dao Nguyen, its publisher, they will appear on Instant Articles, too. The company also plans to include sponsored content — articles BuzzFeed creates for advertisers. Editors, she said, will most likely want to experiment with the array of tools that the platform offers, including interactive maps and seamless video integration.
Ms. Nguyen said that while it was too soon to measure the impact of Instant Articles, the early feedback from readers had been overwhelmingly positive.
For The New York Times, said Kinsey Wilson, an executive overseeing the project, “it will start as a relatively handcrafted effort, both in selection of articles and monitoring how they will render on the Facebook side.” Though The Times publishes something like 300 articles a day, he said, “we want to step into this carefully.”
His caution reflects the concern of publishers that they are operating in uncharted territory and gambling that the huge audience Facebook can deliver is worth the trade-off of yielding custody of their journalism. Visitors who click on Instant Articles remain within Facebook’s realm, rather than being redirected to the publishers’ own websites.
Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard, said he expected that publishers would see good financial returns on the plan, which promises that news organizations can keep all the revenue from ads they sell themselves on the service, or 70 percent of the revenue on ads Facebook sells. “It’s very much in Facebook’s interest to make sure they do,” Mr. Benton said.
That, and the lure of more readers, probably means the new service will expand, both in the number of articles on the service and the number of publishers, he said. Facebook could respond to some suggestions on Wednesday that the service would be ideal for local news outlets, he said, and include them in the future. It is also likely, he said, that other social and mobile platforms will follow suit with similar initiatives.
“I suspect that many established news sources are saying, ‘If we don’t go there, are we generationally undermining our franchise?’ ” said Rob Norman, chief digital officer of WPP’s GroupM, the world’s largest buyer of online advertising, with more than $5 billion in billings, and a board member of BBC Global News.
“What this reminds me of is the relatively early dot-com days,” he said, when “the object of the exercise was to pursue users, then work out what to do.”
An important element, Mr. Benton said, is advertising technology. “Most publishers do a terrible job of making money off mobile traffic and social traffic, and they have a very uninspiring set of user data,” he said. “They don’t know much about their users. Facebook promises to tackle all three of these problems.”
Facebook declined to comment. But one of the staff members involved in Instant Articles pointed to an analysis of the service by the technology consultant Ben Thompson. The inventory of ads, Mr. Thompson said, “is ever-increasing, which means the rates for an undifferentiated ad spot are ever-decreasing,” he said. The best way to combat that, he said, “is through better ads, better placement, better targeting and better measurement.”
Facebook is poised to become the dominant player in that space, Mr. Thompson suggested.
The risk, Mr. Benton said, would be if Facebook’s ad technology — known for being able to target users precisely — became more appealing to advertisers than buying through publications.