Facebook’s funding of local journalism is problematic

Note: This is something I originally wrote for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

On Wednesday, Facebook announced the first round of grant recipients for what the social-media giant is calling its Facebook Journalism Project Community Network. The 23 media outlets who will receive the money—between $5,000 and $25,000 per newsroom—were chosen by Facebook’s partner: the Lenfest Institute, a non-profit entity set up by former cable magnate Gerry Lenfest in part to finance the continued operation of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News. Facebook said in a news release about the grant program that the winners “include a fresh approach to business sustainability through community-funded journalism, and expansion of successful storytelling events shown to increase reader revenue.”

Being a small, community-focused media outlet has never been easy, but it has gotten increasingly difficult of late, as the print advertising business has plummeted and digital advertising has been squeezed. So it’s not surprising that startups and hyperlocal players like the ones chosen to receive Facebook’s largesse would celebrate their victory, since the company’s funding will presumably allow them to do things they otherwise couldn’t—including, perhaps, keep the lights on. But there is an elephant in the room: namely, the fact that Facebook is one of the main reasons the media industry is in such desperate straits in the first place, since it controls a significant share of the ad market, and the attention of billions of daily users.

The almost two dozen media entities who are getting the Facebook grants include a number of prominent players in community-based journalism, including Spaceship Media, which organizes events aimed at bringing together disparate groups in an attempt to discuss difficult topics, the education-focused outlet known as Chalkbeat, and the Tyler Loop from Texas, which got money to expand its live storytelling events. There’s Block Club Chicago, a member of the blockchain-powered journalism platform Civil, and a project called 100 Days in Appalachia. But somewhat surprisingly, the recipients also include a number of much larger, more traditional media companies, including the Los Angeles Times—which is getting money to fund community forums—as well as Newsday, which is owned by Cablevision founder Charles Dolan, and The Salt Lake Tribune.

The Community Network is expected to get about $1.5 million in total funding this year, according to Facebook, or less than 1 percent of the amount of revenue the giant social network makes in a single day. Even the broader Journalism Project, which Facebook has said it is going to fund to the tune of about $300 million over the next several years, is only going to cost the company about two days worth of revenue. And what does Facebook get in return? The company says it cares about local journalism because local media is all about community, and so is Facebook. But the main benefit seems to be that the company gets to issue press releases with grateful comments from all of the ventures it is helping support, and that makes it look good at a time when it is under fire from Congress both for its market power and its role in spreading disinformation.

Obviously, media outlets both large and small are struggling to make ends meet, as are many other journalism-related entities, which is why making friends with Facebook and Google is so appealing. They have money, and they are willing to spend it! And, best of all, it appears to have no strings attached. The reason why it doesn’t have any obvious strings attached, however, is likely because these giant platforms don’t actually care what happens to the money, so long as they get to issue their press releases and make themselves look good in the eyes of regulators. It may feel like a win-win, but it isn’t. It’s a giant, thorny conflict of interest with a check attached.

Here’s more on Facebook and the funding of journalism:

The patronage system: I looked at the problematic nature of journalism funding from Facebook and Google in a feature for CJR last year called The Platform Patrons. Google has also committed to spend $300 million on journalism training and other funding over the next several years, as part of what it calls the Google News Initiative.

Dangerously codependent: British journalist James Ball wrote for CJR about the idea of a levy on tech companies to fund journalism. He said “tying the future of journalism to a tech or social media levy shackles the two even closer together, making a already dangerously codependent relationship even less healthy—and potentially compromising journalism in the eyes of readers.”

Facebook and news deserts: At an “accelerator summit” in Denver earlier this year, Facebook announced its research into the news desert problem, and held workshops with local media outlets aimed at helping them figure out how to improve their business models. But some of those who attended said they felt they were mostly pawns in a giant public-relations exercise.

Other notable stories:

Tensions are running high at First Look Media, according to a report from New York magazine. The owner of the investigative journalism site The Intercept has come under fire for closing two well-regarded sites, The Nib and Topic magazine. A letter sent to management by First Look staffers says there are reports the company has used the cost savings from the shutdowns to acquire Passionflix, a romance-focused streaming video service run by Elon Musk’s sister.

Substack, a platform for publishing email newsletters, said Wednesday that it has closed a $15.3-million Series A funding round from a group of investors including noted Silicon Valley firm Andreessen Horowitz. Substack says that the dozens of newsletters published on its platform, including Bill Bishop’s Sinocism, currently have a total subscriber base of about 50,000 people.

Emily Tamkin, one of a group of public editors that CJR has appointed for several leading media outlets, writes about CNN’s questionable decision to put white supremacist Richard Spencer on its news program to talk about the response to Donald Trump’s recent racist comments about four Democratic members of Congress.

Some staffers at Gizmodo Media say the company’s new owners are taking sites like Jalopnik and Kotaku in the wrong direction, according to a report from The Daily Beast. New CEO Jim Spanfeller has reportedly suggested that sites should be more friendly toward advertisers, and has asked to send ad sales representatives along with reporters when they visit potential advertisers.

Ford Motor Co. issued a statement contesting a recent Detroit Free Press investigation that found the automaker knowingly launched the Ford Focus and Ford Fiesta with defective transmissions, “and continued selling them despite thousands of complaints and an avalanche of repairs.” In response, the Free Press printed the rebuttal from Ford in full but annotated it.

A recent goodbye party for retiring Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News columnist Stu Bykofsky took a dark turn according to Philadelphia magazine, when architecture critic Inga Saffron took the microphone and started taking jabs at the columnist’s body of work, his alleged ethical lapses, and a contentious column he wrote about the virtues of young sex workers in Thailand.

Twitter released a video-editing tool on Wednesday called LiveCut, which it says will allow media companies and publishers to easily create and share video clips from media streams. The product is similar to a service called SnappyTV, which Twitter acquired in 2014 and is in the process of shutting down.

Brian Merchant writes for CJR about the scourge of “on background” briefings given to media outlets by tech company executives. Merchant says these briefings are a “toxic arrangement” that shields tech companies from accountability, and allows giant corporations the opportunity to “transmit their preferred message, free of risk, in the voice of a given publication.”

The Athletic, a US-based subscription sports news service, just hired away some of the top sports writers in the United Kingdom, according to a report by BuzzFeed. The new hires include an award-winning Guardian football writer and a BBC reporter with a huge following among London football fans. The acquisition spree has been described as “setting off a bomb” in the industry.

The New York Times published a special interactive feature looking at the fire that almost destroyed the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris in April. The feature, which includes hand-drawn sketches of the fire-fighting process done by a Paris firefighter who is also a trained sketch artist, concludes that an incredibly complicated system of fire alerts and an employee who had only been on the job for three days were partly to blame for the devastating blaze.

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