How Mark Zuckerberg could really fix journalism

“A strong news industry is. . . critical to building an informed community. Giving people a voice is not enough without having people dedicated to uncovering new information and analyzing it. There is more we must do to support the news industry to make sure this vital social function is sustainable—from growing local news, to developing formats best suited to mobile devices, to improving the range of business models news organizations rely on.”

—Mark Zuckerberg

Many of us are still digesting Mark Zuckerberg’s long manifesto for humanity. Published Thursday, “Building Global Community” neatly sidesteps the constitutional niceties of the nation-state in favor of an extension of the big blue benevolent dictatorship of Facebook. As evidenced by his quote, Zuckerberg wants to save journalism from fake news and filter bubbles, or, depending on your perspective, add more momentum to its hasty demise.

Whatever the outcome, to have Zuckerberg move on from his position that Facebook is simply a technology company is progress. We can begin a more engaged debate now, not about tools and techniques, or tests and trials, but about the type of information environment we want to create in the smoking ruins of the one that has been systematically destroyed by external and internal forces.

What independent journalism needs more than ever from Silicon Valley is a significant transfer of wealth. Publishers agree with this notion, although the loudest proponents are often those who would benefit the most from it. It is not necessarily enough just to re-energize existing institutions (although the involvement of Jeff Bezos and his money at The Washington Post has been, from a civic and journalistic point of view, wholly beneficial). Mark Zuckerberg has a taste for grand gestures and “moon shots,” in Valley parlance. Now, he has a chance to make a generational intervention which will dramatically improve the health of America’s journalism.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

America needs a radical new market intervention similar to that made by the UK Government in 1922 when it issued a Royal Charter and established the BBC. Remaking independent journalism requires funding that is independent of individuals or corporations, has a longtime horizon built into it, and offers complete independence and as much stability as possible.

If, instead of scrapping over news initiatives, the four or five leading technology companies could donate $1 billion in endowment each for a new type of engine for independent journalism, it would be more significant a contribution than a thousand scattered initiatives put together. (See Steven Waldman’s piece in The New York Times today for one possible breakdown of what this would look like.) Would anyone want to work for a tech-funded news organization of this type? To be truly independent the endowment would have to be just that, a gift that is managed and administrated by a board of trustees. Some of the most successful institutions in the US are its private, nonprofit universities, which have a similar structure of endowment and independence.

 

We can begin a more engaged debate now…about the type of information environment we want to create in the smoking ruins of the one that has been systematically destroyed by external and internal forces.

 

In many countries, this type of funding falls to public media, and in the US, PBS and NPR are fine examples of what independent public service funding can achieve. But they also have to fight to transform their own structures, reform their funding models, and exist in a system designed to decentralize and weaken them. Under the current political climate it is impossible to imagine that public service journalism would attract anything other than adverse attention from government, so the initiative needs to come from elsewhere. If every tech billionaire bought a newspaper, we might achieve something similar. But then sustainability would rest on personal interest and wealth alone, feeding a competitive market rather than fulfilling a collaborative purpose.

Up to this point there has been a sense within the US that the only way to remake the news market is with independently profitable or well-funded commercial news organizations, with nonprofit offering a piecemeal solution while the market sorts itself out. It ought to be clear to everyone by now that this is not only unlikely to happen, but that the architecture of the digital market actively militates against it. Now is a good time to abandon the fantasy that the health of journalism is tied to free-market economics.

The new world has to rethink technology as a part of journalism. Much of the promising civic tech ecosystem of the mid-’90s has also been similarly steamrolled by the rise of the commercial social mobile Web. A new public media organization could reconsider what a digital public media organization might look like, with funding and expertise at the core, and a focus on what it could offer independent journalism everywhere—rather than what it might keep locked up in corporate IP.

The case for why we need this kind of bold market intervention for journalism is obvious. But why would tech companies or their billionaire founders want to do it? They, more than any other stakeholders, have a vested interest in the integrity of information, and the sustainability of journalism as an independent project. Neither Facebook or Google really wants to actually employ journalists, yet journalism institutions will continue to fail because of the adverse market conditions. Zuckerberg voices concern for “local journalism,” and Google’s Digital News Initiative has done the same. This is partly public relations, to quiet existing publishers. But there is more to it than that. The inquiries about filter bubbles and fake news have really hit home. The looming possibility of regulation, and the moral imperative to improve the information environment, are weighing heavily on the platform companies.

At one time, technology companies thought they could just put tools in the hands of users and all would be well. Of course this is not what has happened. The Trump presidency has been as much of a shock for the West Coast as for the East. As beneficiaries of a stable democracy, technology companies have realized that the further failure of journalism is not, in fact, good news for them. The alternative is that each technology company becomes an identifiable media entity that will staff its own newsrooms and create its own standards. This carries with it cultural and regulatory threat. But most importantly, the technology companies should support journalism because they are currently the only organizations who can.

News organizations may well hate the idea, as each of them is generally more invested in “‘winning” in an endangered and fractured market than they are in putting forward a better model for the whole of journalism. Pluralism is important for a healthy news ecosystem, but so is institutional strength and guaranteed sustainability. Not nearly enough serious journalistic organizations currently have this. And those that do cannot always share their knowledge. There is a singular opportunity to write a better path for the broken model of American journalism, and it has landed at the feet of a small number of technology companies, who like a moon shot, and who are rapidly learning that the real value of journalism is seldom monetary. Journalism likes long reads, but right now it needs the money more.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Emily Bell is Director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School.