The media today: Facebook tosses a dime at local journalism

As Facebook continues to take fire for leaving the media industry twisting in the wind with its new algorithm changes, not to mention distributing fake news and disinformation, it appears to be looking for olive branches to smooth over its fractious relationship with the press. The latest was the announcement on Tuesday of a local journalism “accelerator” Facebook says is designed to help newspapers and other local media outlets boost subscription revenue.

In a blog post, Facebook’s Head of News Partnerships, Campbell Brown, calls the project “a $3 million, three-month pilot program to help metro newspapers take their digital subscription business to a new level.” Conspicuously absent, not surprisingly, was any mention of the main reason why newspapers and other media entities are being forced to rely on subscription revenue—namely, that Facebook and Google have vacuumed up the vast majority of digital advertising over the past few years, leaving much of the media industry with nothing but a giant, smoking crater where its ad revenue used to be.

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According to Brown, the new venture will work with 10 to 15 metro news organizations to “unlock strategies” that could help them build subscriptions using Facebook’s platform, and will be led by former former Texas Tribune Publisher Tim Griggs. Newspapers already enrolled include The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Boston Globe and the Miami Herald. Brown says Facebook is also partnering with the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, a non-profit foundation set up by former cable magnate Gerry Lenfest that owns and publishes The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News, as well as The Institute will distribute case studies from the pilot group through the Local Media Consortium.

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If Facebook hoped that its announcement of financial support might be greeted by cheers, or even a weak thumbs up, it was likely disappointed in the response. Much of the reaction from media Twitter was highly skeptical of the effort—in part because of Facebook’s history of giving to the media industry with one hand and taking away with the other, but also because of the tiny sum of money involved. Although something is always better than nothing, the money that the social network has committed to this three-month pilot project amounts to 0.007 percent of Facebook’s 2017 revenues, which feels a little like a Wall Street investment banker giving a homeless man a dime to help him get back on his feet.

Here’s more on Facebook and its tangled relationship with the media and advertising:

  • Facebook may want to help media outlets do more on the subscription front, but some industry insiders say that isn’t going to be much help for most existing publishers. “A lot of people are going, ‘Reader revenue, it’s working for The New York Times, it’s working for specialty publications; that’s our path,'” former Twitter and NPR executive Vivian Schiller tells Digiday. “I’m afraid for most news publishers, it’s going to end in tears.”
  • In a recent piece on Facebook and the 2016 US election for Wired, Antonio García Martínez wrote that the Trump campaign was helped by the fact that its advertising was more controversial, because that meant it paid less for its ads than the Clinton campaign (Facebook’s ad prices are based in part on how much engagement they get). But Facebook’s former VP of ads Andrew “Boz” Bosworth said on Twitter this isn’t true.
  • On a related note, Trump announced Tuesday that he has named Brad Parscale as his campaign manager for 2020. Parscale was the digital director for Trump’s 2016 campaign, and has been credited with running the Facebook-based advertising machine some believe helped put Trump in the White House. On Tuesday, Parscale appeared to confirm that Trump paid less for advertising than the Clinton campaign.
  • Barack Obama spoke at an MIT event that was closed to the media, but Reason magazine got a copy of his remarks, in which he said platforms like Facebook and Google “have to have a conversation about their business model that recognizes they are a public good as well as a commercial enterprise. They’re not just an invisible platform, they’re shaping our culture in powerful ways.”
  • The newspaper industry doesn’t intend to hand over the media business to Facebook and Google without a fight, it seems. David Chavern, the head of the News Media Alliance (formerly known as the Newspaper Association of America), argues in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal that Congress should give media companies an exemption from antitrust law so they can compete.


Other notable stories:

  • The New York Times is said to be working on a 30-minute weekly TV-style news show, and is in talks with streaming services and cable channels about a deal to distribute it, the paper’s assistant managing editor for digital Sam Dolnick told CNN. Dolnick said the series “will include groundbreaking investigations, on-the-ground reporting, agenda-setting interviews and new formats yet to be invented.”
  • Civil, a start-up that is building a platform for financing and distributing journalism using the blockchain and its own cryptocurrency, announced its newest partner site this morning. The new site, known as Hmm Daily, will be helmed by Gawker Media veteran Tom Scocca, who said he hopes it can become a place for smart social and political commentary that promotes new voices.
  • Quinn Norton, who was briefly hired as a new columnist for The New York Times opinion section and then abruptly un-hired after some offensive and controversial comments she made on Twitter resurfaced, has written an essay for The Atlantic about the experience. The backlash on Twitter, she writes, which was based in part on her friendship with a neo-Nazi, was a response to “a bizarro version of myself.”
  • The Knight Foundation has released a fascinating study that looks at how various subcultures on Twitter, including so-called black Twitter and feminist Twitter, interact with the mainstream news media. The research looked at over 46 million tweets between 2015 and 2016 and found that issues which later became broadly important often started within those sub-groups.
  • Kim Ruehl writes for CJR about a digital alternative-music magazine called No Depression that is larger than ever and still publishing a quarterly filled with longform articles by a group of paid freelancers almost a decade after it stopped printing.

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Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the founder of the Lenfest Institute as cable magnate Larry Lenfest. Mr. Lenfest’s actual first name is Gerry.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR's chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in The Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as Reuters and Bloomberg.