The platform patrons: How Facebook and Google became two of the biggest funders of journalism in the world

Photo by Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

In March, Google announced with much fanfare the launch of the Google News Initiative, a $300 million program aimed at “building a strong future for journalism,” as the company put it. That came on top of the previous Digital News Initiative, which was set up by Google in 2015 and included a $170 million innovation fund aimed at the European media industry.

Facebook, too, has been funneling money into journalism projects, including the News Integrity Initiative—a $14 million investment in a project run by City University of New York—and the Facebook Journalism Project, a wide-ranging venture the company says is designed to help media companies develop new storytelling tools and ways of promoting news literacy.

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Taken together, Facebook and Google have now committed more than half a billion dollars to various journalistic programs and media partnerships over the past three years, not including the money spent internally on developing media-focused products like Facebook’s Instant Articles and Google’s competing AMP mobile project. The result: These mega-platforms are now two of the largest funders of journalism in the world.

The irony is hard to miss. The dismantling of the traditional advertising model—largely at the hands of the social networks, which have siphoned away the majority of industry ad revenue—has left many media companies and journalistic institutions in desperate need of a lifeline. Google and Facebook, meanwhile, are happy to oblige, flush with cash from their ongoing dominance of the digital ad market.

The result is a somewhat dysfunctional alliance. People in the media business (including some on the receiving end of the cash) see the tech donations as guilt money, something journalism deserves because Google and Facebook wrecked their business. The tech giants, meanwhile, are desperate for some good PR and maybe even a few friends in a journalistic community that—especially now—can seem openly antagonistic.

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Given that tangled backstory, it’s no surprise the funding issue is contentious. Should media companies really be involved in rehabbing the images of two of the wealthiest companies on earth, especially when they are fundamentally competitors? Yet, given the financial state of journalism, wouldn’t it be irresponsible not to take the funds?

The reality is that even if the money achieves some good, and even if there are no strings attached (which both companies insist is the case), accepting the largesse of Facebook and Google inevitably pulls the media even further into their orbit. It may not have a direct effect on what someone writes about or how a topic is covered, but it will undoubtedly have a long-term effect on the media and journalism. Are the tradeoffs worth it?

 

EVEN SOME OF THE PEOPLE WHO BENEFIT from the money say they are torn between the desire for badly needed funding that can be put towards a positive purpose, and the sinking feeling that they are being drawn deeper into a relationship with a tech company that has a huge amount of power, and may ultimately use it in ways that are antithetical to journalism. In other words, they worry about being pawns in a PR game.

A former Google staffer who worked on the company’s media programs says even he feels conflicted about the practice. While many of the funded projects are worthwhile, he says, the result is that “a bunch of well-meaning people with good intentions get the money, and slowly they get sucked into a corporate machine that doesn’t have their best interests at heart.”

University of Virginia media studies professor Siva Vaidhyanathan says both Facebook and Google may care about journalism and want it to be healthy, “but they want that to happen on their own terms, and they want that to happen within an ecosystem dominated by these two companies. The British Empire wanted trains in Kenya and India to run well, too. So their concerns are sincere, but the effect is more often than not a deeper immersion in and dependence on these platforms.”

Vaidhyanathan sees an inherent conflict in accepting money from Facebook or Google because “these are two companies that directly compete with major publications for advertising revenues. So you’re basically going into a partnership with a competitor—a competitor that has a significant competitive advantage in terms of price, in terms of scale, in terms of technological expertise. So is that a good business decision? Increasingly, journalistic institutions are feeding the beasts that are starving them.”

According to one estimate by a media research firm, Google and Facebook will account for close to 85 percent of the global digital ad market this year and will take most of the growth in that market—meaning other players will be forced to shrink. That includes many of the traditional publishers and media outlets who now work with them.

Molly de Aguiar, who runs the News Integrity Initiative at CUNY, which is funded partly by Facebook, says she understands people’s misgivings. “I appreciate that some feel trepidation about taking funding from sources they’re not totally comfortable with, whether it’s Facebook and Google, or a pharmaceutical company,” de Aguiar says. “Speaking for myself, I’m grateful to be leading the News Integrity Initiative, which is made possible in part by Facebook.”

CUNY journalism professor Jeff Jarvis set up the initiative after discussions with Craigslist founder Craig Newmark (who is also a funder of the NII and a member of the CJR Board of Overseers). Jarvis says he had some reservations about taking money from Facebook, because he knew there would be questions about independence and influence.

“Obviously, there’s a drawback for me, because I’m out there as someone opinionated about the relationship of media to technology companies, and people are going to judge me,” Jarvis says. “But at the end of the day, I decided it was worth it to be able to do the good things that Molly and company are doing, and all of this requires money.”

ICYMI: Facebook admitted to another user data problem on Monday

Alexios Mantzarlis, who runs the International Fact-Checking Network based at the Poynter Institute—which is funded in part by a grant from Google—says he gladly took the search engine’s money to advance the project. “I think it’s kind of unfair, in a way that, with every grant, it feels like you need to justify that you’re not beholden to your donor, in a way that you don’t have to with other kinds of transactions,” Mantzarlis says. “If you have a large client, aren’t you kind of beholden to their whims, too?”

Dan Gillmor runs a news collaboration project at Arizona State University that is partly funded by Facebook, and has written in the past about the dangers of Facebook’s control of the media ecosystem. But he says he was willing to take funding from the giant social network because it would help enable the journalism program to do good.

“Like lots of other people, I have misgivings about the dominance and power of the world’s biggest technology companies.” Gillmor says. “But in this instance, Facebook and I agree: The people we used to call ‘the audience’ are central to modern news distribution, and they need to understand better how news works in the digital age.”

Jennifer Preston, vice president of journalism at the Knight Foundation—which funds a number of initiatives related to both the Facebook Journalism Project and the Google News Initiative, including Facebook’s recent moves aimed at helping local publishers—says anyone receiving funding needs to be transparent about the relationship, but in principle she doesn’t see anything wrong with accepting funding from the platforms if it helps support journalism.

“If there are are organizations, including Facebook and Google, that want to help support the future practice of journalism, then I’m in,” Preston says. “I think the more people and the more organizations we have supporting the future of journalism, the better off our communities and our democracy will be. And I think there’s a lot of opportunity for both journalists and technologists to work on fixing what’s happening right now.” (Knight is among the funders of CJR.)

 

FOR ALL OF THE TALK OF FUNDING INDEPENDENCE and of people making the best of a tough economic situation in journalism, there is still widespread skepticism about the motivation.

One source who has received funding from Facebook says: “Let’s face it, they didn’t give us a grant because they love journalism and they want us to, you know, really make a difference in the world with journalism. I mean, if that were the case, they would have given us a billion. This was clearly for their own public relations purposes.”

Former Twitter and NPR executive Vivian Schiller says the fact that Google and Facebook are handing out bags of money to media organizations “is fantastic. People should take the money and do good with it. Is it also a PR gesture? Of course it is.”

Josh Benton, head of the Nieman Journalism Lab (which has a fellowship sponsored by Google) says that while funding from the tech giants achieves some good, it also clearly makes the companies look good, too.

“I think there are a lot of very well-intentioned people at these companies who honestly believe that journalism is important and want to help as best as they possibly can,” says Benton. “But I think it’s hard to view all these efforts through a lens other than public relations.”

It is, of course, possible that both things may be true: that the tech companies may be motivated by a desire to help journalism as well as the desire for some good PR.

In Google’s case, much of its initial commitment to helping publishers and the media ecosystem came as the company was under heavy fire from the industry and from regulators in several European countries, over what they claimed was the company’s negative impact on the media business.

Things came to a boil first in Belgium, where publishers launched a legal battle in 2006 claiming their content was being illegally included in search and Google News. Soon News Corp. mogul Rupert Murdoch and others were complaining about the theft of content and the capricious choices of the algorithm, and a number of European countries were considering legislation to curb what they saw as the uncomfortable spread of Google’s power.

Google finally settled its dispute with Belgium in 2012. The terms of the deal were not released, but the company agreed to partner with publishers in the country and assist them in various ways, including helping them to use the company’s AdWords and AdSense networks (it also reportedly agreed to pay $6.5 million to a group of Belgian media companies).

In France, the company faced similar legal challenges, including the threat of a “link tax,” and it agreed to settle these concerns by establishing a $70 million “Digital Innovation Fund” in 2013. As pressure intensified in Germany and elsewhere, Google expanded its program of largesse by launching what it called the Digital News Initiative in 2015.

The initiative was aimed at providing help with developing new products, training, and research (among other things, the DNI helps fund the Reuters Institute’s annual Digital News Report), as well as an innovation fund providing a pool of $170 million that any media outlet could apply to share in. As of last year, the fund had handed out more than $90 million worth of financing to 450 projects in almost 30 countries.

The company also created the Google News Lab, which it deemed a resource for media companies to use in understanding the Web. The lab funds projects and resources devoted to data journalism, sponsors reporting fellowships at organizations like ProPublica, and offers training for journalists on how to use Google’s tools and networks, as well as other digital skills.

In a very real sense, then, Google’s funding of journalism began as a damage-control effort—a way of countering the bad press about content theft with an olive branch. But the company’s head of news, Richard Gingras, says the search giant also recognized the systemic changes that were occurring in media (changes it clearly played a role in) and did its best to help.

“I think we realized a couple of things,” says Gingras. “We realized that the health of the ecosystem was an open question, and obviously that the open marketplace of the internet was disrupting existing news models, and clearly publishers often looked at a Google—accurately or not—as the stimulus for that disruption. So our view was, Let’s do the right thing for the ecosystem, and let’s change how we engage with the publishing community.”

Gingras says the company’s broader motivation was a shared interest in developing a healthy ecosystem of quality information, which in turn supports the search company’s interest in protecting the open Web.

“The health of that open Web is extraordinarily important,” Gingras says. “I mean, obviously it’s important that we have a healthy ecosystem of journalism for society as well. But if you want to understand our business motivations, Google search wouldn’t be as relevant if there weren’t a rich ecosystem of knowledge. Same thing with our ad platforms—if they’re not successful out on the open internet, that’s not good for publishers, nor is it good for Google.”

The goal, then, soon became to keep media companies using the Web, instead of getting drawn deeper into walled gardens like those run by Facebook and Apple. “I think most publishers who understand the ecosystem would say they need the open Web and an open environment for distribution, otherwise they’ll lose control of their own destiny,” Gingras says.

 

SO ARE THE MILLIONS OF DOLLARS that Google and Facebook have poured into the media industry and journalism worth it? That depends on what you see as the trade-offs that have been made in order to accept the funds, and whether you think the ends justify the means.

In the case of Google’s original News Innovation Fund, for example, the more than $100 million that has been doled out since 2015 has funded a wide range of startups, prototypes, and other experimental projects in more than 25 countries. The way that the fund is currently structured, it does two rounds a year, in which it pays out up to $60,000 for early-stage projects, up to $350,000 for medium-sized projects, and as much as $1.2 million for larger ventures.

In the very first round of funding in 2015, Spanish independent media outlet El Diario got a grant to help it build a crowdsourcing model for journalism, and a German startup called Spectrm got funds to build a chat-bot to help publishers communicate directly with readers. In the last round of funding, about $65,000 went to Stop Propaghate, a project from Portugal that is using machine-learning to identify hate speech.

These and many of the other ventures Google has funded—such as the Trust Project, an attempt to develop objective indicators media outlets can use to prove they are trustworthy, or First Draft News, a fact-checking project based at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center—clearly have worthwhile aspects and are helping journalists and media outlets branch out into new areas and develop new skills. Many of the projects the News Integrity Initiative is funding, such as the European Journalism Centre’s new accelerator program, also seem worthwhile.

The broader question is whether these projects are doing much to move the needle in the industry. Does funding a handful of prototypes and startups, many of which may never come to fruition, show Google is committed to helping the media? Or does it just allow the company to argue that it is helping without having to actually do anything substantial? Some believe Google should be providing much more funding to existing media players such as ProPublica, or even funding its own arms-length media entity.

The other problematic aspect of much of the support both Google and Facebook provide is that it mostly just encourages journalists and media organizations to spend more time using Google and Facebook. As Vaidhyanathan points out, this inevitably tightens the integration between media and these two giant, for-profit corporations and the ecosystems they’ve created. Is that necessarily a good thing?

These questions are difficult, in part, because the relationship between the platforms and the media industry is so messy, like a couple on the verge of an acrimonious breakup. Both sides are arguably guilty of failing to follow through on their promises, of leaping without looking, and of failing to take advantage of obvious opportunities, whether out of fear or ignorance. Should tech companies be the media’s partners or competitors, or both?

When pushed, technology insiders seem to think most of the major players in media are whiners who failed to keep up with the advancements of technology and are now bitching because someone else did it first and managed to serve their customers—advertisers and/or users—better than they did. More than anything, Silicon Valley seems to believe that what the media business really wants from them isn’t help, it’s a handout.

This view has more than a little truth to it. Many media companies were slow to adapt to the Web and to new developments like mobile, and some of their resentment of Google and Facebook stems from the fact that they have lost their traditional monopoly over things like the distribution of information and advertising. Should digital winners be penalized simply because they came up with a better business model first?

Much of the media industry, meanwhile, sees Google as having stolen not just their gatekeeper role and advertising business, but their actual content as well. The attitude toward Facebook is similar, but there is an added layer, which is that many media companies feel as though they have been played by the social network—that they are the victims of a bait-and-switch campaign, where Facebook makes all sorts of promises about how they will benefit from putting their content on the site, then changes its algorithm and leaves them hanging.

 

WHILE GOOGLE WAS BUSY DEVELOPING the News Lab and the Digital News Initiative, Facebook was still a relatively small player and hadn’t made as much of an attempt to reach out to the media, apart from some projects aimed at sharing ad revenue or helping companies tweak their content so that it would be shared more. But as it grew and its desire for more engaging content expanded, so did its attempts to win over media outlets.

One of the social network’s first efforts was the “social reader app” program in 2012, which it worked on with advice from former Washington Post owner Don Graham, a friend and early mentor to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. The program was a smashing success for partners like the Post and The Guardian, leading to huge increases in readership—but the experiment flamed out after the social network changed its algorithm.

In 2015, the company tried again with Instant Articles, an attempt to convince media companies to use its mobile-friendly solution for distributing their content (Google quickly followed with its own take, known as Accelerated Mobile Pages, or AMP). As it started to deal more directly with media companies, however, the criticisms of Facebook started to increase: Many felt it was taking too much content and not providing enough compensation, just like Google.

This negative attention accelerated after Facebook signed deals with companies like The New York Times and BuzzFeed to create video for the platform. In all, it spent about $30 million encouraging companies to do so, and then just as quickly, the money tap dried up, and some of the publishers that had come to rely on Facebook for revenue started to feel the pain. Even BuzzFeed missed its revenue targets in 2017 and was forced to lay off some of its staff.

As these criticisms started to mount, Facebook took a page from Google’s playbook and hired Brown, a high-profile former journalist, to be its head of news partnerships, just as Google hired Gingras. The social network also started handing out money to journalistic ventures and creating projects like the Integrity Initiative.

“I’m actually quite puzzled it has taken Facebook so much time—and several bumbling starts—to embrace the Google playbook of opening the checkbook a little to try and co-opt noisy publishers,” says Raju Narisetti, former CEO of Gizmodo Media.

The Initiative has in turn funded projects like a $1.5 million journalism accelerator run by the European Journalism Centre, part of $2.5 million in grants to the EJC and other organizations. Through the Journalism Project, Facebook has funded research at Arizona State University’s journalism school, as well as training programs through the Society for Professional Journalists. And the social network recently announced a $3 million, three-month pilot program aimed at helping media companies get more revenue from subscriptions.

Much like her Google counterpart, Brown also talks about Facebook as having a responsibility to help the broader news environment. “Around the time I first started, Mark talked about our responsibility to journalism and to the ecosystem,” she says. “Obviously, Facebook isn’t a news organization, we’re not in the news business, but we are an important and critical part of the ecosystem, and recognizing that and taking responsibility for our role in it is really important.”

This feeling of responsibility is relatively recent. Not long ago, Mark Zuckerberg was busy denying Facebook was a media entity and scoffing at the idea that “fake news” might have altered the course of the 2016 election. Being called on the carpet by Congress over Russia’s hijacking of the platform seems to have helped change the Facebook founder’s mind on those points, or at least make him more interested in looking like he is helping.

So far, however, Facebook’s contributions have been relatively tiny. Emily Bell, who runs the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia, wrote in a CJR essay last February that she believes Google and Facebook should put up several billion dollars to create a kind of public trust for media, and she says she believes that even more strongly now.

“I believe there has to be a really significant transfer of wealth from technology companies that benefit from and rely on an educated public and could broadly be characterized as being in the publishing or information industry,” says Bell. “I believe even more than when I wrote that piece that we need a movement for Civic Media, and the funding must come from somewhere. And in a way, it would be a good-faith move for the platforms of the technology industry.”

 

NO MATTER HOW ALTRUISTIC they seem, the reality is that all of this funding is just another way in which both Facebook and Google integrate themselves even more tightly into the fabric of media and journalism, not just in the US but worldwide. And the more financially stressed the industry becomes, the hungrier it gets for the kind of support only Google and Facebook can provide. And that leads to even further integration.

It doesn’t help that Google and Facebook are rarely just small funders of specific projects along with other major donors, and they almost never fund the same initiatives together. This means that in many cases, the two tech companies are the single largest or possibly even only major funders, which raises a lot more potential red flags.

Whenever there are these kinds of ties between corporations and research, there are inevitably going to be questions about the impartiality of the results, even if both sides make it clear there are “no strings attached.” When a large study of how fake news spreads on Twitter was published earlier this year, some noted that the results (which found that bots are not as big a problem as some believed them to be) could be seen as favorable toward Twitter.

Why is that relevant? Because the research was produced by the Laboratory for Social Machines at MIT, which was funded by Twitter in 2014 with a $10 million grant. Head researcher Deb Roy—who was a senior Twitter executive before he joined the MIT lab—says in an interview Twitter’s funding had nothing to do with the outcome of the research. But there will undoubtedly be those who question the results when a single corporation is the sole funder.

Facebook recently announced a plan to allow researchers to use some of its internal data, but didn’t say how the company would decide who gets the data and who doesn’t. In a competitive field like academic research, that information and that relationship could be a significant advantage, which could in turn affect the kind of research that is done or how it is presented.

One senior media executive who has dealt with both Google and Facebook says even the no-strings-attached deals they offer “have the potential to compromise the independence of the journalism. I worry about the capture of journalism by what is essentially a commercial power. If we thought of it as any other kind of commercial relationship, we wouldn’t allow advertisers to be in our newsrooms in the same way, I don’t think.”

Both Google and Facebook may argue—and may even believe—that they simply want to help increase the supply of quality journalism in the world. But the fact remains that they are not just disinterested observers. They are multibillion-dollar entities that compete directly with media companies for the attention of users, and for the wallets of every advertising company that used to help support the business model of journalism. Their funding and assistance can’t be disentangled from their conflicted interests, no matter how much they wish it could.

“I think it’s important to remember that the same companies that are coming into our newsrooms and training and talking to journalists and building projects for journalists are doing the same thing with local politicians, seeking to put self-driving cars on the streets of your town; they are selling packages of software to your local educational authority,” says Bell.

“We need companies to support local journalism. However, the same companies are very invested at local level in all sorts of other things. How do you view their interaction with your local politicians? Do you just think, Well, that’s completely normal, or do you go after it in an investigatory way? It’s really hard to evaluate exactly how independent journalism can be in those circumstances. I think these are very serious concerns and, honestly, rarely discussed because of the pervasive nature of the money.”

ICYMI: Facebook admitted to another user data problem on Monday

Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to the News Integrity Initiative as a joint venture between Facebook and CUNY, but it is an independent project that CUNY started that Facebook later invested in.

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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.