The New Gatekeepers

Facebook says it plans to put $300M into journalism projects

January 15, 2019

After what Facebook says were lengthy consultations with media partners and users, the social network came to the conclusion that local journalism is one of the areas that needs the most help, so this morning it announced plans to put a total of $300 million over three years into a number of journalism projects, including several non-profit ventures that focus on local reporting. Among others, the company announced funding for Report for America, the American Journalism Project, the Local Media Association and the Local Media Consortium, as well as a partnership between the Knight Foundation and the Lenfest Institute, a Philadelphia-based non-profit set up in by local businessman Gerry Lenfest in part to protect The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Philadelphia Daily News.

Among the larger grants announced by the company are:

  • $20 million to expand Facebook’s Accelerator pilot, which was announced last year and was aimed at helping local newsrooms figure out how to improve their success with subscription and membership models. Brown said the pilot has been very successful, with publishers such as The Miami Herald tripling the number of people who hit the paywall.
  • $6 million for the Community News Project in the UK, a partnership with a number of news organizations including Newsquest, the Midland News Association and the National Council for the Training of Journalists, to train “community journalists.” This funding and partnership were originally announced in November.
  • $5 million for a partnership with the Pulitzer Center, which will be making a matching commitment of $5 million, to create a series of grants that local newsrooms can use to help cover topics that affect their local communities.
  • $2 million for Report for America, an offshoot of the non-profit GroundTruth project that has said it wants to put a thousand journalists in local newsrooms across the country over the next five years.
  • $1 million for the American Journalism Project, which was co-founded by Elizabeth Green of Chalkbeat and John Thornton of the Texas Tribune. Facebook says its funding will help “grow and sustain local civic news organizations through venture philanthropy.”

Although the headline number in Facebook’s announcement is $300 million, the total for all the projects announced today adds up to less than $40 million. Facebook’s Head of News, Campbell Brown, tells CJR  that today’s release only includes a portion of the amount that the company plans to spend, and that there will be more news to come over the next few months about new partnerships and extensions of existing ones. Brown says the company plans to hold a symposium in March with representatives from nonprofit groups and publishers so that it can identify new areas where it can also add funding. Brown also says Facebook isn’t telling any of the partner groups what to do with the money they are getting. In most cases, she says, they will apply the funding to existing projects.

While Facebook described the funding news as a commitment to local journalism, and entitled its blog post, “Doing More to Support Local News,” Brown says the $300 million figure includes all of the social network’s funding of media and journalism, including the money it has been spending to get media companies to produce content for its Watch video feature. And while a focus on reporting sounds like a valuable thing, the funding Facebook is providing for both the Local Media Consortium and the Local Media Association isn’t for local reporting per se, but rather to help those groups create a “branded content strategy,” meaning a revenue-generating model that allows advertisers to sponsor a publisher’s content. The CEO of the Local Media Consortium, Fran Willis, said in a statement released by Facebook that the idea behind the initiative is to “help our members create a branded content strategy that will create credible environments for brands.”

In her interview with CJR, Brown says Facebook didn’t select the organizations it decided to work with based on any kind of ideological calculations about whether one was left-wing or right-wing, even though the social network has come under fire in the past both for allegedly suppressing conservative news and for bending over backwards in an attempt to show that it isn’t biased against conservatives. Ideology “is not something we’re thinking about with this,” Brown says. “We just wanted to find groups who wanted to work with us on these programs.” When it comes to helping fill the “news deserts” that are forming across the country, Brown said that is part of the reason for the funding of Report for America. When asked whether the group saw any conflict of interest in taking money from Facebook, an entity that has helped gut the media industry over the past few years, Report for America supplied CJR with a comment from President Steve Waldman, who said: “From our perspective, the most important point is: more communities will have more local reporters covering topics of critical importance.”

Facebook’s announcement has echoes of the $350 million that Google committed to its Google News Initiative almost a year ago, in March of 2018—money that also included funding for programs that had already been announced. In Google’s case, and to some extent in Facebook’s as well, the aid that is being given amounts to help in convincing newsrooms and journalists to use the company’s products more. For Google, that might be YouTube training, and for Facebook, it is things like how to use the social network’s ad targeting mechanisms or how to think about the News Feed algorithm. This is just one of the concerns that a number of media industry professionals expressed in a CJR feature about funding from the two tech giants. Others, however, said they were happy to take funding from anywhere, including Facebook and Google, if it would allow them to do the things they wanted to do. Will more media companies and journalistic organizations make the same choice when Facebook comes calling?

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Note: We’re talking about the problematic nature of Facebook’s funding on CJR’s Galley forum, if you are interested in joining the discussion.

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 by Reuters and Bloomberg.