Facebook: We care deeply about journalism. Please believe us

This week, journalists from dozens of small startups and non-profits joined funders and journalism academics at a small, art-filled boutique hotel in Denver to talk about how to save local journalism. There were drinks and dinners and tasteful snacks during the various sessions designed to encourage brainstorming among the 140 or so attendees, and heated discussions on the rooftop patio by the giant flames of a never-ending fire pit that was embedded in an abstract sculpture, overlooking a museum dedicated to Colorado history.

The conference—called the “Accelerate: Local Media Summit”—was sponsored by Facebook (along with the Knight Foundation and the Online News Association), but the company’s name was almost completely absent. It didn’t appear on any of the signs, badges, notepads, or pens. Only the tote bags carried a logo that said “facebook journalism project” in very small type. There were a number of members of the company’s journalism and marketing teams on hand, two of whom took to a small stage in one of the meeting rooms to present some research, but for the most part the company kept a low profile. “Demure” and “self-effacing” aren’t adjectives one normally uses to describe Facebook. So why the disappearing act?

The company, to put it mildly, has a conflicted relationship with journalism. This week, when Facebook announced that its “news deserts” research was unable to find any local news content on Facebook in dozens of regional markets, several journalists pointed out the obvious irony: the lack of local news was, in many ways, Facebook’s fault for taking over the market for both advertising and content. “Facebook says effort to revive corpse hindered by ten year effort to kill corpse,” as one journalist put it on Twitter.

Almost every journalist I spoke with at the conference shared at least some of this cynicism about Facebook’s good intentions. While it has tried to convince media companies to use its platform as much as possible, the company also often changes its mind on what kinds of content it prefers, routinely alters the News Feed algorithm in ways that make it harder for media companies to reach their users, and is the world’s largest distributor of misinformation. This has bred distrust and resentment among working journalists, who are increasingly skeptical of Facebook’s overtures. Critics say accepting help from the company is like the fly accepting an invitation from the spider.

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Many of the small startups at the conference—which included sites like WhereByUs, Blavity, Spaceship Media, City Bureau, Berkeleyside, and Migratory Notes—seemed glad to have anyone offering help and financing, including Facebook, but one or two admitted they felt a bit like props in a marketing campaign.

Critics say accepting help from the company is like the fly accepting an invitation from the spider.

Members of Facebook’s news partnerships team insist their desire to help struggling local media outlets is genuine, and this is easy to believe, since many of them used to be journalists at outlets like The Washington Post and The New York Times. The team maintains they want to help local journalism regardless of whether it appears on Facebook or not. They also point out that committing $300 million for journalism (as the company did in January)—which funds an “accelerator” to help media companies figure out new business models, and programs like the American Journalism Project—shows that this commitment extends to the highest levels of the company. “This is something Mark cares about,” said a Facebook staffer (the event was held under Chatham House Rules, which means speakers can’t be identified).

Conference attendees suspected Mark’s intentions might be less than pure, however. The company’s central motivation, some said, was to counteract all the bad publicity for its role in distributing fake news that may have influenced the 2016 election. They felt the conference, in other words, and even the entire Facebook Journalism Project itself, was a giant public relations exercise intended to make the company look like it cares. Others ascribed Facebook’s actions to an even darker theory: the commitment to local journalism, one editor said, is to get as much local news onto the platform as possible, in order to make it more dependent on Facebook.

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Some have wondered why the company doesn’t take the most obvious step to help journalism survive, i.e. hiring journalists and editors directly to work for Facebook and improve the quality of journalism on the platform. When pressed, Facebook staffers say the company doesn’t want to intervene directly in the market—another irony, as it already chooses which journalistic entities to fund, mostly through third parties, and by fiddling with its News Feed algorithm to promote certain kinds of journalism and hide others. At the moment, according to data from NewsWhip, the attention seems to mostly be going to clickbait and low quality partisan news sources, despite the company’s repeated commitment to emphasize quality.

Evangelists on Facebook’s news partnerships team insist Zuckerberg and the rest of senior management are concerned about democracy and about healthy communities, and believe that high quality journalism helps support both of those things. At the same time, however, Facebook staff also note that local news is something users say they want, implying the decision to get more of it is driven at least in part by the product team. And that undoubtedly helped fuel the air of skepticism that seemed to hover over the event, once all the snacks and drinks had been consumed: a sense that all of the well-meaning discussion was going to wind up mostly benefiting Facebook, as usual.

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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 by Reuters and Bloomberg.