Tow Center

Facebook should treat the cause, not the symptoms, of journalism’s plight

January 18, 2019
Facebook's pop-up installation in Bryant Park in Manhattan. Photo: Sam Thielman

At some point over the past year, anyone connected with journalism, its present woes, or concerns over its future probably found themselves in a room with a Facebook executive. If you were high enough up in the media food chain, you got an audience with “Sheryl and Mark.” Everyone else was matched with someone further down the company’s food chain. In both cases, the intent was the same: a listening tour to pave the way for Facebook to put more money towards journalism.

This week we saw what the outcome of Facebook’s tour looks like: $100 million a year over the next three years for reporting projects and business model development, effectively matching Google’s own $300 million pledge towards journalism almost a year ago. In fact the initiatives are so similar they even share a grantee, Report For America, which is addressing the deficit in local reporting by placing journalists in newsrooms around the country.

Two years ago I argued that what journalism in America needed from technology companies more than anything else was a significant transfer of wealth, and to use a large endowment fund to rethink support for and development of civic media. So are the individual and collective efforts of large Silicon Valley companies to fund newsrooms since then what journalism needs?

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In response to Facebook’s announcement this week, UK journalist James Ball argued in CJR that not only was it wrong for technology companies to fund journalism, it was also unnecessary for them to be paying reparations to an industry which had been too slow and arrogant to save itself. “The intention behind these proposals for tech intervention is good,” Ball writes. “But the journalism industry needs to accept that there is no injustice in much of the revenue we lost.” Ball contends that the arguments about how to hold technology companies to account and how to sustain ongoing financial support to newsrooms ought to be kept apart.

Yet the argument that technology companies should be separate from journalism, however ethically right, is increasingly theoretical. In practice, that horse has not just bolted from the stable, it has run the Kentucky Derby and returned to the yard puffing and sweating. While the $300 million from Facebook and Google are small amounts compared to their yearly revenue, the two tech mega-firms still dominate user time spent with digital media, and the attendant data collection. All recommendations, both internal and external, that platform companies have implemented over the past couple of turbulent years have pointed to the companies becoming more like editorial companies and news organizations, rather than less. The promises from both YouTube and Facebook to hire more moderators and tighten practices around moderation of content are the most public manifestation of this. But it extends further, to opening up of its advertising archive around political ads and training journalists in fact checking in the Middle East and North Africa via the Facebook Journalism Project.

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The willingness to develop a higher standard for user-generated content is now universal among technology platforms that promote its creation and recirculation. No technology company is saying they will employ fewer ways of editing and moderating speech and other material that flows through their networks. In a report released by the Reuters Institute after Facebook’s announcement about funding journalism, academic Timothy Garton Ash urges much greater integration with journalism or its constituent parts than we have seen before. Although not framed as such, the report urges Facebook to become a far more editorial organization. It suggests the company should replicate efforts to provide greater journalistic resources for fact-checking elections along the lines of the Verificado Project in Mexico, which was directly funded by both the Facebook Journalism Project and the Google Digital News Initiative in many more countries. Separately, the report argues that the company would benefit from tightening and describing its moderation practices more closely, that it should hire an external board of advisers on what are essentially publishing judgments, and that the company needs both more transparency and a more frequent exchange with investigative journalists and academics.

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Absent from both the Reuters Institute report’s suggestions and from Facebook’s current journalism funding scheme is the one thing journalism actually needs: a guarantee that the conditions on the platform will benefit those producing high-quality reporting, which would obviate the need for sudden cash infusions. This simple pledge might be implicit in the myriad changes that Facebook is making to its own products and business models but it is not yet explicit. If it were to make and uphold this pledge in a meaningful way, reflected by the revenues of reporting organizations, this would be far more effective than fringe funding.

I haven’t backed away from the idea of a long term endowment for journalism, particularly for local journalism, funded by those who both have the money and directly benefit from a better information environment. But in the meantime, the funding being advanced by tech companies will be  wasted unless those companies both individually and collectively make themselves more hospitable to good journalism.

Emily Bell is a frequent CJR contributor and the director of Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. Previously, she oversaw digital publishing at The Guardian.