The Trump Reader

Where did Facebook’s funding for journalism really go?

February 27, 2023
In this photo illustration, a Metaverse logo seen displayed on a smartphone with Facebook logos in the background. (Photo by Avishek Das / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

This report is intended to provide a snapshot of Facebook funding for news. It was originally published on Feb. 27, 2023 and updated on Mar. 10, 2023 after The Tow Center was made aware of more funding amounts and some clarifications. A summary of changes, which did not significantly alter our findings, can be found at the end of this report. 

“People want more local news, and local newsrooms are looking for more support,” Campbell Brown wrote in 2019 when Meta (then Facebook) announced its three-year, $300 million commitment to global “news programs, partnerships, and content.”

In a press release titled, “Campbell Brown: Facebook Is Doing More to Support to Local News,” then-Vice President of Meta’s Global News Partnerships said the company would focus on two key areas: supporting local journalism in the immediate future and helping local news organizations build sustainable business models.

Four years on—and with Meta rapidly distancing itself from the news industry—a number of questions abound. How much money do we know made its way from Meta to US local news organizations through major grant-giving programs? Which news organizations received that money? How much did they get and for what? Which, if any, were repeat beneficiaries?

The Tow Center has tallied data about all known Meta Journalism Project initiatives publicly announced since 2018 that were both aimed at US local news organizations and had a direct funding component. Through this endeavor we have traced 559 news organizations that shared nearly $29.9 million of direct funding through 17 MJP programs. This data has been centralized into a database that we are releasing today.

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Centralizing this data and making it publicly accessible matters. Oversight of one of the world’s most influential social media companies involves following the money. While Meta has frequently promoted its investments into local journalism, tracing this funding has been surprisingly difficult: there are no disclosure requirements and Meta does not keep a public register of payments that researchers and journalists can scrutinize.

The Tow Center built this database so journalists and researchers can see how part of the money allocated for journalism moved directly between Meta and US local newsrooms. At a time when policymakers around the world are legislating in ways that both restrict technology platforms and occasionally benefit local news industries, we intend our research to be useful in assessing the scale of recent programs.

This is especially relevant as platforms—particularly Meta and Google—lobby against Canada’s Online News Act, or Bill C-18, which might force platforms to enter into agreements with Canadian news publishers regarding news content made available on social feeds. Just last week, in response to the bill, Google announced it was temporarily limiting access to news content for less than four percent of its users in Canada. Meta's global policy director Kevin Chan made similar threats before the house of commons last October. (The Tow Center has previously reported on this bill, both with a timeline and overview of its progress. It looks likely to pass this spring.)

If Australia's News Media Bargaining Code, a similar bill passed in 2021, is any indication of what’s to come in Canada, tens of millions of platform dollars could be up for grabs. Many have suggested, both to Tow and others, that the Meta Journalism Project and Google News Initiative were, at least partially, PR exercises designed to generate goodwill from influential publishers as the companies lobby against similar bills globally. It is unclear how effective that strategy has been as threats continue to mount.

Our data is not exhaustive. Meta's lack of transparency around gifts and donations, combined with most for-profit news organizations' failure to disclose receipts of such funds, makes it near-impossible to produce a complete record without far more disclosure from the company itself. (A thorough list of exclusions is outlined in the methodology below.)

We recognize that inclusion of one-off gifts and other such awards would swell the overall figure. The financial transactions contained in our database do not represent the only money Meta has funneled to US local news organizations. Only Meta has comprehensive data on its monetary awards to news organizations; Meta did not respond to request for comment or provide further clarification on its news initiatives. 

Caveats aside, having deliberately aligned its announcement of a nine-figure initiative with a supposed commitment to local news, it is notable that the traceable sum is dwarfed by licensing deals Meta reportedly struck with big, influential news organizations for products such as its News Tab. Axios claims around $105 million has been distributed among fifty or so hand-picked publishers since the News Tab's launch in 2019, although the Wall Street Journal’s reporting suggests this is likely a conservative estimate. Per Semafor, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post alone—three of the country's most influential news outlets—received a combined total of $53.5 million per year.

 

Program breakdowns

Our data can account for $29,871,913 distributed to 559 different news organizations between 2018 and 2022. Of these recipients, 133 received more than one grant. The most grants any individual outlet received was five. Seven news orgs received five separate grants in total—the AFRO, Bridge (based in Michigan), Detour Detroit, the Salt Lake Tribune, Scalawag, Washington City Paper, and WURD Radio.

The total amounts received from Meta ranged from $5,000 to the $390,000 received by the Boston Globe and Newsday. The median amount received was $25,000, but 239 outlets received just $5,000. Among the bigger beneficiaries, 120 outlets received at least $100,000, 37 got at least $200,000, and 11 received over $300,000 of Meta funding.

 

Tow Center research found Meta funding was distributed through 17 domestic and global grant programs, which can be grouped under three broad umbrellas: Accelerator programs, Community Network programs, and COVID programs.

 

COVID-19 grants ($16.5 million)

Year(s): 2020
No. of programs: 3
Total distributed: $16,492,813
Total no. of recipients: 457
Range of total grant money received: $5,000–$155,000

By far the biggest spending came in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. (The Tow Center previously published a report on the Meta Journalism Project and Google News Initiatives’ great pandemic funding push.) Across three programs introduced in 2020—one round of COVID community network grants and two COVID relief grants (one for Accelerator alumni, the other billed as local news support)—Meta distributed around $16.5 million among 457 new organizations. This spending was welcome but reactionary and couldn’t have been foreseen when the $300 million announcement was made.

In April 2020, 319 outlets received $5,000 COVID Community Network grants to “cover unexpected costs associated with reporting” on COVID. In May, Meta distributed $10.7 million across 145 outlets with grants ranging from $25,000 to $150,000. At the same time, a further $4.2 million was shared between 44 Accelerator participants through grants ranging from $40,000 to $150,000.

Overall, fifty-one outlets received more than one check from Meta's COVID programs, while 268 only saw a total of just $5,000. Forty-two outlets got at least $100,000. The biggest beneficiary from COVID grants was the Seattle Times, which received $155,000: $5,000 from a Community Network Grant in April 2020 and $150,000 a month later from a COVID Relief Grant for Accelerator participants.

Accelerators ($11.6 million)

Year(s): 2018–2022
No. of programs: 10
Total distributed: $11,621,500
Total no. of recipients: 152
Range of total grant money received: $10,000–$240,000

Meta's Accelerator initiative was second only to COVID programming in terms of the amount of grant funding distributed and the number of news organizations that participated. By far the longest-running MJP initiative, Meta distributed at least $11.6 million to 152 news organizations through Accelerators. Grants from individual Accelerator programs ranged from $5,000 to $200,000, but some outlets accumulated bigger sums by participating in multiple programs.

 

The first Accelerator pilot was announced in Feb. 2018 along with a $3 million commitment to helping 13 US metro newspapers enhance their digital subscriptions business. Later that year, Meta announced it was expanding its Accelerator portfolio and allocating an additional $3.5 million for a “Membership Accelerator” pilot. (The Tow Center has only been able to independently verify that $1.7 million ended up in publishers’ hands.)

At least 152 US newsrooms participated in ten distinct Accelerator programs from 2018 to 2022 (the membership Accelerator ran twice), covering topics such as reader revenue and sustainability. 23 outlets took part in more than one Accelerator program. The AFRO, Nola.com and the Salt Lake Tribune took part in three. The biggest individual beneficiary of Accelerator funds was the Boston Globe, which received a total of $240,000: $40,000 from the Global Retention Accelerator in 2022 and $200,000 from the Subscriptions Accelerators in 2018.

As noted above, Accelerator alumni received COVID payments in 2020. A further payment was made to Accelerator alumni in 2021.

Community Network Grants ($1.8 million)

Year(s): 2019 and 2020
No. of programs: 3
Total distributed: $1,757,600 (excluding COVID grants)
Total no. of recipients: 76
Range of total grant money received: $7,400–$25,000

While the Meta Journalism Project invested a sizable sum of money into its Community Network Grant initiatives—a total of nearly $1.8 million across three cohorts—the program was seemingly short-lived. Originally launched in mid-2019, the final installment came less than a year later. Shortly afterwards, the program was used to distribute $5,000 checks to hundreds of outlets for COVID relief. Thereafter, Meta’s attention, as far as direct newsroom funding goes, appears to have shifted entirely to its Accelerator initiatives.

 

What’s next for the Meta Journalism Project?

While Meta has not announced future plans for its US journalism programs, 2022 brought numerous hints that it was uncoupling itself from the news industry—including a sharp drop in sums reaching news organizations from MJP's signature program.

Per our figures, known payments to participants in MJP's Accelerator programs in 2022 were less than half of those for 2021. Notably, the Accelerator initiative appears to have peaked in 2021, both in terms of funds distributed and the number of newsrooms included. Nearly $3.7 million in Accelerator grants went to 59 participant newsrooms in 2021 whereas around $1.8 million was divided among 46 newsrooms in 2022.

Meta's layoffs of 11,000 employees in November 2022—interpreted by some as the death knell for Meta's news partnership teams—included high-profile figures central to its journalism programs. Among them were David Grant, former Accelerator program manager; Dorrine Mendoza, former lead for Meta news partnerships; and Chris Miles, then-program manager for Meta’s global news integrity and third-party fact-checking departments.

At present it's hard to pinpoint what US local news is losing as a result of Meta's retreat from journalism. While efforts can be made to put a figure on the funding that will disappear, it is harder to address the question of what is being lost in a more qualitative sense.

Writing on LinkedIn, Nancy Lane, CEO of the Local Media Association, argued, “Meta’s investment in local journalism has had high impact. Their withdrawal will hurt in many ways.” Lane cited LMA’s chief innovation officer, Frank Mungeam, who said, “‘Whatever you think about Facebook's macro impact on news and civic discourse, the disbanding of the Facebook Journalism Project team is a loss for local news.’” (Lane said in the same post that LMA had helped Meta distribute $16.8 million to local media companies across all of North America—not just the US—since 2019.)

Some of those involved with MJP programs have already stated that they plan to continue their work.

After Meta’s layoffs, the general manager for the Meta Branded Content Project, a partnership between LMA and the Local Media Consortium to help facilitate growth for publishers through branded advertiser content, indicated that the program will continue independently from Meta.

Tim Griggs, founding CEO of the Blue Engine Collaborative, the company contracted by Meta to design and run most of its Accelerators, has indicated that his team will “find a way to keep the Accelerator going.” So far it’s been announced that David Grant will be joining the project – this time as a Blue Engine employee.

Griggs told the Tow Center he believes the news industry is in the midst of a generational fight for survival. “Whatever it takes to bridge that gap to whatever that future state looks like is a really good thing to do. It's going to take my lifetime to make that happen,” Griggs said. “So Accelerators or whatever else? I don't care just as long as we make it through.”

Per the Tow Center’s reporting, newsrooms that participated in the Accelerators, particularly those led by Griggs, shared an overwhelmingly positive experience. Newsrooms were often able to cite immediate data-backed and anecdotal results that came from implementing changes they learned. While this platform program is not the only to receive praise from its participants, Tow found the degree to which newsrooms shared their success with the Accelerators was notable.

The financial holes news organizations need to plug will differ wildly, as will the impact on their bottom lines. For outlets that have become accustomed to cashing Meta checks—such as the Sahan Journal ($230k from four grants), VTDigger ($205k from three grants), the AFRO ($185k from five grants) and Block Club Chicago ($180k from four grants)—the shutdown of Meta’s grant initiatives could particularly sting. Others may barely bat an eyelid. After all, while 34 outlets in our database have received at least $200,000 of Meta money—11 of them getting $350,000 or more—239 saw just $5,000.

Regardless, most news organizations the Tow Center contacted were grateful for any financial relief as COVID took hold. However, some recipients of Meta's $5,000 in COVID aid told Tow that they later applied for various MJP initiatives—some multiple times—and were either rejected or received no response when seeking feedback on their applications, an experience which highlights one of the many challenges of seeking support from unaccountable private companies.

Of course, the MJP couldn't award grants to every newsroom that came knocking. It is, however, worth understanding how Meta money was distributed across newsrooms when the company boasts recipient numbers in the hundreds and award amounts in the millions. Little is known about how and why these recipients were selected.

We intend this report and accompanying database to provide a launchpad for journalists and researchers seeking to understand this chapter in the fraught, ongoing relationship between platforms and publishers.

Methodology

This report focuses solely on major Meta Journalism Project programs with a component through which direct funding was provided to local news organizations in the US.

We sought to include all major Meta Journalism Project grants distributed to US newsrooms between 2018 and 2022. Although the Meta (then Facebook) Journalism Project was officially launched in 2017, its first major US initiative with a direct funding component wasn’t announced until Feb. 2018. At the time of publication, the MJP has not announced any qualifying US programs in 2023.

Where qualifying program announcements grouped the US and Canada under the umbrella of North America, we only included data about US news organizations. Likewise, on the rare occasions that US news organizations received funds as part of global initiatives, only data about the US organizations was included.

What this report does not include:

  • One-off gifts, donations, or grants awarded to individual news organizations (e.g. a $2.5 million gift to the Texas Tribune for developing RevLab, a "local news revenue and training lab."). There is a severe lack of transparency around one-off donations, particularly among for-profit news organizations, who are not obligated to disclose one-off donations and often opt not to. Consequently, it is impossible to determine how many undisclosed one-off donations Meta has made and to whom.
  • One-off gifts, donations, or grants geared towards local news but awarded to non-newsrooms or their respective owners (e.g. a $1 million gift to Report for America and the Local Media Association for a "philanthropy and business models lab for local newsrooms").
  • Grants distributed through non-US initiatives to news organizations partly based in the US (e.g. Infobae is based in both Argentina and the US and received funding through the Latin American Video Business Accelerator in 2021). 
  • The Meta Branded Content Project. While the CEO of the Local Media Association–the Project’s partner org–wrote in a blog post that LMA distributed about $280,000 in grants to media organizations, we could not identify who the recipients were despite repeated requests for clarification.
  • Fellowships (e.g. the HBCU Summer News Fellowship, which did not open fall applications for a possible 2023 summer cohort).
  • Content licensing agreements.
  • Instances where Meta was one of multiple funders (e.g. Pulitzer Center's Bringing Stories Home granting initiative).
  • Any funds distributed outside the US, Guam, and Puerto Rico.

If you would like to learn more about the Tow Center’s platforms and publishers research or have something to add to our database, we welcome feedback at towcentercuj@gmail.com.

Jueni Duyen Tran and Hana Joy contributed to this report. 

Summary of updates: 

  • Removed four publications (CBS Dallas Forth Worth, Cox Media Group, Fox Television Stations, Meredith Local) from the data set as the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) confirmed that these news organizations did not receive grants–despite being announced here–through the Video Accelerator Program in 2020.
  • Added previously unknown grant amount that each participant in the Video Accelerator Program in 2020 received, as confirmed by the ICFJ. This includes 17 news organizations in total (ABC Owned Television Stations, Alabama Media Group, Entravision Communication Corp, Gray Television, McClatchy, Mundo Hispanico, NBCUniversal Telemundo, Newsday, Nexstar’s NBC4, NorthJersey.com, Sinclair Broadcast Group, TEGNA, the AFRO, the Atlanta Voice, the Philadelphia Tribune, Univision, WRAL TV), each receiving $15,000.
  • Added Scalawag and WURD Radio as participants and grant recipients in the Sustainability Accelerator in 2021. According to the ICFJ, and similar to other program participants, they each received $100,000.
  • New Hampshire Public Radio was mistakenly listed under two names – New Hampshire Public Radio and NHPR. This has been consolidated and it is now solely listed as New Hampshire Public Radio.

All figures, charts, and tables have been adjusted accordingly. 

Gabby Miller is a senior researcher and reporter at the Tow Center and currently leads its platforms and publishers project. She previously covered the business of news for the Journalism Crisis Project, a collaboration between CJR and Tow.