Platforms and Publishers: The Great Pandemic Funding Push

THE PANDEMIC FUNDING PUSH

In 2019, a director at a journalism foundation who worked closely with Facebook and Google wrestled with a shift as those platforms expanded from journalism partners to patrons. “We can’t build a business around having these tech companies fund journalism,” the person said. “That’s what concerns me when some people say they should give us more money… . Is that their role, to be the subsidy for journalism? That seems wrong somehow.”  

The two platforms had by then each announced $300 million journalism initiatives: the Google News Initiative and the Facebook Journalism Project. This year, the coronavirus pandemic has only deepened the reliance of news outlets on such support. We’re seeing an accelerated gutting of the news industry, local news in particular, as a result of COVID-19. In the first six months of 2020, cutbacks affected hundreds of news organizations across the United States, according to the Tow Center’s COVID-19 Newsroom Cutback Tracker.

During those same months, Facebook and Google were top providers of emergency relief funding. This brings urgency to the debate over the ethics of accepting platform dollars, and the implications of platforms as news patrons—with the power to determine which newsrooms receive support, how, and for how long. In direct response to the coronavirus, Facebook and Google committed an estimated $262 million to nearly 7,000 local newsrooms and a selection of fact-checking initiatives in the first half of 2020, according to a Tow Center analysis of announcements made by both companies. Of that total, the Tow Center has confirmed that $216 million is new funding, on top of the previously announced combined $600 million.

This year, in March, Facebook pledged $100 million in new support for journalism, its largest increase in journalism funding since the introduction of the $300 million Facebook Journalism Project. Of this, $25 million is dedicated to “emergency grant funding” for local news. Since the funding announcement, a Tow Center analysis estimates that 1,000 newsrooms around the globe have received emergency grants. While the remaining $75 million is not direct monetary support, it is money that has been allocated for purchasing advertisements across a number of local news organizations and larger publishing outlets. Facebook describes it as “marketing to get money to publishers around the world at a time when their advertising revenue is declining,” and says it is on track to finish out the full spend by the end of this year. (Combined, Google and Facebook receive more than half of all spending on digital ads, and are often called a duopoly.) 

Google committed a total of $162 million to journalism in the first half of 2020, of which $116 million is new funding. In April, the company created a Journalism Emergency Relief Fund;  by July, $39.5 million had been distributed to 5,600 “news organizations producing original news for local communities during this time of crisis” across 115 countries. Google confirmed with the Tow Center that this money came out of its previously announced $300 million Google News Initiative. Google also teamed up with the Local Media Association and Local Media Consortium in June for an unprecedented $15 million ad campaign called “Support Local News.” According to Google’s announcement, the “six week long campaign” appeared “in print and online across thousands of local news outlets in the U.S. and Canada,” asking that readers subscribe to their local newspapers or donate to funds supporting investigative journalism and publishers of color. Though not reflected in our timeline, Google also revealed to the Tow Center in a September email that the company had made an internal decision in March to commit an additional $100 million in marketing support to the news industry. 

Sign up for CJR's daily email

The scope of the Tow Center’s analysis included more than 150 coronavirus-related announcements between January 1 and July 15, 2020, by Facebook, Google, Apple, and Twitter. Since several initiatives were often announced in one press release, each is considered as its own announcement. During the time period observed, Facebook and Google pledged the most funding to journalism, while Twitter and Apple gave little to none. Twitter announced only $1 million, total, which went toward the Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Women’s Media Foundation, and Apple announced no money toward journalism. (For a detailed breakdown of Facebook- and Google-specific journalism and fact-check funding in response to COVID-19, see the Appendix.) 

The timing of this influx of platform funding could prove problematic for the news industry. Wary of becoming overly reliant on platforms over the past five years, namely for ad revenue, many publishers have begun to seek independence through new revenue streams—primarily reader revenue via subscriptions and memberships. As the Tow Center wrote in November 2019, in a report from our multi-year Platforms and Publishers project, this transition away from ad revenue and toward reader revenue marks the end of an era. It does not mean the end of the relationship between platforms and publishers, but a redefinition of it. Still, even as the platform promise of ad revenue at scale proved to be broken, several publishers told the Tow Center that they remained reliant on platforms—in some cases, until they figured out how to transition away from ad revenue, and in other cases, simply to survive. 

As publishers pursued new revenue streams and strategies, platforms responded with new products and programs—like Apple News+, Subscribe with Google, and Facebook’s Membership Accelerator—and, in the case of Google and Facebook, with a rising number of direct newsroom grants. In October, Google promised $1 billion to journalism, bringing these two platforms’ total commitment to the news industry since 2018 to $1.8 billion. (For comparison, looking at some of the other major journalism funders: the Knight Foundation gave, on average, $118 million in grants—total, not just to journalism—each year over the last decade; Craig Newmark Philanthropies has given $170 million to journalism since 2016; and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has given around $250 million to journalism to date.)      

One social-media director of a local news chain told the Tow Center in 2019, “We absolutely need the money that they’re giving us to innovate, or have a shot at growing our audience, or even [figure] out a path to a subscription strategy. So I am thankful for the money, but I think there’s also some resentment . . . like, I’m just tired of being at your beck and call.” Another interviewee put it more bluntly: “Before, we were still seeking a partnership . . . but now it’s like we’re wounded animals and wondering if they’re going to shoot us or try to give us just enough medical help to keep us alive so we can continue to serve them.”

Publishers have also long questioned platform intent. Last year, one publisher called journalism-related efforts “PR,” a sentiment shared by several interviewees. Another said that “Facebook have never really been genuinely engaged with the idea that news has any value for their platform. I think they’re really focused on [giving money] to local news in the US because that’s the political hot topic [right now].”

 

PLATFORMS AND COVID-19: THE BIGGER PICTURE

To contextualize the support given to news and fact checking amid the coronavirus pandemic, it’s worth noting that Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Apple together committed more than $1 billion to broader COVID-19 relief between January and July, according to the Tow Center’s analysis of the announcements included in our timeline

The bulk of COVID-19-related spending promises again came from Google and Facebook. In March alone, Google announced a $200-million fund to “support NGOs and financial institutions around the world to help provide small businesses with access to capital,” and committed another $100 million via Google.org “to the global COVID-19 response, focusing on health and science, access to educational resources and small business support.” That same month, Facebook also created a “$100 million grant program to help small businesses around the world impacted by the coronavirus.” 

Both companies also worked with entities such as the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to provide ad credits and other support in providing information about the coronavirus to the public. 

BEYOND DOLLARS: PLATFORM CURATION AND ITS LIMITS

These companies also determine which news and information hundreds of millions of users receive about COVID-19. And as platforms—namely Facebook, Google, and Twitter—have struggled with content takedown whack-a-mole with misinformation and disinformation, the pandemic has only added to the load: conspiracy theories ballooned and bad actors peddled personal protective equipment, sanitizer, and testing kits—all as the shift to remote work meant an increase in automated content moderation. 

Google said in March that it moved to block “all ads capitalizing on the coronavirus,” and that it had “blocked tens of thousands” in a matter of weeks. Twitter announced that by April 22, it had removed more than 2,200 “misleading” and “potentially harmful” tweets and 3.4 million accounts “targeting discussions around COVID-19 with spammy or manipulative behaviors.” 

Still, these platforms have acknowledged the limits of content takedown efforts, whether automated or human, and in recent years have created or expanded dedicated “news” products, adding, for example, human curation and fact checks. (Only Google News remains fully automated.) The pandemic pushed these platforms to double down on these curation and fact-checking efforts, pulling them toward more explicit decision making about the content on their platforms, with mixed results.  

Facebook added a section called “Get the Facts” to its COVID-19 Information Center, for which its News team would curate fact-checked articles. The center, atop a user’s News Feed, directs users seeking COVID-19 information to the WHO, CDC, and other health organizations. Apple put a “COVID-19 section” in its News product so that users could see “verified reporting from trusted news outlets,” which include mainstream publishers like the New York Times and Fox News, hand-selected by Apple News editors. And Google created a “COVID-19 experience” in Google News, with local news and fact checks.  

In addition to showcasing fact-checked news, some platforms created and expanded fact-checking products and procedures in-house in response to COVID-19. YouTube, the homepage of which was already updated “to direct users to the WHO or other locally relevant authoritative organizations,” for the first time placed fact-check panels in search results in the United States, which had previously only been released in India and Brazil. Facebook announced that it would “start showing messages in News Feed to people who have liked, reacted or commented on harmful misinformation about COVID-19 that we have since removed. These messages will connect people to COVID-19 myths debunked by the WHO including ones we’ve removed from our platform for leading to imminent physical harm.” 

Despite widely reported blocks and takedowns, fact checking, and curation, gaps and loopholes in these platforms’ efforts remain numerous. The clearest example of this is the spread of Plandemic, a video filled with conspiracy theories about the origin of COVID-19 that went viral, with more than 8 million views, before it was removed. 

Moving platform fact-check efforts into new territory, Twitter introduced “labels and warning messages” in May to content that remained on users’ timelines to “provide additional context and information on some Tweets containing disputed or misleading information related to COVID-19.” These labels were quickly applied to non-COVID-19 tweets. Twitter’s decision to label a tweet from President Donald Trump for the first time later that month, which had to do with mail-in ballots, sparked significant backlash from the president and his supporters. It meanwhile put pressure on Facebook to likewise label misleading content posted by Trump, which the platform agreed to do in late June. 

It’s possible that Twitter felt freer to flag and mark misleading information first, among the major platforms, because it has fewer political entanglements than other platforms. Twitter is the only platform of the four included in the Tow Center’s analysis that did not announce a coronavirus-related government partnership. Google and Apple partnered directly with the White House on building coronavirus sites and apps; both platforms, and Facebook, utilized user data for research that they explicitly stated they hoped would be used to shape public policy. Mark Zuckerberg wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post that, with its “community of billions of people globally,” Facebook “can uniquely help researchers and health authorities get the information they need to respond to the outbreak and start planning for the recovery.” And Apple and Google, in announcing their contact tracing partnership, said they hope “to enable the use of Bluetooth technology to help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of the virus.”

 

THE AFTER-EFFECTS OF CRISIS INTERVENTIONS

Several digital rights experts have already begun to debate what we give up in times of crisis,  drawing a connection between privacy concerns related to COVID-19 contact tracing efforts and the sacrifices demanded around personal freedoms in the name of more surveillance after 9/11.  

The Electronic Frontier Foundation writes, in COVID-19 and Digital Rights: “We ask three questions when analyzing proposals that would provide greater surveillance powers to the government: Would the proposal work? Would it excessively intrude on our freedoms? Are there sufficient safeguards?” Those same questions should be posed regarding platforms’ journalism initiatives. 

Even more, how do we think about Google launching new newsrooms and creating emergency relief funds for local news while also partnering with government entities to conduct COVID-19 contact tracing? Or make sense of the fact that, in India and Australia, it’s clear that both Facebook’s coziness or conflict with politicians and governments influences its regional decisions around allowing or disallowing specific speech and news on its platform?

It may well be that the urgent and immediate crisis posed by COVID-19 will mean that before we can have a comprehensive debate about the rising role of Google and Facebook in a local news landscape that is collapsing, it will be too late. 

There is undoubtedly a need for more funding for journalism, especially during times of crisis. But there is also a need for publishers to remain vigilant as platforms—with their competing priorities and partnerships across industries and across the globe—are the ones leading these efforts.

 

METHODOLOGY

Timeline of platform COVID-19 announcements:

  • In the timeline, developments are left in quotes. This is because it’s important to see how the platforms choose to frame their announcements and the language they use to describe their role in the crisis.
  • When multiple announcements are made at once by a platform, each announcement is a separate entry in the timeline. In the case of Apple, some dates are estimates because multiple efforts were often rolled into a single announcement.
  • If a platform announces a fund or spend, for example, of $100 million, and then later announces an allocation of some part of that, we do not include those allocations in the timeline
  • Conversely, when an announcement is made that extends a previous announcement, it is added to the original announcement in parenthesis. For example, if a fund of $50 million is later doubled to $100 million.
  • Entries are under the main platform. For example, a YouTube announcement would be under “Google” and a WhatsApp announcement would be under “Facebook.”

 

APPENDIX: FUNDING BREAKDOWN

Facebook

*Facebook made several funding announcements in direct response to coronavirus, though it was not immediately clear which funding was new, and which was coming from its previously announced $300 million toward journalism. In response to the Tow Center’s inquiry, Facebook would only confirm that it had committed $100 million in new spending, on top of the aforementioned $300. Facebook referred the Tow Center to its March 30 announcement, which included $25 million in local news grants, and $75 million in marketing support. The Tow Center sought to confirm which of the below COVID-19-related funding announcements came out of its new $100 million in spending announced in direct response to coronavirus, and Facebook would only confirm that “many” are, adding that no additional detail could be shared at this time.

Therefore, all funding announcements are listed below in chronological order. Funding announcements that are explicitly allocations from a previous announcement are included along with the initial funding announcement. (For example, Facebook announced $2 million toward Asia-Pacific newsrooms, from which the Splice Lights On Fund was created, along with subsequent disbursements in the region.) Only funding announcements explicitly linked in the language of the announcement to the $25 million are listed under that item. 

  • March 17: International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) awarded $1 million
  • March 17: $2 million COVID-19 Community Network grant program created
    • Number of recipients: 400 (North American newsrooms)
    • Amount per recipient: $5,000
    • List of recipients: here
  • March 18: International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) awarded another $1 million, from WhatsApp, to focus on WhatsApp
  • March 30: $25 million “emergency grant funding for local news” announced
    • FJP COVID-19 Local News Relief Fund Grant Program created
      • Number of recipients: 144 (North American newsrooms)
      • Amount per recipient: $25,000- $100,000
      • Total spend to-date: $10.3 million
      • List of recipients: here
    • Other distributions, unnamed
      • $5.4 million toward 59 newsrooms that “participated in Facebook Local News Accelerator programs”
      • $2.5 million toward Report for America “helping the group place 225 journalists in 160 local news organizations”
  • April 9: $3 million European Journalism COVID-19 Support Fund created
    • Number of recipients: 94 to date; will support “hundreds of community, local and regional European news organisations and journalists”
    • Amount per recipient: €5,000–€25,000 
    • More details here and here
  • April 28: $2 million Latin America News Relief Fund Grant Program created
    • Number of recipients: 44 newsrooms
    • Amount per recipient: $10,000–$40,000
    • List of recipients: here
  • May 14: $750,000 “to help news organizations in the Middle East and North Africa navigate the impact of COVID-19”
    • The International Center for Journalists (ICFJ)-Facebook Training & Reporting Grants Program created
      • Number of recipients: 17
      • Amount per recipient: up to $1,500
      • List of recipients: not announced
    • ICFJ/Facebook Journalism Project (FJP) COVID-19 Reporting Grants Program created
      • Number of recipients: not announced
      • Amount per recipient: $2,500
  • May 26: $390,000 “to help South African news organizations navigate the economic impact of the coronavirus crisis”
    • $250,000 “video training program” created for “10,000” journalists
    • Remaining funds for grants; further details not announced
  • June 1: $2 million in “grant funding, coaching and training to support Asia-Pacific news organizations’ coronavirus work”
    • Splice Lights On Fund
      • Number of recipients: 56 newsrooms
      • Amount per recipient: $5,000
    • Other disbursements
      • 17 newsrooms in Australia
      • 11 newsrooms participate in the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers’ (WAN-IFRA) inaugural Newsroom and Business Transformation 2020 programme
    • Details about recipients here
  • June 16: $1 million Facebook-Canadian Press News Fellowship created
    • Number of recipients: 8 individuals
    • Amount per recipient: not announced
    • Details here; recipients here

 

Google

Money for the Journalism Emergency Relief Fund (JERF) came from the Google News Initiative (GNI). The money to the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and the Columbia Journalism School (CJS) came from Google.org. The $6.5 million on April 2 came from GNI and Google News Lab. And the $15M spend for the support local news campaign came from Google Marketing. The $100 million in additional news industry marketing support comes from Google Marketing as well, but as this was an internal decision in March, there is no announcement to link to below.

  • April 2: $6.5 million “to help fight coronavirus misinformation.”
    • Recipients named here 
    • Google would only confirm to the Tow Center that $1 million of this was awarded to the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), but not how much the other entities were awarded.
  • April 15: Journalism Emergency Relief Fund (JERF) created (later, amount stated: $39.5 million)
    • Number of recipients: 5,600 newsrooms (global)
    • Amount per recipient: $5,000–$30,000
    • List of recipients here
  • April 15: $1 million to support reporters on the “front line”
    • Number of recipients: 2 
    • Amount per recipient: 
      • International Center for Journalists (ICFJ): $400,000
      • Columbia Journalism School (CJS): $600,000
    • Details: here and here

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Nushin Rashidian is the research lead on the Platforms and Publishers project at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. She also teaches at the Columbia Journalism School. @nushinrashidian