What Does Facebook's Big Journalism Investment Mean for Local News?

In January 2018 piece in The New Republic, Alex Shephard identified the three main culprits responsible for the demise of local news: “Craigslist helped destroy the newspaper ad business and Google and Facebook, which now effectively control the market for digital advertising, are in the process of finishing the job.”

In the intervening year, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark solidified his position as one of philanthropy’s biggest patrons of nonprofit journalism and a leading crusader against “fake news.” In August, the $300 million Google News Initiative, which launched in March with the goal of “helping journalism thrive in the digital age,” rolled out a new round of funding to help outlets optimize the YouTube platform and boost news literacy” among consumers.

Now comes word that Facebook has committed $300 million over three years in local news programs, partnerships and content development efforts. The social media giant, according to Nieman Journalism Lab’s Christine Schmidt, “is trying to make amends before it’s too late for local.”

Given the wave of anti-Facebook sentiment sweeping the globe, coupled with the fact that, as Shephard noted, Facebook has been an accessory in the dismantling of local news ecosystems across the country, it would be easy to view this announcement through a cynical lens—or a Freudian one: The New York Times, for instance, theorized that Newmark’s journalism philanthropy springs from a deep reservoir of guilt.

While it’s tempting to go there, I’m going to have to pass. Not only is $300 million a lot of money in the journalism space, but Facebook, after spending a year listening to local outlets, is investing in trusted nonprofit organizations and innovative approaches that enjoy a good deal of consensus across the funder community.

“Last year, we worked to better understand what kind of news people want to see on Facebook,” Campbell Brown, VP, Global News Partnerships, said in the press release. “We’ve also asked our partners in the news industry how we can better work with them to make a real impact.

“There are two key areas where we hope to help: supporting local journalists and newsrooms with their newsgathering needs in the immediate future; and helping local news organizations build sustainable business models, through both our product and partnership work. Over time, we think this work can have the added benefit of fostering civic engagement, which research suggests is directly correlated with people’s reading of local news.”

Facebook’s focus on bolstering local news comes in the wake of new research last year on philanthropic support for journalism finding that most grants went to national outlets. Only about 5 percent of foundation grants made between between 2010 and 2015 supported state and local news nonprofits, despite widespread alarm about the demise of media at this level. And much of that funding came from just a few sources, most notably, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

A “Results-Oriented” Approach

Facebook’s “initial phase of investment”—to quote Brown—includes a $5 million endowment gift for the Pulitzer Center for reporting grants that affect local communities, $2 million to Report for America to place 1,000 journalists in local newsrooms over the next five years, $1 million for the Knight-Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund, and support for the $6 million Community News Project, which seeks to recruit and place U.K.-based community journalists in local newsrooms.

Facebook is also expanding its Accelerator pilot, which launched in the U.S. in 2018 to help local newsrooms with subscription and membership models. This year, it will commit over $20 million to continue the local Accelerator in the states and to expand the model globally, including in Europe. 

Nieman Lab’s Schmidt spoke with Brown about the $300 million commitment, and I encourage you to read the entire (lightly edited) interview, as it hits on many important issues like algorithm changes and initiatives like Facebook Watch. For the sake of brevity, I’ll hit on a few key takeaways.

Brown pointed to encouraging success stories from outlets participating in the Accelerator pilot. The Denver Post, for example, had a 172 percent increase in digital subscriptions, which could not have come at a better time. The New York City-based hedge fund Alden Global Capital has been methodically liquidating the outlet to such a degree that last year, its editors revolted and implored donors to come to its rescue.

As for the recipients of this first round of funding, “these are nonprofits you’re familiar with, we are all familiar with, who have been working in this space and have a better understanding of the challenges in areas where they are more able to have the biggest impact,” Brown said. “Report for America, for example, is trying to put reporters in newsrooms across the country, trying to get reporters in areas that need coverage—that, to me, is a no-brainer in terms of an organization we should support.”

Looking ahead, Brown said, “We’re trying to be very results-oriented and look at where we did experiments, look at where we did smaller investments to try to figure out what works for publishers and what they told us is the path they want to continue to be on.”

“An Emphasis on Local”

Facebook’s announcement represents an important pivot in its efforts to support local news. As you may recall, a year ago, it overhauled its News Feed, saying it would prioritize local news and what users' friends and families share while de-emphasizing content from publishers and brands. The changes were intended to maximize the amount of content with “meaningful interaction” that people consume on Facebook.

Unfortunately, there’s an old adage that says something about “the best of intentions.”

As the New Republic’s Shepard noted, local news doesn’t necessarily mean accurate news. “Citizen journalists alone,” he wrote, “are not sufficient to fill the void left by defunct local news outlets.” The same logic holds true for posts from friends and family. As I noted at the time, by prioritizing posts from friends and family—including Uncle George, who swears Barack Obama was born in Kenya—Facebook’s tweak had the potential to exacerbate the proliferation of fake news and further solidify readers’ preconceptions and prejudices.

At the time, Shepard made the argument that Facebook’s tweaks would do little to reduce the operational and financial stresses imperiling regional newsrooms. Instead, “what’s needed are large, structural investments in real reporting—the kind that actually holds local and state governments responsible, not just notify users when a new restaurant has opened. Facebook and Google have positioned themselves as neutral platforms, and neither is interested in this kind of work.”

A year later, the situation on the ground has changed.

As noted, Google launched its equally massive Google News Initiative, which, while comparatively lighter on nitty-gritty local news reporting, nonetheless aims to help smaller outlets by providing improved analytical tools, assistance in tackling fake news, and strategies to boost media literacy. It remains a somewhat “neutral” approach, but local outlets, I suspect, will gladly accept the assistance.

As for Facebook, Brown told Schmidt it was “going to continue our work with head publishers. We’re not backing away from that.” But its new announcement “is a shift to local and an emphasis on local that is new for us. I think it’s going to be really important for us moving forward.” Brown assured Schmidt that more money is on its way.

Bottom line, here? By funding “off-platform” initiatives—that is, giving money to trusted third-party organizations rather than tackling the local news challenge entirely in-house—Facebook’s $300 million commitment suggests that it’s interested in the kind of “structural” work that Shepard called for over a year ago.

“News is a key part of Facebook’s mission to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together,” said Facebook’s Brown. “We're going to continue fighting fake news, misinformation and low-quality news on Facebook. But we also have an opportunity, and a responsibility, to help local news organizations grow and thrive. We know we can’t do it alone, but there is more we can and will do to help.”