Facebook is investing $300 million in local newsrooms and training initiatives for regional journalists over the next three years. But can Mark Zuckerberg be trusted to keep the press free?
With print newspapers’ advertising revenues in freefall for almost two decades, and local newspapers conglomerating and laying off staff to survive, the industry will take any help it can get. Facebook – with its mountains of fake news, clickbait, and a tricky environment for digital publishers to make money in – has in no small way contributed to the precarious state of modern journalism, but the company now wants to give the fourth estate a booster shot.
The company decided to focus specifically on local news. Vice President of Global News Partnerships Campbell Brown said in a blog post that after examining what kind of news people want to see on Facebook, the company “heard one consistent answer: people want more local news, and local newsrooms are looking for more support.”
Facebook’s support for the new industry has thus far been limited to funding a small selection of news programs from CNN, Fox News, and a handful of others. The social media giant has been far more keen to play policeman, partnering up with an array of third-party “fact checkers” last year to filter out “false narratives” and “intentionally divisive headlines and language that exploit disagreements and sow conflict” from users’ timelines.
Troublingly, even Facebook’s own staff could not explain what exactly the term “false narratives” meant. Additionally, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg met with a consortium of media executives shortly afterwards to talk about his company’s use of algorithms to promote ‘reputable news’ and suppress other content, all to ensure that “people can get trustworthy news on our platform.”
Drawn from CNN, the New York Times, Buzzfeed and others, the overwhelmingly liberal makeup of the panel of executives did little to persuade conservatives – who have long accused the platform of bias – that Facebook would act impartially.
Neither did Facebook’s announcement in August that it would partner up with the aggressively pro-NATO think tank, the Atlantic Council. The Atlantic Council vowed to serve as Facebook’s “eyes and ears” in the fight against fake news, but that fight resulted in hundreds of alternative news pages being purged from the platform in October. The 800 pages spanned the political spectrum, and their removal triggered cries of censorship and accusations that Facebook was waging “a wider war on dissident narratives.”
One banned cartoonist declared Facebook to be “land of the censorship and home of the fake,” while anti-war journalist Caitlin Johnstone called the purge the “latest escalation of corporate censorship used as state censorship in the West.”
Can Facebook then be trusted to fund local journalism?
The answer is unclear. The $300 million will be given to a number of organizations to distribute further. Some of these organizations, like the Pulitzer Center, are household names. Others, like Report for America, are less well known. The Pulitzer Center will receive $5 million to award as grants to local newsrooms around the country, and social justice non-profit Report for America will get $2 million to go towards the hiring of 1,000 journalists over the next five years.
Pulitzer Center founder and executive director Jon Sawyer welcomed the funding, and took time to “applaud Facebook’s commitment to the editorial independence that is absolutely essential to our success.”
No matter how hands-off Facebook stays, some commentators were angered by the company’s new-found role as champion of the local press. After contributing in a large way to the decline of print media, Facebook’s $300 million investment in the industry is, as one cartoon implied, “peanuts.”
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