Facebook, fighting off skeptics, plans to invest $300 million in journalism programs

Facebook says it is making by far its biggest investment yet into struggling sectors of the news industry....

Posted: Jan 15, 2019 12:29 PM
Updated: Jan 15, 2019 12:29 PM

Facebook says it is making by far its biggest investment yet into struggling sectors of the news industry.

On Tuesday the company is announcing a three-year commitment to invest $300 million in "news programs, partnerships and content."

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Some of the funds will go directly to nonprofit organizations like the Pulitzer Center and Report for America. The cash infusion will also dramatically expand Facebook's existing effort to help news websites convert readers into paying subscribers.

"We don't want publishers to be dependent on us, but we do want to support them," Campbell Brown, Facebook's Vice President of global news partnerships, said in a telephone interview.

The focus, she said, is on supporting the local news ecosystem.

Local newspapers and websites have been decimated by the digital revolution — and Facebook has been at the leading edge of that revolution, snagging billions of dollars in revenue from advertisers and incalculable amounts of attention from audiences.

Print newspapers were in a precarious position before Facebook was even invented, but many journalists believe that Facebook — along with Google (GOOGL) — hastened the decline of the business in a big way.

Google, which posted a profit of $9.19 billion last quarter, announced a $300 million "Google News Initiative" last year.

Some digital publishers and startups also resent Facebook's power, particularly when it comes to the constantly changing News Feed, which can send sites a torrent of traffic, then dry up suddenly.

So the level of skepticism about Facebook's journalism initiatives is high.

Investment comes at a precarious time for Facebook

The company is also fighting battles on numerous other fronts, from privacy scandals to failed product launches to misinformation problems.

But it seems to be on a mission to improve its reputation in the media industry.

The Facebook Journalism Project began two years ago. Although separate from the company's much-debated efforts to curb misinformation and spam on the platform, the project is related because it's been trying to support the sharing of accurate information.

Brown said the emphasis on local news content "came out of us spending the last year really listening to publishers who are participating in our local pilot programs."

The first program explored how to get people to subscribe to local news outlets. A more recent pilot was about membership models for newsrooms.

Facebook (FB) said in Tuesday's press release that is committing "over $20 million" to continue the programs, called "accelerators," and to "expand the model globally, including in Europe."

Some of the $300 million commitment over three years has not yet been allotted. Brown said Facebook will hold a two-day summit focused on local news in March to hold further discussions with publishers and "look at additional ways we can make investments."

Facebook posted a profit of $5.13 billion in its most recent quarter. When asked about the perception that the company is giving away crumbs to make up for damage done to the news business, Brown made the point that "we're not going to un-invent the internet."

"What I try to think about in my work with publishers is, 'Where do we go from here?'" She said. "There is no one-size-fits-all model. There is no single solution that's going to work with every publisher. We can be part of the solution, but we can't be the whole solution."

When the digital news venture Mic abruptly laid off its entire newsroom in late November, Mic's over-reliance on Facebook funding and traffic was said to be a major factor.

To that point, "news feed distribution is always going to change," Brown said, repeating a line she has used many times before. "That is the nature of Facebook." But then she turned back to solutions: "If we can help, we should."

Facebook also pays a number of major news outlets, including CNN, to produce special video programming for the Facebook Watch section of its platform.

Brown said the seed funding for Watch will continue. Last month, The Information reported that the programming strategy was being "refined," so some news outlets would see declines in funding while other outlets received subsidies for the first time.

As for Brown's future at Facebook, which has been the subject of industry speculation, she said during the interview: "I love my job. I cannot imagine a more exciting role where, if you care about journalism, then you have the opportunity to work with other people who care deeply about it."

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