The media today: Facebook throws a dime at local journalism

As Facebook continues to take fire for leaving the media industry twisting in the wind with its new algorithm changes, not to mention the pressure to do something about fake news and disinformation on the platform, the social network appears to be looking for olive branches with which to help smooth over its fractious relationship with the press. The latest was the announcement on Tuesday of a local journalism “accelerator” project which Facebook says is designed to help small newspapers and other local media outlets figure out how to boost their subscription revenue.

In a blog post, Facebook’s Head of News Partnerships, Campbell Brown, called the project “a $3 million, three-month pilot program to help metro newspapers take their digital subscription business to a new level.” Conspicuously absent, not surprisingly, was any mention of the main reason why newspapers and other media outlets are being forced to focus on subscription revenue—namely, that Facebook and Google have vacuumed up the vast majority of digital advertising over the past few years, leaving much of the media industry with a giant, smoking crater where their ad revenues used to be.

According to Brown, the new venture will work with 10-15 metro news organizations to “unlock strategies” that could help them build subscriptions using Facebook’s platform, and will be led by former former Texas Tribune publisher Tim Griggs. Newspapers already enrolled include The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Boston Globe and The Miami Herald. Brown said Facebook has also partnered with The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, a non-profit foundation set up by former cable magnate Larry Lenfest that owns and publishes The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Philadelphia Daily News. The Institute will distribute case studies from the pilot group through the Local Media Consortium.

If Facebook hoped that its announcement of financial support might be greeted by cheers, or even a weak thumbs up, it was likely disappointed in the response. Much of the reaction from media Twitter was highly skeptical of the effort—in part because of Facebook’s history of giving to the media industry with one hand and taking away with the other, but also because of the tiny sum of money involved. Although something is always better than nothing, the money that the social network has committed to this three-month pilot project amounts to 0.00007 percent of Facebook’s 2017 revenues, which feels a little like a Wall Street investment banker giving a homeless man a two-cent donation to help him get back on his feet.

Here’s more on Facebook and its tangled relationship with the media and advertising:

  • Facebook may want to help media outlets do more on the subscription front, but some industry insiders say that isn’t going to be much help for a lot of existing publishers. “A lot of people are going, ‘Reader revenue, it’s working for The New York Times, it’s working for specialty publications; that’s our path,'” former Twitter and NPR executive Vivian Schiller told Digiday. “I’m afraid for most news publishers, it’s going to end in tears.”
  • In a recent piece on Facebook and the 2016 US election, Wired magazine said the Trump campaign was helped by the fact that its advertising was more controversial, because that meant it paid less for its ads than the Clinton campaign, something former Trump digital director Brad Parscale appeared to confirm (Facebook’s ad prices are based in part on how much engagement they get).  But Facebook’s former VP of ads Andrew “Boz” Bosworth said on Twitter that this isn’t the case.
  • On a related note, Trump’s team announced Tuesday that the president has named Parscale as his campaign manager for 2020. Parscale has been credited with designing and overseeing the Facebook-based advertising machine that some believe helped put Trump in the White House.
  • Barack Obama spoke at an MIT event that was closed to the media, but Reason magazine got a copy of his remarks, in which he said platforms like Facebook and Google “have to have a conversation about their business model that recognizes they are a public good as well as a commercial enterprise. They’re not just an invisible platform, they’re shaping our culture in powerful ways.”
  • The newspaper industry doesn’t intend to hand over the media business to Facebook and Google without a fight, it seems. David Chavern, the head of the News Media Alliance (formerly the Newspaper Association of America) argues in the Wall Street Journal that Congress should give media companies an exemption from anti-trust law so they can compete.

Other notable stories:

  • The New York Times is said to be working on a new 30-minute weekly TV-style news show, and is in talks with streaming services and cable channels about a deal to distribute it, assistant managing editor Sam Dolnick told CNN. The paper says the series “will include groundbreaking investigations, on-the-ground reporting, agenda-setting interviews and new formats yet to be invented.”
  • Civil, a startup that is building a platform for financing and distributing journalism using the blockchain and its own crypto-currency, announced its newest partner site this morning. The new site will be helmed by Gawker Media veteran Tom Scocca, who said he hopes it can become a place for smart social and political commentary that promotes new voices.
  • Quinn Norton, who was briefly hired as a new columnist for The New York Times opinion section and then abruptly un-hired after controversial comments she made on Twitter resurfaced, has written an essay for The Atlantic about the experience. She says the backlash on Twitter, which was based in part on her friendship with a neo-Nazi, involved “a bizarro version of myself.”
  • The Knight Foundation has released a fascinating study that looks at how various sub-cultures on Twitter, including Black Twitter and Feminist Twitter, interact with the mainstream news media. The research looked at over 46 million tweets between 2015 and 2016 and found that issues which later became broadly important often started within those sub-groups.
  • Kim Ruehl writes for CJR about a digital alternative-music magazine called No Depression that is larger than ever and still publishing a quarterly filled with long-form articles by a group of paid freelancers, almost a decade after it stopped printing.

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