Facebook falls out of love with journalism

Note: This was originally published at the Columbia Journalism Review website, where I am the chief digital writer

In March of 2019, the company now known as Meta announced the Facebook Journalism Project, a plan to spend $300 million over three years “supporting local journalists and newsrooms with their newsgathering needs in the immediate future, and helping local news organizations build sustainable business models.” At an event in Denver that same month, called the Accelerate: Local Media Summit, Facebook’s news partnerships team insisted their commitment to helping journalism was genuine, and that this commitment was shared at the highest levels of the company, including the CEO, Mark Zuckerberg. “This is something Mark cares about,” one staffer said.

If that was true, it doesn’t seem to be the case any more, as Meta has spent the past year cutting funding for and downsizing most of its journalism efforts. Last month, it laid off a number of the staffers in charge of its journalism programs, including several who were in charge of local news partnerships, as well as Meta’s director of international news partnerships, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. Campbell Brown, who was previously in charge of news partnerships for Meta, was recently moved into a role handling partnerships with everyone from entertainment companies to sports teams.

In June, the Wall Street Journal said Meta was “reconsidering” its payments to publishers as part of the Facebook News program, which featured news stories from certain outlets in a special News tab. The company reportedly paid annual fees of more than $15 million to the Washington Post, just over $20 million to the New York Times, and more than $10 million to The Journal. Those payments have since been halted and are not expected to resume.

Sources with knowledge of Meta’s journalism operations note that while funding may have stopped, large media outlets such as Axel Springer or the New York Times still have staff at the social network who will help them. Small publishers, however, who mostly worked with Meta through programs or grants, never had that many people helping to begin with, and the ones they did have are now gone.

Meta still has a director of news partnerships for Asia Pacific, but a strategic manager and another direct report have both left the company, the Morning Herald reported. According to the Nieman Journalism Lab, other journalism staff at Meta who have lost their jobs recently include a program manager for news, two program managers for news integrity, and multiple staffers in news communications. And while the Meta Journalism Project website is still open, with a number of announcements about partnerships, the training courses it used to offer to journalists appear to have vanished.

In June, Meta decided to retire the term “news feed” for the main stream of content on a user’s page, and Axios reported that one of the reasons given for the change was that Meta was “de-emphasizing its investment in news content.” In July, the Journal quoted from an internal memo sent by Brown, in which she said that the company was “reallocating resources” away from Facebook News project and Bulletin, the newsletter platform Meta launched just over a year earlier, in an attempt to compete with Substack.

In October, the New York Times reported that Bulletin is officially dead. That same month, Meta also said it was shutting down its Instant Articles mobile format next year. Instant Articles was launched in 2015, ostensibly as a way of helping media outlets shift their news distribution to mobile. Many news companies, however, said they saw little benefit from adopting the company’s standard, and it failed to gain much traction. 

Asked about the unwinding of Meta’s financial commitments to journalism, a Meta spokesperson said the same thing the company told Axios in October: “Less than three percent of what people around the world see in Facebook’s Feed are posts with links to news articles. As a business it doesn’t make sense to over invest in areas that don’t align with user preferences.” The spokesperson didn’t comment on how Meta’s repeated changes to its News Feed algorithm—which have de-emphasized news—might have affected the level of news awareness among users, or their preferences.

One factor that may have contributed to Meta’s desire to stop funding journalism through its various programs is that the company has been forced to pay a number of media outlets licensing fees as a result of legislation that was passed in Australia last year, and is being contemplated in a number of other countries—including the US, where the proposed law is called the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act. Meta has threatened to remove news from its platform completely if the bill becomes law.

While larger news outlets may have no problem replacing the funding they used to get from Meta, Nancy Lane, the CEO of the Local Media Association, told the Nieman Journalism Lab that local media organizations may not have it so easy, now that the more than $16 million in funding Meta used to provide has vanished. “For all those who hated on FB over the yrs, you got what you wished for. News is now being deprioritized on the platform, despite being the #1 source for so many,” Lane wrote on Twitter. “The news partnership team has been dissolved & many industry labs/accelerators are going away. It’s a sad day indeed.”

In 2018, CJR wrote about the “Facebook Armageddon” for news, and said: “There’s another way the Facebook threat could actually get worse: Instead of continuing to be a primary platform for news companies and trying to strike relationships with them, the company could decide to simply wash its hands of news entirely, either because it isn’t generating enough revenue, or because it has become too much of a political headache.”

As predicted, the layoffs and cutbacks don’t appear to be solely a result of Meta’s falling out of love with journalism. The company’s revenue and share price have both been falling steadily all year, wiping hundreds of billions of dollars from its stock-market value, and Meta recently announced plans to lay off about 11,000 people over the next year, in an attempt to cut costs. One source close to the Journalism Project said that when it began, a senior manager said that if it didn’t generate at least $100 million in revenue, then it likely would not survive, and Meta appears to have lost faith that this will ever happen.

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