Facebook Announces $300 Million Project, Allegedly to Support Local Journalism

Once upon a time, local newspapers could depend upon a steady stream of local classified ads — people advertising looking to hire a handyman, or to sell their old sofa or used car. The income from local ads in locally-owned newspapers would go back to the communities, in the form of the paychecks for the reporters and other employees of the paper.

Now, that income is being swept out of the communities where the buying and selling used to be local, and it’s being aggregated by Craigslist or eBay. That loss of revenue has a direct impact on the local news ecosystem, as reporters are pressured to do a large number of brief, surface-level stories that will generate clicks, because editors can’t afford to pull them off the money-making stories in order to delve deeply into important, in-depth news.

I’ve been watching Facebook’s participation in all this. Facebook wants to keep its audience on Facebook; it doesn’t want you to click away to a local news organization’s website. So Facebook pressured journalists into creating Facebook-friendly media packages that opened directly in Facebook, an arrangement that benefitted Facebook, but didn’t particularly benefit the local news organizations.

I don’t feel at all comfortable when it comes to trusting Facebook with the news.

For instance, here’s an instance where it appears that whoever was responsible for Facebook’s short-lived “trending news” feature (a person? an algorithm?) put the word “allegedly” in a headline that sparked criticism on social media — but I never found any news story with that headline — the phrasing of the questionable headline existed only on Facebook’s “trending” list. (See “No results found for “officer on leave after video allegedly shows him pulling gun on unarmed teens.”)

See also “Facebook Has Seized the Media, and That’s Bad News for Everyone But Facebook.

Given that context, I’m skeptical of Facebook’s plan to invest $300 million in local news.

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. –CNN Business