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May 17, 2018, 10:47 a.m.
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LINK:  ➚   |   Posted by: Laura Hazard Owen   |   May 17, 2018

One Wednesday this spring, I wrote about an accelerator aimed at local newsrooms and funded by Facebook. Two days later, I criticized the fact that Facebook’s algorithm changes don’t actually appear to be hurting hyperpartisan publishers. This is a fairly common dynamic at Nieman Lab, where we write about the duopoly’s latest news funding efforts and announcements even as we bemoan their increasing dominance. We’re certainly not alone among news outlets in doing this, but, as Mathew Ingram pointed out this week in Columbia Journalism Review, it’s a weird situation:

These mega-platforms are now two of the largest funders of journalism in the world.

The irony is hard to miss. The dismantling of the traditional advertising model — largely at the hands of the social networks, which have siphoned away the majority of industry ad revenue — has left many media companies and journalistic institutions in desperate need of a lifeline. Google and Facebook, meanwhile, are happy to oblige, flush with cash from their ongoing dominance of the digital ad market.

The result is a somewhat dysfunctional alliance. People in the media business (including some on the receiving end of the cash) see the tech donations as guilt money, something journalism deserves because Google and Facebook wrecked their business. The tech giants, meanwhile, are desperate for some good PR and maybe even a few friends in a journalistic community that — especially now — can seem openly antagonistic.

People whose initiatives have benefited from Google and Facebook funding told Ingram how they feel about this dysfunctional alliance. Common thread: They’re offering money, take it, just don’t trust too much.

— Our own Joshua Benton, director of Nieman Lab: “I think there are a lot of very well-intentioned people at these companies who honestly believe that journalism is important and want to help as best as they possibly can. But I think it’s hard to view all these efforts through a lens other than public relations.” (Full disclosure: We host a Google Journalism Fellow every summer, and said fellow is paid by Google!)

— Alexios Mantzarlis, director of Poynter’s International Fact Checking Network: “I think it’s kind of unfair, in a way that, with every grant, it feels like you need to justify that you’re not beholden to your donor, in a way that you don’t have to with other kinds of transactions. If you have a large client, aren’t you kind of beholden to their whims, too?”

— Jennifer Preston, VP of Knight: “If there are organizations, including Facebook and Google, that want to help support the future practice of journalism, then I’m in. I think the more people and the more organizations we have supporting the future of journalism, the better off our communities and our democracy will be.”

— Emily Bell, director of Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism: “I think it’s important to remember that the same companies that are coming into our newsrooms and training and talking to journalists and building projects for journalists are doing the same thing with local politicians, seeking to put self-driving cars on the streets of your town; they are selling packages of software to your local educational authority…It’s really hard to evaluate exactly how independent journalism can be in those circumstances. I think these are very serious concerns and, honestly, rarely discussed because of the pervasive nature of the money.”

It’s also tricky when, as Ingram points out, “Google and Facebook are rarely just small funders of specific projects along with other major donors, and they almost never fund the same initiatives together. This means that in many cases, the two tech companies are the single largest or possibly even only major funders, which raises a lot more potential red flags.”

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