Yesterday, Facebook announced it would spend $300 million over three years on journalistic content, partnerships, and programs. The announcement commits the social network to match the funding rival tech giant Google said it would spend on such programs—but more importantly increases the already-dangerous co-dependency between big tech and newsrooms.
Journalism, especially local journalism, is certainly in need of new revenue streams, as the industry faces a fundamental challenge to its business model, as print advertising dwindles and publishers’ meagre share of online ad dollars do little to replace it. Meanwhile, the tech companies keep growing, reaping the online ad dollars that publishers are so eager to get.
Both the financial crisis of journalism and the dominance of big technology platforms are important issues, but they are too often conflated; academics and European lawmakers alike have pushed these two separate conversations together over the last few years, suggesting there’s an easy fix in making technology fund journalism. This is a tempting idea, and one gaining a foothold in the US, but in reality would be a serious mistake—especially when it comes to reader trust.
Many rightly see the rise of big tech, and social media in particular, as the root of journalism’s problems. Not only do Google and Facebook dominate the online ad market—the two together make up nearly two-thirds of the market, but the social networks have played a huge role in the spread of online misinformation and the incentivizing of clickbait, which have been large contributors to the crisis of trust in the media. That idea has widespread academic and political support. In July 2018, a UK parliament inquiry into disinformation and fake news warned of social media’s effects on both the information and advertising ecosystems. Likewise, Facebook conceded—while under severe media pressure earlier this year—that the journalistic outlets which provide much of its content are in crisis.