As part of Facebook’s ongoing Journalism Project, which launched in 2017, the social network is donating £4.5 million ($6 million) to fund 80 local newspaper jobs in the U.K. over the next two years.
The Community News Project, in partnership with non-profit organization the National Council for the Training of Journalists, will help bring in more local trainee reporters from diverse backgrounds, covering expenses, training and qualifications. Five regional publishers have been invited to apply for the funding, Reach, Newsquest, Midlands News Association, Archant and JPI Media, and recruitment is planned to open next January.
“This pilot certainly doesn’t solve the problem, but it will be an important first step in a deeper, longer-term and more collaborative relationship in finding a sustainable model for quality community news,” said Henry Faure Walker, CEO at Newsquest.
News publishers have grumbled that ad revenue growth has gone to Facebook and Google, putting pressure on the economic model for online quality journalism.
Speaking at a Facebook roundtable in London, Karyn Fleeting, head of audience engagement for regional titles at newspaper group Reach, said Facebook referral traffic for its regional titles is growing. However, Laura Adams, content director for Archant, said that Facebook referral traffic across titles is decreasing, in line with what many other publishers have been seeing since Facebook made changes to its algorithm at the beginning of 2018. “There are many challenges with building audience,” conceded Adams.
In building a sustainable model for online journalism, Nick Wrenn, head of news partnerships for EMEA at Facebook, notes there is not one golden key, but a combination of branded content, video, and advertising or subscriptions through Instant Articles. During tests for its subscription product in May, Facebook said that people are 17 percent more likely on average to subscribe to those publications directly from Facebook than people who saw standard web links. Wrenn added Instant Articles has seen global growth, but it’s not a model that works for everyone, as deserters like the Guardian and the New York Times have shown.
“We’re trying to work out what different longer-term sustainable model looks like,” he said pointing to tools like Facebook-owned CrowdTangle as a way of easing efficiency in the newsroom. “This is one area that has a longer-term advantage on the news industry. It’s not just writing a check and then stepping away.”
Facebook has no shortage of fires to fight. CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently claimed negative coverage of Facebook by the New York Times last week—as “bullshit.”
“Our experience of working with Facebook has been a very positive one,” said Joanne Butcher, chief executive of NCTJ, adding that doesn’t stop trustees having views about Facebook and its impact on the news business. “The view I have is that Facebook is sincere in its hope that this will lead to the creation of more relevant, timely local news. In terms of our charitable objectives we are there to attract, train, and qualify outstanding journalists.”
Details of The Community News Project are still slim: what the program will look like, whether Facebook will offer training, how exactly its success will be measured, and what will happen after the two-year scheme is still to be worked out. As it’s a pilot program it will be evaluated by the NCTJ throughout by looking at the number of people in the program and their background.
But, as with other initiatives from Facebook’s Journalism Project, gauging material impact has been tricky, despite best intentions.
“It’s hard to quantify the impact of Facebook Journalism Project,” said a social media editor at a news organization who requested anonymity. “I’ve been to various meetings under the umbrella of the FJP and it’s clear Facebook is still trying to understand what journalism is and what is the platform’s role in distributing news and hosting a civil conversation around news.”
While the social media editor acknowledges that Facebook and publishers working in tandem is a step forward, they still remain skeptical. “Facebook is open to creating something positive and publishers are working in good faith,” said the social media editor. “But we’ll have to see whether a constructive partnership can be formed.”