Room for Journalists in Facebook's 'Global Community'?

You’re reading the Benton Foundation’s Weekly Round-up, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) telecommunications stories of the week. The round-up is delivered via e-mail each Friday; to get your own copy, subscribe at

Robbie's Round-Up for the Week of February 20-24, 2017

Tech giants disrupted the business model for digital news; can they save journalism? Should they?

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently posted “Building Global Community” on his Facebook page, illustrating the company’s plans for developing the “social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us.” Notably, Zuckerberg directly analyzes the state of the news industry and its important function in our society. Some people criticized Zuckerberg’s post, arguing it actually serves as a blueprint for destroying journalism. This week we take a closer look at Zuckerberg’s vision and what it could mean for the future of journalism.

Building Global Community: Social Media vs Traditional Media
Zuckerberg’s post broadly describes the company’s goal towards “creating a world we all want.” He includes five questions he believes Facebook can help answer -- five areas that traditional news media have occupied:

  1. How do we help people build supportive communities that strengthen traditional institutions in a world where membership in these institutions is declining?
  2. How do we help people build a safe community that prevents harm, helps during crises and rebuilds afterwards in a world where anyone across the world can affect us?
  3. How do we help people build an informed community that exposes us to new ideas and builds common understanding in a world where every person has a voice?
  4. How do we help people build a civically-engaged community in a world where participation in voting sometimes includes less than half our population?
  5. How do we help people build an inclusive community that reflects our collective values and common humanity from local to global levels, spanning cultures, nations and regions in a world with few examples of global communities?

Zuckerberg writes, “A strong news industry is...critical to building an informed community. Giving people a voice is not enough without having people dedicated to uncovering new information and analyzing it.”

Zuckerberg makes note of criticisms Facebook has received over “fake news,” but expands further to address the problems of sensationalism and polarization. He writes, “The two most discussed concerns this past year were about diversity of viewpoints we see (filter bubbles) and accuracy of information (fake news). I worry about these and we have studied them extensively, but I also worry there are even more powerful effects we must mitigate around sensationalism and polarization leading to a loss of common understanding.” He notes the company has taken steps to reduce sensationalism in its News Feed, and believes that Facebook can reduce polarization by connecting people with what we have in common.

Most importantly, Zuckerberg directly addresses the need for Facebook to support "a strong news industry": “There is more we must do to support the news industry to make sure this vital social function is sustainable -- from growing local news, to developing formats best suited to mobile devices, to improving the range of business models news organizations rely on.”

Criticism of Zuckerberg’s Vision: News Without Journalists
Adrienne LaFrance, writing for The Atlantic, provided a loud criticism of Zuckerberg’s post. She claimed the manifesto should, “set off new alarm bells for journalists, and heighten news organizations’ sense of urgency about how they—and their industry—can survive in a Facebook-dominated world.” She continues:

The problem is that Zuckerberg lays out concrete ideas about how to build community on Facebook, how to encourage civic engagement, and how to improve the quality and inclusiveness of discourse—but he bakes in an assumption that news, which has always been subsidized by the advertising dollars his company now commands, will continue to feed into Facebook’s system at little to no cost to Facebook....In some ways, Zuckerberg is building a news organization without journalists. [emphasis added]

Steven Waldman, primary author of the Federal Communications Commission's “Information Needs of Communities” wrote an op-ed for the New York Times in which he also criticized parts of Zuckerberg’s post. Waldman writes, “his memo ignored...the role that Facebook and other technology platforms are playing in inadvertently damaging local news media.” “Local news is weak in large part because the business models have collapsed. The main reason: As advertising spending shifted from print, TV and radio to the internet, the money didn’t mostly go to digital news organizations. Increasingly, it goes to Facebook and Google.”

The Path Forward: Fund 3,000 Journalists
While the rise of Facebook and Google has led to news organizations losing crucial advertising revenue, Waldman was quick to note that it is from these same organizations that a savior can be found. Waldman ultimately focuses on what he believes to be the one way giant tech companies could actually save journalism: a massive philanthropic commitment. He calls for these digital disruptors to solve the crisis of American journalism. He writes:

If the leaders of these companies put the equivalent of just 1 percent of their profits, for five years, to the cause, local American journalism would be transformed for the next century. That would be $4.4 billion — enough to establish a permanent endowment to fund local journalism. That would produce about $200 million in income a year, more than 15 times the current philanthropic spending on investigative journalism — and enough for about 50 new investigative reporters in each state, or to underwrite the technology operations of most nonprofit news organizations….

The 19th century robber baron Andrew Carnegie gave away most of his wealth later in life...Carnegie built almost 3,000 libraries. All Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Laurene Powell (widow of Steve Jobs) have to do is fund 3,000 journalists.

Emily Bell, Director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, echoesWaldman’s position: “What independent journalism needs more than ever from Silicon Valley is a significant transfer of wealth.... America needs a radical new market intervention similar to that made by the UK Government in 1922 when it issued a Royal Charter and established the BBC.... Under the current political climate it is impossible to imagine that public service journalism would attract anything other than adverse attention from government, so the initiative needs to come from elsewhere.” Bell and Waldman agree: tech giants disrupted the business model for digital news, and given our political environment, it is up to them to save journalism.

Why Should Tech Titans Financially Support Journalism?
Do media disruptors have an obligation to contribute to a journalism crisis they helped manufacture? (A crisis, it should be noted, that does not help them long-term.) Bell lays out the argument:

The case for why we need this kind of bold market intervention for journalism is obvious. But why would tech companies or their billionaire founders want to do it? They, more than any other stakeholders, have a vested interest in the integrity of information, and the sustainability of journalism as an independent project. Neither Facebook or Google really wants to actually employ journalists, yet journalism institutions will continue to fail because of the adverse market conditions. Zuckerberg voices concern for “local journalism,” and Google’s Digital News Initiative has done the same. This is partly public relations, to quiet existing publishers. But there is more to it than that. The inquiries about filter bubbles and fake news have really hit home. The looming possibility of regulation, and the moral imperative to improve the information environment, are weighing heavily on the platform companies….
As beneficiaries of a stable democracy, technology companies have realized that the further failure of journalism is not, in fact, good news for them. The alternative is that each technology company becomes an identifiable media entity that will staff its own newsrooms and create its own standards. This carries with it cultural and regulatory threat. But most importantly, the technology companies should support journalism because they are currently the only organizations who can.

Progress, Not a Solution
Solving the crisis of American journalism will not happen overnight, but Zuckerberg’s manifesto indicates a new chapter in the struggle for journalism to survive in the digital world. Bell wrote:

Whatever the outcome, to have Zuckerberg move on from his position that Facebook is simply a technology company is progress. We can begin a more engaged debate now, not about tools and techniques, or tests and trials, but about the type of information environment we want to create in the smoking ruins of the one that has been systematically destroyed by external and internal forces.

Recognizing the importance of journalism in a free, democratic society as well as the fragile state of investigative journalism in the U.S. are the first steps in a process. Fortunately, Facebook and Google have demonstrated this recognition, as well as their goals to be larger than neutral technology platforms. Hopefully the conversation will evolve to address solutions to our journalism crisis. “Building Global Community” moves the conversation along – a conversation we’ll continue to cover in Headlines.

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)
coffee iconA Dangerous Time for the Press and the Presidency (The Atlantic Op-Ed)
coffee iconThe Trump White House doesn’t really want balanced media coverage (Washington Post)
coffee iconWe Avoid News We Don't Like (New York Times)
coffee iconDecoding the Doublespeak of FCC Chairman Pai (Timothy Karr Op-Ed)
coffee iconAjit Pai is making the FCC more transparent — but only when it suits him (The Verge)
coffee iconHere’s how to defend net neutrality (San Jose Mercury News)

Event Calendar for Feb 27 - March 3, 2017

ICYMI from Benton
benton logoFirst Lifeline, Now Broadband Program for Schools and Libraries in the FCC’s Crosshairs, Gigi Sohn
benton logoThe First Casualty is the Truth: Trump's Running War With the Media, Kevin Taglang
benton logoThe FCC Is Sucking The Life Out Of Lifeline, Robbie McBeath

By Robbie McBeath.