Taken together, Facebook and Google have now committed more than half a billion dollars to various journalistic programs and media partnerships over the past three years, not including the money spent internally on developing media-focused products like Facebook’s Instant Articles and Google’s competing AMP mobile project. The result: These mega-platforms are now two of the largest funders of journalism in the world.
Just pause to think about that for a moment. However much you feel that they deserve to pay, because they've both made money off our work and taken advertising revenue away from news businesses, this is still worrisome.
Why? Facebook and Google are two of the biggest businesses in the world, and they deserve and need good, independent and critical reporting right now — certainly much more incisive an challenging reporting than they've had until the last 18 months.
Reporting on your funder is a pretty invidious position to be in. Ingram has found a parade of people willing to say "it's all good". For example:
“If there are are organizations, including Facebook and Google, that want to help support the future practice of journalism, then I’m in,” [Jennifer] Preston, [vice president of journalism at the Knight Foundation] says. “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. And I think there’s a lot of opportunity for both journalists and technologists to work on fixing what’s happening right now.”
And yet, the scale and power this duopoly have over our information and communication infrastructures is unprecedented. And people who have actually worked within these relationships are less positive, as Ingram reports:
A former Google staffer who worked on the company’s media programs says even he feels conflicted about the practice. While many of the funded projects are worthwhile, he says, the result is that “a bunch of well-meaning people with good intentions get the money, and slowly they get sucked into a corporate machine that doesn’t have their best interests at heart.”
The need to report cleanly, intelligently and objectively on Google and Facebook right now is so high, and so in the public interest, that this situation makes me deeply nervous. And that fact that so many people are prepared to go into bat to defend it makes me even more nervous.
This weird alliance between the biggest tech companies in the world and reporters is closer than we'd allow from politicians or political parties — but these entities are far more powerful than any government or political party.
And they're more than happy to use that power for their own good.
Emily Bell proposed an interested solution, by having the big companies fund journalism through a trust. That's a smart idea. This direct funding model? It's risky, both for journalism and for the already eroding trust in journalism.