OK, maybe Facebook is about to help the local press out… [UPDATED]

Press Gazette has revealed that Facebook is donating £4.5m to help train local journalists. But how sustainable is this?

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

Update [12:11pm, 19th November 2018]

Kudos to Press Gazette's Freddy Mayhew, who has the real story here:

Facebook is donating £4.5m to fund 80 new community journalists who will be trained up by the National Council for the Training of Journalists and sent into local and regional newsrooms.

The money, which is a charitable donation by Facebook, will be ring-fenced by the NCTJ, and only used for these trainees. There is no guarantee of a job at the end of the scheme.

NCTJ chief executive Joanne Butcher said: “The goal here is to encourage more reporting from towns and villages who may have lost their local paper or beat reporters to ensure these communities benefit from high-quality journalism.”

So, essentially, Facebook is paying for trainees covering the beats that the local papers can no longer afford. However, at the moment, there's no resources to have those journalists continue on those beats when the training period is over.

A couple of comments:

  • Now we have two organisations propping up local journalism in the UK: the BBC and Facebook. Interesting that both of them are investing in the — struggling — big traditional local publishers, rather than the growing and more digitally-minded hyperlocal set.
  • We're not short of trained journalists. We have journalists all over the country turning them out — we have more trained journalisst than jobs. This does little to deal with that problem. The real test of this "charitable donation" will be in a couple of years, when the trainees finish.

I can see why the local publishers are keen on this - essentially two years of free content from towns they've neglected. And Facebook gets some cheap (for them) positive PR. But let's make a date in our diaries for two years' hence to check in with this scheme, shall we? That'll tell us if there's any real impact for this on local coverage.

Update 2 [12:57pm, 19th November 2018]

The Guardian's Jim Waterson points out that this does represent a shift in Facebook's approach:

Facebook has always previously insisted it is more interested in working with publishers to build their revenue rather than giving direct cash transfers to pay for journalists. This scheme, the first time Facebook has attempted such a scheme anywhere in the world, is being arranged in the form of a cash donation to the National Council for the Training of Journalists, a registered charity.

Facebook is getting a lot of publicity for a donation that's less than 0.5% of its quarterly profits…

Update 3 [1.57pm, 19th November 2018]

Original Post

The Sunday Times carried a piece yesterday which initially sparked my interest: it suggested that Facebook is about to help pay for the training of local journalists in an attempt to compensate for the terrible harm it has done:

The US social media giant is understood to be working with Johnston Press, Newsquest and Reach, owner of the Daily Mirror, on a scheme that would see it invest in training reporters.
The move, which echoes the BBC’s Local News Partnerships model, will be seen as a tacit admission of culpability for the damage Facebook has inflicted on Britain’s regional newspaper industry.

It does make a certain sort of sense. Facebook has been prioritising two sets of news: local news, and video from big broadcast scale outlets. This would certainly play into its shift towards local news. And that's exactly what this is - but not in exactly the way the paper initially sells it.

Dig deeper, down to paragraph 8 in fact, and what the piece actually says is this:

The Sunday Times understands that Facebook and the three local paper publishers are discussing a scheme under which Facebook’s money could be used to train reporters on how to use its social media platform as a reporting resource.

So, that's not so much "Facebook paying to train local journalists" as "Facebook paying to train local journalists to use Facebook". Not the same thing at all.

Martin Bryant noticed the same thing and called it out in his Big Revolution newsletter:

I did a similar course with LinkedIn once. It was an hour-long webinar on using LinkedIn as a research tool. They gave me a free six-month premium membership too, which was useful. Facebook’s proposal sounds like it could literally just be this – without even the free account, since you can’t pay to use Facebook.

More proof, if it were needed, that Facebook sees the whole world through the lens of what is good for Facebook. If the big regional publishers buy into this, they just make their workforce more dependent on Facebook. And when Facebook inevitably pivots away from local news at some point in the future, they'll be left high and dry.

Beware geeks bearing gifts…

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Adam Tinworth Twitter

Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.