Google, Facebook pledged millions for local news. Was it enough?

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Facing regulatory and political pressure, Facebook and Alphabet Inc’s Google in recent years committed a combined $600 million to support news outlets globally – many of them local or regional enterprises foundering in a digital age.

Thousands of media outlets received financial and other support for everything from fact checking and reporting to training, according to the tech giants’ announcements. Some publishers express gratitude for contributions they say are essential as advertising revenue has plunged.

But several media analysts and news business executives told Reuters that the funding – set to last three years – does not nearly compensate for the tens of billions of dollars publishers lost as the tech companies gobbled up the digital advertising market. Google and Facebook accounted for 54 per cent of US digital advertising revenue in 2020, according to eMarketer, a market research company.

Some critics dismissed the projects, including contributions of $300 million from each company, as a way to blunt complaints from publishers and generate good PR. Both tech companies face battles over compensation for news content worldwide, as well as antitrust lawsuits from regulators and publishers.

This “occasional benevolence” is “a drop in the bucket,” said Maribel Perez Wadsworth, publisher of Gannett’s USA Today and president of USA Today Network, which participates in a fact-checking program sponsored by Facebook. “News publishers are not looking for charity. We’re simply requesting a fair shot and a level playing field.”

Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, said the money is vital to newsrooms in the short-term. “But they’re not given at a level which really has a lasting effect on the field, and it isn’t really changing anything.”

The tech giants told Reuters that they are genuinely committed to helping local and regional outlets, and both will continue to offer support after the $600 million initiatives expire in coming months.

The goal of the Facebook Journalism Project, as it is known, is to help publishers “effectively transition to and prosper in today’s digital world where they have to find a very specific audience in order to be successful,” said Campbell Brown, head of news partnerships at Facebook.

Google is “oriented around making sure that there’s a healthy and vibrant ecosystem of quality journalism,” said Ben Monnie, the company’s director of global partnerships.

Reuters participates in initiatives funded by both Google and Facebook. Under the Facebook Journalism Project, for instance, Reuters received funding to develop a digital media training course for journalists. Neither Facebook nor Reuters would disclose the amount of money allocated.

Both Facebook and Google have made contributions to the news industry apart from the $600 million. For instance, the companies dedicated $1.0 billion each last year in grants and deals to pay a range of media worldwide for content. As part of that commitment, Google pays publishers such as Reuters to create and curate content for its News Showcase – snippets for its News and Discover apps.

The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, which is largely funded by the corporate foundation of Thomson Reuters, announced in 2020 that it received about $19 million in grants from Google and $4.0 million from Facebook.

Both Facebook and Google say publishers benefit just from using their platforms, which deliver traffic that helps drive advertising revenue and subscriptions.

“We are a free service that is available to anyone to post content,” Brown said. Publishers’ participation “suggests they are getting value from the platform without us making these additional investments.”

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