Money should go to the local independent news outlets the digital giant has hurt worst


Of all the data multinationals masquerading as social media platforms, Facebook has done more than any other to destroy the American newspaper industry (as noted in our 2018 DigBoston editorial committing to pulling away from the tech giant’s orbit). Convincing publications from the New York Times to the Somerville Times to bring our audiences to them over the last decade and a half—with promises of increasing our reach and effectiveness. Only to have them stolen from us by a digital empire that has had the temerity to then charge us to reach those same audiences. Even as it cashes in on every action our readers take in its “walled garden” mockery of the open internet in myriad ways. And gives us nothing in return as they stop coming to our websites. Except crumbs from its vast table in the form of “monetization” programs rigged from top to bottom in Facebook’s favor.

These execrable business practices hurt virtually all newspapers to some degree, but truly savaged the local independents. The optics were so bad that Facebook eventually felt the need to start a funding program for public relations purposes that pretended to help the news media it was busily trying to kill. Proffering mere millions of dollars to somehow make up for the hundreds of millions in former ad (and other) revenue that it continues to cart away from the dwindling number of surviving newspapers every year.

So in 2017, the Facebook Journalism Project was announced. And in 2018, it created an initiative to help not the indies but mainly the majors. Originally dubbed the Local News Subscriptions Accelerator, “a $3 million, three-month pilot program in the United States to help metro newspapers take their digital subscription business to a new level” the program initially worked with “10-15” large dailies around the US. Evolving into the broader Local News Accelerator program serving big newsrooms and smaller independents alike—including some nonprofits—over the last couple of years.

Fast forward to this spring, and the coronavirus pandemic provided a fresh opportunity for the corporate behemoth to get cheap PR by throwing more pocket change relative to its outrageous profit margin. So last week it announced the conclusion of two funding rounds. The first being “$5.4 million…to 59 North American newsrooms that participated in Facebook Local News Accelerator programs focused on subscriptions and memberships.”

Imagine our complete lack of shock a few days ago, when we got word of the lucky winners of those grants, and discovered that Facebook had given $150,000 to the Boston Globe. A newspaper owned by billionaire John Henry. Which only days back laid off five more staffers (outside its newsroom). On the heels of many other layoffs over the last couple of years. Hold that thought for a moment.

The second funding round was something new: The COVID-19 Local News Relief Fund Grant Program. Facebook ran this one jointly with the Local Media Association and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, giving $25,000-100,000 grants “to help US local news organizations continue serving communities during the coronavirus outbreak.”

The monumental scale of the need of such shoestring independent newsrooms was shown in last week’s announcement—which explained that 144 news outlets in the US (including Guam and Puerto Rico) and four Canadian provinces would be receiving $10.3 million in funds. But over 2,000 outlets (some digital only) had applied.

Of course, upon looking at the full list of grantees from the two programs we were glad to see that many deserving smaller local independent publications got good chunks of money (by their standards). Something Facebook—and partners —were happy to brag about in their comment about their COVID-19 grant recipients:

The pool of grant recipients is notable in several ways:

    • Nearly four in five are family- or independently owned.
    • Half are published by or for communities of color.
    • Nearly 40 percent are digitally native publishers.
    • Just over a third are non-profits.

But, funny thing, many large Local News Accelerator participants owned by rich (and primarily white) people were given more money than the more diverse crew of smaller grantees from both funding initiatives. A fact that Facebook did not mention.

How much more? Major commercial newspapers in the Local News Accelerator program like the Boston Globe got well over $100,000, including: the Arizona Republic ($150,000), the Chicago Tribune ($150,000) the Dallas Morning News ($150,000), the Denver Post ($150,000), the LA Times ($225,000), the Miami Herald ($150,000), the Minneapolis Star Tribune ($150,000), Newsday ($150,000), the Omaha World-Herald ($150,000), the San Francisco Chronicle ($150,000), the Seattle Times ($150,000), and the Syracuse Post-Standard ($150,000). [The Philadelphia Inquirer also got $150,000. But it has converted to a nonprofit—owned by the Philadelphia Foundation through an LLC—so we’ll let them be this time around.] Other majors got $100,000 or less.

And who owns these papers? In addition to the Globe, two of the list above are also owned by billionaires: the LA Times (Patrick Soon-Shiong) and the Minneapolis Star Tribune (Glen Taylor). Two of them are owned by privately held chains controlled by billionaires: the San Francisco Chronicle (Hearst Communications [William Randolph Hearst III]) and the Syracuse Post-Standard (Advance Publications [Donald Newhouse]). One is owned by a privately held major media conglomerate owned in turn by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital: the Denver Post (MediaNews Group [formerly Digital First Media]). One is owned by a privately held major media conglomerate partially owned by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital: the Chicago Tribune. And three are owned by publicly traded major media conglomerates: the Arizona Republic (Gannett), the Miami Herald (McClatchy), and the Omaha World-Herald (Lee Enterprises). The rest are owned by smaller (if still sizable) corporations and chains.

Regardless, none of the large media corporations should be getting grants at all. Particularly outlets like the Boston Globe that are owned by billionaires who can easily afford to pay all of their staffers for the duration of the coronavirus crisis without even breaking a sweat. However much they like to cry poverty because their papers are losing money like every other outlet whose livelihood has been gutted by data companies running off with their ad revenue.

As such, we’d like to ask all the major commercial newspapers served by the Local News Accelerator programs to give back their Facebook grant money and that Facebook et al redistribute it to smaller local independent news operations who were rejected for the COVID-19 Local News Relief Fund Grant Program. After all, in our 100-plus newspaper trade organization Association of Alternative Newsmedia alone, many outlets who applied got nothing. With a need so much greater than the “relief” on offer, we’re quite positive that better grantees can be found than some of the largest newspapers in the US.

If Facebook needs any help choosing candidates, we’re sure AAN will answer the call. 

Its journalism project leads have but to say the word and we’ll check in with our colleagues. We’re especially pleased to do so because we thought it was passing strange that AAN was not brought in to the grant process to begin with when other key press organizations were, including: the Institute for Nonprofit News, Local Independent Online News Publishers, the Local Media Consortium, and the National Association of Broadcasters. Although it was even stranger that the National Association of Hispanic Publications and the African-American organization National Newspaper Publishers Association apparently weren’t among their number.

Fancy that.

Full disclosure: DigBoston did not apply for either Facebook grant. We believe that independent news outlets should turn their backs on the rapacious data multinational, but do not fault our sibling publications for holding their noses and taking desperately needed funds from pretty much anywhere they can get it. 

Chris Faraone is editor-in-chief and associate publisher of DigBoston, John Loftus is business manager and publisher of DigBoston, and Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.