Can Facebook save journalism?

Feature image by Scott McLean.

When the lens is focused on the future of journalism the gaze often drifts to the rearview mirror. Newsroom closures, dips in advertising revenue, subscription models and the authenticity of content are some of the topics dissected when the subject of journalism’s life in the 21st century is examined.

Such was the case when the Ryerson School of Journalism, Ryerson Digital Media Zone and the Facebook Journalism Project joined together to officially launch the Digital News Innovation Challenge, a Canada-wide incubation program that will split $500,000 between five participants.

The launch comes at a precarious time for journalism in Canada. In November, a deal to swap 37 community newspapers and four free commuter papers between Postmedia Network Canada Corp. and Torstar Corp. resulted in the closure of over 30 of those papers and the loss of 291 full and part-time jobs. Job loss and waning revenues among traditional media have been two consistent results of the rise of digital, with industry observers debating where to lay blame.

“The obligation for journalism shifted decades ago, when news centres became profit centres,” says Jesse Wente, an Indigenous critic and regular contributor to CBC Radio’s Metro Morning. “Once journalism becomes linked to a profit mode, it [begins] to erode the point of journalism. The state of journalism is a result of journalism itself, don’t ever blame the audience.”

The revenue drain felt by traditional media is largely the result of shifting consumption patterns, as well as advertisers increasingly choosing digital platforms to market their products and services. A 2017 Pew Research Centre study found that roughly nine in 10 adults get their news online, while over half of digital advertising dollars went to two companies: Facebook and Google.

Those digital advertising dollars are a contentious issue, as the current Canadian tax model allows foreign-based entities, like Facebook and Google, to circumvent charging GST and HST, as well as to avoid paying corporate income tax due to the location of their headquarters outside of Canada. In its 2017 study on the state of news media in Canada, The Public Policy Forum dedicated two of its 10 recommendations to changes to the tax code to address these issues; however, the federal government has yet to budge.

Facebook has faced additional criticism in the wake of the 2016 United States presidential election, with the platform being utilized by foreign agents for the dissemination of fake news and political advertising. Perhaps in response, Facebook launched the Facebook Journalism Project in 2017 to assist in developing news products, provide training and tools for both journalists and for the public.   

“There are a lot of issues wrapped around the future of news. This is an attempt to help the broader ecosystem. We want to do our part,” says Kevin Chan, Facebook’s head of public policy in Canada. “Our commitment is to help quality journalism on the Facebook platform and to help with distribution and getting good quality news to as many people as possible.”

The state of journalism is a result of journalism itself, don’t ever blame the audience.

It was Facebook who initiated the discussion of having the Digital News Innovation Challenge hosted at Ryerson, first approaching the DMZ with the concept before incorporating the Ryerson School of Journalism. In addition to funding, applicants will be guided through a five-month program beginning on April 30. It features mentorship, guidance and strategy from industry experts, and workshops to build additional skills.

“In some ways, people are able to access more information than ever before, and most of it is online, and this has caused a shift in the way news is published and shared,” says Abdullah Snobar, the executive director of the DMZ. “For this reason we wanted to bring together the best partners, from both an industry perspective and a tech perspective, to support new ideas in digital news.”

Innovation has been an ongoing theme in the industry, as traditional media outlets have attempted to make inroads online by launching new products and platforms, with mixed results. One of the strengths that organizers of the Digital News Innovation Challenge have touted is that the smaller size of applicants’ projects relative to industry leaders allows for the opportunity to learn and grow at a faster rate.

“I teach a media entrepreneurship course, where students are tackling problems facing journalists, and they work on a minimum viable product (MVP), a smaller version where you can fail fast and fail frequently,” says Asmaa Malik, an assistant professor at Ryerson and a program expert for the Digital News Innovation Challenge. “With the Challenge we want people to come in with early-stage ideas where they are tackling that problem with an MVP, address it and do something better that’s targeted to a smaller group of people. It’s not going to be like the mass market dailies, where it has to be everything for everyone. We want something that is actually solving a problem for a particular group of people.”

What outcomes the Digital News Innovation Challenge will produce have yet to be determined, as potential applicants have a relative blue sky in which to pitch their ideas. While organizers aren’t willing to say that the challenge is a response to the current employment environment for Canadian journalists, they do feel that applicants have the potential to make an impact on the industry.

“In a general way, we are hoping this challenge will bring some interesting and captivating ideas, but job creation is a couple of steps down the road,” says Janice Neil, chair of the Ryerson School of Journalism. “It’s so abstract, the idea of innovation in journalism. It’s difficult to conceive. In creating something new, people will need to think about the audience, think about serving that audience, think about the values of journalism and how you solve the business problems, and I hope one of the pitches addresses some element of that as well.”