Facebook backs the wrong horse in UK local journalism
Facebook has announced it will donate £4.5m to pay for training, salaries and expenses for 80 people who will be placed with five existing local and regional news organisations in the UK for two years.
It sounds like great news until you read that the three biggest companies to benefit from the cash are precisely the companies that have presided over the devastation of the industry in the past 20 years.
Reach (formerly Trinity Mirror), Newsquest and JPI Media (until last weekend Johnston Press) are responsible between them for sacking thousands of journalists and closing hundreds of titles, leaving large swathes of the country without dedicated news coverage.
Is giving these companies free additional resources really the best way to support local journalism? Is there not at least a risk that Facebook is backing losers? After all, they have had hundreds of millions to spend on local journalism over the years and they are still in retreat before its problems.
Facebook may find that, instead of subsidising journalism that serves the British public, it is subsidising managements with other priorities and – albeit indirectly – helping to line the pockets of executives and shareholders.
If you think that’s a gloomy view you probably haven’t been following events in the industry. Consider a few facts.
– The core business model for the big corporations has long involved buying up independent newspaper groups, slashing costs in the name of efficiency and then cashing in on the revenues while they last.
– While journalists and readers have paid the price, managements and shareholders have generally done very well, with profit margins in most years high even by City standards.
– Johnston was a special case as it carried huge debts as a result of reckless expansion more than a decade ago. That’s why it went bust. Though its management has largely survived, the prospect for the journalists and their pensions is causing concern.
– When it comes to investing in journalism, these companies don’t seem that committed to local as a priority. Trinity Mirror recently paid £200m for the Express group of national newspapers, while Johnston found £24m for the ‘i’ – again a national paper.
– Reach/Trinity Mirror also has a record of large-scale criminality which it admits went right to the top but for which no editor or executive appears to have paid any price whatever.
– These companies, moreover, have all vociferously refused to participate in a form of independent regulation recommended by a public inquiry and backed by every party in Parliament as necessary to protect the public from abuse.
It is not a picture to inspire confidence.
Are there alternatives? Yes. Independent local and regional news suppliers have sprung up all around the country in recent years, often on a non-profit basis. Some are staffed by the cast-offs of the big groups – able, experienced journalists who know their audiences. Others harness new ideas and new energies. They tend to be very lean – small staffs, small budgets, high motivation – so that a little investment will go a long way. And many of them willingly embrace Leveson-standard regulation.
Sadly, it doesn’t look as though Facebook fancies that. But if the tech giant is determined to take the corporate path, then it should at the very least secure commitments (a) that the journalists it funds don’t simply tip existing staff on to the scrapheap, and (b) that the cash will not find its way, however indirectly, into dividends for shareholders, cash for creditors or executive salaries.