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As billionaires call for regulation, Facebook throws money at journalism scholarships



Facebook is an addictive platform that should be regulated like the cigarette industry, suggested Salesforce CEO and billionaire Marc Benioff earlier this week.

But Facebook actually does care about the news industry and well-being of journalists. At least, that’s what its latest philanthropic decision might suggest.

On Friday, Facebook announced it’s donating $1 million toward supporting diversity in journalism. The donation will take the form of 100 scholarships for students pursuing a career in news and media.

It’s a meager offering compared to Facebook’s gigantic $545 billion market capitalization, but regardless of scale, the move is definitely a good thing for this world. 

It’s especially great because Facebook isn’t the one choosing who the scholarship winners are, rather Facebook is helping empower four expert-led organizations: the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, Asian American Journalists Association, Native American Journalists Association, and National Lesbian and the Gay Journalists Association. 



Still, Facebook’s gift appears to stem from a deep confusion over its relationship with the media. As my colleague Jason Abbruzzese said on Twitter:

When we asked Facebook why the language in its press release implied applicants are required to be pursuing a degree in media, news, or communications, a company spokesperson told Mashable, “It’s intended to ensure these applicants are committed to a career in journalism … It’s not meant to be restrictive. It’s meant to inclusive.” 

When asked if they were simply throwing money at fixing their reputation with the news industry, a Facebook spokesperson replied, “That’s a cynical point of view.” 

Indeed, that may be true, but not without warrant. Facebook’s donation is somewhat opposed to the values the company has prioritized in recent years. To put it another way, if Facebook were my boyfriend, I would end our relationship right away because I wouldn’t be able to handle the identity crisis mixed with the lack of commitment and the notion that money can solve every problem.

In 2014, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg described the News Feed during his first-ever public question-and-answer session by saying, “Our goal is to build the perfect personalized newspaper for every person in the world. We’re trying to personalize it and show you the stuff that’s going to be most interesting to you.”

At that time, News Feed wasn’t primarily being populated by what friends share. Rather, Facebook Pages, those run by media companies and brands, had taken over. That sat fine with Zuckerberg. As he said later in the session, “If you’re a business owner thinking about how to use your free page on Facebook, I would just focus on trying to publish really good content that’s going to be compelling to your customers and the people that are following you.”

But that’s not the game anymore. Earlier this month, Facebook upended media outlets by turning back the dial on the News Feed traffic. As Zuckerberg wrote in a Facebook post on Jan. 19, “Last week, I announced a major change to encourage meaningful social interactions with family and friends over passive consumption. As a result, you’ll see less public content, including news, video, and posts from brands. After this change, we expect news to make up roughly 4 percent of News Feed — down from roughly 5 percent today.”

A 1 percent drop may seem small, but in the scale of Facebook, that’s a major decline. While Facebook was once some publishers main traffic source, now there’s a growing need to rebuild website traffic via search engines and look toward Apple News, Flipboard, or their own news apps.

For publishers and consumers, the change is an ideological shift. As BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel wrote, “Facebook moved fast, broke things, and changed the way that the world produces, consumes, and shares information. And changing course more than a decade into one of the most disruptive social experiments ever might prove more than just a little difficult.”

As news organizations are diversifying away from Facebook, that very company is financially supporting the people who could, in the future, be inside those newsrooms. 

Not every media outlet has been handling the issue well. If they were paying close attention to the state of Facebook — the fake news problem and the test of a “pay-to-play” feed — they’d know that Facebook was looking to make changes to how news spreads on its network. Facebook’s News Feed changes “confirm trends we’ve seen over the platform in recent months and have already taken steps to evolve alongside,” a BuzzFeed spokesperson told Digiday. 

But news organizations are slowly moving away from Facebook as a news distribution tool. Sure, the donation is nice, especially because it’s devoted to diversifying media, and yet, it comes after years of Facebook upheaving newsrooms and how people consume media. 

Once again, Facebook is flexing its power and influence when it comes to affecting news and media. 

For years, Facebook has wined and dined the media by describing the strengths of its platforms via sheer scale and also the money they could offer them. They convinced publishers to use Facebook Live in part by financially supporting the endeavor. The team also paid for new video on demand shows as it began to test and then officially announced its Netflix-like player Facebook Watch. (Full disclosure: Mashable has been a partner in both projects.) 

While some publishers are loving Watch, Facebook is undergoing a reckoning from people in power. This week, billionaire George Soros called Facebook and Google a “menace” to society while enjoying some fine dining at the the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Soros’s comment came only one day after billionaire Marc Benioff said Facebook should be regulated like the cigarette industry.

Of course, Soros and Benioff aren’t the ones who can regulate Facebook directly. But U.S. lawmakers are keeping a close eye on the company. Another group with power are the people who use it. As Mashable’s Foster Kamer recently wrote, your news and entertainment diet can come from your browser bar — not just the News Feed. 

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