Technology is already “fixing” journalism. But is it working?

If it ain’t fixed, don’t break it? Credit Alt by Jose Alberto Martín Arrabal. CC BY 2.0

Mark Zuckerberg’s community manifesto has sparked a wave of reaction, especially in the media community*.

Should Facebook “fix” journalism? The media’s answer ranges from hand-out (yes, please), to hand-up (maybe just help us get back on our feet…), to hands-off (no way). Yet, the reality is that technology philanthropy is already happening, but we don’t seem to be learning much from it.

Here’s how it works (with something of a European bias):

  1. The Innovate Model. Initiatives like Google’s Digital News Initiative, which is funding a “more sustainable news ecosystem through technology and innovation” to the tune of €150 million, are an evolution of what’s been happening in the U.S. with the Knight Foundation and others.
  2. The Impact Model. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (and to a lesser extent others) are significant funders of reporting on causes close to their mission. Their grant programmes tend to encourage media houses to go beyond their usual reporting approaches and address different agendas.
  3. The Inventor Model. See: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos buying the Washington Post for $250 million. Ebay’s Pierre Omidyar kickstarting First Look Media (home of The Intercept and more).
  4. The Instruct Model. Raising digital, business and technological literacy amongst journalists at all levels has been a focus of Google’s News Lab (and more recently Facebook’s Journalism Project) for at least five years.
  5. The Invest Model. MDIF has multiple funders, some of them with ties to technology. The model here is simple: these are loans (or seed investments) for media in unstable or emerging markets.

As you can see, Technologists and technology companies are already funding media, but as with many recent advancements, it’s happening to our industry. We’re all debating the merits of something that’s already begun, and in doing so we’re failing to ask the real questions.

[Disclaimer. The European Journalism Centre is a non-profit that administers several Gates Foundation grant schemes and partners with Google on innovation events. Details outlined here.]

What should technology philanthropists be funding?

Of the various models above, what’s working best for news organisations? It has previously been too early to say. But now start-ups are hitting the end of their runways, established players are well into digital transformation, journalism students are graduating, and fellows are bedding into leadership positions. What have we learned? Is it better to build, or to bankroll?

Should they fund journalists or journalism?

By funding original reporting, do we energise a new type of storytelling and visibility, whilst freeing up other resources? Or should we be investing into the infrastructure, business models and innovation capacity of news organisations themselves? Or something else?

What form should the funding take?

This question really is this: what type of growth do we want to encourage? Should these be seed investments, loans, prizes, fellowships, grants or capacity-building initiatives like training and resources?

Who should administer the funds?

Should the technology companies work directly with the media partners (with clear pros and cons), or work with trusts to retain independence (but perhaps less transparency)?

What types of media qualify?

Is all media in equal need of support: government-subsidised, non-profit, local, community, start-up and commercial media? In all media landscapes, both in terms of economics and freedom of speech?

How does this affect our reporting?

What checks and balances need to exist to ensure the same editorial standards are applied to work funded — directly or indirectly — by a philanthropic body? What signposts do audiences deserve to indicate that “this journalism is supported by…”?

What kind of metrics do we need to prove “impact”?

Not to be underestimated. Philanthropically-funded journalism has different targets (hence the rise of solutions or constructive journalism). Are we ready to measure this — how will this play with the advertising or loyalty metrics we may be evolving to meet new business needs?

What is the motivation of the philanthropist?

Ultimately, this is the biggest question of all. What do they get out of it? Why are the philanthropists doing this? Is the motivation about morals or marketing? And crucially, is it compatible with journalism’s mission?


Thanks for reading. In May and June this year, the European Journalism Centre will be holding three major events bringing together donors and beneficiaries to answer these exact questions.

In three locations (London, Paris and Hamburg), funders, editors, entrepreneurs and educators will take the temperature of the European philanthropy debate and offer a critical look at what’s working. Follow-up publications will share these ideas and offer a roadmap for how the media industry can drive what comes next.

Speakers and line-ups will be announced in the coming weeks. For now follow @ejcnet to stay tuned.


*Some great background reading courtesy of the Steven Waldman, Emily Bell, Dave Winer, Charlie Beckett, Mathew Ingram)