Facebook will distribute $300 million across multiple news projects over the next three years to support local newsrooms and help publishers create new business models, the platform announced Tuesday.
Donations include a $5 million endowment gift to the Pulitzer Center, $6 million for the UK-based Community News Project and a $20 million expansion of Facebook’s Accelerator, which helps publishers better monetize their audiences.
The news is a positive note for a company that has faced a barrage of negative publicity following revelations that its platform was used to spread fake news during the 2016 presidential election and the Cambridge Analytica data-sharing scandal.
Not long after Facebook tweaked its news feed algorithm last year to prioritize local news, dampening reach for many publishers, it kicked off the Facebook Journalism Project: Local News Subscriptions Accelerator. It wasn't the only tech platform to invest in support for new publisher business models and quality journalism; the $300 million Google News Initiative also launched last year.
“The platforms are now acknowledging that credible content is very valuable to their audiences and, thus, very valuable to their business models,” said Fran Wills, CEO of the Local Media Consortium, an alliance of local media companies that will share a $1 million investment from Facebook to explore branded content revenue models.
Facebook’s $20 million in additional Accelerator investment will continue the program in the United States and expand it internationally, including in Europe.
“We’re in exploratory conversations with our news leads around the world to figure out how to do it in different regions,” said Anne Kornblut, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former journalist and Facebook’s director of news, new initiatives.
The Accelerator accelerates
Facebook will reconvene the publishers that participated in the Local News Subscriptions Accelerator for one later this year that will focus on subscriber retention. That will be its third planned Accelerator, following a second one dedicated to membership models that concluded last week. Facebook invests about $3-3.5 million in each program, which covers costs, experts, location and travel.
“We just want to make sure [the attendees] have a good experience and don’t have to worry about pulling money from one budget to another budget so that they can attend,” said Dorrine Mendoza, a former journalist who manages the Local News Accelerator as part of Facebook’s news partnerships team.
Facebook is also considering other monetization challenges that may fit within the Accelerator model, including those facing midsized publishers, broadcast or ethnic media, Mendoza said.
Publishers must get CEO-level buy-in and agree to meet three times over a 12-week period and participate in weekly conference calls with coaches. They receive individualized training and share learnings and results with their fellow publishers under Vegas rules (what is said here, stays here). They also apply for and receive a grant from Facebook that can be used for consulting fees, technology or other support.
Bill Emkow, growth strategist, Bridge Magazine (photo credit: David Heisler)
A focus on membership
Bill Emkow, a growth strategist at Michigan-based Bridge Magazine, worked in commercial media for some 20 years before joining the nonprofit. He knew Facebook’s referral traffic for many publishers was “significant” until “the spigot got turned off” in early 2018.
“It is my speculation that Facebook understands that that wasn’t going to be a lucrative model, even if there was a lot of traffic coming out of Facebook,” Emkow said. “It was hurting Facebook in the long run because news organizations became too dependent on them for distribution. So I looked at [the Accelerator] as Facebook essentially addressing the problems that they maybe unintentionally created.”
But the Accelerator made a significant and material impact on Bridge Magazine’s revenue. On the advice of Tim Griggs, the consultant and former publisher of The Texas Tribune who designed the Accelerator program, Bridge gave interested readers the default option of contributing $15 monthly. That helped Bridge grow its total 2018 reader revenue to $210,200 in 2018 from $133,866 in 2017 – a 57% increase that can be directly attributed to the Accelerator.
Bridge also changed an above-the-fold homepage ad unit into an orange donation button as a result of the Accelerator. Advertising on the entire site had never generated more than $500 in a month, but within the first week after the change, Bridge received a $1,200 donation via the button.
Now Bridge has set an aspirational goal of reaching $1 million in reader revenue.
“In 2019 we should explode in reader revenue because of the Accelerator, without a doubt,” Emkow said.
Bridge will use its $100,000 accelerator grant in several ways: $25,000 for its tech stack and A/B testing; $35,000 for social media marketing; $12,500 for market research and email list building; $12,500 for its membership community, events and engagement; and $15,000 to join the News Revenue Hub, a nonprofit that helps publishers implement membership models.
WABE, an Atlanta-based radio station and National Public Radio affiliate, just turned on a CRM platform in late 2018 and will use its Accelerator grant to organize and share the data deluge across the organization.
Rebecca Smith, social media editor, WABE (photo credit: David Heisler)
“We have all this new data, and we can track conversion rates for the first time ever,” said Rebecca Smith, WABE’s social media editor. “And so we want to create a data analytics dashboard that will be accessible for the entire organization.”
Smith previously emailed individual reporters to share traffic and engagement statistics for their stories. A dashboard will enable more efficient data sharing, said Hannah White, WABE’s donor relations and premiums associate.
The publishers will each receive ongoing coaching support for six months as they carry out their grant projects. Despite the financial help, Emkow views the ideas he learned in the Accelerator as of greater value.
“What we came away with is these fresh ideas that, in a short period of time, helped us to put our foot on the gas pedal to generate our own revenue, regardless of whether or not we ever got a grant,” Emkow said.