Mark Zuckerberg once loaned me a journalist

By: Rob Corbidge, 13 July 2023

 a burger with a chain attached to it, octane render, digital art, realistic, dali style

There's no such thing as a free meal, as a new analysis of tech giant grants to news publishers shows.

Out of concern for the struggles news journalism has been enduring, Mark Zuckerberg once loaned me a journalist. Well, it wasn't quite a loan - you could say a journalist was supplied.

I've also struggled, in this case to find an analogy for what actually occurred. Possibly the best I found was that I felt like a Roman citizen being told by my local Hunnic warlord that they would be doing the local security from now on, for a fee. Or that an industrial fishing fleet off my coast were offering to pay for a new kayak from which I could cast rod and line.

The occasion was caused by my quite recently calling in a potential story to a local newspaper newsdesk. Some irksome types had taken possession of a place they shouldn't have done and, after being notified legally of their impending expulsion, had erected large defiant banners all over the occupied structure - mostly referencing foreign legal precedents, oddly - but all quite of interest to a local news outlet I was certain.

A reporter was sent out to me, and being of the industry we talked a little shop. "I'm actually paid by Meta," was the most revealing part of this conversation. Well, had I been expecting one of the Metaverse's Shock Virtual Reality Troopers, I would have been disappointed. I actually considered offering my own mid-range phone to take the images,  as the one they had been supplied didn't seem properly up to the job. Not quite what I expected.

There is no criticism here of the businesses that have accepted such arrangements with the tech giants. A reporter is a reporter, and it's another professional out there gathering information in a period when those are a scarce asset. 

There's also no criticism of the reporters themselves. To meet one, as I did, confirmed for me that they are of the the right stuff and that's to their credit. Being a reporter on a local newspaper or news site is not a job you do to get wealthy.

A recent analysis of 6,773 grants to news publishers that have been made by Meta and Facebook could yield the conclusion that the primary goal of such grants "has been to reap reputational and political gains" according to the lead researcher, Charis Papaevangelou.

It's usually with a squinted eye that I look at academic research around the publishing industry, given the mutual lack of comprehension between those who practice and those who study the practice, however the raw data the study has used is only somewhat lessened in value by the lack of co-operation from the tech giants themselves in revealing information, and that speaks its own volumes. Non-disclosure and cutting lots of small deals is the name of the game.

While the title of the work, "Funding Intermediaries: Google and Facebook’s Strategy to Capture Journalism" goes I feel a bit too far (although it's a good headline) you could simply say that the grants are given because they look good and are a small price to pay for some peace and quiet from legislators anxious that something vital is being lost in the information ecosystem under their watch.

It's nothing we don't know, and yet the scale and concentration of it might be. According to Papaevengelou, an unusual bulge in grants awarded in Brazil revealed by the research is accounted for by a "Fake News Bill", Bill 2630, under process at the moment in which the responsibility would be placed on tech companies to find and report illegal material, instead of leaving it to the courts, with heavy fines for failures to comply. 

Other than that anomaly, it's obvious that big tech hush money primarily lands in the US, because that's territory on which they can't afford trouble, and then on to Europe, the UK, and then a smattering around Asia and Africa, where frankly, it matters much less to them and the body politic is not so awkward to grapple.

I'm glad that there was a good reporter available to come and get my story. I'm not glad that they were paid in crumbs from Meta's table. Or, as ultimately their entire business relies on content creators of one kind or another, should that be paid in Threads from the Emperors New Clothes?