It’s too easy to see Facebook and Google as 'the baddies' – others must help save news

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

The CNP reporters at Facebook for a two-day bootcamp

Apple, BT and other large media companies that have encroached on the news industry are facing calls to follow Facebook and Google and invest in the infrastructure of journalism.

Facebook and Google have been blamed for creating a climate where fake news can flourish and undermining the economics of the news sector by taking its advertising income.

The Silicon Valley giants have responded by funding schemes intended to strengthen the news industry at its grassroots. Facebook is providing £4.5m to support the Community News Project (CNP) by paying for 82 reporting roles in the UK. The Google News Initiative is intended to prove the corporate claim that “Google cares deeply about journalism” and its Digital News Initiative allocated £10m to 58 technology-driven UK news projects.

Will Gore, who is overseeing the Facebook-funded CNP, says it’s time for other big companies that benefit from news to start making a contribution. “Facebook and Google have both shown themselves to be very responsive to the question of how can they help the journalism sector but I think there are other players in this who perhaps need to consider that same question.”

Gore is head of partnerships and projects for the UK’s National Council for the Training of Journalists, which is running the CNP. He aims “to develop links and partnerships with companies which historically have not played so much of a role in cross-industry projects”, he says. “Whether that is new entrants to the broader journalism landscape like BT Sport or whether it’s other tech companies like Apple.”

The idea that the ‘duopoly’ of Facebook and Google is wholly responsible for mending news is “a little overdone” and “rather simplistic”, he argues. “It’s quite easy to hold up a couple of examples and point to them as somehow the baddies. I just don’t think that’s right.”

He is hoping that the news industry can attract new corporate benefactors from “beyond our immediate horizon” who can partner with the NCTJ in supporting such areas as court reporting, mid-career technology training, and improved diversity in recruitment.

“It seems to me that it’s fundamentally in the interests of a fully-functioning democratic society to ensure journalism is healthy and there is a responsibility on all of those who benefit from what the media does to put their hand up and say this is how we are going to help.”

Apple this year launched initiatives in the United States and Italy to support organisations that offer non-partisan and independent media literacy programmes. The work with the News Literacy Project and Italy’s Osservatorio Permanente Giovani-Editori is designed to improve the critical thinking skills of young people.

The Facebook-backed CNP launched in January and has so far filled 68 out of the 82 designated positions. Glasgow’s Evening Times has used the scheme to hire a reporter to cover the city’s East End, appointing Cat Cochrane, 42, a former creative writing student with the Open University, who will examine issues such as the provision of public housing and health services. “The East End has a very particular character,” she said in an introduction to readers. "It has a rich history and is a very proud place. I want to write about people from the East End that other people can really relate to.”

Adnan Rashid has been taken on by the Mansfield Chad to produce a weekly nine-story page dedicated to the nearby town of Warsop. One of the youngest recruits on the scheme is the Maidenhead Advertiser's Jade Kidd, 22. She has already reported on Theresa May, when the then prime minister visited stalls at the Charvil Village Fete in Berkshire.

These reporters, Gore says, are “plugging gaps” identified in a review of the UK’s regional news sector which revealed towns “that did not have newsrooms” and city communities that were being underserved. The remaining posts are due to be filled shortly, with an expectation that the scheme will be expanded next year. He acknowledged that the CNP would complement the BBC’s Local Democracy Reporters Scheme, which launched 18 months ago and has paid for around 150 journalists dedicated to public service journalism.

The CNP reporters recently gathered at Facebook for a two-day bootcamp in using digital tools such as CrowdTangle, which monitors the performance of content across social media platforms.

Gore wants the NCTJ to find new partners to develop schemes that offer technology training to established journalists. “The industry as a whole has not been, and is still not, brilliant at developing people once they are in post,” he says. “There’s expectation that people will just pick things up as they go along.” The practice of journalism has “changed beyond recognition” in 15 years, he adds. “To imagine that everybody has absorbed the skills they need to stay current in all areas of the operation is pie in the sky.”

Gore began his career at the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), where he spent 11 years, before the ill-fated newspaper industry standards body was closed down at the time of the Leveson inquiry and replaced with the Independent Press Standards Organisation. He joined the publisher of the London Evening Standard and The Independent as deputy managing editor and later became executive editor of The Independent, where he wrote leader articles.

He says that his time at the PCC helps him in his NCTJ role because of a common “focus on the question of standards and trying to help the industry”. The CNP scheme is working with nine regional news publishers, from the giant Reach group to the independent Barnsley Chronicle.

The reporter appointments are being closely monitored to ensure that companies do not exploit the scheme to save on editorial budgets. “You can’t avoid the potential that during this project any given publisher might make redundancies elsewhere in their newsroom, so it’s not a cut and dried situation,” Gore admits. “But if these reporters were not hired as part of this project, I think they simply wouldn’t be there. I don’t think they are allowing publishers to make cuts willy-nilly.”

The scheme is adding to the diversity of regional news, he says, with 50% of the intake meeting diversity criteria that incorporate ethnicity, socio-economic background and disability (but not gender). “Many of them are working in communities that they know well and can engage with,” says Gore. “There wasn’t a requirement to be qualified (as a journalist) and that encourages people from socio-economic backgrounds who might otherwise not have been able to pay (for training).” All CNP reporters are given industry-approved NCTJ training according to their needs.

Gore oversees the NCTJ’s Journalism Diversity Fund, which last year supported 45 journalists with average bursaries of £8,000.

He is also anxious to find corporate partners to improve reporting on the courts of the UK, which are increasingly neglected by the hard-pressed regional news media. The situation in courts has been identified as a matter of concern by the Government and the independent Cairncross Review of the future sustainability of high-quality journalism.

“Most local newspapers no longer have dedicated court reporters and a great many courts are barely ever visited by reporters,” says Gore. “It maybe there are reporters out there who would go to court if they felt more confident about knowing how the courts operate – I think some reporters don’t know because they have never done it.”

Improved reporting on the criminal justice system, or on the UK economy to improve the business literacy of the general public, should attract financial support from companies whether they have a direct involvement in media or not, he believes. “There is considerable support within the corporate sphere to see journalism done well."

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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