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Why Team Tyee Has Been Hanging out at Facebook HQ

We joined the ‘Local News Accelerator’ learning sessions. Here’s why.

By Jeanette Ageson and Bryan Carney 4 Jun 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Jeanette Ageson is publisher of The Tyee.

Bryan Carney is The Tyee’s director of web production and reports on digital surveillance and privacy issues.

What were four members of The Tyee team doing for two days in Facebook’s headquarters in Toronto? The question became more pointed as our visit coincided with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s refusal to appear before Parliament.

A while back, The Tyee was invited by the Canadian Journalism Foundation to join 10 other Canadian media organizations to participate in a Local News Accelerator program. It’s a series of sessions on how to better serve and grow audiences for journalism, and it’s paid for by Facebook.

The program involves seminars and working closely with coaches, and a $75,000 grant to support the effort. The instructors don’t work at Facebook and the grants are administered by the Canadian Journalism Foundation. Other independent digital news organizations are in the group, including the Vancouver Observer and the Discourse, and so are corporate media biggies Postmedia and Glacier.

Why were we chosen? We know it’s not because we’ve cozied up to Facebook. We’ve investigated their lapses in privacy protection and reported on negative impacts they’ve had on democracy, as we’ll continue to do.

And we’re quite aware that Facebook (along with Google) has commandeered most advertising dollars online, devastating a prime revenue source for the news content shared for free on its platform. Ads are no longer a significant source of revenue for The Tyee. We rely for survival and expansion on our growing number of readers contributing financial support through our Tyee Builder program, and the public-spirited investment by our new steward.

Suffice it to say that the irony is not lost on us that Facebook, which needs news content shared on its platform, is paying for a program to help news media now grow audiences without the advertising revenues Facebook has gobbled up.

So why did we join in?

We want more people to read Tyee stories. We know we have some of the brightest and most talented people working for us, covering stories that add depth and clarity to important conversations. We think our insightful stories should be shared around with the joy and enthusiasm of a good cat video. Our readers who support us financially have told us they love that The Tyee is paywall-free because it means more people read us, but that they want our stories to have even more reach. If our readers want more readers to find us, we owe it to them, and ourselves, to train up.

Another key reason we joined is we were assured by the Canadian Journalism Foundation that the instructors were among the best in their fields and not beholden to Facebook. Indeed, the wonks who bombarded us with informative slides for two days were from the New York Times, Washington Post, and other successful outfits big and small, and none proselytized for Facebook. The presentations were technical, insightful, and we believe will prove quite useful to sustaining The Tyee.

While the presenters and coaches focused on tactics to enable us to increase our audience, Facebook reps sat largely quietly on the sides, unnoticed, and managed the event space, answering questions when prompted.

And so, weirdly, we all found ourselves in a real-life version of the familiar relationship we all have to the platform: Enjoying stimulating, seemingly quite valuable content provided by one another, hosted seemingly completely for free or even paid, in Facebook’s excellently set-up space, while they asked for seemingly nothing.

Of course Facebook’s mega-enriching model from the beginning has been to ask for seemingly nothing, while collecting data from participants and extracting value from it, one way or another.

So we fully expect Facebook will reap public relations value from this exercise, and will glean insights by listening in on representatives from a range of news media models discuss their challenges and aspirations. No illusions.

We have decided the trade-off is worth it. And that Facebook should hear what it’s like to be a digital news indie in a Facebook-dominated world.

In our wilder dreams, we would hope this news accelerator program (one of several Facebook is funding around the world) is the first of many steps the winners of the attention economy will take to make reparations to the digital journalism landscape they have clobbered (even if some will say merely “disrupted”). 

Meantime, we (and David Beers and Emma Cooper) will be attending two more two-day sessions as part of the program. We will let you know how those go, and we welcome your opinions. Thanks for caring about The Tyee’s future.

If you would like to support us by joining the Builder program as we put in place our plan for reporting on the coming federal election, please read this.  [Tyee]

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