Facebook partners with Ryerson School of Journalism

Video by: Zeinab Saidoun, Brandon Buechler, Kayla Paixao

Have an idea for how to fight back against “fake news?” Facebook says it wants your input.

On Jan. 25, the DMZ hosted a symposium in partnership with Facebook and the Ryerson School of Journalism called the Digital News Innovation Challenge. They unveiled more of Ryerson’s upcoming partnership with the social media giant and some of the issues they hope to challenge the community to tackle.

The Digital News Innovation Challenge will provide a competition-style opportunity for those at Ryerson to develop and showcase their ideas, centred around improving the challenges that Facebook sees in today’s media landscape.

The stakes behind this project were not glossed over in the Digital News Innovation Challenge’s launch event. Jesse Wente, the event’s keynote speaker, described the challenges in today’s media landscape in stark terms: “We are in a culture war right now, just so we are all aware, and we’re losing it.”

The Digital News Innovation Challenge was publicly launched at the DMZ’s Sandbox. Kevin Chan, the head of Facebook’s public policy outreach in Canada was one of the panelists.

“Facebook was originally built to connect people with family and friends, but now of course it’s used to consume news, which spurred this project. Facebook has never done a project like this before, so we’re excited to see what it yields,” Chan said.

Although Chan emphasized that this was new territory and he is unsure of how the Digital News Innovation Challenge will unfold, the collaborative team did have some direction to offer applications. For instance, applicants are expected to form teams where at least one team member is dedicated full-time to their project.

Five winners will be selected in late March, who then embark on an intensive five-month incubation program to foster their startups.

Those who make it to that stage will have their eyes set on the ultimate prize of up to $100,000 in funding, with no equity being taken from their startup.

The challenge of ensuring people can access accurate information was presented as a central task that Facebook says it wants to embrace. This comes in light of increasing criticism of tech giants like Facebook, and the hugely powerful role they play in shaping what news people get.

Chan pushed back against accusations of Facebook as being solely responsible for disrupting the media landscape so much in recent years. “Our commitment is to help fund projects on our platform, and to that point also, we need a more nuanced debate about the causality of all this. I remember articles from the ‘90s debating this, so I don’t think there’s a linear line like what you paint.”

That linear line Chan mentioned was raised by Kenny Sharpe, a second-year journalism master’s student who shared his concerns with the partnership with Facebook.

“I’ll be taking a critical-thinking workshop course that looks at the problems in the (journalism) industry,” said Sharpe. “It will be linked, but I don’t know how much of it will be woven with the (Digital News Innovation) Challenge.”

“This launch is very promotional heavy, and looking at the bigger picture of billions of dollars that has been siphoned from traditional advertising models to companies like Facebook. It shows in a way, these companies are winning the corporate game and are in part responsible for some of the closures and financial struggles we’ve seen. While it’s really good they’re offering up $100,000 to support innovation in the news industry, I don’t know if that’s enough to fix the damage that they’ve created in journalism,” said Sharpe.

As of today, those interested in the Canada-wide incubation program can apply online on the DMZ’s website. They have until March 9 to outline how they could build their innovative idea into “something substantial in terms of their actual use,” according to Abdullah Snobar, executive director of the DMZ.

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