As Ryerson’s school of journalism and Facebook partner to support digital news startups, faculty hope to address the challenges of working with a company that has disrupted the journalism landscape.
“I think that we’re all kind of concerned about the impact of Facebook on journalism,” said Asmaa Malik, an assistant professor at the journalism school. Malik is one of the people responsible for planning in the partnership project.
Facebook is often blamed for eating up ad revenue news organizations need and has been blamed for displaying fake news and propaganda on its network during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Malik said it’s Ryerson’s role to share information about how Facebook affects journalism with businesses the project will help start.
“Our role in it is not to be an advocate for Facebook. Our role is to be an advocate for journalism. If they are a big player in the disruption of the space, whether it’s negative or positive, we need to be in that space having those conversations,” Malik said.
Facebook and Ryerson are partnering to launch the “Digital News Innovation Challenge.” The project, announced Tuesday, will take applications for journalism startups that target problems in the industry.
Five startups will be selected to receive five months of support from Ryerson’s Sandbox, an organization which provides new businesses with space, resources and mentorship, and $150,000 from Facebook.
Applications will be open Jan. 25 to people across Canada.
Mathew Ingram, a former reporter for The Globe and Mail, who writes about the future of media, is skeptical of the partnership’s journalistic value.
“The problem with having Facebook or Google involved is that Facebook and Google are a big part of the reason that the media industry is having so much trouble in the first place,” Ingram said.
“It feels like there’s a conflict there.”
Ingram, who graduated from Ryerson’s journalism program, said it’s good the school is trying to foster new forms of digital media, but added that news organizations increasingly do what Facebook wants in order to get traffic on the social network.
He said there’s a risk being so close to Facebook.
“There’s a happy medium somewhere between working with Facebook, thinking about Facebook or even getting funding from Facebook and turning your entire livelihood over to Facebook.”
He said the network is trying to promote the idea that they’re helping journalism and funding worthwhile things, “which they are,” but that by taking money from them, Ryerson risks becoming “window-dressing” for the social network while it steamrolls the industry.
“I think we are holding our own in this partnership” she said, adding that it’s better for Ryerson to be “at the table” with Facebook.
Janice Neil, chair of Ryerson’s School of Journalism, said only startups that are journalistically sound and approved by the school will be funded.
Gene Allen, a journalism instructor at Ryerson who teaches about the history of journalism, said the Ryerson-Facebook partnership looks like Facebook’s attempt to respond to criticism of its effects on journalism.
Ingram said he thinks Facebook gets more out of this than Ryerson.
“Mark Zuckerberg loses that much behind the cushions of his couch, probably. Is it going to move the needle or make a big difference? Probably not. Is it better than nothing? Sure.”
Still, Ingram said he can’t blame Ryerson for working with Facebook.
Executive director of Ryerson’s DMZ, Abdullah Snobar, was unavailable to comment on his organization’s role in the partnership. In a press release, Snobar stated that one of the partnership’s goals is to develop “a more sustainable news ecosystem through ongoing collaboration between the tech and news sectors.”
In addition to the competition, Malik said the partnership should also bring educational opportunities to Ryerson. The startups may act as examples for students to learn from and an upcoming journalism hub will offer further opportunities, she said.
“I don’t think someone is going to say ‘I’ve solved the problem of all these community newspapers closing across Canada, but maybe there’s something that can help in a certain kind of community or in a particular place that can be scalable and replicated elsewhere,” Malik said.
The Ryersonian is staffed by Ryerson journalism students as part of a course in the Ryerson School of Journalism.