Publishers baulk at outcome of Facebook Australian News Fund

Publishers have criticised the outcome of the Facebook Australian News Fund.

The Walkley Foundation managed the judging process independent of Meta, formerly Facebook. In total, 54 recipients received $5 million worth of funding.

Meta told publishers last year that it had stopped negotiating licensing deals, and encouraged publishers to apply to the funding program.

Meta is not under a legal obligation to enter into deals as it, nor any other digital platform, has been designated by the Treasurer under the news media bargaining code (the code). The ACCC estimated that the value of the deals struck thus far with both Meta and Google could potentially amount to over $200 million. If Meta were designated as a digital platform, the code would require it to do commercial deals with the entities that have been registered as news businesses by the Australian Communications Media Authority (ACMA).

The Federal Government earlier this week, when announcing a review of the code, encouraged digital platforms to continue to negotiate in good faith. ACCC chair Rod Sims, in the Press Gazette, flagged that the Federal Government should be prepared to designate Facebook as a digital platform under the code.

Broadsheet publisher & director Nick Shelton told Mumbrella: “Facebook’s News Fund, and the way they have handled their response to the news media bargaining code, has been a farce.

“I don’t want to detract from the many worthy recipients of the fund. There are many great publishers and journalists included. But Facebook’s duplicity and manipulation of publishers has been outrageous,” he said.

Shelton went on to describe the frustration he had experienced with Meta over back-and-forth in meetings, which he felt were a deflection of Broadsheet’s attempts at securing funding, and encouragement that Broadsheet was the type of publication that would receive funding under the program.

“Andrew Hunter, Facebook’s news partnerships lead, requested a meeting with us in August where he first spoke about the Facebook News Fund. Broadsheet had been seeking to negotiate a publisher deal since March but had not been making any meaningful progress. Each time we spoke, Andrew would deflect and tell me that there were new products coming that might suit us.”

Shelton continued: “We discovered yesterday that along with many other independent publishers who have registered with ACMA as Eligible News Publishers (having met the criteria as an eligible publisher under the bargaining code legislation), our applications were not successful.

“It has been a colossal waste of time. Not to mention lost months where we should have been negotiating in good faith with Facebook.

“It is clear to us that the fund was always designed to distract from commercial negotiations and to limit Facebook’s exposure to the code outside of the small handful of deals it was compelled to complete in order to avoid designation. It looks like the fund has been successful on that front to date.

“The reason it is so important that small and independent publishers get recognised and are able to strike commercial deals is that without them we are at a significant disadvantage to our corporate competitors. The large players, whom we compete with every day, now have an additional stream of significant revenue that we don’t have access to – despite being recognised as eligible by ACMA and the government. It means we are being outspent on talent, marketing, technology and anything else needed to run a top tier competitive publication.

“Without access to these deals I fear for the independent and small publishing sector. Over the next few years we might see consolidation and closures until there is nobody left.

“We remain open and optimistic that Facebook will come to the table and negotiate with us, and other independent publishers, in good faith,” Shelton said.

Women’s Agenda told a similar story, having been encouraged strongly to apply to the program, but was unsuccessful.

Agenda Media co-founder and Women’s Agenda editor-in-chief Tarla Lambert told Mumbrella: “Ultimately, what’s occurred just doesn’t satisfy the news media bargaining code legislation which was put in place to protect independent publishers like Agenda Media.

“It was hard to feel anything but supremely frustrated with Meta’s response last year that they’d be opening up this grant instead of brokering deals with publishers, as Google had done. But we were also clearly advised and encouraged that Women’s Agenda would be a prime contender for funding.

“The proposal we lodged, to better support and expand our existing podcast network, took a long time and a concerted effort to put together. And for a small team with limited resources, it’s always hard to justify exercises like this. We did it, with the full expectation that we would end up with at least some portion of funding but obviously those hopes were dashed this week when we received the press release listing recipients and no further correspondence from Meta.

“There were 54 recipients selected for a pool of $5 million funding. How far can $5 million really stretch?

“There were just six members on the judging panels for the two grant streams—the Aus News Fund and the Public Interest Journalism fund. Applications were lodged late last year which means judges would have had to dissect 169 applications over an extremely short period. It’s certainly not the fault of judges, but it’s hard to conclude that they were able to look at applications thoroughly enough in this time frame.”

The Brag Media, which is yet to strike a deal with either Meta or Google, also applied to the program and was unsuccessful.

The Brag Media CEO Luke Girgis took to Twitter on the matter yesterday:

When asked for comment, a Meta spokesperson said: “We encouraged publishers who were deemed eligible for funding to apply for Meta’s Australian News Fund, in partnership with the Walkley Foundation. This fund is an important part of our investment in Australian news to support the sustainability of smaller, regional, rural and digital newsrooms. As set out in the terms and conditions, various publications including digital, regional and lifestyle publishers would be eligible and considered through the independent panel process. We understand it was a highly competitive process – and it was good to see that there was wide awareness of the fund – but not everyone was successful.”

Meta did encourage publishers who were eligible for funding under Meta’s News Fund to apply, but, as mentioned above, judging and recipients of funding were chosen by Walkley’s independent judging panel.

A spokesperson for The Walkley Foundation said: “Views on the outcome doesn’t alter the integrity of the process. The Walkley Foundation runs the program independently of Facebook at arm’s length.

“This means that we appoint a panel of independent industry expert judges for each fund to assess applications. Facebook has no control over the selection process of either the judges or the projects, and did not know who the winners were until we notified them at the end of the process.

“We apply a rigorous judging process before deciding on the strongest projects to support. Many of the projects received partial funding, which allowed 54 projects to be supported instead of the minimum allowed number of 27 projects.”

The judging process took over two months.


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.