Facebook-funded program open to anyone with an idea to “disrupt” the news industry
Five Canadian startups will each be given five months and $100,000 to develop a solution to a problem plaguing the news industry as part of the Digital News Innovation Challenge. The incubation program is a collaboration between the Ryerson School of Journalism, the Digital Media Zone (DMZ) at Ryerson—an organization that mentors and supports tech startups—and the Facebook Journalism Project.
“It’s open to everyone,” said Richard Lachman, the director of Zone Learning at Ryerson, a network of 10 incubators where startups can get technical and financial support. “You can be a student, you can be an independent, you can be an early-stage startup, you can be a collective.”
With the application cut-off set at $100,000 in revenue, the program targets small-scale teams. Applicants from across Canada can be eligible with little more than an idea, so long as it seeks to address a “scalable, viable, real-world problem” in the news industry, according to Lachman.
In addition to the funding provided by Facebook, the five selected teams—to be announced on March 29—will have access to coaching from entrepreneurs and journalists, workshops and networking opportunities, a workspace at Ryerson, as well as $50,000 in Facebook advertising space.
The seed capital and advertising space will be given to the teams incrementally over five months, as they achieve goals they set for themselves. Acceptance into the program comes with an initial $20,000, and progress over the course of the five months will unlock two other “gates,” each worth $20,000, Lachman explained. At the end of the incubation period—lasting from April 23 to Sept. 28, 2018—teams will showcase their testable prototypes and receive the final $40,000 to continue developing.
“We’re very open-minded about what could emerge,” said Kevin Chan, the head of Canadian public policy for Facebook. He described the program as a first of its kind for Facebook, and admitted the anticipated result from this investment is “a bit of a mystery.”
The potential goals, however, are much less ambiguous. A half-day conference hosted at Ryerson on Jan. 25 in conjunction with the opening of the program’s application process highlighted the news industry’s numerous shortcomings and struggles.
“We need [journalists] to do a better job at telling us not just the stories we want to hear, not just the ones we need to hear, but the ones that maybe we didn’t even know existed,” said Jesse Wente, an Ojibwe broadcaster, producer and public speaker. His keynote speech focused on the gaps in mainstream media coverage created by a lack of diversity in newsrooms and the failure of many outlets to adapt to diversifying communities.
“When large institutions fail to be inclusive and, at the same time, their audience is rapidly becoming more diverse, you have a recipe for irrelevance,” he told the attendees. “The populous has shifted in ways that [news media] have not then reflected in their staff and in the stories they are reporting and the point of views they are reporting. So then you’ve got this sudden disconnect.”
Panels throughout the afternoon featured speakers from various journalism outlets, ranging from the BBC to Discourse Media, as well as representatives from Facebook, Ryerson and Journalists for Human Rights. Several panelists identified a lack of trust, funding and inclusivity in the news industry as prominent issues in journalism today.
Despite the incubation program’s prominent digital component, many speakers emphasized the need for journalism to shift its focus back to creating high-quality content and reporting for the public good.
As Indian and Cowboy Media CEO Ryan McMahon put it, a media outlet can scramble to have a presence on every social media platform available, but “it’s all bullshit if you don’t have a community behind your work,” he said emphatically. “Twitter doesn’t give a shit about you. Your community does. And if you deliver high-value stories, they will continue to give a shit about you.”
Facebook’s intentions questioned
During the opening panel’s question period, a Ryerson student asked Chan whether Facebook’s financial contribution to the Digital News Innovation Challenge was the platform’s way of “acknowledging that it is part of the problem that journalism is facing today,” making reference to Facebook having “basically stripped funding from many Canadian private journalism organizations.”
Chan responded by saying the investment is “an attempt to help the broader ecosystem” of the news industry of which Facebook is a part of. He argued, however, that issues with the advertising-based business model in the news industry were being discussed in publications such as The Economist years before Facebook’s inception.
The Ryerson student’s question echoed concerns recently raised by media critic Jesse Brown. In the Jan. 8 edition of his podcast, CANADALAND, Brown discussed Facebook’s partnerships with the Canadian federal government, Ryerson and the Canadian Journalism Foundation, among others. “The news industry has a responsibility to scrutinize Facebook,” he said. “All of these partnerships can get in the way of checks and balances.”
Although the Digital News Innovation Challenge’s selection committee has not been finalized, Facebook will not be involved in the final selection process of the five teams, according to Chan. “We have no interest in what emerges other than, hopefully, great ideas,” he said.
Fenwick McKelvey, Brown’s guest on the Jan. 8 podcast and an assistant professor of communication studies at Concordia, suggested that Facebook’s programs and investments in the news industry are a way for the platform to “get ahead of regulation.”
McKelvey also voiced concern about the effectiveness of the Digital News Innovation Challenge. “I think we’re putting all of our eggs into one basket with the $500,000 program,” he said. “It’s really ambitious and puts a lot of pressure on this one program to be successful.”
For more information about the Digital News Innovation Challenge and how to apply, visit their website. The deadline to apply is March 9, 2018.
Photo by Katya Teague