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The Briefing: Could Facebook save journalism?

WASHINGTON – So now that Facebook has decided that it will no longer broadcast professionally produced hate speech, can Mark Zuckerberg's Jekyll-and-Hyde creation at least stop acting as the world's richest freeloader?

Can Facebook possibly find a way to start rewarding the news outlets whose stories you see shared online all the time?

Those are questions worth asking now that Facebook, YouTube, Apple and Spotify have expunged most of the vile content produced by Alex Jones and Infowars.

If Facebook answered those questions in the right way, the giant social network could actually do exactly the opposite of what it did in the 2016 presidential election. It could help democracy, by helping save local journalism.

More on that later, but first let's take a closer look at the morbid curiosity named Alex Jones.

He is quite possibly the nation's leading conspiracy theorist, a ranting, raving teller of tall tales that together show him to be very small. He served as the leading propagandist for "Pizzagate," and we know how that turned out: with a gunman firing an assault rifle inside a D.C. pizzeria, thinking (and I use that term very loosely) that big-name Democrats ran a child sex slave operation in the basement. Worse even still, Jones questioned whether the 2012 shooting at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school was faked, thereby adding an additional layer of hardship upon the families of the 26 children and adults who lost their lives there.

It took Silicon Valley a long time to figure out what to do about Jones, largely because even a quarter century into the internet era, the nation's largest tech companies are still trying to figure out what they really are.

Are they open platforms like Reddit, where anybody can say anything, and anything goes? Are they the modern, worldwide equivalents of London's historic Speakers' Corner, where anybody can stand up and give a speech about anything so long as it isn't profane and doesn't incite violence? Or are they more akin to newspapers, where professionals control the content?

Silicon Valley companies still don't seem certain about what kind of public platform they provide, but with the move to dump most of Jones' bile, Facebook, YouTube and Apple clearly decided they are not Reddit.

And just to be clear, their choice to censor Jones is not a free speech violation. The First Amendment's guarantee of free speech means government can't restrict private speech. Private entities, on their turf, can. They can even fire you for sharing your political thoughts in the workplace, so of course a public forum like Facebook can decide what's appropriate in that public forum.

Ironically, Facebook – to a much greater degree than the other social media giants – does grave damage to another First Amendment guarantee: freedom of the press. In fact, Facebook is one of several web-era creations that together threaten the future of local journalism.

A decade ago, Craigslist destroyed the classified advertising business that long served as one of print journalism's lifelines.

Amazon is in the process of destroying the department stores that long served as one of any local newspaper's biggest advertisers.

And Facebook's pages are filled with the news articles that local newspapers still produce despite a dwindling revenue stream. Those local stories have turned Facebook into the main news source for many Americans – meaning it's a reason fewer people are subscribing to newspapers, figuring they can get the news online.

And what does Facebook pay for all those New York Times exposes, all those Washington Post columns, and yes, all those Buffalo News stories? Nothing. Not one thin dime.

In fact, it does just the opposite. It asks journalists to "promote" their posts, for a price.

Meantime, as my former boss Margaret Sullivan so aptly demonstrates here, local journalism is in a crisis, one that's ripping at the bonds that bring communities together. Worse still, a fascinating recent study showed that less journalism means worse government, which translates to higher costs for taxpayers.

So what can Facebook do about this? As the largest and richest social media platform, it can start paying just a little for journalism content.

There's already a precedent for this. Facebook earlier this year signed licensing deals with the three largest record labels, meaning recording artists will start getting royalties when fans create videos of their songs and share them online.

Of course, figuring out a way to reward newspapers and other news websites for content shared on Facebook would be infinitely more complicated, just because there are thousands of such news sites.

But here's an idea: Facebook could steer a small percentage of its gigantic profits into a new news foundation, which, in turn, would parcel out grants to local news organizations that apply for funding.

Now this would likely start out small, but the money would grow as Facebook grew. And who knows? Maybe Craigslist, Amazon, Apple, Google and YouTube could pitch into this new nonprofit, too, giving it ever greater reach.

If such a foundation were to be established, it would have to be operationally independent of Facebook. Zuckerberg couldn't serve on the board: only esteemed retired journalists and news executives could, just to make sure those grants didn't reward publications that boosted Facebook and shun outlets that criticize it.

This would really be a gigantic revving up of the Facebook Journalism Project, which features "collaborative development of news products" and journalism training and the like.

The Facebook Journalism Project is so small-scale that it feels like face-saving at a time when Facebook is enmeshed in controversy over privacy issues.

But if Zuckerberg really wants to save face, he might want to consider genuinely investing in local journalism in a big-scale way by finding a way of paying back news outlets for all the content they have provided him for free for years.

And who knows? By doing so, Zuckerberg might get something he's unaccustomed to: good publicity.

Good reads

The Daily Beast breaks the astonishing news that 43 percent of Republicans think President Trump should have the power to shut down media outlets ... NBC News delivers a real scoop: that President Trump wants to limit citizenship for legal immigrants ... Forbes delves deep into the questionable business practices of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross ... In the Washington Post, Christian Caryl argues that the Russia Republicans love doesn't exist ... And Mark Liebovich of the New York Times profiles the beleaguered House Speaker Paul Ryan.

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