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June 15, 2018, 9:01 a.m.
Audience & Social

With its Facebook Watch news show, Alabama’s Reckon wants to make a national audience care about local news

More Facebook Watch news shows are on the way — but is the effort worth it for all local publishers?

We’ve gotten a sense of what local publishers can contribute to some of Facebook’s bigger projects, like Facebook Watch. They’ve shared a documentary on a Texas high school football team, a three-season show exploring Long Island’s food scene, and more.

Soon, we’ll have a taste of a local publisher’s first news show on Facebook Watch, as Alabama Media Group employees rev their engines to traverse the country and highlight local investigative news for a national audience.

“We knew that Facebook was looking for news, and we also knew we were not, from Alabama, going to be able to give you a recap on the day’s national news or do a number of things that you see the other brands were selected to do,” Michelle Holmes, the VP of content at Alabama Media Group. (ABC News is putting together a daily news show, Anderson Cooper is doing daily briefings during the week for CNN, and Mic is providing a twice-weekly show, among others.) “But for us, [local investigative journalism] is a vitally important topic.”

Alabama Media Group, part of Advance Local, is home to three local papers in the state, AL.com, and Reckon, its “social/video-driven brand that offers a mix of audience-centric, accountability journalism” centered around an engaging, video-centric Facebook page. (AMG also maintains social brands “This is Alabama” and “It’s a Southern Thing”, the latter of which has its own three-month-old Facebook Watch sketch comedy show with an average of 19 million views per episode.) It’s the only local publisher announced in the latest bunch of Facebook Watch partners receiving a boo$t from the platform to populate a new Watch section focused on news.

“News is different,” Campbell Brown, head of global news partnerships at Facebook, said to Digiday. “What Watch is about is intentional viewing. That means news is likely to be a good fit because people come back to news every day. They want to get a daily update.”

Facebook emphasizes that the Watch news section is still an experiment, but the company plans to announce another round of shows later this summer with more local publishers. For now, Holmes and the Chasing Corruption team — including host Ian Hoppe, producer Marsha Oglesby, and other AL.com staffers and freelancers — want to use the opportunity to focus on the success of local investigations to unveil corporate and political corruption.

“Trying to create a show that helps stress the importance of journalism across the country seemed valuable, and the nature of Facebook Watch is that it will be put in front of a national audience,” Holmes said. (Not to mention we’re in the environment of media-about-media, with a Netflix show following BuzzFeed reporters and an Amazon series on The New York Times’ Modern Love column.) “It was an opportunity to live at the intersection of funded work and journalism that matters.”

Advance Local probably wouldn’t have done a national show, or a show focused on investigative journalism, if it weren’t receiving financial support from Facebook for the content, Holmes said.

“Getting people to care about local news in video format on social media is pretty difficult,” host Hoppe added. “With Reckon, we’ve figured out some great tricks to package that and make it palatable to that audience.”

He’s fronted several of Reckon’s videos already, such one on how Jeff Sessions’ linguistic habits reflect his roots and what matters to him. These Watch episodes, each about seven to 10 minutes long, will hone in on scandals and corruption uncovered by local journalists and their impact on a local and national scale — with the journalists themselves prominently featured via interviews. “That is the most important part,” Hoppe said.

Newsrooms have contacted Holmes already about potential stories to be featured, she said, and the team plans outreach to solicit ideas from journalists and the public. They’re also developing a Facebook Group alongside the Watch page to deepen the discussion. (In case you missed it, many publishers are considering Groups to improve engagement after the company’s pivot away from Pages.)

“This show is less about growing a new audience for Reckon, and more about an opportunity for Reckon to share its foundational promise — that local journalism matters, and is important — with people across the country,” Holmes said.

That’s great, but is the local angle on Facebook Watch actually working? Last year, we wrote about McClatchy’s Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s foray into Watch with its re-published documentary, Titletown TX,

a documentary series that follows local high school football team the Aledo Bearcats as they win the 2016 Texas state championship. The series wasn’t produced with Watch in mind; the paper originally published the series last year. But for the newspaper, Facebook Watch could be both a viable way to attract new viewers to its existing work and an important way for the newspaper to experiment with creating serialized video for a much larger audience.

Ten months after premiering on the platform and two months after the final episode went up, the Titletown show page has 122,000 followers. Each episode garnered between 38,000 and 15.7 million views, which Andy Pergam, McClatchy’s vice president of video and new ventures, attributes to the benefit of Facebook’s algorithm (no, really). He said Facebook Watch helped bring such a large audience to the series that McClatchy plans to do more shows — this time from scratch.

“Based on the success we’ve seen with Titletown, we’re eager to work on more projects that help us engage with audiences on Facebook or wherever they may be, particularly when it’s a story that is relevant to our community locally but is also relevant nationally,” Pergam said. For local publishers, “that’s the sweet spot for that platform.”

Remember: this is still just an “experiment” and Facebook won’t be funding this content forever. But if more people pay attention to and care about local news and local issues through Facebook Watch, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“Some of these local stories end up changing the national conversation and informing national events,” Hoppe said. “What we really want to do is draw that thread and show why local journalism matters to somebody across the country.”

POSTED     June 15, 2018, 9:01 a.m.
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