Distributed content needs local news

“By choosing to prioritize national outlets over local ones, these platforms are going to accelerate the decline of local journalism. In 2016, we should all be aware of the unintended consequences of that choice.”

2016 is shaping up as the year when the “distributed content” wave overcomes traditional web platforms. It seems like the right time to ask: What will be the impact of distributed content on the digital distribution of local journalism?

david-skokThis may be more of an aspiration than a prediction, but it is my hope that in 2016 the great technology companies of our time will give more prominence to stories that matter to their users closer to home.

Currently, local reporting appears to be an afterthought on these social platforms. On a random Monday afternoon in December, as I sat at my desk in Boston, scanning my social media outlets, only three percent of the stories that appeared on Facebook and Twitter’s curated Trending and Moments feeds qualified as local news. And when I clicked on one of the few local trending stories that did appear, I was served with an article published by Fox News instead of one sourced from the local entity that originally broke the story and which likely had better sourcing on the ground.

I don’t think these choices are ill-intentioned. Private companies have every right to focus on where they can gain the highest profits, and getting their news feeds to achieve local scale is an immense and expensive challenge.

But make no mistake — these are choices. By choosing to prioritize stories of national interest, these platforms are going to accelerate the decline of local journalism. In 2016, we should all be aware of the unintended consequences of that choice.

As social media and peer-to-peer chat apps become omnipresent, “reach” becomes the most important metric for news organizations fighting for relevancy. When technology companies don’t make a concerted effort to surface local news in their algorithms and curated feeds, local news outlets who do choose to cover important local or regional issues lose the ability to reach potential audiences — and lose out on the sharing those audiences would have done, compounding the network effect.

Instead, the only way for these local outlets to compete for attention among the #trending is to assign reporters to cover general-interest national news. That’s why you see unlikely news sources writing hot takes on the latest Will Ferrell Saturday Night Live skit — because it’s the only way for them to appear on the trending feed of your favorite social media platform. This becomes a self-fulfilling race to the bottom that further erodes the visibility, quality, and relevancy of local journalism.

What about the publishers currently listed as media partners for Facebook’s Instant Articles? Other than Philadelphia news startup Billy Penn and Gannett, so far, local or regional publications have been shut out of the experiment. Facebook says it hopes to roll Instant Articles out to all publishers and that the reason they haven’t yet is because they’re in a beta testing phase. Let’s hope so.

Then there’s Snapchat’s popular Discover platform where all 18 publishers listed are national entities. Apple News and Google AMP seem promising but both platforms require already small product teams to build out feeds using limited development resources.

I’m lucky enough to work at a regional publication which holds the dominant footprint in New England and a wide national audience, and so, even though we haven’t yet been fully embraced by these social platforms, we know that we’ll be in the conversation when their efforts are rolled out further. But what about smaller city and regional publications? How will they compete in a world where 97 percent of the curated news on a random day is not local? Most importantly, what will be the impact on citizens who, instead of wading through a partisan filter bubble, will instead have to filter through a national/local bubble? Imagine how different our world would have been if there was no local news on television.

Here’s one prediction that I can almost guarantee: In 2016, local investigative journalism will be front and center on the Hollywood red carpet with accolades pouring in for the movie Spotlight, a film written by Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer, based on the local investigative reporting published by my colleagues in 2002. Let’s not celebrate that film as an ode to what used to be in our craft. Rather, let’s use it as a clarion call for the importance of local journalism in the Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter era. In the distributed content ecosystem, we need our hyper-relevant news feeds to include hyper-local news sources, as well.

David Skok is managing editor and vice president for digital at The Boston Globe.