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March 18, 2019, 6 a.m.
Audience & Social

Facebook enters the news desert battle, trying to find enough local news for its Today In feature

Starting in May, Facebook will also solicit ideas for ways to build community through local news, looking for around 100 participants to receive funding and mentorship.

News deserts are at the core of journalism’s crisis today — the communities left behind as news organizations hamstrung by declining ad revenues focus more on the country’s coastal, wealthy, metropolitan areas. Facebook — the server of information to two-thirds of American adults, powered by digital advertising — thinks it can help, by sharing data and some more grants/mentorship for community builders.

About 1,300 U.S. communities have completely lost news coverage as more than one in five newspapers have closed over the past 15 years, according to University of North Carolina professor Penelope Abernathy’s study on the news desert phenomenon. The lack of meaningful local news (the Momo hoax doesn’t count) can lead to fracturing trust in communities, trickle-down polarization from national news, and general chaos for democracy.

Facebook, as you may have heard, is trying to be in the business of meaningful interactions and building communities rather than breaking democracy. (Or at least that was the idea before Mark Zuckerberg’s recent pivot to direct messaging and the subsequent departure of his chief product officer.) A NewsWhip study recently found that the platform’s meaningful interactions refocus has contributed to many more angry reactions — not exactly warm and fuzzy connections.

Here’s where Facebook hopes local news can come in: Within its news partnerships team, Facebook emphasized its support for local news this year with a $300 million commitment with donations to journalism efforts like the American Journalism Project and Report for America, membership and subscription coaching, and more TBA. Since January 2018, Facebook also shifted its algorithm in favor of local news, though some local outlets can be ridiculously generous with what they consider to be relevant to their audiences.

The company says there’s a user consumption case to be made here: 50 percent of users in one of its studies said they want to see more local news and community information on the platform. Facebook’s attempt to meet that request is Today In, a News Feed module collecting local news articles, community groups, and posts from relevant local pages like schools. It originally launched in six cities and expanded to 400 in November. (Also, it offers an end to Facebook’s trademark infinite scroll, which I find thrilling: “You’re All Caught Up.”) Today In has garnered 1.1 million subscribers who opted to turn on updates for the feature, according to Anthea Watson Strong, Facebook’s local news product lead.

“In the fall of 2017 we started saying we think one of the primary problems here isn’t just that people want this content, but they don’t have it in their News Feed because they’re not following these pages and their friends aren’t sharing this content in their News Feed,” Strong told me. “We started experimenting with an unconnected content strategy where we say, ‘We think you’re interested in local news. We’re going to allow you to opt in to seeing more and when you do that we’re going to give you the top stuff from the pages that meet that definition, rather than require you to follow every news page or join every group.'”

But sometimes there simply isn’t enough local news to serve up Today In in a meaningful way, Facebook said in data released today ahead of its local news conference this week (which, disclosure, I’ll be attending):

To build Today In, we needed to know, for any given community in the US, what local news was available on Facebook at a given time. Through a five-step algorithmic process, we learned how much local journalism is being shared on Facebook in towns across the country. We also learned where the holes are — places where we can’t identify enough regular local reporting on Facebook.

About one in three users in the US live in places where we cannot find enough local news on Facebook to launch Today In. What does that mean exactly? In the last 28 days, there has not been a single day where we’ve been able to find five or more recent news articles directly related to these towns. This does not vary much by region: 35% of users in the Midwest, Northeast, and South — and 26% in the West — live in places where we can’t find much local news on Facebook.

The maps below show county-level detail on places we can — and can’t — find enough local news on Facebook to launch Today In.

(The irony of Facebook — which with Google now controls nearly two thirds of the entire U.S. digital advertising market — noting the decline of local news media will not be lost on many.)

Measurement of news deserts is a system still very much in development. Flimsy datasets are out there, but Abernathy’s database is one of the most cited. She and three other news desert researchers — Nicco Mele of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, Phil Napoli of Duke University, and University of Minnesota’s Matthew Weber — will have access to a snapshot of Facebook’s local news data from February, according to Today In’s product marketing manger Jimmy O’Keefe.

Abernathy told me via email she’s optimistic: “This new data has the potential to help academic researchers who are documenting the loss of local news gain additional insight into what sort of ‘local news’ is available on Facebook and being shared in communities throughout the country and how the availability or lack of local news correlates with the rise of news deserts.”

As Facebook tries to boost Today In in the 400 markets and beyond, should — blergh — publishers try to latch on? The platform has given many a social media manager whiplash with its algorithm changes and priority shifts, and head of news partnerships Campbell Brown has repeatedly tried to turn publishers away from Facebook as a reliant traffic source. “The TLDR is there’s nothing publishers should do for their content to surface on Today In,” O’Keefe said. “We are mindful of the fact that publishers have constrained resources and other priorities.”

But the news articles are key to the Today In cluster, Strong said: “The news links center that experience…We’re trying to make it discoverable and put it all in the same place. We do know those news links are most often at the top and most often thing we put in the digest. That’s really the content people talk about the most when we ask them about the experience of Today In.”

🚨 Remember, though, local news can sometimes be used maliciously. Russia tried to take advantage of local news’ widespread trust to sow disinformation in the 2016 election, according to NYU research. And recently a Snopes investigation uncovered shady ties between political operatives and new local outlets in Tennessee, Ohio, and Minnesota. Facebook…doesn’t exactly have the best track record here.

“All of the integrity work you’ve heard about, that all applies here. We’re looking at the same signals News Feed looks at and thinking about what content are we comfortable with on Today In,” Strong said.

Facebook is also announcing a new grant and mentorship network to fund and strengthen ideas on how local news can help build community. Around 100 applicants will be selected via a Lenfest Institute call for applications in May (they’re looking for existing publishers, startups, and/or other community partners) to be paired up with other brains (and maybe money) using the alumni network of its local news membership and subscription accelerators.

“The real criteria is is if you’re doing something that would help build a stronger community of some kind,” said Anne Kornblut, a former Washington Post and New York Times reporter now at Facebook as the director of new initiatives under news partnerships. “We’re quite open [and looking for] something that shows promise on the business front and needs an extra kick to make it work.”

POSTED     March 18, 2019, 6 a.m.
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