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Oct. 13, 2021, 9 a.m.
Audience & Social

Media consolidation and algorithms make Facebook a bad place for sharing local news, study finds

“There’s a lot of hesitancy about becoming overly reliant on companies that have their own interests, ultimately, and they’re not always aligned [with news companies’ interests].”

The combination of local news outlets being bought out by bigger media conglomerates and the ever-present influence of social media in helping spread news seems to have created a new phenomenon, according to a new study: Issues of importance to local audiences are being drowned out in favor of harder-hitting news pieces with national relevance.

The study, published last week in Digital Journalism, was conducted by Benjamin Toff and Nick Mathews, two researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

The idea for this research evolved partially because of the treasure trove of data available on the website CrowdTangle, and Toff and Mathews wanting to make use of that. “It occurred to us together that we could use [CrowdTangle] data to examine the degree to which local media engages with readers on social media platforms,” Toff said, adding that the idea took off from there. (It’s probably also good that Toff and Mathews thought to do this work now. Toff told me he is “very concerned” about possible changes at CrowdTangle with its founder and CEO’s departure, as it may curtail access to “one of the few sources of data we as researchers have to what people are interacting with on Facebook.”).

For this study, Toff and Mathews looked at a dataset of nearly 2.5 million Facebook posts that were published by local news organizations in three U.S. states. They chose the three states of Arizona, Minnesota, and Virginia for a couple of reasons. One was background knowledge on the media landscapes: Mathews had previously worked in Virginia and Toff had grown up in Arizona, and as current Minnesota residents, having the context about the local media in these states was important.

The other reason was to find states that weren’t on extreme ends of the news spectrum. “None of them are particularly extreme as far as being really small states [with limited media outlets] or on the other extreme like New York, which has such a dominant media presence,” Toff said.

Once they had a list of media outlets in the three states — along with detailed information about their ownership status and type, such as whether the outlets were owned by a multi-state chain or publicly owned — the researchers analyzed that information along with the millions of Facebook posts to identify any patterns in engagement. (For the purpose of this experiment, Toff and Mathews stuck to total engagement, which was all possible interactions including page follows, and didn’t examine individual interactions such as reactions or comments on Facebook).

They also sorted the posts into categories of hard news and soft news. Hard news stories covered topics such as politics, education, and health, while soft news included sports, arts and leisure , and — because they found so many posts of this variety on Facebook — animals.

The study revealed a few trends:

  • Ownership patterns related to activity and engagement on Facebook: “[P]ages owned by publicly traded, multi-state chains were among the most active on the platform,” the study found. These Facebook pages were also “more likely to have higher rates of interactions…on a per post basis than privately owned multi-state chains or pages owned by public or governmental organizations.”
  • Outlets owned by chains tended to post more repurposed content, but that led to less engagement: Chain-owned outlets, with more resources and access to the wire service or other sites owned by the same company, had access to more content, which they could use on their own platforms. “The idea is that it allows them to have a wider reach on the platform,” Toff said.
  • When it came to the type of news, hard news of national importance won out: Posts about hard news stories, especially on a national level, consistently brought more engagement than the softer, more locally relevant stories. “Even local organizations get more bang for their buck when they post about non-local subjects,” Toff said.

The combined effect: Local news, especially of topics that don’t rise to national importance, may be lost in the shuffle.

Co-author Nick Mathews put it this way on Twitter:

The study used data from 2018 and 2019, after when Facebook changed its algorithm to emphasize “meaningful social interactions,” so Toff is interested in seeing how these trends may have looked prior to that big change. Anecdotally speaking, Toff said that those changes made it harder for news organizations to get people to see their content.

A harder question to answer now is how much of these trends is driven by variations in people’s attention versus Facebook’s algorithms, since it’s hard to separate the two, Toff said.

Still, Toff said that the findings underscore the frustration often felt by news organizations and how they feel they are held captive by Facebook and other social media platforms. “You gotta go where people are spending time, but there’s so much [about these places] that can’t be controlled,” Toff said. “There’s a lot of hesitancy about becoming overly reliant on companies that have their own interests, ultimately, and they’re not always aligned [with news companies’ interests].”

Photo of Facebook News Feed by Dave Rutt used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Oct. 13, 2021, 9 a.m.
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