Facebook is trying to revive local news, but it’s having a hard time doing so, according to a recent post on Facebook Journalism Project. It’s local news tab, “Today In,” which was launched in a few test cities in early 2018, and is now live in over 400 cities in the US, just cannot find enough local news.
About one in three users in the US live in places where we cannot find enough local news on Facebook to launch Today In. 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.Jimmy O’Keefe, Product Marketing Manager, Today In with Josh Mabry, Local News Partnerships Lead at Facebook
That’s because large areas of the US have turned into news deserts. The problem needs more robust solutions—that go beyond billion and trillion dollar tech companies extending a helping hand now and then.
“Cannot find enough local news”
Facebook also shared a map showing the state of local news availability across the US.
The darkest green areas represent counties where Facebook got at least five local news stories, by users or news publishers — every day in the last 28 days. The lightest-green counties did not have much local news throughout that period. In other words, areas where Facebook, “cannot find enough local news on Facebook to launch Today In.”
While that’s understandable in the context of news deserts, what’s puzzling is the lack of meaningful local news from areas like Somerville, which is home to 75,000 people and Tufts University. Neiman Lab reporter, Christine Schmidt tracked Today In’s stories for 10 big and small cities (including Somerville), over a Monday–Friday period.
Some of these were close to places that Facebook marked as “news deserts”; others had a richer local news ecosystem. But even in the areas where the news tab was live, Schmidt found that the stories mainly consisted of crime alerts, court decisions, and obituaries, in some cases, even when more meaningful stories were available. Some of the stories shared were several days old, and some could not even be categorized as local.
Here are a few updates from Today In Somerville, shared by Schmidt on Neiman Lab
“What did I see? Satire, obituaries from funeral home websites, lots of local TV, and a weird network of sites that scrape other local news and yet somehow make it into Facebook’s scanner. And again, over half of the news was just crime, courts, and dead bodies,” she writes.
For a company that says it wants to “encourage meaningful interactions between people,” it doesn’t immediately strike you as the sort of content that’s going to build social cohesion, develop a sense of place, or otherwise do the good things that local news can do.Christine Schmidt, Staff Writer, Neiman Lab
She asked Facebook about it and they responded that they were striving for balance in the stories, and were working on getting it right, which is why they continue to test Today In.
“Make a living from reporting high-quality news”
But the point to note is, Facebook is a technology company that distributes news, among other types of content. That does not make it an expert on the problems of journalism. It is helping news publishers because it will benefit from a healthier news ecosystem that encourages people to engage with high-quality news on its platform.
Add to that all the troubles that Facebook has had to face in recent years because of fake news and hate speech. And that’s probably why it wants to help news publishers through various projects and grants. But that may not be enough. A more sustainable approach is required for the health of local news organizations.
There is an incentive for particular technology platforms that rely on people’s attention and time being spent on them to have an information environment that is not completely screwed up. Now, we know that now because over the past five to 10 years these companies have been largely allowing information environments to become incredibly screwed up.Emily Bell, Founding Director of Columbia University School of Journalism’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism
Bell told Slate over an interview that currently the platforms do not “make it possible to make a living from reporting high-quality news.” That’s a fundamental design flaw that needs to be addressed, she said.
She added, “When you have Mark Zuckerberg saying, “We should maybe be funding high-quality journalism directly,” it’s like, Why don’t you just change your platform so that if people are doing good work, they get paid for it?”
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