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Why platforms like Facebook and Apple struggle to boost local news

A few months ago, the Lenfest Local Lab, an innovation team within the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, embarked on an interesting experiment. Teaming up with The Philadelphia Inquirer, it developed a news app that would push location-based news items to its users.

The Lenfest team started by identifying evergreen Inquirer stories about architecture and real estate, and then they geotagged these stories within the news app. When a user of the app walked within a certain proximity of a building, it would trigger a push alert linking to the Inquirer article about that building.

The Inquirer promoted the app on its website and on various social media accounts. Ultimately, 350 people installed the app and it sent out about 1,000 push notifications. The sample size was small, but the Lenfest Local Lab found that these notifications saw a 14 percent engagement rate, which is four times the engagement than what you’ll see with a typical news alert. That’s a substantial bump.

This experiment left me wondering: why don’t news apps do more to leverage phone location data? We’ve seen wide adoption of these apps in recent years, with publishers reporting record traffic from platforms like Apple News and SmartNews. Yet when I fire up the three news apps currently on my phone — Apple News, SmartNews, and Flipboard — I’m treated to an array of national and international news headlines, and these headlines will stay consistent regardless of where I am in the U.S. One of the myriad criticisms lodged against Apple News Plus, Apple’s new paid subscription offering, is that it doesn’t do anything to boost local news outlets, which arguably could use the most help. Why don’t these platforms feature more local news?

The answer to this question is somewhat depressing: it’s because there’s not enough presentable local news to feature.

To get a sense of what I mean, look no further than Facebook’s effort to expose its users to more local news. In early 2018, the social network launched a feature called Today In. If someone subscribes to the Today In feed, they’re regularly served up local news stories published in local outlets. Facebook eventually rolled the feature out in over 400 cities.

Thus far, about 1.1 million people have opted into the feature, but a substantial portion of these early adopters likely found it lacking. In March, representatives from the Facebook Journalism Project admitted that “one in three users in the U.S. live in places where we cannot find enough local news on Facebook to launch Today In.” They elaborated on what that meant:

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.

What’s more, even areas that meet Today In’s minimum threshold aren’t always producing a robust local news selection. Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton surveyed the Today In offerings in multiple cities and found that they were dominated by crime alerts and obituaries. Many of the stories he came across were several days old.

This is a problem that most major platforms will encounter when attempting to give a much-needed boost to local news. There are three main reasons why a platform like Facebook or Apple News will struggle to deliver localized stories outside major urban centers.

For one, rural areas are just not able to support robust news organizations. A town of only 1,000 people won’t provide enough of a subscriber or advertising base to employ a newsgathering staff. Based on research I’ve conducted, a town needs a minimum of 10,000 residents to support a news operation that employs at least one full-time reporter and one full-time ad salesperson.

And it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone reading this column that market forces over the last decade haven’t been kind to local news. By some estimates, 1,800 newspapers have closed since 2000, and many of those still in existence are shells of their former selves. Competition from platforms like Facebook, Google, and Craigslist have decimated ad rates, while private equity funds have bought up newspapers by the truckload, only to saddle them with debt and squeeze them dry.

Finally, we have the newspapers’ websites to contend with. Spend some time clicking around the websites for weekly and small daily newspapers. What you’ll find are designs and content management systems that haven’t been updated in years. If you’re an engineer at a major tech platform, you’re not going to feel comfortable sending your app’s readers into an environment with such a poor user experience. I got my start in journalism writing for two weekly newspapers. While preparing to write this column, I visited their websites. They look no different than they had when I departed them over a decade ago. Neither would meet the minimum standards of a Flipboard or Apple News.

Whether it’s out of a sense of guilt or acknowledgment that the demise of local news is bad for their long-term business prospects, several tech behemoths are rolling up their sleeves and getting directly involved in the issue. Both Google and Facebook have pledged $300 million each to initiatives that will support local news. The Washington Post, which is owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, has made its content management system Arc available to the public. Its aim? To provide state of the art publishing and advertising technology to publishers that wouldn’t otherwise have the resources to build such a platform themselves.

Of course, one can appreciate the irony that the very tech companies that obliterated the business models for newspapers are now scrambling to save local news. One thing is clear, however: these platforms will have to do more than simply drive clicks to already-existing outlets. Not enough newspapers have survived in the 21st century, and the ones that have survived need much more than clicks. While Facebook’s Today In feature is a noble attempt at promoting local news, it’s an effort that’s too little and much too late.

Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.


Photo by Paul Hanaoka on Unsplash

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