What worked and what didn’t from Facebook’s local news summit

This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter following the digital transformation of local news. You can join the conversation here

Last week, I spent a few days with a bunch of people I know, know of, and cover in local news. The Accelerate: Local News Summit was hosted by the Facebook Journalism Project, the Online News Association and the Knight Foundation. (Disclosure: Knight helps fund my coverage of local news. Also, Poynter paid my expenses for attending the conference.)

You can watch some of the on-stage talks, but the conference was under Chatham House Rules, which means I can tell you what was said but not who said it. One quote from my notebook: “Collaboration is really about conflict.”

I like that idea and personally took a lot away from the conference (mostly stories ideas and new contacts,) but I’m not sure disjointed quotes are that helpful for people who weren’t there. Then, during a morning session, I heard a young journalist speak briefly and thought, maybe he could do this better than I can.

So, today, I’m turning things over to him. Meet Malick Mercier, a journalism student at Ithaca College, an Instagram host and the owner of a very cool pair of newspaper pants. Unlike the majority of us, Malick came to the two-day event in Denver with few expectations, and I wanted to hear what he thought about the whole thing. (Instagram, Facebook’s parent company, invited Malick to Denver, and the Online News Association paid for his travel and accommodations.)

OK, OK,  I’m going to get out of the way now. Malick, it’s all yours:

When Instagram invited me to Facebook’s Accelerate: Local News conference, I was both curious and confused. Like all the adults who attended the conference, I like to joke that I got my start in local news.

It was a program from Disney/WABC-TV called “Get Reel with Your Dreams” hosted by my local news anchor in New York, Sade Baderinwa, that had sessions and panels that made me realize watching the news every morning and night as a 13-year-old wasn’t normal, and that I should pursue this passion.

If it weren’t for the support of my local newsroom, I don’t know that I would have started or continued the journey of becoming a journalist. So although unsure of what we’d uncover, I started the conference bright-eyed and ready to discuss how we could use digital and social to connect people to their communities through local news. Facebook vowed to donate $300 million to news initiatives with a focus on local over the next three years, and this conference would be the epicenter of it all.

What really worked 

Facebook kicked off the conference by sharing that people using the platform WANT more local news, which served as motivation for the experience ahead. Organizers also took time to highlight local news, or the lack thereof.

I thought the most beautiful thing was that we started with the truth: admitting that between all of the journalists, and news and tech industry professionals in the room, no one had the answer to solving the pains around the digital evolution of local news — Facebook included — and that made me really excited.

I literally wrote in my notes:

“We don’t have the answer – but we can support efforts to figure this out.” – Campbell Brown, Facebook

“You could be it.” – Campbell Brown, Facebook, in my imagination.

(Editor’s note: As per Chatham House Rules, we checked with Facebook to make sure it was OK to use this quote with attribution.)

Two of the first in a string of short presentations stuck out to me. One was focused on news deserts. I didn’t realize it but there are so many towns across America that have no local news or simply not enough local news to serve their populations. We learned that these places — which one in three Facebook users call home — are less prepared politically and economically than their counterparts that have ample local news resources.

The second one was focused on my generation and more specifically me, because it was focused on the student journalists of our time. I took a photo of this:

YOUNG JOURNALISTS: BURIED TREASURE

The speaker asked the audience to release the treasure — young storytellers with new ideas —, and I know she’s right because when Instagram took a chance with me and allowed me to host its official coverage of the March for Our Lives, the team Instagram assembled created coverage that became an example of how to capture and tell the story of the event in a 9:16 vertical space and on the platform by using features like the location sticker.  I think it was important that the audience was told to embrace youth storytelling and emerging storytellers because growing up with these products means we almost innately understand how to best use them.

In addition to presentations, there were extended breakout sessions at the conference. My favorite was Digital Transformations. I’m not sure if it was the Chatham House Rule that did it, but I have never seen journalists show up so vulnerably before. Real data, finances — all the things we keep so secret — were out on the table so that everyone could offer the best, most tailored, authentic advice. I even shared my average percentage watched for my IGTV show, this news, and it was really cool to get genuine feedback. We all walked away with new things we could try right away.

Where the summit missed the mark

I noticed that in addition to some national organizations, there were people who run local news divisions in attendance, meaning that they oversee, for example, all of their company’s local newsrooms up and down the West Coast. I understand that they needed to be there to spread the information to all of their staff, but I hope that if the conference returns, Facebook invites even more people who are focused on just one local place, in addition to those who oversee regions locally.

At dinner, one more big issue dawned on me: Here we were discussing audience engagement and trying to figure out what audiences want …without audiences. I am not sure how you would find news viewers, listeners and readers to bring into a conference, but I think it’s an important piece of the conversation that Instagram obviously understood when they brought me in, a student journalist, to cover a student movement. It’s the same concept that helped Megyn Kelly lose her job: You cannot holistically and appropriately discuss blackface without black people, student movements without students, and audience engagement without news audiences.

Listen up, local newsers! I have an answer … sort of.

I think people in local news need to understand that as much as journalists think we’re needed… I don’t think most people feel that way. But people do actually want news. Local journalists are in the sweetest spot because that desire is strongest at the local level. People want to know where the potholes are, they want to know about community events, and they want to know who’s in office in their towns. They deserve that information, and we have the golden opportunity to give it to them. Someone at the conference said that we should see the community as a partner not just as the recipient of the stories we tell. From speaking with people in local news, I know there are fundamental business model issues, but I also know those aren’t the only fundamental issues.  When local news journalists begin to shift their perspective and begin telling the news with people, and not just for them, that is when things will move forward, and social and digital couldn’t be a better place for that kind of communication to occur.