June 18, 2018

Last year, Facebook started spending a lot of time with local news.

Last week, they began another round of News Days with visits to Cincinnati and Tampa Bay. And with the latest city visits, they’re refining how they approach local news and what they’re offering. They also, at least it appears, want to acknowledge something a lot of newsrooms had to when Facebook devalued news from publishers in favor of news from friends.

“I think the bottom line is how can Facebook be part of your strategy and part of your business, but it doesn’t need to be your whole business,” said Josh Mabry, who leads Facebook's local news partnerships.

(That algorithm change certainly wasn't the only reason the platform made news in the first half of this year. There was the Cambridge Analytica scandal, revelations about Russian election meddling and more.) 

Here are a few other ways the project is shifting this year, plus insights from two local journalists on what they'd like from Facebook:

It’s urging newsrooms to focus on “meaningful social interactions and high-quality news”

Over time, Mabry said, the platform has valued engagement over virality. That means newsrooms have to ask themselves questions, including when they see something lighting up on Facebook's CrowdTangle. Will it drive clicks and traffic? Is that audience local? Will they come back? Is that the kind of audience you really want?

One example that ticks off the viral, local and meaningful boxes, Mabry said, comes from Cincinnati’s Bob Herzog, an anchor at WKRC, who has built a loyal audience with his “Wake up and makeup” Facebook Live videos.

“We see those as opportunities and a way to go deeper with an audience and create more loyalty,” Mabry said.

It’s starting to think of itself as being at a more significant point in the subscriber “funnel”

The “funnel,” if you need a refresher, is one way to think of moving people from awareness to engagement to subscriptions/donations/membership.

The platform and newsrooms have traditionally thought of Facebook at the top level of that funnel, the awareness stage. Over time, Mabry said, it's started working more closely with newsrooms at the conversion stage. If Facebook can make it easier for someone to subscribe through the platform, Mabry said, that’s a step in the right direction.

It’s offering more guidance for newsrooms that don’t have the skills to use its tools

Facebook has a lot of tools, but it's trying to make it easier to figure out what works for individual newsrooms and how to use those tools if you don’t have people with the necessary skills. That includes an upcoming webinar on how to build Instant Articles. (Disclosure: Poynter just completed a training partnership with Facebook.)

What do local journalists think?

"I'm really optimistic that they are starting to see the need for quality, professional local content on their platform," said Liena Zagare, editor and publisher of Brooklyn's Bklyner. "I wish I had a clearer sense of how a small publisher can work with their subscription products."

And because smaller newsrooms have limited resources, it's easy to slip through the cracks on Facebook, said Candice Fortman, marketing and engagement manager at Detroit's WDET,  "and it's becoming harder to overcome that all the time. Audiences in markets like Detroit often can't afford to pay for news subscription services, so it severely limits their ability to stay informed." 

"Further, Facebook has said that they want to reward publishers who are creating and pushing out 'real news,' but they are now rejecting attempts to boost posts for being political because they 'don't follow Facebook's advertising policies,'" Fortman said.

When WDET tried to boost a post on a story about a chemical that's shown to be in Michigan drinking water, it was rejected under Facebook's new terms. 

"Basically, local newsrooms are stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to delivering their content to their audience," Fortman said, "and at this point, Facebook is certainly not offering any viable solutions."

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Kristen Hare covers the people and business of local news and is the editor of Locally at Poynter. She previously worked as a staff writer…
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