January 30, 2018

On Monday, Facebook announced a new focus on local news in the News Feed. Three people who work in or with local news described their reaction to that news with the same word: whiplash.

“I’m cautiously optimistic, with the emphasis on the caution,” said Robyn Tomlin, Dallas Morning News’ managing editor and soon-to-be regional editor for McClatchy’s Carolina newsrooms. “I think most publishers are feeling whiplash from the flurry of changes being announced. I’d like to believe that the focus on quality news and building local communities will mean something. Time will tell.”

Here’s how Facebook described the change:

"Today, we’re updating News Feed to also prioritize local news so that you can see topics that have a direct impact on you and your community and discover what’s happening in your local area. We identify local publishers as those whose links are clicked on by readers in a tight geographic area. If a story is from a publisher in your area, and you either follow the publisher’s Page or your friend shares a story from that outlet, it might show up higher in News Feed."

Why the whiplash? Early this month, Facebook announced something many newsrooms figured was coming — a sharper focus on friends and family and less news in the News Feed.

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I reached out to a number of people via email who work in local news to see what they make of it. In addition to the sense of whiplash, there’s an undercurrent of “fool me once” to their responses. Nearly everyone stressed that they’re not just counting on Facebook to help their reach their communities anymore.

It is good, also bad.

Sara Baranowski, editor of the Iowa Falls (Iowa) Times Citizen, almost felt relief when Facebook announced it was deemphasizing news. Watching traffic online yo-yo with Facebook’s algorithm changes was exhausting, she said.

“I'm embarrassed to say I allowed Facebook to take my attention away from what matters: our audience and our content,” she said. “Knowing that Facebook was going to put us in the corner forced me to be more innovative, to think about different ways to reach our audience.”

Baranowski doesn’t trust Facebook and isn’t sure this is good for local news.

“We need to be innovative and we need to find different ways to reach our audience,” she said.

Still, she said, they can’t afford to stop using the platform.

“I'm afraid that if we stopped using Facebook, there's a segment of our local population that would forget we're here. They don't subscribe to the paper, but they follow us on Facebook. And — good or bad — Facebook gives us the opportunity to interact with people who otherwise wouldn't interact with us. They're saying nasty things about us, but they're saying them in a forum where we can open up a dialogue with them. It can be maddening to explain our jobs and our mission to people who question us on Facebook every week, but I'm not ready to give up on them. I believe there's still an opportunity to educate them about us and what we can do for them if they trust us and use us as the resource we want to be."

It’s about time.

Andaiye Taylor, founder and editor of Brick City Live, said Facebook’s attention to local news is heartening and “about time.”

“Local journalists and publishers are uniquely equipped to uncover the ‘ground truth’ in a community. We're positioned to convey how events, policies and trends that are percolating at state, national and international levels affect the local communities we cover,” she said. “Community-minded publications like ours have fought hard to win our community's trust, and I think elevating our stories among our followers will go a long way towards disrupting the scourge of fake news infecting social media platforms."

“At the same time, I know that as Facebook giveth, Facebook can taketh away. So while we'll stay tuned on how to take advantage of Facebook's new emphasis on distributing local news stories in the News Feed, we'll continue investing in ways to connect directly with our audiences, specifically by building our email lists and promoting downloads of our own news app.”

Time to take your eggs out of that one basket.

Last year, Facebook put energy and resources into working with local newsrooms. One of those projects included Stefanie Murray and the Center for Cooperative Media. She coordinated a project that worked with nonprofit and independent online publishers and the social media company.

“From what I understand, this shift should be positive for local news organizations,” she said. “It doesn't change the fact that the News Feed algorithm is still going to prioritize friends and family, but it does make it even more important that local publishers ensure their content is shareable — and that they encourage sharing — so that more of their local readers share stories on the platform." 

“But, I will say, all of the changes over the last month have been dizzying for many of the organizations we work with. They have whiplash. It's really emphasized the need for local news organizations to build direct relationships with their communities rather than depending on any one platform to do that heavy lifting for them.”

We’ll see.

The news is welcome, said Matt DeRienzo, executive director of Local Independent Online News Publishers, and feels like the missing piece from Facebook’s previous announcement.

“But we'll have to see how it actually plays out for local publishers' reach with their communities,” he said. “If reaction to this is muted, it's because of the whiplash publishers have experienced in trying to keep up with Facebook's ever-shifting tactics. In the course of the past month alone, local publishers noticed that their reach was dropping significantly, then were told outright by Facebook that it might all but disappear, and are now being told that their content will be prioritized in the News Feeds of people in their communities.”

It’s encouraging, but …

“Local news organizations like Cox Media Group have been advocating for local news with Facebook for a while now, so this is encouraging,” said Kari Cobham, senior manager of digital content for TV at Cox Media Group. “But there are still questions around its true impact, not just on us, but also on national and international news and the audiences we all serve. Staying informed and making that information as accessible as possible is so important right now. Ultimately, this isn’t going to change our efforts to provide value and grow audience on products we own like apps or newsletters, and on other social platforms.”  

What do they mean by local?

Gabriel Coan, WHYY's vice president of digital strategies and services, has been thinking about this question a lot, he said, "I think we all have. What is the definition of local news?"

Most newsrooms, including the Philadelphia public radio station, offer a mix of stories about the community, curated national and international news and local takes on those last two. 

When they survey their audience, local news is always at the top of what they say they want, Coan said. 

"But what the data shows often times is that it’s national and international stories," he said. "It is the big stories."

How much of that is driven by Facebook's algorithm and what it puts in front of people? Coan is interested to see how the marketplace responds to Facebook's focus on local news. Will it create more interest in local stories? Will the algorithm flag something based on the localness of a story, he asked, or if it just includes a local source?

"Is the algorithm even that smart?"

Back it up.

Les Zaitz, editor and publisher of Malheur Enterprise, an Oregon weekly, said that right now, we have the barest understanding of how this will work.

“At the Enterprise, we have relied on Facebook to help us function as an around-the-clock news source. We also have, frankly, turned to Facebook to help our rural community understand the significant changes we've made at this little weekly, particularly embracing investigative reporting,” he said. “We continue to be amazed at the impact our work can have when shared on Facebook. We recently put up breaking coverage of police efforts to catch a suspected child abuser. In about 24 hours, our initial post was shared more than 700 times and, says Facebook metrics, reached 100,000 people. For a tiny newspaper in a county of 30,000, that's impressive impact."

“My hope is that Facebook's realization of the value of local news is backed by advancements in how it helps sustain that news, even at the very local level we're attempting in Vale.”

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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