Dear Facebook: You could help save local journalism, and here is how.
Last weekend, while staying in a crummy Super Eight* in Maine, I noticed something strange on my Facebook app. It asked whether I was close to the Super Eight, and suggested I read about what other people had said.
Predictably, the suggestions were pretty lame. It had a pool! There was a Burger King nearby! I shrugged it off. Why was Facebook making suggestions anyway?
Enter Place Tips, a new(ish) program from Facebook, which takes Bluetooth Beacon — a little portable bluetooth — to suggest nearby options to users. A 2015 article from the Wall Street Journal makes the pitch for beacons, and their purpose.
Beacons transmit Bluetooth signals in a range of about 500 feet, recording movement in greater detail than other technologies. Apple’s iBeacons can identify which aisle of a supermarket users are in. Sports stadiums use beacons to welcome patrons as they walk through the turnstiles. PayPal has used beacons to enable in-store sales without the use of cash, card or check.
With Facebook, the article cites a few uses — an architect could put a beacon near a new building and tell people checking Facebook about the construction process. Cities like Portland, Maine could place beacons on historical sites to let them know about them.
Maine has a little governor problem going on right now. In fact, you might not know that. You might not know it if you were visiting, unless you picked up a copy of the local newspaper. And considering Pew Research Center said 2015 may have well been a recession year for newspapers, I’m going to guess many people are not picking up a local newspaper on vacation.
So, as a thought experiment, let’s just imagine something else: instead of Facebook telling me about the pool at the Super Eight, what if it made a suggestion using location services like “Do you want to learn more about Portland, Maine?” When you click, it would cull public Facebook posts from news organizations local to the area.
In Portland, that means a variety of organizations: Portland Press Herald, The Bollard, Maine Public Broadcasting Network, Portland Phoenix, Portland Monthly, on and on and on. In places like Pittsburgh, it could mean both the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review AND the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the right- and left-leaning publications (along with the local TV networks).
Facebook is in hot water over the idea that its news curators are biased. The company responded by firing its curators, which lead to fake stories leading its trending topics sections. Now, humans will oversee the operation, but just to fact-check, not to pull the articles themselves. And still, Mark Zuckerberg isn’t keen on saying he’s in the news business.
"We're a technology company. We're not a media company. When you think about a media company, you know, people are producing content, people are editing content, and that's not us. We're a technology company. We build tools. We do not produce the content. We exist to give you the tools to curate and have the experience that you want, to connect with the people and businesses and institutions in the world that you want.”
Creating an algorithm using location services to pull together local news operations avoids some of this hand-wringing while also helping the news business. Whether Facebook wants to admit it or not, the journalism industry is hanging its hat on the idea that people get their news from Facebook.
In 2016, 66% of Facebook’s U.S. audience got their news from the website. And it’s growing. When Pew first conducted its study on the relationship between news and social, 47% were getting news from Facebook.
From my impression of my Facebook friends — mostly millennials and moms who love to share memes — the average consumer of news already knows what is happening nationally. What they don’t know is what is happening in their own backyard.
Of course, using beacon and place tips, news companies could try to figure out a way to do this themselves. But the problem is that it would require consumers to be near the offices — which is essentially useless to a broader community.
When we left Portland, I picked up the Sunday paper, and read a bit in the car on our drive. The Press Herald had a fantastic feature about a fig tree surviving in the cold winters of Maine. And that, I only could have obtained from the local flavor of New England.
*I am a working journalist, which means I get my fair share of cheap hotels.