Three Core Questions about Facebook’s New Support of Local Journalism
Facebook’s announcement (January 19, 2019) of $300 million investment to support local journalism projects across the US, is another leap towards making Facebook’s already oversized role as one of the most influential mediators of the digital world. A role the company is eagerly trying to play down, claiming to be just a facilitator.
It isn’t a secret that journalism is a struggling industry, trying to stay profitable in a digital world. The decrease in sales of printed newspapers forced this traditional industry to look for new financial models to stay afloat. Lately, more corporate companies and foundations have been trying to strengthen the journalism industry and fight fake news, as part of their vision of journalism as the modern engine of democracy.
Trying to support the declining local newsrooms across the country, Facebook’s donation will support journalists and metro newsrooms to develop sustainable business models in the digital sphere.
Facebook’s Local News Subscription Accelerator, for example, is coaching local news publishers on unlocking strategies that will improve their digital business, including online subscriptions. Eventually, it transforms the company’s goal as a gatekeeper to its own sphere.
However, Facebook’s initiative raises serious questions about the transformation of local newspapers to the digital sphere, and Facebook’s responsibility and the value of news in a Facebook-dominated world:
1. Who is the audience?
Facebook has created virtual communities for its users, bridging over geographical boundaries. In this sphere, news can be relevant to audiences everywhere and not necessarily based on geography. The news report can be relevant based on personal interest and the user’s sense of belonging. Virtual communities can be strong and no less meaningful for their members.
Local newspapers, however, define their traditional communities by geography. These communities share areas of interest of their close surrounding, schools, municipality and cultural affairs.
While Facebook views its users as ‘citizens of many virtual communities,’ local newspapers view their audiences as ‘citizens of this city.’
How can Facebook support geographical audiences when it is contradicting its own business model?
2. What is local news in the digital sphere?
In one way, digital social networks are supersizing the local newspapers’ potential audience. On the other hand, they are downsizing the span of attention and forcing newsrooms to compete with multiple influential untraditional competitors.
Digital technologies have dramatically reduced the costs of distributing information, but have done less to reduce the costs of producing meaningful information.
For local newspapers, this means producing appealing content in the already swamped with digital marketing sphere, to compete with their non-traditional competitors, such as corporate companies, politicians and affluent individuals.
Local newspapers will have to compete fiercely over the audience’s attention. This competition will force local newspapers to re-think their role as gatekeepers and possibly expand the definition of news, to win the crowd’s attention.
Facebook already experienced with ‘fake news,’ should consider the type of news that will win the audience’s attention. Especially if they want their investment to be productive for the long run, and avoid a potential crisis.
3. Who will pay? The competition over advertisers
Local newsrooms have to compete with Facebook itself on a sometimes-equal pool of advertisers. Who will prevail in this heavily concentrated digital sphere?
Will the chase over advertisers and the audience’s attention drive local newspapers to offer a different type of news than their usual feed?
Will Facebook compete with the organizations it is helping? If not, what mechanism does Facebook offer to allow its competitors to win advertisers?
The solution for local newspapers:
Local newsrooms’ ability to create meaningful interactions with their local audiences will determine their success.
Metro newsrooms should shape their brand as the local go-to trusted source for news, and offer newsworthy content that interprets their sense of pride and loyalty for their community.
Social networks are not just another marketing platform. They change the interaction between the audience’s expectations of news and its value and the newspapers themselves.
Facebook’s initiative would be at best to realize the company’s impact is not to offer marketing strategies to compete on public attention. Newspapers and Facebook should ask themselves what the meaning of getting the public’s attention is, and how will the digital competition change the nature of news and local newspapers’ role in their communities. Addressing these core questions would be the best convergence of the online and offline spheres Facebook can support.
For more on journalism and philanthropy: The Curious Incident of NonProfit Journalism