Facebook Support of Local Journalism during COVID-19
COVID-19 is a global, national, and local news story. It could also become Facebook’s chance to develop its corporate responsibility and support of local journalism
The news about COVID-19 tells the story of the whole world, countries, and individuals simultaneously. News about the pandemic is relevant to countries and global organizations that fight to contain the virus while keeping their economies from collapsing. At the same time, the pandemic is relevant to different states, as they are trying to establish rules for public health. COVID-19 is also a story of communities and individuals, trying to get used to the “new normal” and cope with its implications for their everyday lives. When we read the news, we read a mixture of all these stories, processing information about global and national trends and their effects on our daily routine.
It is therefore not surprising that during the COVID-19 outbreak, Americans depend on their local media outlets for information about the outbreak.
A new survey by the renowned Pew Research Center found that about six-in-ten Americans (61%) said they were following news about the coronavirus outbreak at both the national and local levels equally. Nearly a quarter (23%) of the respondents said they were paying more attention to news at the local level. The most striking finding is that nearly half of Americans said that local news outlets are a significant source of news about the pandemic. They also see local news outlets as a more credible source of COVID-19 information than the news media in general.
Despite this current preference for local news, local media outlets have been struggling to maintain profitability for the past two decades. Although the media and newspapers specifically play a critical role within democracies, delivering valuable information to the public, elevating its voice, and encouraging democratic participation, the newspaper business has been in decline for the past couple of decades. Many leading newspapers could not compete with the flood of news on social media to maintain their readership. Nor could they cope with the trickling of advertisers to the competing social media platforms. No longer are newspapers the biggest beneficiaries of reporting a story.
Facebook and local journalism
Facebook is an important factor in changing the trajectory of news online and challenging local newspapers’ sustainability. The decline in media outlets’ income is mostly explained through the loss of their advertising revenue. The social network attracts almost a quarter of all digital advertising in the U.S. Consequently, newsrooms that lose those ad dollars are laying off journalists, while simultaneously fighting for the attention of their audiences online.
In 2019, Facebook announced in a $300 million investment to support local journalism across the U.S. to help local newspapers and media outlets and halt their decline. The program was designed to help local media outlets design and execute subscription models, recruit journalistic reporting initiatives, among other plans. Mainly, the idea was to support local journalism and strengthen its role within communities across the country. Facebook’s plan raised questions about the gap between the network’s digital communities and the newspaper’s geographical communities, about the nature of news and their ratings in the digital sphere, and the competition over advertisers, as Facebook will eventually compete with the local newspapers on ad revenues.
Facebook support for local journalism during COVID-19
As a part of Facebook’s commitment to local journalism, the Facebook Journalism Project announced (April 2020) a donation of $5,000 grants to 400 local newsrooms in the U.S., Canada, and Puerto Rico. The grants will help fulfill local newsrooms’ needs during COVID-19, such as combating misinformation, remote working, etc.
The American audience’s dependency on local media during the pandemic demonstrates local newspapers’ critical role in distributing valuable information and analysis, and in uniting communities coping with the outbreak. The coronavirus has brought geography back to the public agenda, emphasizing how different people, communities, states, and countries cope with its implications.
Since the virtue of communities and their livelihood is a key aspect of Facebook’s ethos and worldview, the company should quickly support local newspapers and help them fulfill their roles in creative ways. Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, has famously said that the audience may be more interested in a squirrel dying in their front yard than people dying in Africa. In his sensational remark, Zuckerberg emphasized the importance of geographic communities for Facebook’s audience. Supporting local journalism during the pandemic is a classic win-win situation: local newspapers will receive a boost in their outreach, the audiences will receive more trustworthy and vital information during a crisis, and Facebook will extend its corporate social responsibility to become more effective and timely.
How can Facebook help local journalism?
Facebook should address local journalism as a valuable partner. Journalism’s vital role in the democratic public discourse and the fight against fake news should position it not as Facebook’s beneficiary, but as a valuable and equal partner. Endorsing local media with a donation is important, yet it is not the only way to steer change. Facebook should promote local news stories through the company’s algorithm, based on their geographical relevance, and support local newspapers through advertisements. Facebook should also mentor newspaper newsrooms’ personnel about digital news production during the crisis.
The American audience’s reliability on local journalism will strengthen as the gaps between different states’ approaches to fighting coronavirus grow. Although national media plays a vital role in mediating the federal government’s plan to fight the pandemic, local media is the critical factor in understanding the implications of each governor’s different approach. Within this gap, people are reuniting with their geographical community, and Facebook should be there to support them. This would be a perfect example of a compelling corporate social responsibility strategy that is relevant to the situation, beneficial for the audiences and the media, and is in line with the company’s ethos and worldview. In addition to monetary donations, Facebook should address local journalism as a partner of their product and not as an outsider beneficiary.