Facebook’s Local News Dilemma: There’s Not Enough Local News, But They Too Are To Blame

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Facebook is up for a noble cause – the multibillion-dollar tech company wants to serve more local news to its users. However, it seems to be facing a significant roadblock: there isn’t enough news available for its algorithm to pick up.

When Facebook realized through a survey conducted in 2017, saying that most of its users wanted to be served with local news in their timelines, the portion of Facebook where updates are shown to users based on algorithms, the company has vowed to do just that – to boost local news offerings.

According to the data released by Facebook on Monday, around 33 percent (one-third) of Americans reside in cities and towns, where Facebook can’t find enough local news being shared in the platform, justify building a localized aggregator for the area.

The local news aggregator of Facebook called “Today In was launched last year and is now available to around 400 cities around the world through the social media platform’s mobile app. According to the rules that Facebook operates in related to the news aggregator, the algorithm should be able to identify at least five news articles every day related to a city that is shared within the social media platform to justify building a Today In for that city.

Furthermore, Facebook reveals that the scarcity of news reports for Today In’s establishment in the city is not only limited to sparsely populated towns but are also seen in the towns with high population densities. Cities like New Jersey have significant areas where the algorithm could not pick up enough local news coverage to be included in the aggregator.

FACEBOOK IS TO BLAME

Facebook and Google duopoly in online publication has played a massive role in the death of local online news publications. The two corporations have sucked up much of the advertising revenue that used to go to newspapers – kicking the latter out of business.

The dominance of the duopoly—which earned 60% of all digital advertising revenue in the US last year, according to eMarketer, and accounted for nearly all of the growth—has made it difficult for online-only news sites to build robust advertising businesses.

And with Facebook and Google’s algorithms, online publishers complained that the duopoly has so much power over who sees what. This comment is specific to Facebook’s change in the algorithm where the social media platform has prioritized posts from friends and family and has hurt many digital publisher’s traffic leading them to revenue losses.

COLLAPSE OF US LOCAL NEWS INDUSTRY

The data released by Facebook created conversations about the telltale signs of the collapse of the US local news industry which seen advertising revenue collapse as online platforms like Facebook and Google’s Alphabet Inc. have taken market share.

According to Penelope Muse Abernathy, the Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina and a former Wall Street Journal executive, more than one in five newspapers have closed in the last decade and a half, leaving half the counties in the nation with just one newspaper, and 200 counties with no paper at all. In a prediction made in 2016, Nicco Mele, director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, more than half of US local newspapers will be forced to stop printing by 2021.

The bigger problem, however, is that online news sites could not even keep up with the losses of offline news media. According to Abernathy’s analysis, out of 1,800 newspapers that have been dissolved in the past decade and a half, only 400 local-news online agencies have been established to replace them and were even clustered in big cities, leaving smaller areas with little to no source of local news.

FACEBOOK AND LOCAL NEWS SYMBIOSIS

Amid the blame game, it is necessary that Facebook has acknowledged that it should not kill local business as it derives the majority of its business from them and killing them would negatively impact itself in the process.

“We really do care deeply about local news, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because users have told us for years that what they want to see is more local news,” said Jimmy O’Keefe, product marketing manager for Today In.

With this acknowledgment, Facebook has pledged to work hand in hand with local news publishers to bolster the industry by spearheading programs that would help them recuperate from their transitional losses and adapt to a technologically driven world.

“We’ve been clear from the beginning that we think the first step to solving this problem is measuring it,” said Anthea Watson Strong, product manager for Today In, adding that only after collaboration with academics could the company determine “what kind of intervention” it should take.

“I’m looking forward to getting the data and overlaying it on the data we have on news deserts,” Ms. Abernathy said.

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