Of all the ways that Facebook and the internet have disrupted the media, their effects on local journalism have been among the most profound. People used to get much of their news from their local newspaper, broadcast TV affiliates, and news radio programs. Now they get a lot of it from Facebook, which is great at showing you the latest national controversy or viral meme—and not so great at keeping you informed about what’s going on in your town.
Now, as part of its year of reckoning, Facebook is making a change to the news feed algorithm to make stories from local journalism outlets appear higher in your feed. From Facebook’s official blog post announcing the change:
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.
The move comes as part of a series of changes to Facebook’s news feed that are designed to make it a friendlier, happier, more informative, and more trustworthy place to spend time. Or, to put it less optimistically: less of a cesspool of time-sucking viral nonsense and politically divisive outrage-bait. It follows a trio of other recent changes that prioritized posts shared by friends and family, posts that generate discussion among friends, and news stories from “trustworthy” sources.
Boosting local news sure sounds like a good thing. But, as with so many well-intentioned changes to the news feed, it’s easy to imagine how it could go awry. Specifically, it seems from Facebook’s announcement that it’s conflating content from local publishers with local news. Those things are related, but they aren’t the same—and boosting one won’t necessarily boost the other.
First, let’s look at why it’s worth a try. Local newsrooms have been decimated over the years as both reader attention and advertising have moved online. Facebook itself has done a chunk of the damage. Whereas local newspapers offered advertisers the ability to target audiences by geography and general interest area (the sports page, the lifestyle page, etc.), Facebook created much finer-grained targeting tools. At the same time, local publishers found it hard to find wide audiences on the social network, whose algorithms ranked news stories by their propensity to induce clicks and likes, rather than their relevance to one’s community.
As the HuffPost Editor in Chief Lydia Polgreen and others have observed, the gutting of local journalism has probably helped to fuel historic levels of public mistrust in the media. It’s tempting to think that Facebook could help to repair this by throwing local news outlets an economic lifeline, increasing their web traffic and allowing them to charge more for online advertising. (Facebook has also brought some local publishers in on new tools like its support for subscriptions and calls to action within Instant Articles.) Or perhaps this change will spur some fresh investment in online local news, resulting in new local outlets with digital chops.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg seems to think rather highly of local news, at least to judge by his post about the change. He wrote:
Local news helps us understand the issues that matter in our communities and affect our lives. Research suggests that reading local news is directly correlated with civic engagement. People who know what’s happening around them are more likely to get involved and help make a difference.
A cynic might wonder just how much local news Zuckerberg actually watches or reads. Yes, local news has value, especially when it includes original reporting by professional journalists telling important stories or holding officials to account. Realistically, however, no one should expect their Facebook feed to suddenly become populated by hard-hitting local investigations into city council corruption.
The truth is that much of local news—especially the televised version—has always been just as prone to sensationalism and oversimplification as the national news: fear-mongering crime stories, human-interest tear-jerkers, shallow “he-said, she-said” coverage of local politics. Meanwhile, local newspapers’ vaunted accountability reporting—City Hall, the courts, the state house—tends to be boring most of the time. That makes it unlikely to do well on Facebook no matter how much the company’s engineers try to boost its ranking.
For better or worse, Facebook has also made it clear it has no plans to distinguish news reporting about local public affairs from stories about local arts, sports, or events. Again, it’s nice to imagine a Facebook feed where a local theater review or an inspiring feature about a high school sports star nestles alongside your friends’ status updates and the latest national news. But experience with Facebook’s algorithm teaches us that’s not the kind of stuff that plays well on the social network. If quizzes, memes, rants, and hoaxes outperform hard news on Facebook at the national level, it’s hard to see why it would be much different at the local one.
Another obstacle to Facebook’s plan might be that local publishers often aggregate national or international stories on their websites. Does this mean that you’ll now be reading about Trump’s foreign policy from AP wire stories published on Facebook by your local TV station? If so, it’s hard to see that as a big improvement.
In order for these sorts of news feed changes to succeed, Facebook will need to treat each one as a complex problem in itself—a problem requiring constant attention and continual refinement of the algorithm. That’s why the company’s two-question trust survey for news organizations came as such a letdown. It’s one thing to whip up some code that boosts certain publishers, based on the hypotheses of a handful and product managers. Making sure that code actually solves the problem it claims to solve is much harder.