Facebook vs. the News Desert
Much has been made of the rapidly-expanding “news deserts” across America — mostly rural areas that are no longer served by a local newspaper or television station. It’s a growing problem, and there is nothing that indicates it will get better anytime soon.
About 1,300 U.S. communities have completely lost news coverage as more than one in five newspapers have shuttered in the past 15 years, according to University of North Carolina professor Penelope Abernathy’s most recent report on expanding news deserts.
The report also found that many of the nation’s remaining 7,100 newspapers have essentially become “ghost papers” — little more than advertising supplements. Half of the 3,143 counties in the United States have only one remaining newspaper, and most of those are small weeklies.
It certainly is bleak — but just how grim became even more clear a couple of weeks ago when Facebook announced that it was struggling with its new “Today In” feature, designed to provide users with local news. As it turns out, there just weren’t enough local news outlets generating local news.
While I’d argue that Facebook is not entirely without blame when it comes to the hard times local papers — for a number of reasons — the social network has, of late, taken steps to support local reporting. For instance, this year Facebook made a $300 million commitment to donate to journalism projects, including the American Journalism Project and Report for America. In January 2018, the company shifted its algorithm to favor local news.
According to Facebook’s internal studies, 50 percent of Facebook users said they want to see more local news and community information. To meet that demand, the company originally launched “Today In” in six cities; that was expanded to 400 cities last November. According to Facebook, 1.1 million users have subscribed to the feature.
A recent analysis of the Today In feature by Nieman Journalism Lab, which examined the links shared in 10 cities, found that an awful lot of the local reporting included crime, car crashes, and funeral home obituaries. There have also been a number of pretty substantial glitches — including the sharing of some stories that are years old. I have little doubt that Facebook will eventually iron out many of these wrinkles, assuming it doesn’t just abandon the project altogether.
But the news desert problem will still persist.
“About one in three users in the U.S. live in places where we cannot find enough local news on Facebook to launch Today In,” product marketing manager Jimmy O’Keefe and local news partnerships lead Josh Mabry wrote in an article last month.“In the last 28 days, there has not been a single day where we’ve been able to find five or more recent news articles directly related to these towns.”
As this project moves forward, it will be interesting to see if the company’s investments in local news can do enough to address the increasingly-persistent news desert problem.
— Originally Published in the Las Cruces Sun-News, 04/11/19