Facebook Bets on Local News

On January 29, 2018, Mark Zuckerberg took to Facebook to announce a new media initiative for the social media giant. "Local news helps us understand the issues that matter in our communities and affect our lives," Zuckerberg wrote. "Starting today, we're going to show more stories from news sources in your local town or city."

This policy comes on the heels of a less encouraging decision for news organizations, when Facebook declared in December that it would deemphasize publisher content in favor of posts created by a user's family and friends.

Since the 2016 election, when fake news stories spread across its platforms, Facebook has been rethinking its relationship with the press. Zuckerberg went on a listening tour and posed for photos with newspapers in hand-perhaps most famously in Selma, Alabama. The social media company is now relying on the media to fact check certain content. And last year the company launched the Facebook Journalism Project to help reporters better utilize the platform. Emphasizing local newsgathering appears to be the next step, despite some observer's incredulous reactions to the idea.

Yet the Menlo Park, CA, company's policies reflect ambivalence toward its own obligations with respect to news dissemination: is media content part of social media's problems or its solution?

It's hard to know what this latest policy means for the press, or how far reaching the changes will be. But local news can use any break it can get, big or small. Revenue is down across the industry. News conglomerates are snatching up local outlets at fire-sale prices. Papers are shedding jobs and cutting newsroom resources.

More eyeballs on local news stories might help blunt these downward trends, and the effects could be significant, if done right. In any given year, Facebook drives between one-quarter and nearly half of all page views for web publishers. And when consumers pay for quality news-whether through Facebook-driven clicks, advertising dollars, or subscriptions-the media is better capable of holding government officials accountable and dredging up stories of corporate misbehavior. Local news is on the cutting edge of many of these trends, including keeping local governments honest and breaking news that others often overlook.

The reaction to Zuckerberg's local media revelation was loud and instant. On his status update, one user complained about a story on their News Feed detailing a beauty contest that banned camels for receiving Botox shots. "Great trusted news that was," he wrote. Others accused Facebook of stifling conservative content. Another mused about creating a "dislike" button, which earned over a hundred likes.

It remains to be seen what will come of this new policy. Whether or not it helps local news pay its bills or Facebook to remedy its trust problems is anyone's bet. But this is a relationship that must succeed if local news will thrive in the Twenty-First Century. Facebook helped create local news' problems, now it has a chance to solve them.