March 20, 2019

Facebook local news aggregator can’t find enough local news to work with


Today, a riddle: How can I live in a cool to semi-arid part of the United States and still live in a desert?

Well my friend, that’s because you probably live in a book desert (those parts of the country lacking sufficient libraries and bookstores), or its journalistic cousin, the news desert (those parts of the country lacking sufficient local news coverage).

And as David Bauder reports for AP those news deserts are really bumming out . . . Facebook, of all things.

You see, Facebook offers a “Today In” feature, which aggregates already-reported-on local news stories from a given region. The trouble is that not nearly enough micro-regions in the United States actually have reporting that could be aggregated.

In fact, according to Bauder, Facebook has found that “40 percent of Americans live in places where there weren’t enough local news stories to support [‘Today In’].” For backstory Bauder adds:

Some 1,800 newspapers have closed in the United States over the last 15 years, according to the University of North Carolina. Newsroom employment has declined by 45 percent as the industry struggles with a broken business model partly caused by the success of companies on the Internet, including Facebook.

Yes, Facebook can be blamed. Facebook and Google have scooped much of the online advertising dollars available to online media concerns, creating an environment that is especially inhospitable to the small regional newspaper. Now that a big tech company needs help from those defunct papers, it’s looking like the Ouroboros gnawing on its own tail.

And so Facebook must engage in the time-honored capitalist tradition of investing private money into an industry it ravaged, and calling it philanthropy. Bauer writes:

The company plans to award some 100 grants, ranging from $5,000 to $25,000, to people with ideas for making more news available, said Josh Mabry, head of local news partnerships for Facebook.

That comes on top of $300 million in grants Facebook announced in January to help programs and partnerships designed to boost local news.

If we’re lucky, the result will be to resurrect the local news industry we used to have (and let’s make sure Alt-Weeklies come back with it). But the lesson should not be about the efficacy of charity and exploratory committees; the lesson should be about never letting our vital local services get squeezed out of existence by runaway, unregulated, tech giants.

Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.