Benevolent Doctor Facebook today gave the country a very grave diagnosis via a blog post. The company has found that–wait for it–local news is dying. In fact, Facebook says that about one-third of all Americans live in a local news desert–meaning they simply don’t have access to real, local reporting. It’s a big problem, Facebook bemoaned, and it says it wants to try and fix it. Thank you, good doctor.
As a result, Facebook’s Journalism Project has announced its intention to look into this problem, share data with researchers, and continue to invest in a tool to help promote local news.
For the last few months, Facebook has been trying to build a program called Today In that would aggregate local stories. The problem it discovered, however, was that there just wasn’t enough content in most regions to make such a thing useful. Here’s how bad the national news desert problem is, according to Facebook:
Of course, local news is a topic people should be talking about–as well as something people should be trying to fix. But it’s extremely rich for this announcement to come from Facebook. Lest we forget, it was only about three years ago when Facebook wasn’t making such dooming prognostications, and instead was trying to woo all publishers onto its platform. At once, Facebook used its distribution leverage to recommend that news organizations pivot to video. It also encouraged these companies to publish articles directly to its platform with its Instant Articles feature.
Both of these moves were ways for Facebook to try and establish its media dominance, and neither did the media industry any favors. Sometime after the video pivot–after numerous publishers had allocated precious (and dwindling) resources to a medium the platform said was on the up and up–Facebook made an about-face and de-emphasized the content in users’ feeds. As for Instant Articles, it was a program that required companies with deeper pockets to invest in it and hope for the best. Many of the major players ultimately stopped using Instant Articles as they saw little return on investment. Meanwhile, smaller news organizations without the bandwidth to experiment with a new digital product were likely left in the cold during the experiment and saw their traffic dwindle.
Of course, Facebook is not the only reason local news is on the decline. Changing consumption patterns over the last two decades have had a huge impact on all media companies, especially the local ones. The rise of Craigslist in the late 1990s and early 2000s decimated classified ad revenue long before Facebook came around, while sites like Yelp competed for ad dollars from local businesses.
But Facebook’s share of the digital ad market certainly helped hasten this trend. As digital spend began to be concentrated on two centralized platforms–Facebook and Google–publishers of all sizes were forced into a one-size-fits-all media model, even though most did not fit.
And the impact has been real. Newspapers are consolidating if not outright shutting down. The alternative press is hardly around anymore. It’s hard to find an example of a thriving media company in 2019.
Congratulations to Facebook for discovering one of the big problems plaguing the country, but before the company waxes philosophic about the future of the media industry, why not do some soul searching about what brought us to this cliff?