In June, Grimsby resident Joseph Richardson was walking through his local park in East Marsh when he spotted a skip full of books that had been thrown away by the local library. Outraged, and likening the act to “1930s Germany”, he wrote a post on a local Facebook group, Marsh Life, a small but engaged community with less than 200 members.
From there, it was picked up by a reporter at the Grimsby Telegraph, who wrote a story about it and posted the link back onto the same group four days later. The library, unmoved, explained that nobody would accept the books as a donation and that it was replacing them with new titles. The potted saga is indicative of how Facebook has become a dominant force in local newsrooms, both as the driver of a large proportion of their traffic, and as a source of stories in increasingly stretched newsrooms.
This ever-closer embrace with Facebook has come at a time of turmoil for the UK’s local press. At least 238 local newspapers have closed since 2005, the year that Facebook launched in the UK, and many more have reduced their frequency. One former local news editor has estimated that 80 per cent of jobs in local newsrooms disappeared between 2006 and 2016.
But just as Facebook has played a role in the dizzying collapse of local news, so too is it providing them with a lifeline. Online communities like Marsh Life are becoming more and more important to local newspapers like the Grimsby Telegraph. “The big hits came from when stories did well on those pages,” says one former local newspaper reporter. “You would try to keep friendly with the people running community groups so they wouldn’t mind you posting stories a lot.”
Facebook is poised to take on an even bigger role in the UK’s local newspaper scene. This week, it announced a £4.5 million fund that will pay for 80 trainee journalists in newsrooms across the UK for the next two years at titles owned by Reach, Archant, Newsquest, Midlands News Association and JPI Media, which run more than 600 publications between them. “We recognise the important role Facebook plays in how people get their news today, and we want to do more to support local publishers,” the social network said as it announced the news.
Facebook’s looming presence has undoubtedly changed how newsrooms operate. Just look at the ruinous pivot to video. Publishers have hired and fired huge teams of specialist reporters to try and keep pace with Facebook’s algorithmic whims and invested heavily in new technology to secure the next viral hit. Mostly, such efforts have failed.
At Reach (formerly Trinity Mirror) each title is creating a range of Facebook groups to build engagement with different kinds of reader. Some, like Marsh Life (196 members), are centred around specific neighbourhoods within a local area, while others are tailored to people’s interests, such as Cornwall Loves Dogs (786 members) or traffic and travel updates. One group, M62 traffic and travel (3,500 members), spans several different local papers in Reach’s portfolio, and lets journalists from all of them post and share links to their stories. “We’re going to see a shift from geographic communities looking more to serve people’s interests and making news more of a service to the interests people have,” says Charlie Beckett, professor of media at the London School of Economics. So rather than targeting people in Truro with news about Truro, they’d target people in Truro who love dogs with news about dogs in Truro. It’s all about interests in specific things rather than interests in general, albeit local, areas.
But Facebook has been a fickle friend of publishing companies. “Facebook’s practices with its News Feed, and to some extent Google’s, make it hard for local media to reach its audience,” says William Perrin, the founder of Talk About Local – a public service project that helped communities create hyperlocal news websites.
The booming impact of Facebook on the media isn’t isolated to local newsrooms. In the US, the courts are currently hearing a case that alleges Facebook knowingly misled publishers about how much people were engaging with videos on the platform. As a result, newsrooms hired and fired writers and reporters after blindly making the pivot to video. Those publishers discovered to their cost that people don’t actually watch online video news. A report by Oxford University’s Reuters Institute into digital news found that 62 per cent of people in the UK hadn’t watched a single piece of online video news in the previous week.
Facebook has also previously been criticised for making changes to the News Feed algorithm, which decides what stories users are more likely to see, with little or no notice to publishers who depend on those clicks for their livelihood.
The funding has been welcomed by those in the industry, but the firm’s previously rocky relationship with publishers has sparked concerns about what will happen at the end of the two-year pilot. In a report published this week, Beckett calls for the creation of an independent body that can sit between publishers and companies like Facebook, ensuring that the latter are transparent about traffic figures and potential algorithm changes. “Everyone’s operating in the dark,” he says. “If a local news organisation blows £500,000 on getting ten staff to do something for six months and it doesn’t work, they are screwed.”
In February, changes to Facebook’s algorithm designed to make the platform less toxic had the side-effect of decimating the traffic going to some publications. At the Kent Messenger publishing group, where Facebook accounts for as much as 40 per cent of online traffic, one tweak to the algorithm last year sparked a 14 percent drop in referrals, according to editorial director Ian Carter.
The drop in traffic has made the experience of reading local news online worse, as rare and precious visitors are bombarded with adverts, GDPR pop-ups and reader surveys. And, for many publishers, a visit from a reader sent their way by Facebook is almost pointless.
“Those Facebook users are your least valuable readers because they stay on your site for ten seconds,” said Carter when interviewed for a seperate Reuters Institute report into local journalism and digital media last year. “They don’t care which site they are actually visiting. Your bounce rate goes through the roof, and there’s no loyalty in a Facebook reader.”
Joy Jenkins, a post doctoral research fellow at the Reuters Institute and one of the authors of the report, says some local papers see Facebook as a “necessary evil”. “It’s an important way to get readers who they maybe wouldn’t get through their newspapers – young people, minorities,” she says.
But as well as “competing for eyeballs”, as Perrin puts it, Facebook and Google have also driven down the price of online advertising. They can reach the same targeted audiences as local newspapers, often via the same platforms. But this is just the latest step in a long tale of digital enterprises chipping away at local newspaper revenue. First it was job adverts, then property listings and local car advertisements. Facebook’s presence is “significant”, says Perrin, but the root of the decline of local news lies in the “twenty-plus year history of failure to succeed in competition with online advertising”.
Newsrooms are trying hard to diversify their sources of traffic beyond Facebook, to protect themselves against sudden changes in the future. “Facebook represents a healthy slice of our traffic,” says Karyn Fleeting, head of audience engagement at Reach, which publishes 240 regional papers alongside some national titles. “But if it was any more it would be an unhealthy slice.”
Advocates of local news point to its huge importance when it comes to holding power to account. “Local news is really vital, and when you miss it you see real impact on local democracy and business,” says Beckett. “It’s not good for communities.”
A study conducted in 2016 by researchers at King’s College London found that UK towns whose newspapers had closed suffered from a “democracy deficit”. One of its authors, Martin Moore, told the BBC that the “repercussions of a lack of a local press” could be seen in the Grenfell Tower fire, which happened in an area where the local newspaper closed in 2014.
But stories about financial mismanagement or local building codes don’t, and won’t, do well on social media, and therefore won’t drive people the website of a local newspaper, and won’t make money. Traffic news and stories about crime and human interest get all the clicks. The most-read stories on local news sites are things like “A40: delays clear after serious crash”, (Oxford Mail), “Man arrested after indecent exposure in Kingswinford park” (Dudley Times), or “Basingstoke woman loses nearly 10 stone with weight loss programme” (Basingstoke Gazette).
“When you ask what performs well, it tends to be the lighter, human interest stuff,” says Jenkins. “While local journalists very much value that investigative, fourth estate coverage, they say service content is just as valuable.”
Local news “needs to reinvent itself,” says Beckett, but as readership becomes increasingly fragmented and splits into different interest groups, it’s not clear how the boring but vital coverage will find an audience, or funding. Some have suggested a tax on digital companies to be funneled into community news, while others think a mish-mash of different sources – subsidies, advertising and premium content – could help keep papers afloat against the tide of Facebook and Google’s algorithms.
Local newspapers have big problems. Facebook could help by changing its algorithm, or rebuilding its relationship with publishers. And throwing a relatively small amount of money at the problem is unlikely to make much difference. The 80 Facebook-funded trainee posts could free up reporters whose hands are currently tied by the need to chase traffic. Or, they could become a crutch for publishers to lean on and produce more of the same content, all to feed Facebook’s rapacious algorithm.
Either way, Facebook’s complicated relationship with local news is becoming even more entangled. “It’s like being friends with a grizzly bear,” says Beckett. “There’s always a danger they might sit on you by mistake.” Or claw you to death.
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