Facebook News may be a boon to big media. But will local news get left behind?

Mark Zuckerberg. Photo (cc) 2012 by JD Lasica.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Imagine for a moment that you run a small community newspaper or website. You have a Facebook page. But people tell you that even though they’ve “liked” it, they almost never see content from your page show up in their News Feed. And thus one of the most important channels for distributing journalism in the social-media era isn’t working for you.

According to some estimates, “organic reach” — that is, the percentage of users who’ve liked your page and who actually see your content — can be as low as 2 percent. What can you do? Well, you can give Mark Zuckerberg access to your credit card, which will boost your reach considerably. But if you can’t afford to pay, you’d be better off handing out refrigerator magnets with your website’s URL on them than depending on Facebook.

Now imagine that you’re the publisher of a major national news organization like The New York Times, The Washington Post or BuzzFeed. The Zuckerborg is about to bestow upon you millions of dollars. That’s because you’ve agreed to be part of Facebook News, a new tab in the service’s mobile app for curated, reliable journalism. (The feature is being rolled out slowly, and I have not seen it yet.)

There are many reasons to be skeptical of Facebook’s latest foray into news, but surely one of the most important is this: At a time when local news is under unprecedented economic pressure, the News Tab will only widen the gap between relatively well-off, highly visible national news organizations and small local projects. The national sites will get paid; the local sites will be billed monthly.

It’s possible that this could change over time. According to Facebook’s announcement. “we’ll showcase local original reporting by surfacing local publications from the largest major metro areas across the country, beginning with New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Philadelphia, Houston, Washington DC, Miami, Atlanta and Boston. In the coming months, we’ll include local news from Today In, our local news and community information tab, which recently expanded to over 6,000 US towns and cities.”

So, at least at first, it sounds like large regional news organizations will be included. But it’s not clear how or if any of that money will ever trickle down to the laid-off community-news reporter who’s trying to start a hyperlocal site, or to the volunteers who provide coverage that their chain-owned weekly ignores.

There are other potential hazards as well. Let’s start with the conflicts of interest posed by news organizations choosing to do business with our most controversial tech company.

“Payments to publishers for stories that Facebook might otherwise aggregate for free is a boon for journalism,” wrote Emily Bell at the Columbia Journalism Review. “The idea that there will be a daily, regular newsfeed that’s not filled with nonsense is a boon for Facebook users. The delineation of news as a category distinct from other ‘content’ is a boon for democracy. Yet the readiness with which publishers are seemingly embracing this new business arrangement is discomfiting, given Facebook’s track record, and the total lack of regulation. Will News Corp. [parent company of The Wall Street Journal and Fox News, both part of the News Tab] and others disclose their relationship with Facebook when they cover the tech world? One can only hope so.”

Another problem is the very odd presence of Breitbart News as part of the News Tab. It’s one thing to want to include a conservative-leaning news organization; it’s quite another to add weaponized propaganda to a list that is supposed to be comprise factual, verified journalism. More than anything, the inclusion of Breitbart appears to be part of Zuckerberg’s continued efforts to suck up to right-wing critics who accuse Facebook and other social-media platforms of liberal bias.

Finally, there is the question of whether Facebook this time will stick with its newfound embrace of news. Over the years the company has alternately accepted its role as a platform for journalism and walked away from it. About a decade ago, it unveiled a program called the Social Reader, inviting news organizations to use it and set up shop inside Facebook. The Washington Post and The Guardian, in particular, had considerable success with it. And then Zuckerberg changed his mind.

David Beard, a veteran journalist who was working on social-media strategies for the Post at that time, told me in a 2015 interview that he began developing email newsletters for the paper in direct response to the Social Reader fiasco. “For a while, we had tons of readers in India and the Philippines and some other places,” he said. “And then Facebook changed the algorithm, and we suddenly had none. So my learning from that episode was, is there something we can do without a mercenary, where we own the machinery?”

Now, once again, news organizations are relying on Mark Zuckerberg’s machinery. Will it be different this time? I hope so. Zuckerberg is under fire from all directions these days. He may sincerely hope that leading people away from disinformation and toward real news will not only ease the pressure on him and his company, but will be good for democracy as well.

But few things are more vital for fixing democracy than bolstering local news. At the very least, Facebook News is off to an unacceptably slow start at the local level. If that doesn’t change, then Zuckerberg’s latest idea may wind up being just one more example of a promise unfulfilled.

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