Zuckerberg Raises the Right Questions – Local News Should Answer Them

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Mark Zuckerberg posted a remarkable manifesto on Feb. 16 about our fractured communities and how to heal them. But why was Facebook’s founder and CEO saying this first? Why aren’t America’s news publishers, especially local ones, defining the crisis and offering their blueprints for solving it?

Zuckerberg’s manifesto was 5,735 words long, but its core was these 138 bulleted words:

  • How do we help people build supportive communities that strengthen traditional institutions in a world where membership in these institutions is declining?
  • How do we help people build a safe community that prevents harm, helps during crises and rebuilds afterwards in a world where anyone across the world can affect us?
  • How do we help people build an informed community that exposes us to new ideas and builds common understanding in a world where every person has a voice?
  • How do we help people build a civically-engaged community in a world where participation in voting sometimes includes less than half our population?
  • How do we help people build an inclusive community that reflects our collective values and common humanity from local to global levels, spanning cultures, nations and regions in a world with few examples of global communities?

For more than 200 years, newspapers were the principal conveners of civic conversations. It began with the 1787-1788 debate in the 13 states of the young  and uncertain Confederation over ratification of the U.S. Constitution, a document that was as divisive as any issue polarizing America today. When their long-dominant print platforms began yellowing away — in the early 1990s, well before the Internet, it’s important to note — newspapers lost their privileged role. A rich profusion of alternate news publications and social platforms like Facebook and Twitter sprang from the Internet, but neither they nor digital newspapers have been able to recreate a 21st-century version of the civic conversations that facilitated consensus when America was divided.

Zuckerberg comes close to acknowledging Facebook’s role in exacerbating today’s deeply polarized America. But he thinks his massive social platform, to which even presidents and prime ministers occasionally nod, is the best vehicle to answer his five questions.

But is Facebook better positioned to answer those five questions than local news providers? According to a recent Ipsos Public Affairs survey for BuzzFeed, local newspapers are trusted four times more than Facebook as new sources (55.3% to 13.7%). Other local news sites — the pure-plays — are also trusted more than Facebook.

Why don’t local newspapers and pure-plays capitalize on their relatively high trust? Why aren’t they confident enough to answer Zuckerberg’s questions themselves?

They could begin by framing the questions less fuzzily. Zuckerberg is right about deep community disconnects, but I think he bites off more than he can chew when he writes: “In times like these, the most important thing we at Facebook can do is develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us.”

Perhaps it’s not grandiose for a social platform with nearly 2 billion subscribers to talk about being instrumental in building global governance, but that’s a top-down solution to challenges that may originate from decisions in Washington, among other national capitals, but play out in people’s lives at local and regional levels.

Zuckerberg does say “we need to evolve towards a system of more local governance.” But he offers no examples of how Facebook would act locally, perhaps because it would be too busy helping to build Zuckerberg’s global community.

In fact, Zuckerberg virtually invites community publishers to take the lead locally, saying “local news is directly correlated with local civic engagement.” (That’s a great quote, by the way, for publishers to use in telling their story to advertisers.)

So why aren’t local news providers undertaking initiatives to promote — in Zuckerberg’s words — informed and civically engaged communities? They have, ready to be deployed, the digital resources, like (under-used) chat apps and push notifications that could connect them to broader and more diverse audiences across regional clusters of communities. They could then channel those voices, such as those of immigrants being deported, to prominent places on their sites — and to their pages on Facebook, Twitter and other social media.

Opportunities abound. The White House has announced or pledged specific action on immigration, trade and jobs, Obamacare, public education “choice” and infrastructure that will directly affect millions of people in thousands of communities. I see no indications that local news operations, including the biggest with the most resources, are equipped to respond to this “Trump-Quake,” which will reverberate at the community level across the U.S. for at least four and perhaps eight years, and redefine the U.S. socially and economically, for better or worse, for decades to come.

If local digital publishers — newspapers and pure-plays, corporate and independent — would be willing to show half the daring of Zuckerberg, and just a tiny fraction of his presumption, they could claim their way to the important civic role that print newspapers occupied for two centuries. In so doing, they would help build better informed and civically engaged communities — in the process, reducing the impact of conditions that breed polarity across so many issues, stalling and preventing solutions. Businesses that now put their biggest share of advertising on Facebook would surely take notice of this transformation materially affecting audiences where they want to find their customers.

In short, local news would answer Mark Zuckerberg’s five questions better than Facebook.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.