Why Zuckerberg Needs Local News Providers to ‘Bring the World Closer Together’

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When I clicked on Mark Zuckerberg’s proclamation of Facebook’s new mission, “Bringing the World Closer Together,” my first thought was: What chutzpah! This coming from the founder and CEO of the giant global platform that has regularly published hateful speech, not to mention occasional videos of suicides and murders, as freely as it does birth and wedding announcements and vacation photos.

But then my prefrontal cortex took over and counseled me, sensibly, to conclude: Why not? Who else could do a better job of bringing people together than 2-billion-subscriber-strong Facebook, led by a young executive – and husband and father – who takes the time not only to occasionally chat with subscribers and conference audiences but also to visit them at their homes in fly-over country and pass food platters around the family dinner table?

Zuckerberg has some learning to do, for sure. He has a naïve faith in “cultural norms,” saying, outlandishly (in his pre-mission “Building Global Community” manifesto published on Feb. 16): “Our guiding philosophy for [Facebook’s] Community Standards is to try to reflect the cultural norms of our community.”

Facebook’s fuzzy attitude toward norms is one reason why it so often ends up providing a soap box and megaphone to advocates of various forms of racial/ethnic, sexual and political violence and discrimination and oppression around the world, including in parts of the U.S.

Many norms do strengthen community and democracy. But some do just the opposite. The 100-year-long cultural norm of Jim Crow segregation is a prime example. It had to be outlawed by an aroused Congress that finally acted after widespread protests by blacks and other Americans and jaw-boning by President Lyndon Johnson with segregationist Republican senators.

But I notice that Zuckerberg didn’t use the phrase “cultural norms” once in his new mission statement, while he cites it approvingly six times in his Feb. 16 manifesto. “Bringing People Closer Together” strikes me as a more practical call to action.

What’s especially interesting about Zuckerberg’s new statement is that he invites his signed-on audience of 2 billion people to get directly involved in creating what he calls “meaningful relationships” – those that go well beyond the “friend” tag that has been emblematic of Facebook communities up to now.

Zuckerberg doesn’t just invite subscribers to get more involved – he says Facebook, using artificial intelligence and human staff, will prod them to do so.

Even so, he and Facebook will need external help, and this is where local news providers can provide an important — and, I believe, necessary — assist. While providers don’t rate high in public trust, their recent poll numbers are higher than Facebook’s.

Daily newspapers, in their print era of dominance, sometimes preached bringing people together. But most of them didn’t have the resources to do much more than utter editorial pieties. A few – principally the Knight-Ridder chain – did engage in a short-lived period of “public journalism,” but they didn’t have today’s digital tools to engage the public, and so that enterprise, admirably intended, flopped.

In the digital era, newspapers and pure-play providers have many more means to engage the public. But most of them don’t use these new resources – like chat apps – to make their readers part of the digital journalism experience. The newsroom bubble that keeps journalists from immersing themselves in their communities has, for the most part, survived from the print to the digital eras.

But for all their limitations, local news providers are now better positioned than Facebook’s moderators or artificial intelligence to help the people of their communities come closer together. And I don’t mean in a Pollyannish way.

For example, providers could shine a spotlight more often and more directly on inequalities in their communities – like high-poverty schools where blacks and Hispanics/Latinos don’t get an equal education. In communities where black and brown people constitute a majority, this inequality not only hurts them but also the community’s entire economy, which lacks enough skilled workers for 21st-century jobs that demand higher performance.

In some communities, the spotlight needs to be shined on majority white people without college for whom there are not enough good-paying jobs because manufacturers fled offshore. They need skill development that can help them find a productive place in the more-thriving community in the county next door or perhaps in a nearby state.

There’s no way that Facebook can, with its new “Meaningful Communities” mission, erase such disparities without partnering with local news providers.

If news providers join this mission, the community will respond by giving them the trust it so often withholds when they immunize themselves in their journalistic bubble. That new trust can help persuade merchants to share some of their ad budgets with news providers when websites, like them, make a direct investment in their communities.

If news providers don’t get meaningfully involved in Zuckerberg’s “Meaningful Communities,” they will lose a big opportunity to sustain themselves in the digital era. Up to now, Facebook has had the edge in deals with news operations. For “Meaningful Communities,” Facebook needs  needs the providers as much as the providers need Facebook.

Isn’t that what a partnership needs to succeed?

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.