Facebook Talks About Its ‘Shared Future’ With Local News Publishers

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Column inch by column inch, news publishers are being devoured by Facebook and Google. At least that’s the way it looks in the headlines. The predicament was summed up in the recent BuzzFeed article, “The Campaign Against Facebook and Google’s ‘Duopoly’ Is Going Nowhere.”

But underneath the grim headlines, many news publishers, big and small, for-profit and nonprofit, are making nice with one of the giant platforms – Facebook. It’s happening in the around-the-world sessions of the Facebook Journalism Project, which, in its first six months of operation, has brought together 2,600 publishers and Facebook experts on how the social platform can help news sites with its wide array of products covering every phase of digital.

At these sessions, the publishers – most of them focused on local news – are learning best practices of digital publishing that have helped Facebook attract an audience of more than 2 billion subscribers and pull in $25 billion annually from advertisers, many of them merchants at your local shopping center.

Last week, “The New News” featured Kelly Gilfillan, CEO and executive editor of the seven sites of the eight-year-old Home Page Media Group in metro Nashville, who told about what she was learning as a member of the first cohort of the Journalism Project.

Is it all make-believe? Is it an elaborate ploy by Facebook to blot out its emerging image as a media predator that reduces publishers to hapless strings of URLs earning less than 1% of the growth in digital advertising revenue?

From what I can see, the Journalism Project includes a lot more than image building. Publishers appear to be learning how to use digital tools that Facebook quietly mastered over the past decade to capture, with Google, 99% of the growth in ad revenue.

David Beard is the Facebook coach who worked with Gifillan in the first cohort of the Journalism Project, whose participants include other members of the Local Independent Online News (LION) publishers’ association, as well as members of the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN) like the Texas Tribune.

Beard, working through the Knight Foundation, is a veteran journalist who has held top digital positions at many major news publishers. He’s been director of digital content at the Washington Post, executive editor of Public Radio International’s site, deputy editor in chief of the National Journal’s site and, early on, editor of the Boston Globe’s high-penetration Boston.com.

Beard remembers back to the first years of the aught decade when the Globe’s then-owner, the New York Times, struggled to develop and implement an “auto-pay” software system that would have made it easy for small merchants to place ads in the Globe’s suburban editions without having to go through a salesperson – the kind of setup that Facebook developed to become a favorite of local merchants everywhere, including in suburban Boston.

I put these questions to Beard, who is a consultant to the Journalism Project through Facebook’s partnership with Knight:

What excites you most about the Facebook Journalism Project?
I’m eager to explore anything that could build healthy journalism beyond New York and Washington, and the Facebook Project offers the hope of lessons in accessing and interesting audiences that say they want to read, view and hear more local news.

In what area do most of the publishers’ needs fall — engagement, distribution, marketing-advertising,  technology?
It depends. Publishers have various needs, and we’ve been trying to find the best place where those needs can be helped with Facebook tools or deeper understanding. Under the program, Facebook gave each of the first six members a “report card” on how effective their Facebook efforts have been, based on a set of benchmark sites. The publishers each have taken that, and have their own goals and priorities on engagement, distribution and marketing.

Is there one need that stands out above all?
For this first cohort, it appears to be conversion – moving a reader to an action such as signing up for a newsletter, becoming a member, donating or subscribing.. We’re designing projects for each place.

The “Facebook blueprint” urges news publishers to “build their presence.” How can Facebook products help publishers do that?
Blueprint is an incredible resource. It helps on A/B testing, lookalike audiences, different levels of ad and campaign strategy and execution. Blueprint is vast. We’re hoping we see commonalities among publishers’ needs to recommend a “greatest hits” of the many tutorials. [More on how Facebook aims to help publishers “build their presence” here.]

How important is Instagram to helping publishers reach a wider audience, engage their users more deeply and market their sites to potential advertisers more effectively?
It can be quite important. In our first cohort, Instagram was suggested as part of an awareness and event for one publisher. A model for this suggestion: Facebook worked with Newsday on one effort that collaborated with Instagram influencers in the area on a photography exhibit that brought new images to Newsday’s audience, and Newsday to many people in Long Island who hadn’t been regular readers.

How would you sum up your impressions of the local publishers in the first cohort?
In a phrase, I’m impressed with their confidence and resilience. They come from both the for-profit and nonprofit arenas, and each has lessons to offer Facebook as well on their thinking with local audiences.

Many are working to improve the bottom line, like being a “social media concierge” for advertisers or coming with ingenious fund-raising efforts. In rebuilding local journalism outside of the Northeast Corridor, these and other publishers have valuable insights. We see these publishers and Facebook having a shared future.


I asked metro Nashville news publisher Gillfillan what she thought of Beard as her coach in the Facebook Journalism Project:

“David has been a true coach, helping me think through which project would be a win financially as well as in engagement.  I think his understanding of the challenges we face as an independent news organization has been key.

“He is also coaching me to use tools Facebook provides such as Facebook Live and Facebook Groups that we had not been using. It is quickly providing new insights to our readers as well as in engagement.”

Will the Facebook Journalism Project help local news publishers get a bigger share of advertising growth than their present less-than-1%? All I can say is they have only one direction to go.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) has written “The New News” column for Street Fight since 2011. He is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.