Facebook Has a New Mission That Just May Benefit Local Publishers

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Facebook doesn’t call itself a technology company anymore. “It’s a “new kind of platform,” says founder Mark Zuckerberg. But I think the world – in particular local news publishers — should forget the semantics and focus instead on what Facebook is actually doing.

I suggest Facebook watchers and its news partners begin by understanding the significance of the new Facebook mission announced this summer by Zuckerberg — “Bringing the World Closer Together.”

Company mission statements may be carved in marble or gilded in gold, but they are often dreamy wishes and remain so. At Aol, where I used to work in the Digital City division, the once-giant portal’s mission statement was inscribed high on the entrance wall of its corporate headquarters:

“To build a global medium as central to people’s lives as the telephone and the television…and even more valuable.”

The display went up in 1997 about the same time the Stanford graduate students Larry Page and Sergey Brin filed their patent for google.com. Today, the shrunken Aol is a subsidiary of Verizon and will soon share the new brand name “Oath” with another once-commanding portal, Yahoo!

“Bringing the World Closer Together” will not meet the fate of Aol’s mission statement, I don’t think.

The same day last June that Zuckerberg announced Facebook’s new mission, administrators for  Facebook Groups went into action with followup authority to remove posts that were decreed fake news and other objectionable content and oust members who were deemed “bad actors.”

For local news providers, the spirit of new mission is beginning to produce a number of promising results that I think could make relationships between the providers and Facebook something far removed from the Faustian bargain they’ve often been called.

Several weeks ago, I wrote a couple of columns – here and here – about the Facebook Journalism Project and how it was introducing publishers and editors to an array of FB tools that could help local publishers produce better and more efficient content, including videos, give local merchants more opportunities to build their businesses and generate deeper engagement with their audiences.

More recently, Facebook is working on tests with its Groups – which number 1 billion members — to better connect them with news providers. Group administrators will be able to add a local news unit to the group, so members can easily share an article to everyone in the group. In another test, local residents who comment on what a local site published will be asked if they want to have an identifying badge attached to future comments – to create more engagement. In a third test, users who click on a local site’s content will be asked if they want to get involved in a local group that shares their interests.

To get the most benefit of these three features, local news sites will have to make sure they’re publishing enough content, of one variety or another, to engage their audiences. Slowly – too slowly – local publishers are beginning to face squarely the engagement question, thanks to initiatives like the Facebook Journalism Project and sometimes related undertakings like the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative, which are cracking open journalism’s Fourth Estate bubble.

On Tuesday of this week, Facebook began placing the logos of news providers in its Search and Trending areas. Product Manager Andrew Anker said “the eventual goal is to extend these to all places where people consume news on our platform.” This may seem like a small gesture, but when a news site’s logo is shown thousands of times every day, this is branding that can – perhaps subliminally – reinforce trust, which the news media need more than ever.

Very importantly, Facebook is working with publishers on how to enlarge its Instant Articles so participating news sites can invite users to buy a digital subscription as well as click on articles that are featured on the super-fast-loading FB product. Publishers and Facebook are still negotiating on how high the paywall should be. FB proposes giving users 10 free clicks, while some local publishers want a smaller number. But Campbell Brown, the former cable news anchor who heads Facebook’s new News Partnerships division, had said, categorically, that publishers would keep 100% of the revenue from digital subscriptions flowing from Instant Articles.

I asked Rusty Coats, executive director of the Local Media Consortium, which represents 75 newspaper groups, “pure plays” and broadcasters who publish 1,600 news sites, how LMC’s negotiations with Facebook are going.

“Campbell Brown attended our May meeting for a Q&A with us,” he said. “I’ve met with her and the team twice since then, and they’ll play a strong role in our fall member meeting. They’ve consistently said that local is enormously important, and are working with publishers and publisher groups to go beyond talk.”

On Facebook’s still-unsettled plan to expand Instant Articles to include user paywalls, Coats said: “I’d have negative feelings if publishers were being compelled to participate or if the publishers didn’t control the subscription engine once a Facebook user passes through, but neither is true. Ten articles per month is a pretty high bar and I’d suggest that number be lower.”

What I see as a potentially hugely important relationship between Facebook and local news providers hasn’t yet materialized, but it is clearly indicated in Zuckerberg’s “Bringing the World Closer Together.” In his manifesto, Zuckerberg says: “This isn’t going to happen top down. There’s no one in the world who can snap their fingers and make this happen. People have to want it. Change starts local, when enough of us feel a sense of purpose and support in our own lives that we can start caring about broader issues too.”

The key words are “change starts local.” Local newspapers used to own the “broader issues” on Main Street. Largely because of cost cutting from their failing transition from print to digital, local newspapers aren’t spotlighting injustices, graft and other public outrages as often or as boldly as they once did. Some brave nonprofits do admirable work, but many communities, especially those that are poorer and more diverse, don’t have sites that dig deep.

Newspapers and pure plays better figure out how to start shining spotlights more often and boldly, and this time enlist the help of the public by connecting with or helping to create “meaningful communities.” The tools, many of them supplied by newly missioned Facebook, will be there. Otherwise, FB will surely do that without them, just as it has attracted as advertisers many local merchants who used to sign contracts with local publishers.

Will many local news providers break through their Fourth Estate bubble and be the local fulcrum for “Bring the World Closer Together”?

Thankfully, there is a new generation of journalistic leaders which, while small, is not only saying what needed to be said but also doing it – like Brian McGrory, editor of the Boston Globe, which, by the way, participates in the FB Journalism Project and has a very active Facebook page, with more than 491,000 likes.  Here’s what McGrory told his staff recently:

“We’re going to be more crusading. We’re going to grab seismic issues like inequality and drive them in smart, relentless fashion. Likewise, we are going to do whatever we can to put the 600-word incremental story out of its sad little end-state misery.

“We’re going to be more humorous, god dammit, and absolutely more humane. Boston is a big and fascinating place filled with savvy, often funny, and occasionally brilliant people. We need to reflect this even more, tap into it, and be part of it.”


In a statement earlier this week, Zuckerberg held out the promise of Facebook doing more for local publishers: “We’re going to keep experimenting with different ways to support the news industry and make sure reporters and publishers everywhere can keep doing their important work.” But whatever help Facebook offers will only work if publishers produce enough important work.

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.