Why Facebook Is Putting Its Skin in Local News’ Subscription Efforts

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Facebook does a lot of mentoring and coaching to help local news providers use the social platform to turn viewers into engaged readers. But Facebook has extended its Facebook Journalism Project to initiatives that go beyond its own platform—to what happens on local publishers’ own digital real estate.

In this Q&A, Facebook’s Josh Mabry, who leads the Facebook Local News Partnerships team, talks about the mentoring, coaching, and other work in these off-platform initiatives and why Facebook is backing them up with more than $11.5 million in funding:

Facebook’s Accelerator program invests in subscription and membership models that local news publishers use to develop product revenue beyond advertising. These initiatives don’t take place on Facebook. What’s your rationale?

There are a lot of things we’re doing on the Facebook platform, a lot of products we’re building in collaboration with publishers, to support the kind of storytelling they’re doing on our platform. But we’re excited to be finding things to do that are not on the Facebook platform, that aren’t about Facebook, that are helping local news publishers find sustainable business models.

These initiatives to help local news publishers don’t line up with Facebook’s own business model, which is based almost wholly on advertising. Why is this off-platform work so important to Facebook?

It’s important for a couple of reasons. Facebook is the place where we want people to be able to build and nurture community, and local news is certainly at the heart of so many communities. So, helping local publishers find ways to support the business of storytelling is going to benefit the community that exists on Facebook. We think that’s critical, and it’s at the heart of our work. It doesn’t always have to be on Facebook directly. We think supporting publishers off the platform with our initiatives is meaningful, and we’re excited about doing it.

So what you’re doing with your Accelerator Program is actually mutually beneficial?

Anytime you support storytellers that bring high-quality, reliable information to the Facebook platform, that’s really good, that’s what we want to do.

Would you sum up your local news initiatives and what they seek to achieve?

No. 1, we’re extending our initial Facebook Journalism Project Local News Subscriptions Accelerator pilot, which has received really great support and feedback from the industry. With the pilot program, we hosted about a dozen metro publishers who were focused intently on driving digital subscriptions.

We also announced we’re launching the Memberships Accelerator program, another pilot, because we recognized that memberships is a growing business model for a different kind of publisher. Not everyone is doing subscriptions. So, we brought together a group of publishers focused on memberships specifically.

There are two other areas of our funding.

One is the $1 million in donations to the 2018 NewsMatch campaign to support more than 100 nonprofit publishers. These are smaller organizations, most of whom wouldn’t benefit from the Accelerator program directly. But we thought making this investment was very meaningful and helped to scale our work with publishers across the country.

Lastly, there’s the Local Media Resource Center, where we’re partnering with the Local Media Association in another way to support local publishers and journalists that are using Facebook and Instagram and CrowdTangle as tools for their work.

Facebook does not have its own paid subscription program. How did you acquire the expertise to teach publishers about conversion strategies, like when to make “stops,” with all their sometimes-complex variables?

We’re excited to have experts like Tim Griggs (formerly of The New York Times and Texas Tribune) who have deep expertise in this space, as well as other folks whom he’s identified to come speak at the convenings such as the Dollar Shave Club, and our program coaches like Yasmin Namini.

We also encourage the program participants to learn from one another, and that has clearly paid off in the results we’ve seen from them, such as in this case study from the Seattle Times.

Will all these initiatives reach the broad base of local publishers, most of whom need to find ways to be sure they’ll be around long term?

As publishers learn things that will drive subscription acquisition through our program, we’re documenting what works for them and sharing case studies broadly because we want these learnings to get out to the entire local news industry. Any time a publisher can say, “Hey, this business kind of looks like mine, what can I take from it to help me start a subscription program?”

It’s the same with memberships because not everyone is in the subscription business. And the Local Media Center program, because it’s for publishers of all shapes and sizes, will be really robust.

On Facebook promoting subscriptions from its platform, some publishers have said they want to see “frictionless transactions.” How are you resolving that issue?

We worked closely with publishers to design the initial Instant Articles subscriptions product. What we heard was that publishers wanted to maintain direct control over the consumer relationship, which meant controlling the checkout experience and processing the transaction directly. We respected that request by routing the consumer to the publisher’s mobile website to complete the transaction—we don’t take a cut of the transaction, and the publisher keeps the relationship with the consumer.

Are publishers really developing innovative content to connect not only with their existing readers but also the great number of potential ones, especially minorities?

That’s an interesting question, but not one for us to answer. It’s something for publishers to chew on—to figure out ways to reach audiences on Facebook and elsewhere and optimize the way they’re connecting with those folks.

If they’re telling stories that aren’t making connections, we can empower them to turn motivated users into paid subscribers.

We know from surveys we’ve done that 80% of people on Facebook say they’re interested in local news on the platform and 56% say they want more local news in the Facebook News Feed. So that certainly speaks to an appetite for local news—people want it.

But as to the format of local news and whether their sites are telling the stories the right way, the answers should come from the publishers—that’s not really our role. We’re here to support the work they’re doing and help them connect with audiences. But it’s up to the publishers to figure out what’s really important in their communities and how to tell those stories.

Are you comfortable that out of everything you’re doing, we’ll see measurable progress in both memberships and subscriptions in the local news industry to help it achieve sustainability beyond its currently difficult times?

Anywhere we can help publishers drive more business that helps them to find the path to sustainability, we want to be part of that. If you look at the Accelerator part of the puzzle, we’re seeing real gains with the program. As more publishers can learn from what’s happening in the Accelerator via our case studies, that’s certainly a step forward.

But there’s always more work to do, and it’s not going to be just about Facebook.

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.