Last spring, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that half of the newspaper jobs that existed 15 years ago have disappeared. A number of trends have driven the decline in newspaper reporting, particularly at the local level, including consolidation in the media industry, changing consumer habits, and the 2008 financial crisis. But the advent of the internet and the rise of social media are the main culprits. Craigslist helped destroy the newspaper ad business and Google and Facebook, which now effectively control the market for digital advertising, are in the process of finishing the job. So the irony hung thick over the recent news that both Google and Facebook were launching new initiatives to boost local reporting.
Last week, Google debuted Bulletin, a foray into crowdsourced citizen journalism that is launching as a pilot in Oakland, California and Nashville, Tennessee. Bulletin allows users to share text, photos, and videos of events in their neighborhoods and cities on an app. And on Monday, just two weeks after announcing that it would be downplaying stories from national news outlets on its News Feed, Facebook said it would start surfacing more work from local news outlets as it tweaks its algorithm.
These are notable changes. The two most powerful media companies in the country—and despite their protests to the contrary, they are media companies—are emphasizing local news and reporting a decade-plus into decimating news outlets big and small. It comes as big cities around the country are losing locally focused websites like the Gothamist network, and storied, Pulitzer Prize–winning newspapers like the Charleston Gazette-Mail are filing for bankruptcy. But neither Google or Facebook seem interested in doing the real work of local reporting, and their respective initiatives are ripe for abuse of the fake news variety.
Google product manager James Morehead described Bulletin to Vanity Fair as “an experimental app that gives people an easy way to tell stories about what is going on around them—ranging from local bookstore readings to high-school sporting events to information about local street closures.” It’s a hyperlocal social network, a competitor to sites like NextDoor, which has recently surged in popularity (partly due to the decline of local reporting). Google’s other attempts at social networking—notably Google+—have failed, but Bulletin gives it another opportunity to connect its users.
Facebook’s move to embrace local news should be seen as an extension of CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s earlier announcement that Facebook was moving away from contentious national political issues and back to its roots as a social network—to person-to-person connections. Facebook described its move thusly: “We identify local publishers as those whose links are clicked on by readers in a tight geographic area. If a story is from a publisher in your area, and you either follow the publisher’s Page or your friend shares a story from that outlet, it might show up higher in News Feed.”
Facebook sees local news as an opportunity to push community-building and more positive content—a way for its users to interact about something that isn’t Donald Trump. It apparently also believes local news is either less susceptible to foreign interference or simply less likely to get Facebook executives hauled before Congress. (It would be another matter if Russia were to, say, start interfering in statehouse elections.) Facebook is killing two birds with one stone: It is mollifying local news outlets, which were deeply concerned about the recent News Feed changes, and putting a useful PR sheen on those same changes.
The first, glaring problem with these efforts is that citizen journalists alone are not sufficient to fill the void left by defunct local news outlets. What’s needed are large, structural investments in real reporting—the kind that actually holds local and state governments responsible, not just notify users when a new restaurant has opened. Facebook and Google have positioned themselves as neutral platforms, and neither is interested in this kind of work.
Facebook seems content to simply lift what local news enters its network. That in and of itself could prove to be a problem. Many local outlets have been so hollowed out that they serve as glorified police blotters, little more than collections of mugshots provided to them by local law enforcement. With local newspapers in a continued death spiral, Facebook’s News Feed will ultimately reflect a dearth of real local news.
That gap could be filled by two sources. Facebook’s algorithm privileges emotional appeals—i.e., rants—which means that what might end up getting prime placement is exactly the kind of politically divisive content that the social network is trying to distance itself from. Another possibility is that hyperpartisan outlets will fill in the gap—the conservative Sinclair Broadcasting Group, for instance, has invested heavily in expanding its local news coverage in recent years.
The lack of good local journalism makes Facebook and Google’s initiatives vulnerable to the exact problem they are trying to distance themselves from: fake news. Perhaps learning from NextDoor, which had a fairly serious racial bias and harassment problem early in its development, Google has outlined strenuous community guidelines for Bulletin. But as Vanity Fair’s Maya Kosoff notes, they don’t cover misinformation at all. Without a fairly rigorous editorial framework, Bulletin could easily be taken over by rumors and completely invented stories.
Facebook’s News Feed changes, meanwhile, have a similar problem because they don’t appear to distinguish between local news reporting and user posts about local events. This intermingling of reporting and ranting could ultimately have the opposite effect that Facebook hopes it will, damaging the credibility of local news by forcing it into a News Feed that facilitates division and distrust.
The silver lining is that Facebook and Google are offering the kinds of financial incentives that have eluded newspaper publishers in recent years. Just as publishers pivoted to video because of changes to Facebook’s algorithm, investors could reverse the trends that have hobbled local news for the last two decades. But for it to work, they’d need a lot more investment from Facebook and Google than those companies are currently offering.