Facebook appeals to Texas reporters during local journalism roadshow

Facebook called local news “the starting place for great journalism” last month, in a wide-ranging announcement for the company’s new “Facebook Journalism Project.” That announcement may not have immediately impressed local news outlets: While Facebook expressed an enthusiasm to collaborate with them, it shared no concrete plans.

Now, it appears that those plans include a listening tour. The “News on Facebook” roadshow debuted last week in Dallas, where the social media company hosted roughly 70 print and broadcast reporters, most of them from Texas media. During its stop, Facebook also co-sponsored digital journalism panels, hosted by two National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) chapters based in Texas. At one NAHJ panel, Facebook offered a mea culpa to the reporters in the room.

“We have not been doing a great job at listening to local journalists and local newsrooms, but we’re recommitted to doing that,” Facebook News Partnerships manager Dorrine Mendoza told the audience. Then she corrected herself: “I shouldn’t say ‘recommitted.’ I should say ‘committed,’ if I want to be perfectly honest here.”

The “News on Facebook” roadshow is local journalism’s first opportunity to gauge the social media company’s new commitment. That’s a challenging task: A Pew survey found that “two-thirds of Facebook users get news on the site,” and Facebook (along with Google) vacuumed up all the growth in digital advertising in the first half of 2016. Local newsrooms depend on Facebook to boost their audience engagement. They also bring serious value to Facebook—to the civic life of its users as well as to the share price of its owners. But many newspapers and TV stations wonder whether that value contributes to their own bottom lines.

I think that we felt neglected by some of the major social media companies,”  says Hannah Wise, engagement editor at the Dallas Morning News. “But we do rely on them to help us reach our audience.”

Tim Schmitt, newsroom development project manager at GateHouse Media, agrees. GateHouse publishes nearly 400 newspapers; for some of the smaller ones, Schmitt says, “The only medium that seems to get any success for them is Facebook.”

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Ultimately, journalists who attended the roadshow told CJR they were heartened by novel examples of audience engagement and Facebook’s recent efforts to combat “fake news.” They were happy to start a relationship with Facebook where none previously existed; many were grateful to make personal connections within the behemoth—which, ironically, might seem faceless on occasion. But they also left the roadshow still unclear about how their day-to-day work affects their News Feed ranking and, ultimately, their ability to connect with their audience.

At the Dallas roadshow, Facebook led presentations on “best practices” and shared case studies of how local newsrooms have used the platform, then took questions that touched on everything from the News Feed and Instant Articles to subsidiary products including Instagram and Crowdtangle, a social listening tool. The company also provided hands-on help with technical issues, like scheduling Live feeds for video.

Schmitt said he was inspired by a case study of AL.com, which created a closed Facebook group to encourage thoughtful conversation between Trump voters in Alabama and Clinton voters in California. He was also enthusiastic about Crowdtangle; he said the tool will allow him to see what readers and community members are talking about, and help him to spot where breaking news events like fires or crimes are occurring.

However, there was little talk of content monetization. “I think, behind the scenes, those are the questions that people are still asking,” says Schmitt. “Those are the questions that will have to be answered by my bosses and the bosses at Facebook.”

And while Crowdtangle may help newsrooms assess engagement with their stories, reporters are still frustrated with the guesswork that seems intrinsic to their use of Facebook—a dynamic that Wise likened to an internet black hole. Tim Archuleta, editor of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, says he wishes Facebook “would spend more time helping journalists understand the trends they are seeing about life and media consumption habits in America.”

At times, journalists raised specific complaints with Facebook News Partnership representatives that resonated with others in the room. One journalist asked that Instagram allow users to share links, an important way to drive traffic from the platform to local news sites, and many reporters around the room nodded in agreement, says Schmitt.

Other issues left reporters and Facebook at an apparent impasse. Journalists told CJR that they’d welcome more concrete guidance on how their countless decisions play into the News Feed algorithm. Facebook representatives, however, emphasized to CJR the importance of “experimentation”: Journalists will learn what works for their media outlets when they try something new, assess the effects on readership and engagement, and then tweak accordingly.

“I felt bad for the woman who was tasked with talking about News Feed,” says Wise, referring to the content stream that a Facebook algorithm curates for users. “Because it was very obvious that they did not want to talk about the algorithm.”

Questions about news literacy dominated the Q&A time during the digital journalism panel in Dallas. Concerned about the effects of fake news, journalists were keen to see Facebook help its users differentiate between serious news and biased reporting, informed opinion and political propaganda. Facebook allows users to flag stories for several reasons, including “It’s a fake news story”; as part of a new initiative, alleged “fake news” may then be reviewed by independent fact-checking organizations.

While it’s easy for users to flag a story, Mendoza told reporters, news organizations won’t face repercussion unless Facebook can substantiate many such reports, and a news organization shares such content habitually. Wise says she was reassured by Mendoza’s statements; one or two Dallas Morning News stories have been flagged by Facebook users, she says.

When one audience member asked what journalists can do to make their stories stand out on Facebook as professionally produced, Mendoza replied, “It’s not Facebook’s job to educate users.” Then she switched tacks.

“If you wanted to educate your users on literacy, what would that look like?” Mendoza asked the room. “Maybe your communities don’t quite understand the difference between an opinion piece and a news article. Is there a product that we can develop to help you educate your users?”

Another audience member touched on a point that Mendoza made during her presentation: Facebook’s Trending column sometimes buries the local story that starts a trend. When that happens, Mendoza said, news organizations should alert Facebook. “We’re hoping there are ways to track when the original story posted and who should be getting credit,” she said.

Mendoza told CJR that Facebook has long emphasized rapid product development—“build, build, build, ship, ship, ship.” In the past, Facebook’s engagement with local journalists was limited to meeting with members of station groups or newspaper chains. During the Dallas roadshow, Facebook employees visited newsrooms at the Dallas Morning News, Dallas-Fort Worth’s NBC 5 and Telemundo 39, and Dallas’ WFAA. Now Facebook is planning visits to more cities, and will also invite local news organizations to hackathons. A second roadshow stop in Atlanta attracted roughly 100 reporters, according to the company.

During its Dallas visit, Mendoza says, Facebook found “that our instincts were correct and we need to do more of these… We suspected that we weren’t available enough, and we got that loud that and clear.”

But this, too, is clear: Local journalism need its relationship with Facebook to deepen. And for the conversation to remain meaningful, journalists and Facebook need to tackle those tough topics that have been left mostly untouched: money, transparency, and trust.

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Tamar Wilner is a Dallas-based freelance journalist and researcher who writes about misinformation, fact-checking, science communication, and all things media. She tweets at @tamarwilner.