Tech attempts to heal local scars

When, in the future, we look back on the history of American journalism, the collapse of local newspapers will be a source of shame. Local, the on-ramp for public understanding of and participation in news, has been crushed under the wheels of progress, with repercussions for all media. The social platforms that promised all citizens a voice, and gave small business an incredibly effective advertising platform, made it all but impossible to pay enough local reporters to keep their communities informed. The number of statehouse reporters dropped by a third in the first 15 years of the century. Local news organizations rapidly consolidated into companies such as Gannett and Tronc, which, despite their scale, cannot solve the equation of how to place enough reporters in markets where news does not generate enough advertising or subscription revenue to support the costs.

In research released today from Columbia University’s Tow Center, we convened focus groups from across the country to find out how local news audiences view the rise of platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit as new intermediaries for their news and information. It is not surprising that our interviewees noticed that local news seemed to be subjugated to both national and international events in their algorithmically determined social news feeds. It was also the case that all groups were anxious to discuss misinformation (or “fake news” as they described it), even though we did not bring it up as a topic. Here the platforms ought to be especially concerned: Respondents did not see the spread of misinformation as the fault of those who shared it, but as the responsibility of the platforms that showed it to them.

ICYMI: We spoke to ordinary people about fake news. What they qualify as a false story is notable.

Facebook and Google are not the sources that respondents identify as being designed for news but out of convenience of using the social platform and search engine for other purposes it is where citizens now encounter their news. The responsibility for the “health” of the news feed was therefore by default seen in the focus groups as a platform responsibility.

Respondents did not see the spread of misinformation as the fault of those who shared it, but as the responsibility of the platforms that showed it to them.

Both Google and Facebook are now involved in initiatives that directly address the havoc their own business models have wrought on local news markets. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, identified local journalism as a priority area to be addressed by the Facebook Journalism Project, a broad-based initiative to foster better relations with news publishers. At the same time Google, which has already funded interesting local projects through its Digital News Initiative in Europe, is joining an effort dubbed “Report for America,” which aims to put 1,000 reporters into local newsrooms, in a similar manner to how Teach for America puts resources into under-staffed classrooms.

The application of big tech money to the problems of local journalism is cautiously welcomed by struggling newsrooms, and ultimately necessary. It is hard to imagine how the yawning gaps in basic coverage might be addressed unless through the transfer of wealth from platforms that have enriched themselves with local advertising while returning little to no local information producers. However, the application of big tech methodologies and tools raises a new set of questions about how these initiatives might create long term sustainability for local news.

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Google’s involvement in Report for America puts it in partnership with the Ground Truth Project and a number of other backers and nonprofit organizations. It starts with 12 funded reporting positions in 2018 and details on Google’s own blog suggest the company will be supplying Chromebooks, cameras, and phones as well as training in journalism. Critics of the scheme have wondered whether parachuting reporters into hard-pressed newsrooms is the right way to address the long term issue of local communities being cut out of how they cover their own stories.

Google’s European Digital News Initiative is a more mature plan that has followed the path of returning grant-based funding to independent news. However there are also indications that the technical abilities of the big tech companies will unlock ways of making local reporting “scalable.” In the recent Google Digital News initiative grants, the company gave $800,000 to the Press Association (the UK equivalent of the Associated Press) to pursue an automated reporting scheme for local courts and town hall meetings.

Similarly the Facebook Journalism Project has attempted to foster engagement between the journalism team at the social media company and local newsrooms. Like Google, Facebook’s training includes a level of integration with Facebook tools and technologies; in the first six months of the project, Facebook launched initiatives that offered newsrooms help with tools and technologies that would more deeply assimilate newsrooms to the platform. In the Knight-Lenfest News Initiative (disclosure: the Tow Center’s research is funded by the Knight Foundation), Facebook will be working “hands on” with eight local publishing organizations to provide training, tools, and integration.

There is a significant question over whether the best route forward for local news is actually embedding it into the fabric of global data aggregators, but the urgency of the crisis has put pressure on the time for thinking through and funding alternatives. The heavily integrated approach of technology companies to the local market might be seen as a testing ground for what more explicit integration between platforms and publishers might look like. The barriers of policy and skepticism are lower here, as the need for support is more urgent.

ICYMI: Facebook is eating the world

The approach to the local news market gives rise to anxiety that the independence of journalism, and the control local communities have over their own information and news environment, could be compromised at ground level. There would be many ways for technology firms to help local news without high levels of direct intervention. Rutgers Law Professor Ellen P. Goodman recently called for Facebook to back initiatives similar to Google’s Report for America project by endowing local news funding. I have argued for similar philanthropic intervention to create a new type of technological public media institution that could fix some of the problems of institutional weakness.

The local news market is not short on innovation. In remarkably difficult circumstances, a number of promising organizations and projects have emerged to tackle issues of scale and community engagement. The Digital Democracy Project, out of California Polytechnic University, has developed a model for aggregating and archiving digital feeds of public meetings to make them easily searchable and reportable, and which will become even more useful as artificial intelligence improves the utility of the material over time. There is a great deal of unexplored possibility for local news organizations to become centers for collecting and keeping their own data. Here the intervention of big tech is arguably unhelpful, as it by nature does not allow for the possibility of separate data infrastructures emerging.

Local-facing initiatives such as Hearken, Spaceship Media, and the Solutions Journalism Network have all developed models for deepening ties between stories and local communities. None of these projects can solve the problem of putting more human reporting resources on the ground permanently.

The will of technology companies and philanthropic institutions to revive local journalism is not in doubt. The encouragement for more diverse initiatives that make local reporting attractive to members of local communities, and that build permanent distributed resources within the changed news environment, is still a work in progress.

ICYMI: CNN aired a problematic gun photo a few weeks ago. All journalists can learn from the mistake.

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Emily Bell is Director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School.