BUILDING PARTNERSHIPS: When it comes to the success of local news, Facebook is all in.

Author:Tornoe, Rob
Position:Cover story


No word has confounded and frustrated journalists more over the past few years than the name of Mark Zuckerberg's powerful social media engine, which jumps effortlessly from a platform used to share baby photos to a power tool used to swing elections.

Since its humble beginnings in 2004 as a place for college students, Facebook quickly outpaced its competition (anyone remember Friendster?) and grew into the world's largest social media platform, with a global audience of 2.32 billion monthly active users. Or to say it another way, roughly one-third of the planet checks their Facebook page at least once a month.

Not surprisingly, the social media giant has disrupted our entire economy, enriching some businesses while bankrupting others, all while taking a lion's share of all global digital advertising revenue (second only to Google). But few industries have felt the force of Facebook's impact than journalism.

From the proliferation of fake news to the decline in referral traffic, news publishers have been taking body blows over the years from a company that pitched itself as a friend, only to pull the plug on several short-lived initiatives faster than Lucy yanking the football away from Charlie Brown.

A Troubled Reputation

Where to begin? I guess it all started back in 2006, when Facebook first launched its News Feed to unsuspecting users, who initially reacted negatively when served up a chronological list of content from their friends and acquaintances. A year later, Facebook opened the floodgates when it debuted Pages for brands and companies.

The News Feed has grown into one of the largest drivers of news and information on the planet, where 43 percent of Americans still get a chunk of their news, according to a recent Pew Research Center study. It has also led to a host of problems, including the creation of a cesspool of fake news (which helped further erode confidence in journalism) and the ability for Facebook to randomly throttle referral traffic to publishers.

Then there's Facebook's famed push for video. Desperate publishers already hit by declining digital ad rates were convinced that a "pivot to video" would be their saving grace, only to find that Facebook erroneously overstated the average time users spent watching videos. The result? Layoffs across the industry, first of reporters to make room for video producers, then the video producers themselves, when the oasis of video advertising revenue revealed itself to be a mirage.

Brian Manzullo, the social, search and audience editor at the Detroit Free Press, thinks Facebook deserves criticism when it comes to legitimate failures over the years and the harm it has done to journalism. But he also thinks publishers only have themselves to blame for their over reliance on platforms like Facebook.

"I think the biggest issue with many news organizations over the past several years is they've placed too many eggs in the basket of Facebook," Manzullo said. "As long as we understand Facebook is a third party with their own self-interest and business needs, then we can have a healthy relationship with them."

It's also worth mentioning Today In, a feature Facebook is currently testing that uses an algorithm to serve local news links to about 400 cities in the United States. While Facebook has touted the feature as a way to help spread meaningful local journalism, an analysis by Nieman Lab found that more than half the links it came across during a week-long study featured "crime, courts, and dead bodies." (Facebook described Today In as a "work in progress.")

Facebook's problems also go far beyond its interaction with the world of journalism. The Cambridge Analytica scandal, which involved a political data firm gaining access to...

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