Thoughts on Facebook's Local News Initiative from a Local Independent Journalist

I was an earlier adopter of Facebook (July 4, 2005), and I'm still a too-heavy user of the platform.

I love to hate Facebook. I want to leave Facebook for a variety of reasons, privacy, not being at the whims of Silicon Valley for access to an audience, and problems with the platform among the reasons. Here's the thing, I can't leave, I'm professionally dependent upon the platform.

I was one of the original bloggers. JoeyColeman.ca started in 2004 as a simple website where I played with web coding, and created a blog to share photos and musings to my friends. It morphed into a blog, and by 2006, I was drawing over a thousand readers each day, sometimes even tens of thousands, for my coverage of campus politics. In March 2007, I did what many of the original bloggers did, I went mainstream. Maclean's magazine recruited me and I took my writing (and audience) to their platform in exchange for a small paycheque.

Then I joined Twitter in Fall 2008, using it as a platform to both conveniently publish and communicate with my existing audience, and to reach an even larger and wider audience. This worked for awhile, the platforms needed us and we didn't yet need them.

Then the once mighty blogosphere moved to the platforms. At first, we had control. Fast-forward to today, and we're longer manage access to our readers - Facebook is the gatekeeper.

Mainstream journalism followed the blogosphere, and now its seems the entire web has two gatekeepers: Facebook and Google.

Now we expect these gatekeepers, who we put in charge, to hand us their keys. Why would they?

In response to our cries for the keys, we have public relations initiatives such as the "Facebook Local News Initiative".

As the publisher of one of Canada's handful of local news sites, and one of the even fewer non-paywalled reader funded local news sites, this Facebook "Local News Initiative" could be a positive for my site The Public Record, but I doubt it.

Facebook owes me, and my local news start-up, nothing. If I wish to build my audience, I can choose to either use Facebook or not. I know the bargain I'm making, and I make it.

Reading the vague information that Facebook posted Mondaythe Inituative appears to be more about media relations than providing assistance to local news.

As with News Feed algorithm changes past, this change will be susceptible to gaming by content farms and social media targeting. For this reason, I expect it will fail at its intended goal.

Nor will I be bothered if it does fail. I don't want Facebook defining who is or is not a "trusted" source of local news, no more than I welcome government deciding who is or is not a journalist.

The idea of defining news is flawed. What is news?

Is a feel-good puff piece news? Does it become news when published by a TSX-listed or government funded news corporation, but not news when it's published by a blogger?

Any attempt to create an algorithm for the mass consumption of something we can't agree on the definition of is bound to fail.

Looking at The Public Record, I doubt my in-depth coverage of the day-to-day ins and out of local governance will benefit from changes to the News Feed algorithm.

The Public Record's content fails to generate the enough signals to meaningfully register on a cookie-cutter algorithm. On the scale of Facebook, my coverage today of the Open for Business Sub-Committee meeting is a proton in an atom as seen by an elephant. (Open for Business is one of the more interesting of the meetings I cover, just try to get yourself excited about Tax Write-offs and Appeals processed under Sections 354 and 358 of the Municipal Act at the Audit, Finance, and Administration Committee.)

The Public Record doesn't generate enough clicks on Facebook.

Who do I expect to benefit most?

Non-news local content farm promotional pages operating under various [Locality] Proud, Pride, Rising, True etc. brands, and the many infamous "Only in [Locality]" pages.

Among mainstream news, I worry the algorithm will further incentivize the journalistic low-hanging fruit of weather, traffic, and crime which drives online engagement.

How will Facebook filter non-local news on local news Facebook pages?

Let's look at the Facebook feed of CBC's bureau in Hamilton, CBC Hamilton. Here are the ten most recent posts at the time of this writing:

  1. CBC Toronto story about a ice cream shop named "Sweet Jesus" and the "controversy" surrounding it.
  2. Trump story
  3. Cambridge Analytica story
  4. Local story about an Indigenous fashion designer from Hamilton
  5. Rewrite of a non-local (Niagara Region) police press release
  6. CBC Toronto story "Sunshine List so white: Minorities almost invisible among Ontario's best-paid public servants"
  7. Trump/Putin story
  8. Trudeau's ethics Aga Khan gifts story
  9. Daily weather story
  10. Original local news story on police practicing ticketing pandhandlers

In that list of ten, only three of the stories are local, and one of the three is filler weather content. The remaining seven are click generating stories. Granting CBC Hamilton's audience is mostly Hamiltonians, will the algorithm boost the seven non-local stories as "local"?

The Newsfeed is limited real estate, Facebook is a publicly traded company that exists to generate profit for its shareholders.

Facebook is a tool, but not one we own or control, or even get to pick out of the toolbox. We journalists knew what we were doing when we choose to use Facebook, and we know what Facebook offered us - a means of connecting to audiences because media communities never figured out how to create online community.

It's to the lasting shame (and damage) of the blogosphere that at the very moment we were creating our online communities we abandoned our efforts. In our defence, online payment systems and transactions were not widely available a decade ago, and going mainstream for either money or large audience seemed the best path to fix the media.

Today, those of us from the blogosphere and newspapers past don't need to grovel in front of Facebook asking them to do fix our problems.

We need to double our efforts to rebuild the open web, to build local news sites and content that our neighbours read as a destination, that doesn't need to be put in front of our readers by platforms, and that our neighbours decide is worth funding.

I'm going to continue working to achieve those goals.

Journalism