Facebook is funding more programs catering to local news publishers

Local news publishers say a Facebook accelerator program is helping them build consumer revenue streams. Now, Facebook plans to commit even more funds to various programs designed to help local news outlets.

On Tuesday, Jan. 15, Facebook’s vp of global news partnerships, Campbell Brown, announced a number of new investments focused on local news, including $5 million in a Pulitzer Center endowment intended to provide local newsrooms with reporting grants; $2 million in Report for America, an initiative designed to place 1,000 journalists in local newsrooms over the next five years; and $1 million in the Knight-Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund, which is designed to help local news publishers develop new business models. (Overall, Facebook has said it plans to commit $300 million over three years to various news programs, partnerships and content, including news shows for Facebook Watch.)

By far the largest of these investments was in one of Facebook’s own programs. The company will commit $20 million to expanding an accelerator program it announced in February 2018. Since its launch, the program has helped two separate classes of publishers — 31 businesses in total — build and develop consumer revenue products, mostly outside of Facebook’s platform. The accelerator helps publishers test strategies such as where to put call-to-action buttons on their websites, or figure out how to test the potential size of their subscriber audiences. To date, Facebook has spent $7 million in the two accelerators.

The program has crowed about several early wins. For example, the Seattle Times used a flash sale developed during the program to power the largest single day of digital subscription acquisitions in its history, surpassing its previous one-day total by more than 60 percent. The Denver Post said it has managed to boost its digital subscriber base by over 170 percent, less than six months after the subscription accelerator concluded in June. Neither publisher shared hard numbers.

The accelerator’s strong early results stand in contrast to the lukewarm marks publishers gave the tools Facebook has developed to help publishers pursue subscriptions through Facebook’s platform.

Facebook’s relationship with news publishers remains uneasy. Over the last couple of years, the company has compiled an uneven track record in its attempts to clean up the digital news ecosystem. Its fact-checking initiatives, launched in response to the fake-news scandal that erupted after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, have been battered by negative publicity, with one former participating publisher charging that Facebook “essentially used us for crisis PR.” The platform was not taking anything seriously, this publisher said.

The scope of this new interest in supporting local journalism is also unclear. These investments are part of a three-year, $300 million investment in “news programs, partnerships and content,” which, according to Brown’s post, will also include investment in news programs made for Facebook Watch. A Facebook spokesperson declined to share information about how the money would be spread across those categories, saying only that the success or failure of its investments would inform where it allocated future resources.

But the accelerator program is getting positive feedback. Participating publishers say it delivers a great deal of specific, actionable information that can be used right away. For example, the itinerary for the third leg of Facebook’s membership accelerator included a session about mapping a customer user journey, as well as a new session on how to use email to improve member retention.

“Every organization is taking away very concrete, immediately implementable tools techniques and strategies,” said John Bebow, president and CEO of Bridge Magazine, a nonprofit local news publisher focused on Michigan state politics and policy. According to Bebow, Bridge nearly doubled the amount of nonprofit donations it was able to solicit in 2018 by using techniques and strategy learned during a local news membership accelerator that concluded earlier this month.

“There’s only about 10 MBAs in nonprofit news across the country,” he said. “This program is designed to deepen the bench for business enterprise and revenue.”

Facebook’s interest in supporting local journalism is motivated partly by user needs. The platform regularly polls its users about what kinds of content it would like to see more of, and local news was requested three times more often than the next most-popular type of content, Brown said.

The effects of the investments Facebook announced Tuesday may not be felt until months later or next year. But they are also part of a new phase in the platform’s relationship with digital publishers.

“Facebook has been a good partner in that they’re trying to invest time and money in helping local publishers succeed,” said Fran Wills, president of the Local Media Consortium, which, along with the Local Media Association, received $1 million grant from Facebook to help local publishers figure out how to generate money through branded content. “[Right now] for local publishers, they are primarily a content distribution channel.”


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