Local news outlets find an unlikely ally in the duopoly

Talk to a big publisher about Google and Facebook, and you’ll hear the strains of a dysfunctional relationship. But there’s one publishing sector that’s surprisingly having a bit of a honeymoon period: local news.

Thanks to regular visits from a Google-funded trainer, Bay Area News Group, a string of local newspapers and sites in Northern California whose flagship is The Mercury News, has become facile in using Google search, Fusion Tables and Maps in reporting. Facebook also recently had the group’s execs over to its nearby headquarters, where it offered them help understanding analytics and using Facebook Live.

“They just seem open to getting more involved in helping the mission of local journalism,” said Neil Chase, executive editor of the Bay Area News Group, adding, “I could use all the help I can get.”

Chase isn’t alone in noticing the platforms are taking a stronger interest in local news lately. Local news was a part of the Facebook Journalism Project to strengthen Facebook’s relationship with news organizations. The initiative was launched in January, at a time when the platform faced criticism for allowing false news reports to get exposure in its News Feed.

As part of the project, Facebook embarked on a sort of local listening tour that’s already visited Atlanta, Dallas, San Diego and Seattle, and was scheduled to be in Denver and Chicago this week. Josh Mabry was hired late last year as a partner manager on the Facebook news partnerships team, led by TV news vet Campbell Brown, the first time Facebook has had someone specifically devoted to local. This spring, it appointed its first product manager specifically for local news, Anthea Watson Strong.

Google has a head start over Facebook in paying attention to local news; it’s been around longer, and having a healthy news industry has always been key to its success. It’s provided training to local newsrooms for at least a decade, but in the past year, it’s doubled the number of trainers it funds through a partnership with Society of Professional Journalists to 17 and plans to launch a similar program with Poynter. Last May, Google introduced a “local source” tag to surface stories from local news sources in its news feed after the stories have gone national. Both platforms are a more regular presence at local news association gatherings.

‘Strapped for cash’
If there was a part of the news ecosystem that ever needed a landline, it’s the most vulnerable sector, local news. The size of newsrooms and number of local papers has shrunk as papers have struggled to adapt their businesses digitally. Nick Whitaker, one of about 10 training and development managers for Google, said unlike their national counterparts, local newsrooms are more in need of training in the fundamentals, so the training tends to focus on those areas. “They’re strapped for cash, time and resources, and they’re also wearing a lot of hats,” he said.

Google and Facebook reps talk about how their work supporting local news makes a contribution to local journalism and culture, but none of this is pure goodwill, of course. Google and Facebook are businesses whose value, in Google’s case, is based on its ability to organize all the world’s information, including local; and in Facebook’s case, the ability to keep people on its closed platform by giving them content they care about. So it’s in their interest to have a healthy local news ecosystem.

Warren St. John, CEO of Patch, the hyperlocal chain of sites, believes the rise of fake news and viral drivel has driven the platforms’ recent appreciation for local news. “If you can surface local news for users, they engage with it,” he said. “It’s also much less likely to be confused with fake news. It’s the opposite of viral.”

The platforms being embedded in small news outlets also makes it more likely the outlets will become more dependent on the platforms.

Establishing themselves in newsrooms
Unsurprisingly, when Google trains newsrooms like Bay Area News Group’s, the focus is on Google products: how they can use Google search to surface their articles better, dig into Google Analytics to understand their audience better and use YouTube to expand their reach. Facebook made its newly acquired CrowdTangle social analytics tool free for publishers, which particularly benefits local newsrooms that can’t afford costly vendors. This led to a spurt in adoption by local newsrooms (800 now use it).

The outreach extends to the business side. John Shankman, whose startup Hashtag Labs helps independent publishers with branded content and tech consulting, said the platforms have made a big push this past year to get independents using their ad serving tech. This will help enrich the platforms because they keep a share of the ad revenue that runs through them, while making the publishers more dependent on them for revenue. “They definitely have a department of publisher relations people reaching out more often than they used to,” he said.

The irony of all this is not lost on local publishers. The platforms’ rise has contributed to the digitization of news consumption that’s part of the reason local news outlets are struggling in the first place. “We took a tour of Facebook’s new headquarters and looked around and said, ‘We found it, all that lost newspaper revenue: Here it is,’” Chase said.

But Chase also said local publishers have themselves to blame for not innovating fast enough and that it’s incumbent on them to make sure they spread their reliance on traffic. “If Facebook was the only source of traffic for our websites and we didn’t spend time to develop any other channels, that would be negligent on our part.”

Taking the attention while it lasts
There’s no telling if the attention will last; as history’s shown, the platforms can change their priorities at any time. Facebook has been pushing hard on video, which is difficult and expensive for legacy text-based publishers to do well, to say nothing of resource-strapped local outlets. Local news is in a prolonged struggle that will require more than some training sessions to reverse.

But for now, elsewhere, local publishers used to being overlooked by the platform giants are glad for the attention. Andrew Beaujon, senior editor at Washingtonian, said Google came around in November, asking for a spreadsheet with information on its restaurant reviews. Now, when you do a Google search for a D.C. restaurant, Washingtonian’s reviews often pop up first in an information box. “It’s great for us to have our reviews up there; it’s great branding for us,” Beaujon said.

St. John attended a recent meeting in New York where Facebook convened local publishers. During the gathering, Facebook split the publishers into four groups and asked them to suggest features they wanted it to work on. One suggestion was to create a content management system to power their sites. Others wanted to make it easier for Facebook users to subscribe to the publishers’ email newsletters and paid content. “We are having a little bit of a moment in that all the big platforms have woken up to the power of local,” he said.

“They are certainly convening more gatherings with local news as a focus, which is something I hadn’t seen before,” said Jim Brady, CEO and founder of Spirited Media, the startup behind local Philadelphia news site Billy Penn, of Facebook and Google. “There isn’t much tangible to point to yet, but that’s no surprise, as their focus of local is just getting started. But I’m hopeful.”


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