Many local news outlets are facing an existential crisis.
As local newspaper readership continues to wane, there hasn’t been a corresponding internet phenomenon to replace the daily local paper. Experiments like Gothamist and DNAInfo, websites devoted to local news, were shuttered last year by management claiming it couldn’t see a profit.
Local newsrooms saw drastic cuts over the course of a decade.
From 2008 to 2017, newsroom employment in the U.S. dropped by 23%. In 2008, about 114,000 newsroom employees – reporters, editors, photographers and videographers – worked in five industries that produce news: newspaper, radio, broadcast television, cable and “other information services” (the best match for digital-native news publishers). By 2017, that number declined to about 88,000, a loss of about 27,000 jobs.
This decline in overall newsroom employment was driven primarily by one sector: newspapers. Newspaper newsroom employees dropped by 45% over the period, from about 71,000 workers in 2008 to 39,000 in 2017.
The loss of local news outlets is a big problem for PR pros. As reporters leave their beats and more coverage becomes national, there is less and less oxygen for stories, and PR pros have to fight to get their story covered. If your story is small potatoes, you don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell.
Many organizations are turning to brand journalism and online newsrooms to get their story out, but in a distrustful public environment, earned media is worth its weight in gold.
Now the companies that have contributed to the gutting of local news media say they want to try to undo the damage.
Google first promised to invest in local news to the tune of $300 million and has helped launch a publishing platform with WordPress.
WordPress, the open-source project that lets you create websites on WordPress.com, is already a solid content management system (we use it at TechCrunch). But it becomes more difficult to use once you want to monetize your content using subscriptions, metered paywalls and user accounts. WordPress doesn’t have a native solution for that.
That’s why Automattic is working on a platform for news organizations — think about it as a version of WordPress specifically designed for news organizations. The company wants to help local news organizations more specifically, as those media companies don’t necessarily have a ton of development resources.
Media organizations can already apply to work with Automattic on this new platform. The service will be free during the development phase, and you can expect to pay $1,000 to $2,000 per month after that.
Automattic, Spirited Media and News Revenue Hub have raised $2.4 million for this project. Google is spending $1.2 million through the Google News Initiative. The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, blockchain organization ConsenSys, Civil Media and The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation are also funding the project.
The new tool’s creators hope it can help local media outlets find a sustainable business model.
“Local news organizations are struggling to find sustainable models for journalism — a crisis that has very real implications for democracy,” noted WordPress.com president Kinsey Wilson. “We’re joining with industry leaders to bring technology, publishing, and business expertise together in a single platform that can be shared by news organizations across the globe.”
The Newspack platform itself is still very much in pilot mode, and it’s not expected to launch — even as a beta proof-of-concept product — until July 2019, when it will be used by around a dozen websites. But from now until February 1, applications are being accepted from a wide range of publications, spanning audiences, geographies, and models. Automattic said it will prioritize outlets that have previously demonstrated “editorial and financial success” in their respective markets, though fledgling news startups will also be considered if they have a “strong launch plan.”
Facebook has also made moves to support journalism. The company announced it would invest $300 million in journalism organizations.
On Tuesday the company is announcing a three-year commitment to invest $300 million in “news programs, partnerships and content.”
Some of the funds will go directly to nonprofit organizations like the Pulitzer Center and Report for America. The cash infusion will also dramatically expand Facebook’s existing effort to help news websites convert readers into paying subscribers.
“We don’t want publishers to be dependent on us, but we do want to support them,” Campbell Brown, Facebook’s Vice President of global news partnerships, said in a telephone interview.
Some noted that the number seemed very similar to Google’s initiative from last year.
Google, which posted a profit of $9.19 billion last quarter, announced a $300 million “Google News Initiative” last year.
Some digital publishers and startups also resent Facebook’s power, particularly when it comes to the constantly changing News Feed, which can send sites a torrent of traffic, then dry up suddenly.
So the level of skepticism about Facebook’s journalism initiatives is high.
For Facebook, the move comes at a turning point.
The Facebook Journalism Project began two years ago. Although separate from the company’s much-debated efforts to curb misinformation and spam on the platform, the project is related because it’s been trying to support the sharing of accurate information.
Brown said the emphasis on local news content “came out of us spending the last year really listening to publishers who are participating in our local pilot programs.”
The first program explored how to get people to subscribe to local news outlets. A more recent pilot was about membership models for newsrooms.
Facebook (FB) said in Tuesday’s press release that is committing “over $20 million” to continue the programs, called “accelerators,” and to “expand the model globally, including in Europe.”
Supporting local journalism is a popular cause these days, but companies should tread carefully. Journalism fans have high standards and sharp wits.
When Facebook launched its journalism project in June, it had a glaring typo—and some scribes couldn’t resist.
Unfortunately, the social media/content production/advertising/how do we even categorize Facebook anymore company is in need of… a copy editor.
“We care about about supporting high quality journalism,” the Facebook Journalism Project’s Overview section reads.
That’s right, the sentence in which Facebook pledges its commitment to “high quality journalism,” contains a typo. Ohhhh boy.
However, Facebook says it is intent on helping journalism thrive.
When asked about the perception that the company is giving away crumbs to make up for damage done to the news business, Brown made the point that “we’re not going to un-invent the internet.”
“What I try to think about in my work with publishers is, ‘Where do we go from here?'” She said. “There is no one-size-fits-all model. There is no single solution that’s going to work with every publisher. We can be part of the solution, but we can’t be the whole solution.”
When the digital news venture Mic abruptly laid off its entire newsroom in late November, Mic’s over-reliance on Facebook funding and traffic was said to be a major factor.
To that point, “news feed distribution is always going to change,” Brown said, repeating a line she has used many times before. “That is the nature of Facebook.” But then she turned back to solutions: “If we can help, we should.”
On social media, some were skeptical about Facebook’s true feelings:
"Let’s face it, they didn’t give us a grant because they love journalism" said one source about Facebook funding. "This was clearly for their own public relations purposes.” https://t.co/mrdNOgAbe2 via @cjr
— Mathew Ingram (@mathewi) January 15, 2019
— Ronan Price (@RonanPrice) January 15, 2019
The tweets reveal the long way Facebook still must go to reclaim consumer trust:
Nope. If you care about journalism, stay the hell away from Facebook https://t.co/XcCs4pK9tf
— Asher Wolf (@Asher_Wolf) January 15, 2019
Others were positive about the news:
Awesome: The Facebook Journalism Project pulls together an all-star Super Friends Justice League team of partners to deliver a huge boost to journalism. Thanks @dorrine @ijoshmabry @campbell_brown and the whole team for supporting what matters. https://t.co/NDtcB9O3zW
— Neil Chase (@chaseneil) January 15, 2019
Some called on other tech companies to get in the game:
Twitter, Facebook and Google depend on news/journalism to power their networks. @Twitter what are you doing?
Facebook makes a $300 million pledge to help journalists — just like Google did last year https://t.co/DJe8qwwz2P
— Jeff Brown (@WJeffreyBrown) January 15, 2019
What do you think of these initiatives, PR Daily readers?