Over the last twenty-five years, news deserts – communities with little or no local reporting – have emerged and continue to spread in the United States. As this phenomenon has been studied and measured, so have its negative effects: according to Penny Abernathy, Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina, “Our sense of community and our trust in democracy at all levels suffer when journalism is lost or diminished.”
The first step to solving a problem is measuring it. And this is where Facebook hopes to help. We have studied the geography of local news — and communities with insufficient news — extensively and are now going to start sharing the information we’ve gathered with leading academics in order to further the public understanding of this issue. We’ll provide access to the data we have on local news on Facebook to experts including UNC’s Abernathy, Harvard’s Nicco Mele, Duke’s Phil Napoli and University of Minnesota’s Matthew Weber, so that people with an interest in helping support the local news ecosystem can do so with a more complete picture of where things stand.
Why Has Facebook Been Researching News Deserts?
At Facebook, we’ve been working to better understand the local news vacuum in conjunction with the development of Today In, a new place on Facebook for local news, information, and community conversation. We designed Today In in response to what we heard people on Facebook want, after conducting research in mid-2017 that found people wanted to see more local news and community information. We’ve now rolled it out to over 400 cities in the US.
To build Today In, we needed to know, for any given community in the US, what local news was available on Facebook at a given time. Through a five-step algorithmic process, we learned how much local journalism is being shared on Facebook in towns across the country. We also learned where the holes are – places where we can’t identify enough regular local reporting on Facebook.
What We Found
About one in three users in the U.S. live in places where we cannot find enough local news on Facebook to launch Today In. What does that mean exactly? In the last 28 days, there has not been a single day where we’ve been able to find five or more recent news articles directly related to these towns. This does not vary much by region: 35% of users in the Midwest, Northeast, and South – and 26% in the West – live in places where we can’t find much local news on Facebook.
The maps below show county-level detail on places we can – and can’t – find enough local news on Facebook to launch Today In.
Relative to the national average, Arizona has fewer users living in places where we can’t find enough local news (13%). New Jersey has more (58%). Ohio, on the other hand, is representative of the national average (31%).
Despite this, demand for local news is high everywhere in the U.S.. For instance, according to Liane S., a Facebook user who lives in Elizabethtown, PA, one of the places where we can’t find enough local news to launch Today In:
“For national news, I go to bigger newspapers. But for local news, there are information gaps, and my time is limited. When there are updates on things that have been going on, I miss them a lot. For instance, one of the schools had a mold issue, and there is also a nuclear power plant nearby that conducts emergency drills every so often. I usually learn about issues like this after the fact, when I’m talking to friends or when I’m in different groups, in person or online. Here, it’s really difficult to feel like you’re getting all the information about what’s going on around you, in one place.”
We took a look at the data, and it confirms Liane’s point. Several of the top news websites visited by Facebook users living in Elizabethtown belong to nearby, regional publishers. These small TV stations and newspapers cover large geographic areas, including multiple cities and, in some cases, multiple counties, meaning that the supply of local news that is directly relevant to Elizabethtown is sometimes limited.
Building Community Through Local News
Today we’re also announcing a new pilot program, the Facebook Journalism Project Community Network, to support projects aimed at building community through local news. Launching with an open call for applications in early May, the FJP Community Network will be offering grants and opportunities for expert support. Whether a publisher is trying to build a new business around memberships, report in an underserved community, or build a tool that helps local storytellers find and engage news audiences — we want to provide runway for them to serve their community. Grant recipients will be connected to Facebook’s community of Accelerator alumni as well as to fellow grant awardees, establishing a network of experts and resources for continued support.
We’ll partner with the The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, who will provide grant review and grantmaking support and who worked with us on our Accelerator program grants. The Lenfest Institute is deeply committed to helping local news publishers build sustainable businesses. With this program, we’ll prioritize projects that help communities seeking to strengthen local news coverage.
This initiative builds on the investments focused on local news that we announced in January with organizations such as the Pulitzer Center, Report for America, Knight-Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund, American Journalism Project, Local Media Association and Local Media Consortium. To receive more information on the Facebook Journalism Project Community Network, including details on when the application window will open, requirements and more, please sign-up to our distribution list here.
We learn faster when we’re learning together, so we also plan to document and share the work from key grants, making projects and results available publicly to help fuel innovation and transformation, particularly where resources are most scarce, and local journalism is most at risk.