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Facebook wants to share more local news, but it’s having trouble finding it

One in three US Facebook users lives in a place where the company cannot find much local news.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg drives a tractor on his tour of America.
Mark Zuckerberg found plenty of local news when he toured around the US in 2017.
Facebook

A year ago, Facebook built a new section of its app specifically for local news. Called Today In, the idea was that Facebook — which is flooded with all kinds of photos, videos, ads, and events from a wide range of people, publishers, and brands — wanted to create a special section where local news and events would stand out among the crowd.

The problem Facebook is running into: Many parts of the country don’t have enough local news to sustain that special section of the app.

“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,” Facebook wrote in a blog post Monday in which it’s promoting a new journalism initiative. Specifically, that means Facebook hasn’t been able to find “five or more recent news articles directly related to these towns” in any of the past 28 days. That qualifies those areas as a “news desert,” according to Facebook.

What does a lack of local news actually look like? Facebook published a map to show where local “news deserts” exist across the country.

Facebook local news map Facebook

The darkest green areas are counties in which Facebook saw at least five local news stories posted on Facebook — either by users or by news publishers — every day in the last 28 days (Facebook collected the data on a city level but aggregated it for county-level maps). The lightest-green counties had zero days with that much local news.

Facebook compiled this map using an algorithmic process to first determine whether links posted on Facebook were news or not. Once it figured that out, Facebook looked at the geographic distribution in which the article was shared to figure out which publications are local. Finally, Facebook filtered out news stories from those publishers that don’t have a local angle.

As you can see, much of the country is in a local news desert.

It’s pretty much the same by region. Roughly 35 percent of Midwestern, Northeastern, and Southern Facebook users couldn’t have seen more than five local news stories on Facebook about their town on any single day over the past four weeks, according to Facebook. Towns out West were slightly better off; just 26 percent of users live in a news desert, Facebook says.

On a state level, New Jersey was the worst place for finding local news on Facebook, with 58 percent of users unable to do so on any day in the last month. Arizona had the most local news, with just 13 percent of users living in areas without adequate local coverage.

Ohio was consistent with the national average of 31 percent.

Facebook local news maps for Arizona, Ohio, New Jersey. Facebook

To help fix this map, Facebook has pledged roughly $300 million to help with journalism projects over the next three years. At least some of that money will go toward a new program the company announced Monday called Facebook Journalism Project Community. The idea is to let local media organizations apply for grants or support for news projects, and Facebook will help out.

On one hand, it’s certainly positive that Facebook has taken an interest in preserving local news; last year when it announced its big News Feed algorithm change, it added that it will also push more local news to users’ feeds.

On the other hand, Facebook is partly responsible for the decline of local news, so it should have an interest in preserving it — not only for the good of readers, but more news organizations means more content for Facebook and more reasons for people to keep using its products.

Companies like Facebook and Google have completely changed the distribution of news, and they dominate the advertising business that has historically supported digital news formats.

Facebook controls about 22 percent of all digital ad spend in the US, according to eMarketer, and helped hasten print ad revenue’s decline. Changes to Facebook’s algorithm have also negatively impacted digital news publishers, even the most successful. The result is that fewer ad dollars have been spread among fewer large news organizations.

Plus, in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, Facebook has every incentive to cut back on hoaxes and so-called “fake news,” which have been an embarrassment for the company but also now pose a risk as politicians and regulators are exploring ways to regulate Facebook’s services. One way to avoid “fake news” is to make sure people have access to the real stuff. (It’s worth noting: Not all local news is necessarily of high quality.)

So it’s good Facebook wants to fix the problem, though it may be too late.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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