Our View: A surprise defender of local news

We are often critical of social media in this space, and Facebook is probably the social network most often in our crosshairs.

That criticism is necessary and justified — social media is most definitely weakening many people’s critical thinking skills and strengthening the walls of our social bubbles.

But it doesn’t mean companies running social media platforms always get everything wrong.

Case in point: Facebook announced this week a new pilot program that will attempt to fund local reporting in communities considered “news deserts” by the company.

By studying posts from local newspapers and publishers across the country and mapping those posts to the communities they’re about, Facebook identified counties in every state, representing more than a third of the U.S. population, where there is almost no local news being posted.

To change that, Facebook is launching the “Facebook Journalism Project Community Network,” which the company says is “aimed at building community through local news.”

“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 (a) runway for them to serve their community,” according to an article about the project from the Facebook Journalism Project. “… We’ll partner with the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, who will provide grant review and grantmaking support … 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.”

Facebook isn’t doing this out of the goodness of its heart; it has an interest in building up local news coverage to help its own membership numbers and its recently launched “Today In” feature.

The counties Facebook identified as “news deserts” are actually counties where Facebook couldn’t find enough local news on its platform to be able to offer “Today In” for that county.

For what it’s worth, Clark County appears to be one of fewer than 20 Kentucky counties where there is enough local news for “Today In” to operate. There are another dozen or so counties that “sometimes” have enough local news for “Today In” to launch. Much of eastern, northern and south central Kentucky is designated as a Facebook “news desert.”

Some of these so-called deserts actually have local newspapers and plenty of local news, it just isn’t showing up on Facebook or the company missed it with its algorithms.

Regardless, news deserts are a huge and growing problem — one that has been made worse, or was perhaps even created, by Facebook and other social media.

Endless scrolling through addictive but largely worthless “news” feeds has replaced intake of real information for millions, rapidly accelerating the closure of local news institutions across the country.

We’ve pointed out before when local news sources disappear, political polarization takes hold in a bad way.

A lack of local news has made people less involved in their communities and contributed to the vapid hellscape that is today’s national politics.

We need to protect and regrow local journalism across the country. This project from Facebook is one way that might happen.