Why Facebook’s Journalism Initiative Will Help Brands Engage Local Audiences

In mid-January, two months after its platform faced accusations of helping to swing the U.S. election, Facebook announced a new journalism initiative. Promising more options for its news-oriented pages, the platform also committed to aiding to local newsrooms. In other words, while brand pages fight for organic views, Facebook will be working with digital outlets to boost their visibility among their geographic community. This makes local news one of the few remaining opportunities for organic outreach.

“Organic” is already losing its stronghold on the Internet – just look at the top of any Google search, or the organic reach on any Facebook post. Even Google’s local pack may soon be ad-driven. B2C brands (who may not have the option to ‘network’ with potential customers) are left with fewer organic ways to reach their target market. But attracting the attention of a local journalist isn’t an easy move either. “High touch” outreach emails aside, there are other reasons many businesses have difficulty earning local media coverage.

While there is no shortage of articles telling brands how to succeed at local PR, there is little mention in the B2B community of the effect of shrinking newsrooms on local press coverage. Local journalist jobs are falling at almost the same rate as PR jobs are growing, leading to a strangely tipped scale, where the few remaining local journalists fight wake up to inboxes full of press releases and story pitches.

Some in public relations may see this as a good thing. It certainly means less oversight for local public officials, or for brands engaging in unethical practices. And if a local journalist has less time per story, she may rely more heavily on the press release as source material. That is, if she even sees the press release at all.

But overall, I believe the slow erasure of local news outlets hurts local brands. As the roster of available local reporters shrinks, so do opportunities for businesses to earn coverage in front of potential customers. “News Deserts” – or communities in which little or no local news coverage takes place look to be on the rise in the coming years, unless local outlets find a way to ensure sustainability.

Facebook’s push toward local journalism may also be an effort to combat fake or “alt” news. Local journalism shows how national news stories affect local voters, shifting the paradigm from political communities to local ones. These stories take generalities and make them specific to a particular backyard, such as the Flathead Beacon’s look at how Trump’s federal worker hiring freeze will affect Montana’s parks over the coming months.

No further details of the Facebook Journalism Project have been revealed yet, which, in its own way, reveals a common problem for Facebook and for most businesses, even those in tech. For most consumers, two-week-old headlines already feel ancient. The national news cycle churns at a growing rate, while businesses and other organizations work to catch up. (Consider #DeleteUber, which went viral over the January 28th/29th weekend before Uber CEO, Travis Kalanick, issued a statement, 20 hours after the hashtag broke.) Facebook’s move may help verified journalists step further into our timelines, amid the stream of speculation.

For local businesses, urgent messaging may not be so dire, but increased awareness for journalism provides another opportunity to get the word out. Better if a consumer reads about your brand from a news outlet’s Facebook page, than not at all.

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