Local Media Association’s Digital Summit Week, Aug 10-14, launched this year as a virtual event. As one of four keynotes, Campbell Brown, head of Facebook global news partnerships, engaged in a fireside chat with LMA CEO Nancy Lane, with additional updates provided by Josh Mabry from the Facebook news partnerships team. Find more takeaways, video recordings, presentations, and insights here

Facebook’s head of global news partnerships addressed how the social media network intends to help the journalism industry sustain through the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond, as part of LMA’s Digital Summit Week on Aug. 11.

Campbell Brown, a former television news anchor who joined Facebook in 2017 to work directly with news partners, joined Local Media Association CEO Nancy Lane on the second day of the Digital Summit Week conference, which is all-virtual this year with approximately 600 registered attendees.

The news industry faced a pivotal turning point before the COVID-19 pandemic, a point not lost on Facebook co-founder/CEO Mark Zuckerberg, according to Brown. As quarantine measures were being put into place earlier this year, she said Zuckerberg was quick to acknowledge that news publications would endure the same drop in advertisers that Facebook experienced firsthand.

“We were feeling it, too. Obviously not in the way it was impacting news organizations, but it was clear it was going to have a potentially devastating impact on news operations and local news operations, in particular,” Campbell said.

And at the same time that business declined, the demand for quality journalism was higher than ever. Campbell called it a “huge wake-up call” internally at Facebook that something should be done, and weeks later the Local News COVID-19 Relief Fund distributed a combined $16 million in North America alone to hundreds of publishers across the continent. Four of every five recipients represented a family-owned or independent publication, and 40% of all publications were digital-only or digital-first. In addition, one-third of all recipients were classified as nonprofit operations, Campbell said.

“I feel good about it, but I know it’s not the answer,” Campbell said. “There are still enormous challenges that we’re dealing with.”

In addition to the relief fund, Campbell touted several other ongoing project partnerships between LMA and Facebook Journalism Project to help news outlets, including the Local News Resource Center and the Branded Content Project. She also credited the established Facebook Accelerator Program for working with publishers to identify successful journalism business models.

Here is how Facebook is dealing with 5 of the biggest ongoing challenges facing news publishers.

Should Facebook compensate publishers for their local journalism shared on the platform?

Some publishers in the accelerator group are being paid right now, Campbell said, as part of a pilot program to establish more reliable distribution and revenue streams. Their content is being distributed on Facebook News, a new section of the platform that takes timely news content out of user feeds and directly into this tab.

That idea, which is still in a beta testing phase, may not go over well with all publishers, Brown acknowledges, but it helps Facebook prioritize its newsfeed for families and friends who are sharing with each other. That is where most of the platform’s engagement, and thus revenue, is derived from, she said.

“I have always tried to be really direct with publishers because we’re in a moment where decisions we make right now matter. If you are not deriving value from Facebook, then don’t post your content on Facebook,” Campbell said. “It scares me to think that a news organization is going to build their entire business model around a news feed that is not intended to support news primarily. We’re trying to build one, but we’re not there yet.”

The Facebook News tab is presenting some promise early into the pilot program, but it’s too new to expand the opportunity to other publishers. It’s proven especially difficult, she said, to expand exposure for local news operations.

In the meantime, there are tools that can be leveraged by publishers to help improve distribution through Facebook. Campbell listed off the social listening tool Crowdtangle as one example.

Josh Mabry, Facebook’s local news partnership team lead, shared additional initiatives in the works to support publishers:

  • Facebook News: dedicated space for news publishers
  • News Page Index: registered publishers are differentiated in newsfeed
  • Original Reporting: algorithm improvements to boost new stories over aggregated content
  • Instant Articles: fast-loading articles that have helped some publishers increase memberships and subscriptions through the increased exposure
  • Video Monetization: use creator studio to quickly monetize videos being shared on platform

Facebook Journalism Project has also partnered with The Texas Tribune’s RevLab to help make events more profitable for publishers. Texas Tribune Fest, for example, is slated to quadruple its profit margin this year despite converting to an all-virtual event. 

What is Facebook’s responsibility in reducing echo chambers on the platform?

Campbell said that Facebook didn’t necessarily cause the polarization in society right now, but that debate is taking place on the social media website.

“That puts a big onus on us to try and address it — whether we’re the cause or not is almost irrelevant at this point,” she said. “It’s on us now to make sure the debate doesn’t verge into hate and extremism. It’s where we have to draw a line and where most of our efforts are focused.”

Facebook works with academic researchers to identify real-world factors that contribute to polarization and how it can be combatted, Campbell said. She believes the Facebook News tab could also help overcome the influx of misinformation that crowds the social platform.

Are there specific guidelines that Facebook News is considering to create a more trusted environment for readers?

The goal is to separate credible news from content that might violate Facebook policies because of misinformation. There are teams in place, Campbell said, specifically dedicated to pulling dangerous content before it goes viral, but the News tab provides another layer of credibility.

“I’ll be honest. It is something that keeps me up at night in the context of this upcoming election,” Campbell said. “It’s our top priority over the next few months.”

How do companies, especially smaller operations, join the Facebook Accelerator Program?

Mabry said the Facebook Journalism Project is considering an open application process to help more publishers benefit from the accelerator program that has mostly featured larger publications so far.

But as of now, there is no timeline for when that process might open up.

“We’re encouraged, frankly, that everyone has an interest and in the meantime in lieu of being part of a program at this moment, take advantage of the case studies were publishing on a biweekly basis,” Mabry said.

Facebook tools already help with subscriptions. Any plans to also accommodate membership business models?

As membership models grow in popularity among publishers, Mabry said it’s a logical next step to help publishers gain new members. As of right now, the idea is under consideration without any definitive plans for expanding tools.

“The short answer, yes, it’s on our radar but not on our formal product road map right now,” he said.

More from the LMA Digital Summit Week Tuesday keynote: Fireside Chat with Campbell Brown, head of global news partnerships, Facebook, Sponsored by the Facebook Journalism Project | Watch the recorded session