On Tuesday, Facebook announced the latest round of its Facebook Journalism Project (FJP) recipients, 400 North American local newsrooms that each received $5,000 to “cover unexpected costs associated with reporting on the crisis in their communities.” The grants amount to $2 million in total and are part of a larger set of grants totaling $100 million that Facebook announced last month.
Here (fingers crossed that you can open this Google Doc) is a full list of every organization that received money.
As you may or may not know, I work part-time for a company called Subtext, which provides publishers a software that allows them to monetize a one-to-many texting service. In short, users can subscribe to “campaigns,” normally run by journalists, to receive text messages about a certain topic. For instance, if you like Iowa Buckeyes college football, you might sign up for this campaign to receive behind-the-scenes texts from Chad Leistikow, the Iowa Hawkeyes columnist for the Des Moines Register.
Why is this relevant? Well, when the FJP recipients was announced, I was tasked with finding a point of contact for each newsroom that was awarded grant money. We figured that they had recently come into some disposable income, and if they were looking for a creative new use for that money, they might be interested in launching a Subtext campaign.
As a result, I spent my day googling these news companies, pawing around their websites and trying to find relevant contact information. In doing so, I saw firsthand one of the primary problems facing local journalism: outdated web interfaces. I realize this sounds like I’m throwing these local outlets under the bus, but that is not my intention. I, more than most, understand the challenges of trying to run a media company on a shoestring budget. Many of these rural institutions are struggling to keep the lights on, let alone finance an overhaul of their UI.
With that being said, look at a few of these FJP winners’ sites. I appreciate that Facebook is giving them money that they can use to improve their coverage and sites; if the grant money had been awarded to modern enterprises with sleek websites, it would be going to waste. These rural media outlets are doing tough, important work, and they’re doing it with 1/1,000th of the budget that larger institutions have. I trust that they will put every last penny of their grant money to good use.
But in the larger conversation about reversing the news desertification of America, we can’t, in good faith, expect netizens in 2020 to patronize sites with antique websites. Especially in a world where the nytimes.com is just one click away, very few news consumers will put up with lengthy load times, distracting ads, confusing site architectures and the litany of other inconveniences these old sites pose. We can’t expect news consumers to support derelict sites out of sheer goodwill.
If we ever want to make meaningful progress in the fight against the evaporation of local news, we can't afford to overlook these sites’ UIs. Will $5,000 allow some of these companies a little breathing room, and potentially even fund an innovative new trial or two? Yes. But it won’t change a core, structural problem: That the sites themselves dissuade users from repeated use.
I applaud Facebook for their efforts to bolster local journalism. I really do. But these local news companies lack the time, resources and wherewithal to give their sites the facelifts they desperately need.
So, here’s another idea: Instead of doling out thimblefuls of cash, Facebook could offer their technological prowess instead. I imagine a team of Facebook developers could build a beautiful, sticky new website for a handful of these outlets in two weeks, and in doing so dramatically change these companies’ future prospects.
Sure, Facebook might not be able to help 400 news sites this way, but I don’t think $5,000 is going to be what turns around any of these newspapers. The social media colossus might consider instead revamping the websites of 25 of these media companies. Doing so would have a much deeper, longer-lasting impact. And we would finally be able to stop chastising people for not patronizing local news sites that nobody in their right mind would want to revisit.