On this week’s episode of Media Voices we hear from David Floyd, MD of Social Spider, a community interest company that publishes five community newspapers in London. He tells us about finding a new model for local news – one that’s maybe commercially viable enough – and about why local news matters.

In the news roundup the team discusses the revelations from the Wall Street Journal’s ongoing publication of The Facebook Files, the launch of News UK’s talkTV, and ask if anyone still uses Clubhouse. Chris and Peter have a Fleetwood Mac singalong.

The full transcript is live here, or see below for some highlights:

Getting into local news

We fell into launching a local newspaper in 2014. Since then, we’ve been launching more local newspapers. So it’s a slightly strange trajectory into the world of local news publishing, but one that I think has helped quite a lot, because the starting point for our work has always been, we’ve got an idea for a media product which is needed by either a local community or a community of interest.

The challenge we set ourselves is, how do we make this media product commercially viable enough to be able to continue to be of value to the people that it’s working with, and the area or group that it is serving? That’s a big challenge, but it’s a different starting point to the starting point of corporate media groups.

The market for a local title

We’re increasingly finding out that the level that our publications work at is a London borough sized area. That may be different if we were to use the same general model outside London, the model may work differently. But within London, a borough size area is where it works.

So here we have three boroughs, one constituency area, and one postcode in different bits of East, North and Central London currently. It’s partly a population size thing, partly that a long of the income streams are through things like premises licenses and advertising products that businesses have to buy. And to get the number of them you need to make the publication work at scale, it’s better to have a borough-size publication to do that.

Some boroughs have a more real identification from the local population than others do. And in a sense, to some extent, part of the job of the local newspaper is to build that shared understanding across what may be a slightly arbitrarily defined political setup. But they’re generally well enough contained to make it work and have enough shared experiences to make something work.

Behind the scenes

We have a combination of paid journalism and voluntary input from people in the local community. Our editors are all paid journalists, and we also have the BBC Local Democracy reporters for our local areas who are hosted by us. So all those people are paid journalists working on news, and in the editor’s case, editing! Then the features content is commissioned from people in our local community, local residents or people working for community organisations or campaigns in the local area.

That combination enables us just to get a breadth of input into the papers, without what would be a higher cost of paying for freelance contributions across the entire content of the publications.

Why local news really matters

The public interest news element is really, really important. There are things that journalists can do at a local level that individuals and campaign groups cannot do, particularly in terms of holding power to account, in terms of amplifying local voices.

From our point of view in terms of our particular model, the fact that we offer an opportunity for local residents to write themselves… people are mostly compassionate and do care about their fellow citizens. But if you don’t know what’s going on, and that information is not getting to people, then these stories get lost, and people just end up at the mercy of arbitrary power.

Top story

Facebook has been in huge trouble yet again this week after the WSJ revealed its investigation called ‘The Facebook files’. The investigation is based on a review of internal Facebook documents, including research reports, online discussions from employees, and drafts of senior management presentations. They show that Facebook’s researchers repeatedly identified the platform’s ill effects, from Instagram’s impact on teenagers to the spread of Covid misinformation.

The files in a nutshell (so far):

  1. Facebook says its rules apply to all. Company documents reveal a secret elite that’s exempt: A program known as XCheck has given millions of celebrities, politicians and other high-profile users special treatment, a privilege many abuse
  2. Facebook knows Instagram is toxic for teen girls, company documents show: Its own in-depth research shows a significant teen mental-health issue that Facebook plays down in public
  3. Facebook tried to make its platform a healthier place. It got angrier instead: Internal memos show how a big 2018 change rewarded outrage and that CEO Mark Zuckerberg resisted proposed fixes
  4. Facebook employees flag drug cartels and human traffickers. The company’s response is weak, documents show: Employees raised alarms about how the site is used in developing countries, where its user base is already huge and expanding
  5. How Facebook hobbled Mark Zuckerberg’s bid to get America vaccinated: Company documents show antivaccine activists undermined the CEO’s ambition to support the rollout by flooding the site and using Facebook’s own tools to sow doubt about the Covid-19 vaccine

Crucially for publishers, the papers reveal that Facebook accidentally (at best) incentivised more extreme content from news sites and pureplays, with the most emotive possible headlines and descriptions grabbing the most attention:

  • Jonah Peretti emailed contacts at Facebook in 2018 to flag the issue, noting that BuzzFeed’s most divisive content was performing the best on the platform.
  • In spite of a public-facing stance that Facebook was not rewarding hate-clicks, Zuckerberg is reported to have stalled and watered down proposed fixes, thereby ensuring that publishers continued to be rewarded for their most emotive headlines and – tacitly – incentivised to produce divisive content for the clicks.
  • It was all in service of what Facebook saw as the solution to declining engagement on the platform, by encouraging what it termed ‘meaningful social interactions’ between friends and family. So the de-prioritisation of news content in the feed and the context collapse of the feed itself helped spur divisive content more generally.

Around 2016, Zuckerberg started pushing the idea that video was the future of Facebook:

  • It turns out that the metrics that Facebook was using to measure engagement with news video were wrong, massively overestimating the amount of time that users spent consuming video ads.
  • In 2019, Facebook settled a lawsuit with those advertisers, paying them $40 million (while admitting no wrongdoing).
  • As part of the WSJ investigation, Keach Heagy and Jeff Horwitz detailed how users’ engagement with Facebook started falling in 2017.
  • One data scientist said in a 2020 memo that Facebook teams studied the issue and “never really figured out why metrics declined.” The team members ultimately concluded that the prevalence of video and other professionally produced content, rather than organic posts from individuals, was likely part of the problem.

News in brief

  • News UK has announced the launch of talkTV, a linear/OTT news channel based in large part on its talkRadio output. The FT reports it was launched not because of any great enthusiasm internally but because Rupert Murdoch ‘wanted something to watch’. There were rumours of something similar launching earlier in the year but they were apparently shelved in the wake of GB News’ disastrous launch. GB News itself has lost key behind the scenes talent and Andrew Neil, who was reportedly embroiled in a legal battle to get out of presenting duties that led to his limited involvement in the future, and is currently undergoing an unconvincing rehabilitation tour in an attempt to save face.
  • Tokyo-based news discovery aggregation app SmartNews has raised $230 million in its latest funding round, valuing the app at roughly $2 billion. The app has partnerships with all the usual external outlets, but also has a local news section showing personalised headlines based on a user’s location. Its most popular feature is ‘News From All Sides’, which shows users several articles about the same topic but with different angles.
  • Ex HuffPost Executive Editor Jess Brammar has landed the role as editor of the BBC’s news channels, after a lot of kerfuffle around past tweets suggesting she might not be impartial.
  • Clubhouse, the live audio app everyone with an iPhone was talking about late last year, has hired Nina Gregory as its first head of news and media publishers. It’s hoping to broaden the app’s appeal for publishers by building out partnerships and encouraging brands to initiate more conversations on the platform.
  • A raft of production companies, celebrities and analysts have come out in support of the UK’s Channel 4 as a consultation on its privatisation has ended. Long story short, the IPA’s director general Paul Bainsfair says “We see no upside but significant downsides to privatization.”
  • News UK is launching News Live, a specialised events division. It’s designed to capitalise on the demand for experiential from both brands and consumers, as the post-Covid events bounceback gets under way.
  • City AM is returning to print today, for the first time since pausing its print production when the pandemic began to bite. Given that there have been more mooted firebreaks for this winter, it’s potentially a bit early. In the meantime, though, it achieved 3M MAUs earlier this year.

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