Local journalism at risk because of Facebook?

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Posted 12/19/17 (Tue)

Whines & Roses
By Cecile Wehrman

Remember years ago when newspapers were supposedly going to be shuttered because people were spending so much time watching TV? The argument was that “no one reads anymore.” 
Today, people of all ages are reading more than ever -- on their phones. Social media and cell phones have completely changed our lives and how we receive information.
Figuring out how to capture eyeballs and bring them back or keep them on their community newspaper is a challenge publishers like me, all over the country, are trying to figure out.
We know people want the information we have, but they don’t necessarily want to pay for it. So we have to operate cheaper, while also finding ways to make this new technology pay us to do what we do for you.
Several examples locally illustrate how Facebook is changing our communities -- and threatening the important work local journalists do.
First, consider how important it was for people in the community to have regular updates on Facebook, from the Tioga Tribune, when a natural gas outage caused the town to be without heat for a night. When breaking news happens, it is important for people in our communities to have a news organization whose job it is to report factual, verified information.
Second, consider what happened in Crosby last week when, while doing the final fact-checking on our article about Divide County property tax bills, it was clear something did not add up. It was the questioning by a journalist that brought to light the fact the city of Crosby’s levy was wrong. Surely, the hue and cry from the public would eventually have led to the same information coming to light, but how much more timely and vital that, because we have an institution watching local government, this error was caught the very day tax statements were appearing in mailboxes? 
This is why newspapers exist. It’s not because we take glee in uncovering governmental mistakes, but because it’s our job to advocate for the good of all citizens.
During this same time period, I heard a story about a local event that decided to forgo any newspaper advertising, completely shifting its public relations effort to Facebook, which resulted in a huge decline in participation.
I learned of another local event, while perusing Facebook myself, and read the frustration of people who were wanting to help get the word out to a wider audience beyond their friends list. I invited them to send some information to the newspaper. We published it. Free.
I also learned of a local fundraising effort on Facebook, for the benefit of local youth, and was a little frustrated because no one from that organization has contacted us for news coverage -- even though we’ve covered the event in the past. Free.
So, while on the one hand I am thrilled with how Facebook allowed us to get the word out to readers during MDU’s recent gas outage in Tioga, I am also frustrated that the work we do to protect the rights of citizens by drawing attention to a mill levy mistake is in jeopardy -- because of social media. Though we publish a lot of things free, community support through advertising -- of local events, fundraising efforts and sales -- pays the bills.
The very fabric of our community is jeopardized when the convenience of posting something free on Facebook erodes the audience of people who can contribute to a cause or help spread the word about a valuable program because it’s only bouncing around the echo chamber of the people you already know.
Facebook is an important tool. But if it also removes support, through ads not placed or information not shared in your local newspaper, it’s chipping away at an institution unlikely to be replaced if it folds.
I’m happy that this week’s paper is an exception to the trend. It’s the final week before Christmas and lots of businesses have messages to get out -- using the pages of our newspapers.