It’s time for a local news version of the much-cited Willie Sutton quote (about why he robs banks), writes Steven Waldman. In addition to creating news websites and trying to lure people to visit them, we should place reporters where readers already are.
And where are they? Nextdoor and Facebook local groups are the main places, but millions also exchange information in local communities on Reddit, WhatsApp and old-fashioned local email listservs.
Journalists need to be in these groups for four reasons: That’s where the readers are. That’s where the misinformation is. That’s where the story ideas are. And that’s how trust gets rebuilt.
Nextdoor now has sites in 330,000 communities, reaching 53 million people. By contrast, the collective audience – print and digital – of all American newspapers is 24.3 million on weekdays, according to the Pew Research Center. That’s right, Nextdoor’s reach is on par, if not greater than, that of America’s newspapers.
Local Facebook groups are likely just as big, if not bigger. As a point of reference, I live in Brooklyn. If I look around at some of the possible sources of local information, I see the Brooklyn Eagle’s Facebook page has 10,000 followers. But there are hundreds of Brooklyn Facebook groups, collectively reaching far more: Southern Brooklyn Scrapbook (37,000 members), Gravesend Brooklyn 11223 (13,000), Brooklyn Heights & Brooklyn Neighbors (8,700), Kensington (10,000), East New York (2,900), Brooklyn Heights Parents (5,300 members), Buy Sell Trade Brooklyn (20,000), Bushwick (9,500), You’re probably from Marine Park if… (20,000).
Oh, and the subreddit for the Brooklyn area has 180,000 members, though that doesn’t compare with the subreddit for Philadelphia, which has 448,000 members.
Studies have shown that half or more of Americans get news from social media. A deep dive into Oklahoma’s news ecosystem found the same thing, with seven per cent choosing Facebook. “Most participants either claimed that they turned to Facebook for ‘ease’ or that Facebook is ‘more reliable and if you wait for the newspaper the event has usually passed by the time you read about it,’” the authors Rosemary Avance and Allyson Shortle wrote.
Anyone who has spent time on a local Facebook or Nextdoor site knows it’s a real mixed blessing. On our local Facebook group, my “best dishes at local restaurants” list prompted great suggestions, as well as raucous arguments (how could I say the “doubles” at De Hot Pot were better than the jerk chicken at Edmonds?). On the other hand, when I suggested that the gold leaf-covered lobster at another place was obnoxious, I was accused of cultural insensitivity.
More important than culinary debates, studies have shown that misinformation flows alongside recommendations for plumbers and legitimate news items. Nextdoor was a major venue for COVID-19 misinformation and QAnon conspiracies. Facebook groups face the same problems (see: “Facebook group admins in small towns say misinformation is fracturing country communities.”) Some 75 per cent of Americans said they encountered misinformation on Facebook, while only 16 per cent said they did in their local newspaper, according to a 2020 Gallup/Knight Foundation survey.
But rather than harrumphing that these sites do not have journalistic standards, why don’t we embed our journalists in them? Not as misinformation scolds, but as a professional resource that can track down information?
Here’s how it might work. In addition to having, say, Taylor Swift beat reporters, news organisations could have Nextdoor and Facebook beat reporters. They would “walk” the beat as if they were learning a new neighborhood. They’d listen, and react to the concerns of people in the area – not with opinions but with reporting.
So when someone posts a question about why there were helicopters over the neighbourhood the previous night, the members need not just trade speculation. They could ask their embedded reporter, who could call the appropriate officials to find out.
They could post the answers on the Nextdoor site and possibly on the home website of the news organization.
The reporter would view the community as, well, any community – full of crackpots, saints, regular folks, unofficial mayors and most of all, lots of story ideas. It would provide the reporter with opportunities to be of real service, and boost their news brand.
In a way, this is a logical extension of the pioneering approach of Hearken, which teaches newsrooms to listen to their residents more carefully, and literally gets original, relevant and high-performing story ideas from the bottom up.
Their approach has been shown to help local news outlets increase their number of paid subscriptions. Newsrooms could use this approach to more thoroughly cover neighbourhoods, and bolster their revenue models. It’s quite hard for a citywide entity to get sufficiently granular information for each neighborhood. Nextdoor and Facebook have lots of information but it’s hard to know what’s true or not. The embedded reporter could also double as a vetter-in-chief for that neighbourhood, enabling the news outlet (perhaps in partnership with Nextdoor) to create highly targeted and relevant newsletter products.
It’s also a logical extension of efforts like Outlier Media, which uses text messaging to get story ideas and distribute news, using the communication pathways that residents already use most.
When I was at Report for America, I proposed embedding reporters at both Nextdoor and Facebook. Neither company was interested. I suspect they didn’t particularly view the spread of misinformation as a problem for their business models. But perhaps that’s changed.
And a few publications are trying experiments close to this. The pioneering site Documented in New York City is about to start a pilot with Nextdoor that will test some of these ideas. In a New York City study made via focus groups and interviews with Caribbean residents, a majority of respondents mentioned Nextdoor as a main tool to “learn about their neighbourhoods or meet neighbours”, followed by Facebook. They are now placing two reporters into Nextdoor sites in ten ZIP codes, mostly in Brooklyn and Queens, where they will provide news and follow tips or ideas from community participants.
There will be challenges to this approach. What if the moderators don’t want you there? How do the reporters maintain equanimity in the face of attacks? How will they deal with the community members who didn’t get their questions answered?
But these are good and solvable problems to have. It means they will be engaging with the readers directly, and hopefully acting as a trust-building ambassador for the news organization. The Nextdoor and Facebook groups will be better off, and so will the journalists and their news organizations.
• Steven Waldman is president of Rebuild Local News and co-founder of Report for America. This article first appeared on the Poynter website; it is republished with permission.