If You Can’t Beat Em’, Join Em’: Local News on Social Media

We have all heard about the pro’s and con’s of social media algorithms.

For those of you not lucky enough to be apart of these in-class discussions held every Tuesday and Thursday in “Issues in Mass Communication,” here’s a recap.

“Social media algorithms are inaccurate, annoying and down right silly.”

“Let me see what I want to see, don’t tell me what to do, Facebook.”

“It filters my news, yes, but that’s not necessarily the filter I would have chosen.”

***Not actual quotes, simply factious examples of a consensus of ideas. ***

If you do not know what these algorithms are, here’s a guide:

Algorithms are used to filter what content reaches you online. Because there is such a vast array of posts on social media, platforms rank them using formulas. This is meant as a tool to make sure you see what they think you want to see.

Pro’s: Less work for the user. Less to scroll through. Less to filter.

Con’s: Less to see. Content is not always desired. Less control.

Facebook, for example, uses an algorithm created by EdgeRank. They base their formula off three factors: affinity, weight and time decay.

  • Affinity: Connectedness. Shows news from those you interact with most.
  • Weight: How much activity occurs on a post (such as likes or comments). More activity means more weight.
  • Time Decay: How often you log on and post on Facebook matters. Depending on the  frequency of these, your post could be valued more or less.


So here’s my problem with online algorithms: local news.

We were lucky enough to discuss the issues local news is facing in our online world with Penny Abernathy. I learned that while local news is very important (we can’t let it die!), and while these outlets are fighting to stay afloat by becoming more relevant online, sometimes it is not worth the costs.

Especially when social media algorithms are making this already uphill battle even steeper.

With the filters and formulas of algorithms local news tends to be buried under data deemed “more relevant.“

Pew did a study to find local news presence on Twitter. It was so hidden they had to use human filters rather than software and robots to find posts related to local news. There was no easy way to place effective search filters on posts because of the lack of visibility.

So what do we do?

We know we need to keep local news around. We know local news needs to be relevant online to keep up with readers, viewers and listeners. We know algorithms hide them from their audience.

We don’t know how to fix it.

It’s a balancing act. Algorithms are important. They protect us from an overwhelming amount of online content. However, they also filter things that do not receive enough online attention. Using Facebook’s formula, an ideal post would be from someone you already interact with, that is already getting a lot of attention.

Basically, the popular kids gain popularity.

Do we push to make local news more popular or simply abolish algorithms altogether?

It’s going to take a little bit of both.

There’s no denying that these algorithms need to be tweaked but journalists reporting local news can also step up their social media game.

Instead of fighting an impossible battle, local news should make itself more relevant to these algorithms. Meet the standards they set.

  • Affinity: Interact with your audience more.
  • Weight: Get a lot of attention by creating sharable content.
  • Time Decay: Find a happy medium of post frequency.

In the end, if you can’t beat them, join them!


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