By Steve Wengrovitz, Head of News Research

When Hurricane Florence hit the southeastern coast of the US in September, Anthea Watson Strong was keeping a close eye on the news in Columbia, SC — despite the fact that she lives 700 miles away, in New York City.

Columbia is one of over a hundred US cities where Facebook has been testing “Today In,” a section in the mobile app that connects people to local news and information. Watson Strong, a product manager, has been leading this work for the past year and a half. Since the tests began rolling out in January, people in mid-sized cities from Allentown to Yakima have had a dedicated place to see not only articles from local publishers, but also content from less-formal sources of information. People in those cities can also opt into receiving a digest of local updates in their News Feed.

During Florence, Watson Strong watched as police departments posted about downed power lines, school districts gave parents up-to-the minute school closure updates and community groups shared tips about which stores still had supplies. “These are the things that really paint a nuanced portrait of a community,” Watson Strong says. “It’s especially apparent during a crisis like Florence, but it’s true during less newsworthy times, as well.”

The team was inspired to build the feature after a series of surveys helped outline what kinds of local information people were looking for. The research showed that people wanted both what might be traditionally understood as “local news” — breaking news or information about past events like city council meetings, crime reports and weather updates — as well as community information that could help them make plans, like bus schedules, road closures and restaurant openings. “There was really no place on the Internet collecting information from local publishers as well as less-formal sources of information — parks, libraries, first responders,” says Watson Strong.

Content for the section is brought in from all over Facebook. The “In the News” section, for example, identifies local publishers using the same back-end technology that helps prioritize local news in News Feed. To find the relevant Pages for community organizations, like government agencies, art museums and animal shelters, an algorithm looks for “local affinity” — that is, a Page whose fans are geographically located near the organization. All content shown in the “Today In” section gets passed through Facebook’s integrity filters, which helps weed out content that is spammy, contains hate speech, or displays other misleading or inauthentic content.

We also wanted to help users more easily see and engage with the local content. In research conducted over the past few years, the majority of people who responded to our surveys said they wanted to see more local news on Facebook. But what was actually preventing them from doing so?

First, the team investigated whether there was enough local news being produced in the first place. We researched news deserts, or areas with no local news publishers, and determined that although this would certainly affect some cities, even residents of places with robust news media weren’t seeing as much local information as they wanted. And most local publishers share their articles on Facebook or post to Facebook directly. So the issue didn’t seem to be that there wasn’t enough local content on Facebook — rather, it was more that we needed to make it easier for people to see it on Facebook.

Second, the team considered whether there was a better way to connect people to that existing content. We know from our research that people want a more predictable way to find local content on Facebook. Recent ranking changes were making local news more prominent in News Feed, but people wanted a place where they could get all the most important information for their community — and they didn’t want to rely on the serendipity of News Feed to deliver it to them. By building both a dedicated space in the app as well as presenting the option to get a collection of local updates in News Feed itself, the team helped solve the twin problems of discoverability and predictability — that is, how to help people find local news, as well as get it on a regular basis.

Finally, the team had to figure out which cities to start testing in. In these early stages, the team has picked cities where there was a continuous stream of fresh content as well as enough people actively using Facebook to ensure that the feature would be valuable. We also looked for cities that were small and densely populated enough for the updates to be relevant to all people within that city. “In a city like New York, people really want information on more of a neighborhood level, not a city level,” Watson Strong says. “If you live in Brooklyn, school closings in Queens probably don’t matter too much to you.”

Engagement with the Today In section, as well as the digest in News Feed, has been high thus far, and in recent weeks the Today In feature has expanded from a few dozen to over a hundred cities. “This is a big leap for us in terms of stress-testing the product,” Watson Strong notes.

As the team continues to test and refine the product, there are a number of areas we’re excited to continue exploring. For example, we’ve been partnering with over 100 first responder pages in 83 cities and counties, like police departments, fire departments, and city and county governments, to test local alerts, a special, time-bound indicator that can be applied to a Page’s Facebook posts to communicate urgent information. As more government Pages are brought into the local alert program, the Today In section will be a natural place to show these updates, in addition to News Feed and in Facebook’s notifications.

Watson Strong is especially excited about the Today In feature’s potential to help build constructive dialogue. Across Facebook, research has shown that local news generally leads to higher levels of “cross-cutting likes” — that is, when people across the ideological spectrum engage on the same piece of content.

“Long term, I want it to be a place where people can participate in high-quality public discussions about the issues affecting their neighborhoods,” says Watson Strong. “I want to build the infrastructure that helps people create safe, supportive and inclusive communities.”

Want to see if the Today In feature is available in your city? Head to the Facebook app and tap the menu (☰). If it’s in your city, you’ll see “Today In” listed as an option. From there, you can also opt into receiving regular updates in News Feed.

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