The Gong Blog

Questioning Facebook’s News Desert Designations in Virginia

Virginia is home to 133 daily and weekly newspapers. I know because I work with many of these hyper local outlets on behalf of clients. (I also counted and double-checked with the Virginia Press Association late last year.)

I’m questioning Facebook’s latest research into Virginia’s news deserts. To support its new Today In section on the Facebook app, the company is working “to better understand the local news vacuum” and looked at news deserts across the U.S.

According to Facebook:

To build Today In, we needed to know, for any given community in the US, what local news was available on Facebook at a given time. Through a five-step algorithmic process, we learned how much local journalism is being shared on Facebook in towns across the country. We also learned where the holes are – places where we can’t identify enough regular local reporting on Facebook.

The phrase in that statement you should pay attention to is “news available on Facebook.” If local news isn’t available on the platform, Facebook is essentially declaring it a news desert. That’s misleading.

A majority of the counties and cities listed on Facebook’s map as “not having enough local news to launch Today In” have weekly or daily papers (not to mention broadcast outlets) that are covering local news.

Should local newspapers rely on Facebook to help them with turnarounds? I would be wary, considering entire websites have shut down after the social network changed sharing algorithms. What happens when local news is no longer a priority for Facebook?

A list of all the counties Facebook highlighted in Virginia as news deserts – and their corresponding daily and weekly papers – are listed below this post. You’ll see that a majority of the counties highlighted by the social media site have a weekly paper producing local news.

I don’t disagree we need to find opportunities to strengthen the newspaper industry. Sadly, five Virginia newspapers closed last year. These are newspapers with rich histories and strong community connections – the average lifespan of the newspapers was a whopping 134 years. Across the U.S. in 2016, weekday newspaper circulations decreased by 8% compared to the previous year. It was the 28th consecutive year of circulation decline.

We all need to support local news organizations. What’s the best way you can help? Subscribe, read and engage with your local news organizations.

Please share your thoughts in the comments.

List of counties reported as news deserts and their corresponding news outlet:

  • Accomack – DelmarvaNow
  • Albemarle County – The Daily Progress
  • Alleghany County – The Virginian Review
  • Amelia County – Amelia Bulletin Monitor
  • Augusta County – The News Virginian
  • Bath County – The Recorder
  • Bland County – The Bland Messenger
  • Botetourt County – The Fincastle Herald
  • Brunswick County – Brunswick Times-Gazette
  • Buchanan County – The Fincastle Herald
  • Buckingham and Cumberland Counties – The Farmville Herald
  • Campbell County – The News & Advance. Lynchburg based, but they have Campbell County writers
  • Caroline County – The Caroline Progress closed in 2018, but the Freelance-Star has a Caroline County reporter
  • Carroll County – The Carroll News
  • Charlotte County – The Charlotte Gazette
  • Clarke County—No weekly, but they are included in the Winchester Star
  • Craig County – The New Castle Record
  • Dickenson County – Dickenson Star (Part of the Coalfield Progress)
  • Dinwiddie County – The Dinwiddie Monitor
  • Emporia County—Emporia Independent Messenger
  • Essex County – Rappahannock Times
  • Floyd County – The Floyd Press
  • Fluvanna County – Fluvanna Review
  • Franklin County – Franklin News-Post
  • Fredrick County – The Winchester Star covers and Northern Virginia Daily cover this county
  • Giles County – No weekly paper
  • Goochland County—Goochland Gazette (owned by the Richmond Times-Dispatch)
  • Grayson County – The Declaration
  • Greene County—Greene County Record
  • Greensville County – Independent Messenger
  • Highland County – The Recorder
  • Isle of Wight – Tidewater News (The Daily Press also covers)
  • James City – The Virginia Gazette
  • King and Queen and King William Counties – Country Courier
  • King George County—Covered by the Free Lance Star
  • Lancaster County – Northern Neck News
  • Lee County – Has a section in Kingsport Times-News
  • Lexington County – The News Gazette
  • Lunenburg County – The Kenbridge Victoria Dispatch
  • Madison County – Madison County Eagle
  • Matthews County – Gazette-Journal
  • Mecklenburg County—The Mecklenburg News-Progress
  • Middlesex County – Southside Sentinel
  • Nelson County – Nelson County Times
  • New Kent and Charles City counties – New Kent-Charles City Chronicle
  • Northampton County – Shore Daily News
  • Northumberland County – Northumberland Echo
  • Nottoway County – The Courier Record
  • Page County – Page News and Courier
  • Patrick County – The Enterprise
  • Powhatan County—Powhatan Today (owned by the Richmond Times-Dispatch)
  • Prince George County – The Prince George Journal
  • Pulaski County – The Southwest Times
  • Rappahannock County—Rappahannock News
  • Richmond County – Northern Neck News
  • Rockbridge County – The News-Gazette
  • Salem County – Salem Times-Register
  • Scott County – Virginia Star
  • Southampton – Tidewater News
  • Surry and Sussex Counties – The Sussex-Surry Dispatch
  • Surry County – The Sussex-Surry Dispatch
  • Westmoreland County – Westmoreland News
  • Wythe County – Wytheville Enterprise

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Cameron McPherson

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