After first launching its 'Today In' local news module in six US cities in January 2018, Facebook has this week announced that localized versions of the offering, which is designed to promote increased civic engagement, will now be made available to over 6,000 cities and towns across the US.
As you can see here, 'Today In', which is available via in-feed prompts, or via your Facebook apps listing, highlights the biggest news stories of interest in your local region, as well as local Page posts which are generating discussion, upcoming events, weather, local groups, school updates, etc.
The intention of 'Today In' is basically to keep you updated on happenings in your community, in order to prompt increased participation. It could also, theoretically, help make Facebook a more significant platform within each area, and increase focus on happenings in your region, as opposed to Facebook facilitating often more divisive, aggressive discussions on broader world issues, which users tend to have less direct exposure to.
And according to Facebook, Today In is seeing increased usage:
"It's been less than a year since we started expanding Today In across the U.S., and there are now over 1.6 million people who have opted in to receive regular local updates from Today In within News Feed."
In relative terms, that might not sound overly impressive - for context, Facebook currently has 244 million active users in North America. But still, it has only been available in selected regions, and even at those amounts, it is still enabling Facebook to better promote local news content, and local publishers, which will now see significant expansion through broader availability.
In fact, the capacity to better showcase local news is another key focus of the program:
"Today In features articles from over 1,200 local news publishers every week, and as we expand to more cities, these numbers will only go up. CrowdTangle today released a trends report focused on the performance of U.S. local news on Facebook between July 2018 and June 2019. The findings show that U.S. local news Pages have seen significant increases in interactions per post (26%) year over year. For links specifically, total interactions were up 50% year over year, and people shared U.S. local news link posts 97% more year over year."
This new expansion, Facebook says, will also bring more localized content to “news deserts” - places which have a limited supply of local news. Facebook sources this localized content by "supplementing the available local news with relevant articles from surrounding areas".
In addition to this, Facebook's also expanding the Facebook Journalism Project Community Network grant project, which aims to fund local journalism, while it's also testing its breaking news indicator with more local news publishers in the U.S.
"When local news publishers mark a post as “breaking news,“ people see the breaking news indicator next to that post in News Feed. We have also been experimenting with real-time notifications for Page followers, as well as an integration with Today In, where breaking news posts are pinned to the top."
There's definitely a lot to like about Today In, and you can clearly see the potential for increased community awareness and participation. But part of the problem is that local news stories just aren't as engaging, they aren't likely to prompt as much discussion across The Social Network as the latest national news story, or the latest reality TV episode, or a major sports event. Facebook can't demote such discussion in favor of local stories or it would risk declining engagement overall, which means that Today In will likely remain a far lesser consideration for most users - or even something many are not aware of at all.
There could, arguably, be benefit in Facebook making a Today In feed update an essential for all users in all regions where it's available each day - but then that too also comes with a level of risk for those who would prefer not to see it. Facebook could, of course, make it possible to 'opt-out' - but basically, the issue is that at current, and likely, exposure levels, the beneficial impact of Today In will be limited.
Still, it stands as a good initiative, and local news publishers need all the assistance they can get. Maybe, through improvements, Facebook can make Today In a more essential element for a rising number of people, and broader availability will obviously play a part in that. But really, maximizing exposure seems to be the key component. And that's tough to do when balancing user interest.
You can check if Today In is available in your region here.