Blog posts for CJR archive

March 7: New York Times reporter Farhad Manjoo spent two months consuming news only via print newspapers, and says his life was better as a result. After the Parkland school shooting, he writes:

“A friendly person I’ve never met dropped off three newspapers at my front door. That morning, I spent maybe 40 minutes poring over the horror of the shooting and a million other things the newspapers had to tell me. Not only had I spent less time with the story than if I had followed along as it unfolded online, I was better informed, too. Because I had avoided the innocent mistakes—and the more malicious misdirection—that had pervaded the first hours after the shooting, my first experience of the news was an accurate account of the actual events.”

It’s difficult to argue with Manjoo’s point, which is that the algorithmic incentives built into Twitter and Facebook “reward speed over depth, hot takes over facts and seasoned propagandists over well-meaning analyzers of news.” That said, however, newspapers also frequently get things wrong, distort the facts and engage in the old-fashioned version of clickbait, and much of that behavior gets revealed by thoughtful people on social media, provided you follow the right people. Trying to put the digital genie back in the bottle may be appealing in some ways, but it doesn’t really seem like a workable long-term strategy.

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March 7: The Trump campaign’s use of Facebook to connect with right-wing supporters has been widely credited with helping them win the 2016 election (along with the activities of some Russian trolls) and now another conservative politician is thanking social media for his victory. Italy’s new political star, Matteo Salvini of the far-right Lega party, gave credit to Facebook in a speech celebrating his party’s success:

“Local journalists said Salvini — a member of the European Parliament and leader of the far-right Lega party, which now stands to act as a kingmaker in the coming coalition negotiations — had shaken up the election with the now notorious populist strategy of attacking the traditional media and adopting a hyper-personal and hyper-partisan Facebook strategy. “Facebook was a huge part of his surge in the polls,” Il Post’s Davide Maria De Luca told BuzzFeed News.”

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March 7: Sri Lanka blocked Facebook and WhatsApp for three days because of posts on the social networks that the government said were encouraging violence against Muslims:

“Social media websites such as Facebook, Whatsapp, and Viber — which were created to bring us closer to our friends and family and make communication free and convenient — have been used to destroy families, lives and private property,” said Telecommunications, Digital Infrastructure, and Foreign Employment Minister Harin Fernando according to local media.

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March 7: Newspaper companies have gotten their wish — a bill introduced by Democratic senator David Cicilline (D-Rhode Island) would give them an exemption from antitrust so they could collude and seek collective action against Facebook and Google, something that News Media Alliance head David Chavern has been calling for for some time:

“Chavern says the alliance is seeking changes in five areas: platforms should share data about the publishers’ readers; better highlight trusted brands; support subscriptions for publishers; and potentially share more ad revenue and consider paying for some content. Silicon Valley companies swallowed a number of industries on their way to the top of the stock market. But Chavern believes the news business warrants intervention because of its role in a healthy democracy. “The republic is not going to suffer terribly if we have bad cat video or even bad movies or bad TV. The republic will suffer if we have bad journalism,” he says.

The senator says the bill would limit the action that the companies could take — for example, it would theoretically prevent them from colluding on price. But that seems to be exactly what Chavern has in mind, judging by his comments. And while Google and Facebook may have an advertising duopoly, is giving more power to a failing oligopoly really the best way to deal with that?

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March 5: Many digital-media startups have been cutting back or downsizing, but The Athletic is going in the opposite direction: The two-year-old subscription-based sports media startup has raised a $20-million round of funding and is preparing to more than double its staff and expand to new markets.

“Two years after launching as ‘the new sports page,’ the Athletic has raised $20 million, according to Athletic co-founder and Chief Executive Alex Mather. The funding round, the company’s third, was led by Evolution Media, the growth-stage investment company founded by TPG Growth and Creative Artists Agency. Before this round, the Athletic raised $10 million in two rounds led by Courtside Ventures. The Athletic plans to use most of the financing to continue its expansion across the U.S., establishing a presence in every market with a professional sports team by the end of the year.”

By the end of 2018, The Athletic says it plans to have between 200 and 350 employees, up from its current staff of 120. It is currently in 23 markets across the U.S. and Canada, and plans to expand to roughly 45 markets by the end of the year. Focusing on a news vertical with passionate fans seems to be making the difference for the company, which gets 100 percent of its revenues from subscriptions and therefore isn’t dependent on the shrinking digital advertising market.

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March 5: Facebook’s latest changes to its news-feed algorithm seem to be taking their toll on companies that have built their businesses on “viral” content for the social network: The latest victim is Rare, Cox Media’s conservative-focused news site, which the company said is shutting down after traffic evaporated. The site was set up in 2013 and worked its way up to 2.3 million FB fans and about 22 million uniques at its peak. Another Facebook-focused publisher, Little Things, also shut down recently after saying its Facebook traffic had fallen by about 70 percent following the latest algorithm tweak, and media industry watchers say viral-video companies like Jukin Media could also be threatened.

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March 5: Senate investigators are broadening their search for information about Russian trolls infiltrating social networks, and have asked Reddit and Tumblr for more details on their platforms. The Daily Beast reported last week that at least 21 accounts on Tumblr had ties to the Internet Research Agency, and Reddit CEO Steve Huffman said in a post on the site that his team had “found and removed a few hundred accounts.” But he also acknowledged that Reddit more broadly suffered from propaganda that was posted and shared by thousands of users who “appear to be unwittingly promoting Russian propaganda.”

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March 5: It’s hard to believe that this actually happened, given all the problems Facebook has been having, but the company admitted to running a survey with some users that asked whether it would be acceptable for an adult man to ask a 14-year-old girl for sexual photos.

“There are a wide range of topics and behaviours that appear on Facebook,” one question began. “In thinking about an ideal world where you could set Facebook’s policies, how would you handle the following: a private message in which an adult man asks a 14-year-old girl for sexual pictures.” The options available to respondents ranged from “this content should not be allowed on Facebook, and no one should be able to see it” to “this content should be allowed on Facebook, and I would not mind seeing it.”

Facebook’s vice president of product, Guy Rosen, said the surveys were a mistake. “We run surveys to understand how the community thinks about how we set policies,” he said. “But this kind of activity is and will always be completely unacceptable on FB. We regularly work with authorities if identified. It shouldn’t have been part of this survey. That was a mistake.” That seems like the understatement of the year.

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March 5: Media consultant Simon Galperin wants to create a system whereby local communities could use tax revenue to create a news and information entity called a Community Information Cooperative. The idea is that a fee levied on residents — similar to fees for fire services, water, sanitation, etc. — would allow a community to essentially self-fund their own local reporters. Galperin has set up a Kickstarter campaign to raise $2,000 to create a non-profit entity that would put the idea into action. He recently wrote at the CJR about how this might work in his home town:

“My hometown of Fair Lawn, New Jersey, has a population of 32,000 people. An annual $40 contribution per household could deliver a $500,000 operating budget to a newsroom devoted to understanding and serving the local news and information needs of its community. That budget could support print or online newspapers, or livestreaming town council meetings. A special service district for local journalism could convene community forums or media literacy classes, launch a text message and email alert system, or pay for chatbots that answer locally relevant questions, like “Is alternate side parking in effect?”

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March 4: Serial media entrepreneur Steven Brill and former WSJ publisher Gordon Crovitz have launched a startup called NewsGuard, which they hope will create a ranking system for the credibility of news. NewsGuard is hiring human journalists and editors to evaluate 7,500 news sites that account for 98% of engagement with news online in the U.S.

Websites will receive green, yellow, or red ratings based on how credible they are according to a range of factors, and there will also be what the company is calling “nutrition labels,” with more detailed information about each site. Crovitz says the idea is to let readers know whether “they need to take particular brands they see online with a grain of salt — or with an entire shaker.” The company plans to try and license its ranking system to Google, Facebook and Twitter.

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March 2: Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey acknowledged—not for the first time—that harassment and abuse are a problem on the platform, and said he is committed to helping “increase the collective health, openness, and civility of public conversation, and to hold ourselves publicly accountable towards progress.” How exactly the company plans to do that isn’t clear, but Dorsey said Twitter is working with a number of groups and services to try and identify both healthy and unhealthy conversation and find ways of decreasing the latter.

As well-meaning as Dorsey statements are, it’s hard to feel optimistic about Twitter’s chances of actually removing all the abuse, or of creating some kind of utopian ideal of “healthy conversation.” For one thing, the company has been promising to do this for the past year or more, without much sign of success. On top of that, healthy conversation is something that typically occurs between small groups of people—it’s not at all clear that such a thing can even exist on a platform that connects hundreds of millions of people instantaneously. And even if it can, it’s not going to be easy.

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