Need to Know: April 18, 2019


You might have heard: Digital First Media, backed by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, attempted a hostile takeover of Gannett in January. (Wall Street Journal) Gannett rejected the offer in February on the basis that the company would be unable to finance the transaction. (USA Today)

But did you know: Alden Global Capital faces federal probe after investing newspaper workers’ pensions in its own funds (Washington Post)

Alden, which controls more than 100 local newspapers including the Denver Post and the Boston Herald, is under federal scrutiny after moving $250 million of employees’ pension savings into its own accounts in recent years, reports Jonathan O’Connell. In some cases the hedge fund moved more than 90 percent of employees’ savings into two funds that it controlled, according to public records filed with the Labor Department. Most of the money has now been moved back out of the hedge funds. While the exact nature of the investigation is unclear, a spokesperson for Alden confirmed that it is being investigated by the Labor Department for management of its pensions. Federal law generally requires that pension managers avoid conflicts of interest and avoid taking excessive risks with the assets they manage, though some exemptions are allowed. The inquiry could become a factor in Alden’s ongoing effort to acquire Gannett, the nation’s largest chain of daily newspapers, as at least one prominent lawmaker raises questions about how it would manage the company’s pensions.

+ Earlier: Alden’s “mercenary” strategy: Buy newspapers, slash jobs, sell the buildings (Washington Post)

+ Noted: Up-and-coming news leaders with diverse backgrounds can now sign up for one of four free 2019 Emerging Leaders Institutes, hosted by The American Society of News Editors and funded in part by us at the American Press Institute (ASNE); BuzzFeed hiring is up 208 percent since layoffs (ThinkNum); Facebook’s two new fact-checking partners spark criticism for being perceived as partisan (Axios)


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How to help the public — and your newsroom — navigate the Mueller report (Poynter)

On Thursday, journalists may be writing the most important story of 2019 when they report whatever the Justice Department releases of the Mueller report, writes Al Tompkins. He points to PBS NewsHour’s handy timeline to help reporters remember what-happened-when as they parse the report, as well as a list of key search terms to help them quickly locate the most newsworthy findings. Tompkins adds some context to each of those terms to make it even easier for reporters. His other points of advice (or rather, small asks): Please do not use the word “explosive” to describe the report’s findings, and please refrain from calling it “breaking news.” “We have known for a week that it was coming. Take a deep breath. There are more than a dozen other investigations and lawsuits surrounding the President and his associates.”

+ Related: Media must “fight their own DNA” to properly cover the redacted Mueller report (Washington Post)

+ How ProPublica Illinois reporters used a mother’s diary to produce a devastating investigative narrative: “By simply asking sources to hunt in their attics and basements and memory boxes, writers can locate records that reveal a character’s inner life and history” (Global Investigative Journalism Network)


Latin American media startups get financial boost to save independent journalism (

Velocidad, a new digital media accelerator from the philanthropy group Luminate, will channel $1.5 million to entrepreneurial Latin American news organizations producing rigorous investigative reporting. According to a recent study from SembraMedia, 71 percent of Latin American media startups launch with less than $10,000, and just 26 percent have someone dedicated to sales or business development. Felipe Estefan, investment director of Luminate, said that revenue for the organizations in the accelerator would increase by as much as 3,000 percent simply by filling this void. In addition to funding, Velocidad will provide consulting hours from Luminate and access to Chartbeat’s analytics platform.


A cognitive scientist explains why humans are so susceptible to fake news and misinformation (Nieman Lab)

“The way our memory works means it might be impossible to resist fake news completely,” writes Julian Matthews. “But one approach is to start thinking like a scientist” — understanding why we’re all wired to believe fake news (at least, certain kinds), and thinking about how our personal biases play into our ability to tell fake from true. Fake news relies heavily on misattribution — instances in which we can retrieve things from memory but can’t remember their source, and repeated exposure — our tendency to believe information the more we’re exposed to it. Making a point to remember the context in which we’ve seen information can prevent fake news from becoming lodged in our minds, and a constant awareness of how our biases are shaping our perception of news and information helps keep the guard from slipping.

+ The new digital divide is between people who opt out of algorithms and people who don’t (The Conversation)


Is it okay for a journalist to block a critic — not a troll, just a critic — on Twitter? (Nieman Lab)

Feathers were ruffled in the media Twittersphere this week when Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia, Obama administration official and Stanford professor, tweeted criticism of a New York Times article — and then found himself blocked by one of the reporters. His ire at the discovery (“I find it unethical. Frankly, I’m also shocked”) and others’ reactions to it played out on Twitter, with people weighing in one both sides. Some people thought McFaul was overreacting — he has no inherent right to the attention of a Times reporter, and journalists have the right to shape their Twitter environment as they see fit, they said. But others thought that a reporter blocking a source violates of the openness-to-criticism that should be implicit in being a working journalist. A paying Times subscriber should be able to read a Times reporter’s tweets, given that it’s part of their work product, they pointed out.


Inside the media’s #MeToo blacklist (Vanity Fair)

Reporter Diana Falzone talked to multiple women in media who settled high-profile lawsuits against serial sexual harassers and said they struggled to continue their careers after defending themselves. “The very same people who publicly applaud you for speaking up about bad behavior will never hire you into their own organizations because you are forever pegged as a whistleblower and a troublemaker,” said one woman, once a prominent TV personality, who sued a large corporation for sexual harassment and is now unable to secure a talent agent or an on-camera job. Many women said they were told by potential employers to wait “until the dust settles,” or otherwise turned away. “It would be awful if one of the unintended consequences of the ‘Me Too’ movement is that employers are now so paranoid of being sued, they’re quietly blackballing the victims who had the strength and courage to stand up for themselves,” said Scott Pinsker, a branding and marketing expert. “I hope that’s not the case, but common sense says otherwise.”