Need to Know: August 19, 2019

Fresh useful insights for people advancing quality, innovative and sustainable journalism 


You might have heard: How a master blacklist could choke off fake news’ money supply (Nieman Lab)

But did you know: Ad blacklisting could also choke off legitimate news coverage (Wall Street Journal)  

Companies are increasingly insisting their ads do not appear near articles or videos that contain any of a long list of words (including, for example, “shooting,” “bomb,” “immigration” and “Trump”). While marketers have used blacklists for years to sidestep controversy, now those blacklists are becoming more sophisticated, specific and extensive. Some companies are creating keyword blacklists so detailed as to make almost all political or hard-news stories off-limits for their ads — and online news publishers are feeling the impact. The use of lengthy keyword lists “is going to force publishers to do lifestyle content and focus on that at the expense of investigative journalism or serious journalism,” said Nick Hewat, commercial director for the Guardian. “That is a long-term consequence of this sort of buying behavior.”

+ Noted: Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press launches initiative to provide direct legal services to more journalists at the local level (RCFP); CNN increasingly sees itself as subject to threats after incidents involving Cuomo, Lemon, Ryan (Washington Post); “Vice News Tonight” lands at Viceland Cable Network (Deadline)


Apply now for year-long support and funds to transform your newsroom with better analytics

News organizations that want to prioritize audience-driven storytelling, use data to inform editorial strategies and make analytics simple and accessible to all newsroom staff can now apply for subsidized access to the Metrics for News software and services provided by API. Thanks to a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, subsidies are available to use Metrics for News at a reduced cost in up to 10 newly participating newsrooms, starting as soon as October and through 2020. Find out more and apply here.

+ Here’s how to get free (or cheap) training from Trusting News this fall (Trusting News)


How design thinking helped The Economist improve its newsletters (What’s New in Publishing)

The Economist has more than doubled the amount of web traffic it receives via newsletters over the past year. Sunnie Huang, newsletter editor at The Economist, says her team constantly ran short experiments, from testing different image sizes to overhauling the format of a newsletter, to see how readers responded. They asked for reader feedback and worked with UX researchers, designers, developers and editors to develop hypotheses on how they could meet readers’ needs. “Instead of developing newsletters in a vacuum and forcing them on readers,” said Huang, “we wanted to find out what our readers’ needs and pain points are, and then, how we can best design newsletters to address those needs.”


How The Times of London increased digital subscribers 19% in a year (Digiday)

Over the last year, The Times of London has undertaken a detailed content audit to understand which content resonates most with readers. They tagged 1,000 articles in each section with up to 16 pieces of metadata, including content tone, headline type, article format and geography; and plotted the tags against 10 engagement metrics, including page views, time on page, reader actions like commenting, saving and sharing, and whether the reader is registered or a subscriber. That resulting findings were then used to dictate content strategy. “The industry is grappling with the right metrics to use online,” said Taneth Evans, head of audience at The Times. “There are broad-brush strokes — like ‘features do well’ — that don’t do anything for the newsroom. This was our attempt to get actual data and findings for people who are doing the job and the wider company.”

+ Group of renowned Latin American journalists launch center for transnational investigative journalism (Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas)


One potential route to flagging fake news at scale: Linguistic analysis (Nieman Lab)

Research shows that fake news articles tend to use expressions that are common in hate speech, as well as words related to sex, death, and anxiety. Genuine news, on the other hand, contains a larger proportion of words related to work (business) and money (economy). These linguistic patterns suggest that a machine learning approach could be used to detect suspicious news, writes Fatemeh Torabi Asr. “The main challenge, however, is to build a system that can handle the vast variety of news topics and the quick change of headlines online. Computer algorithms learn from samples, and if these samples are not sufficiently representative of online news, the model’s predictions would not be reliable.”


How much can we trust anti-fake-news products? (Twitter, @jbenton)

Companies selling “anti-fake-news” or “anti-filter-bubble” products may actually encourage mistrust of legitimate news sources, writes Joshua Benton. He points to a recent example from NewsGuard, a company that rates news sources credibility based on several criteria. In an analysis of health misinformation online, NewsGuard wrote that “11% of news sites in the US publish false info about vaccines, etc” — but in the fine print, clarifies that it’s 11% of the news sites that NewsGuard analyzed, many of which aren’t news sites at all, but websites peddling conspiracy theories and other misinformation. “There’s nothing new about a company that sells a solution making the problem seem worse than it is,” tweeted Benton. “But in this case, these companies are ACTIVELY MAKING THE PROBLEM WORSE by pushing people to trust legitimate media *less*.”


A ‘Revisionist History’ for sports (Washington Post)

Investigative reporter Don Van Natta has covered the Clinton White House and terrorism in Europe for the New York Times; at ESPN, he’s known for his deep reporting on the NFL. Now he’s the host of a new ABC series, “Backstory,” which will revisit some of the biggest stories in sports history — and try to reveal something new about them. “We’re not viewing the series as I’m an ombudsman who’s going to do media criticism of what media missed,” Van Natta told the Post’s Ben Strauss. “We’re looking at areas that the media might not have done enough digging or areas we think we can bring fresh reporting to. Investigative reporting is getting more expensive and rarely done by news organizations today and we’re getting an opportunity to delve deeply into some things that might have fallen through the cracks.”