Need to Know: Dec. 17, 2019


You might have heard: Silicon Valley’s news distribution algorithms are rife with problems (Columbia Journalism Review; CNN)

But did you know: How news orgs’ own curation algorithms can reflect their editorial values (Columbia Journalism Review)

For much of the last decade, online news distribution has been in the control of Silicon Valley. Facebook, Google and Apple News write algorithms — reflecting their own business values and priorities — that drive online traffic to news and determine which publishers and stories gain exposure. But now more news organizations are joining the game of algorithmic curation, writes Nicholas Diakopoulos. Curation algorithms designed by news orgs should prioritize a diverse mix of content and use stricter accuracy standards for the sources of articles that enter a feed, he says. They could also improve transparency by providing clear explanations for every recommendation.

+ Noted: Vox Media to cut hundreds of freelance jobs ahead of changes in California gig economy laws (CNBC); Forty-nine journalists were killed across the world in 2019, marking the lowest death toll in 16 years (Reporters Without Borders); Instagram hides false content behind warnings, except for politicians, following the same controversial policy as its parent company Facebook (TechCrunch)


How to avoid polarizing audiences with your opinion journalism

Newspaper opinion sections can be polarizing — and in an age of fragile trust in local news, many newsrooms are unwilling to risk driving away readers. In this essay collection, we look at three innovative ways newsrooms are reimagining opinion journalism, turning it into a platform (in the digital and physical sense) that engages readers in inclusive, civil debate on local issues.


How publishers are tapping into communities within communities (Folio Mag)

Several publishers are proving that the more niche you go, the more loyal audiences you can attract. McClatchy, for example, uses site tracking to target readers who are over-indexing on political coverage with its newsletter that takes a deep dive into the 2020 election cycle. “If we see a pattern of engagement, what else can we do to bring that content to you and get you back?” says Grant Belaire, VP of digital audience development. “We are trying to isolate the people who fall into specific niches.” At Esquire, a micro-subscription offers access to one of its star reporter’s work. Political writer Charles P. Pierce already has a dedicated following that has long been attached to his personality and prowess. More than 10,000 members are now paying $18 a year (or $2 a month) for access to Pierce.


Facebook will call some media ‘state controlled.’ Al Jazeera said that’s ‘dangerous.’ (BuzzFeed News)

Facebook says it will begin labeling some government-funded news outlets as “state-controlled,” using a determination process that many of those outlets say is opaque and irresponsible. Al Jazeera, one of the outlets that could be affected, says the “state-controlled” label would do irreparable harm to its reputation. The news organization is funded by the Qatari government but insists it has complete editorial independence; similar to the BBC and public media outlets in the U.S. Facebook has declined to share the criteria it’s using to determine whether an outlet is state-controlled. “What we’re asking for really is transparency,” said Yaser Bishr, the executive director of digital at Al Jazeera Media Network. “You have to prove that we’re controlled.”

+ Canada’s non-diverse publishing institutions are a lesson in what happens when your media industry contracts: journalism no longer serves the reality of the country. (Longreads)


Third-party tracking cookies on your website are probably putting your users’ data at risk (Digiday)

Publishers already know that too many tech vendors can slow down page-load times and risk consumer data leakage. But new research from Redbud, an ad tech consultancy, puts the problem into grim perspective. Looking at the impact of third-party cookie trackers, it found that 81% of news websites use vendors that are identified as potential privacy risks, either from a compliance or data-leakage perspective. It also found third-party redirects slowed sites an average of 19 seconds. But publishers are showing increased dedication to reducing privacy and user-experience headaches, said Chloe Grutchfield, co-founder of Redbud. “Publishers are carrying out audits and they want to clean up what’s going on. There’s a lot of willingness to take control and encourage vendors to make appropriate changes.”


‘Bothsidesism’ is broken (Columbia Journalism Review)

The impeachment proceedings have laid bare the trouble with “both sides” journalism, writes Jon Allsop; leading to a reflexive framing of stories as Democrat vs. Republican. News outlets attempting to show “both sides” are simply granting equal play to Democrats and Republicans, regardless of whether what they’re saying is based in fact, he argues. “On impeachment, too much coverage seems to have got stuck in a feedback loop: we’re telling the public that politicians aren’t budging from their partisan siloes, and vice versa, with the facts of what Trump actually did getting lost somewhere in the cycle.”


Nine months in, Apple News+ isn’t wowing publishers (Digiday)

“This time around publishers entered Apple News+ with realistic expectations,” writes Deanna Ting. “But the early results so far indicate that Apple’s move to offer a paid subscription service for news is having little impact on the bottom lines of publishers.” For a monthly subscription price of $9.99 in the U.S., users can access content from hundreds of publishers, whom Apple pays to participate. But how much they will get paid isn’t always clear — although it is clear that Apple keeps 50% of the revenue. Many publishers said they were participating despite concerns over relinquishing control of the customer relationship to Apple, and the heavy lift of formatting their content for the platform.

+ Nieman Lab’s predictions for journalism in 2020 have begun (Nieman Lab); 13 local news stories and series that made a difference in 2019 (Trust, Media & Democracy)