Need to Know: Dec. 23, 2019

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


You might have heard: At least 70 countries have had disinformation campaigns, study finds (The New York Times)

But did you know: Facebook says a pro-Trump media outlet used artificial intelligence to create fake people and push conspiracies (NBC News)

Facebook removed more than 600 fake accounts and pages used to push conspiracy theories and express opposition to President Donald Trump’s impeachment. The accounts were linked to Epoch Media Group, which owns The Epoch Times, a conservative site that spreads pro-Trump conspiracy theories. Facebook learned of the network, which was operated from Vietnam and had more than 55 million Facebook followers, because of its use of artificial intelligence to generate profile photos.

+ Related: Twitter suspended 700 accounts linked to the same network (The Washington Post); Director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab Graham Brookie said the accounts point to “an eerie, tech-enabled future of disinformation.” (The New York Times)

+ Noted: NBC News forms new election security team (Axios); How communities were affected when their local newspapers closed (The New York Times); Reuters reinforces commitment to climate change coverage by joining “Covering Climate Now” (Reuters)


Make the transition from advertising to reader revenue (American Press Institute)

In our report, “What it takes to shift a news organization to reader revenue,” we examine the critical elements that must be in place to build and maintain a successful subscription program. Find out what you’re doing — or not doing — that could be hindering reader revenue. 


With the Facebook traffic flood receded, publishers look to smaller traffic sources (Digiday)

Some publishers are diversifying their traffic sources with mobile news aggregators like News Break, Flipboard, SmartNews and TopBuzz, which is owned by the same China-based tech company responsible for TikTok, ByteDance. On Inquisitr, for instance, traffic from TopBuzz rose from just about 0.1 percent of its traffic last year to 23 percent this year. In part, this traffic boom can be attributed to millions of downloads of aggregators like TopBuzz, SmartNews and Flipboard in the last year. SmartNews also pays some publishers for licensed content.


In Spain, energy company buys covers of newspapers ahead of climate conference (Columbia Journalism Review)

At the beginning of December, a Spanish energy company called Endesa bought at least eight covers of Spanish newspapers during the kickoff of the United Nations climate conference. Instead of their usual headlines, the papers ran sponsored content that repeated the phrase, “Endesa Presents Solutions,” while presenting a pristine version of the company’s environmental record. On Twitter, El Mundo columnist Lucia Mendez said of the covers, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. But I can’t get used to seeing this without shuddering.”

+ News agency boss loses libel appeal over BuzzFeed report (Press Gazette)


Facebook will bar posts, ads that spread disinformation about the U.S. census (The Washington Post)

Next year, Facebook will ban posts and ads that mislead users about how the 2020 census works, including inaccurate information about who can participate and how the government uses the public’s personal information. This policy will apply to political ads, trumping a policy that allows candidates to inject misinformation into advertising on the platform. The census influences everything from determining fellow federal funding for educational programs to how many seats states have in the House of Representatives.

+ Twitter removed almost 6,000 Saudi Arabia-backed accounts (Twitter)


Why Crosscut is closing its comment section (Crosscut)

Crosscut, a Pacific Northwest-based nonprofit news site, plans to shutter its comment section at the end of this year after dozens of articles inspired toxic statements. Those stories, which included reporting on gender and race, led to comments that threatened violence and racist attacks, several editorial leaders wrote. Crosscut’s audience development team found that 45 percent of comments from this year were from just 13 individuals, which “tells us that social media, email, phone calls, letters to the editor, our Crosscut events and an occasional visit to the newsroom are far better tools for us to hear about your concerns, story ideas, feedback and support,” the staffers wrote.

+ Journalism’s missteps in impeachment coverage (On the Media)


Josh Katzenstein used to be a sportswriter. Now he sells CBD. And he’s happy. (The Ringer)

Josh Katzenstein was the lead reporter covering the New Orleans Saints for the Times-Picayune until May, when The Advocate bought the paper and all of its employees were laid off. The Athletic hired three of the Times’ Picayune’s sports staffers, and four joined The Advocate, leaving Katzenstein and three others on their own. Katzenstein continues to write a weekly column on sports betting, but his full-time job is selling CBD for Crescent Canna, where he convinced Saints quarterback Bobby Hebert to become a spokesman for the company. “I think it’s always going to have to be in my life to some extent,” he said of sports journalism.

+ A list of the best journalism from the decade (Columbia Journalism Review)

Need to Know will be on hiatus until the new year. We’ll see you again on Jan. 2. To all our readers, have a great holiday season and a happy new year. Thanks for reading.