Need to Know: Dec. 6, 2019


You might have heard: The U.S. is getting lonely in its fierce defense of free speech online (New York Times)

But did you know: Freedom of expression is at a 10-year low, study says (Columbia Journalism Review)

The report from Article 19, a U.K.-based charity named for one of the clauses in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, looked at what it says are five key metrics of freedom of expression: civic space, digital, media, protection and transparency. It blames “digital authoritarianism” and threats against journalists for the global decline in freedom of expression. Media freedom and digital free expression “are both lower than they were a decade ago in every region of the world except the Middle East and North Africa,” the report stated. Executive director Thomas Hughes said that many of the threats are not new — state violence, judicial harassment, etc. — but the group has also seen an increase in governments “using digital technology to surveil their citizens, restrict content and shut down communications.”

+ Earlier: The scary trend of internet shutdowns (Poynter)

+ Noted: Gannett layoffs began yesterday, and there’s a Google doc to track them (Twitter, @apantazi); Today is the deadline to apply for the Solution Journalism Network’s Local Newsroom Revenue Project — and they promise the application process is quick and painless (Twitter, @soljourno)


In this week’s edition of ‘Factually’

Why “facts won’t save us”; four ways disinformation has evolved since the 2016 election; and Russian trolls may not have significantly polarized Americans because … we were already polarized. Factually is a weekly newsletter produced by API and the Poynter Institute that covers fact-checking and misinformation.


How The New York Times mines data to pick articles to promote on Facebook and Twitter (Digiday)

The New York Times is gradually stopping its use of Facebook and Twitter’s tracking pixels on its website, which allowed it to examine readers’ browsing history to see which articles they were engaging with most. Instead, the Times has developed its own tool to measure which articles draw the most social engagement, without digging into people’s browsing history. The tool then automatically adjusts marketing spending to promote the high performers while weeding out the articles not attracting interest. “In our test, it’s shown to basically perform at half the [cost per order] of a manual campaign,” said Colin Russel, senior data scientist at the Times who created the tool.

+ Why news orgs really need to explain their policy around anonymous sources: “Do not believe any article or story you read or see that uses ‘anonymous sources,’” President Trump tweeted this morning. “The Fake News Media makes up many ‘sources say’ stories. Do not believe them!” (Twitter, @realDonaldTrump)


Peruvian investigative site Ojo Público develops algorithm to track possible acts of corruption (Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas)

The algorithm identifies indicators of possible corruption in public contracts, such as single bidders or companies created shortly before bids were made. So far the Ojo Público’s investigative team has used the algorithm to analyze 245,000 public contracts made between 2015 and 2018. It has flagged 40% of those contracts as being at risk of corruption. That mountain of potential story leads drew Ojo Público to collaborate with other local media outlets in Peru, as well as news organizations participating in the Latin American Network of Journalists for Transparency and Anti-Corruption.

+ How five media companies around the world are using ecommerce (What’s New in Publishing)


What is voters’ highest priority? There’s a way to find out (New York Times)

A large-scale project from UCLA and Democracy Fund called Nationscape aims to generate a more accurate portrayal of how Americans are prioritizing political issues in the lead-up to the 2020 election. The project uses what researchers call “conjoint experiments,” which help determine how people value different attributes of a product or service. In this case, participants in the Nationscape surveys — which are deployed to 6,000 people every week — are shown two randomly selected collections of up to four policy positions, and asked to choose which collection of policy outcomes they prefer. Repeated over tens of thousands of survey respondents, the data show which policy positions Americans care about most. And what the data has revealed so far is clear: Impeachment is a top priority for almost everyone, regardless of whether they are in favor of it or against it.

+ Companies that have structured management processes — like performance reviews and standardized ways of tracking progress toward goals — are more productive, researchers find (Business Insider)


Is The Washington Post’s TikTok ‘trivializing the news’ at the expense of engaging future readers? (The Atlantic)

“Here we are: A major newspaper is channeling the comedic style of a 15-year-old network sitcom [The Office] to lure teenage readers on an emerging new app,” writes Scott Nover. The strategy is either sneakily brilliant or ethically troubling, depending on where you stand. On the one hand, the Post’s TikTok content — which isn’t actually reporting the news — is getting the newspaper’s name in front of millions of potential future readers. And it’s giving them a behind-the-scenes look at a newsroom, which could (in theory) serve to build trust by humanizing the people behind the bylines. On the other hand, it could equate news with entertainment, which “trivializes the information,” said Nicole Dahmen, a journalism professor at the University of Oregon.


Pulitzer Prize board announces new audio reporting category (

Yesterday the Pulitzer Prize Board announced it was adding “audio reporting” as a new Journalism prize category for the 2020 prize cycle. “The renaissance of audio journalism in recent years has given rise to an extraordinary array of non-fiction storytelling. To recognize the best of that work, the Pulitzer Board is launching an experimental category to honor it,” Pulitzer Administrator Dana Canedy said (in an audio clip posted to the press release). The announcement was met with some snark on Twitter, especially from radio journalists. “‘The renaissance of audio journalism in recent years…’ Puh. Leeze. We’ve been here the whole damn time,” wrote Kai Ryssdal, host of American Public Media’s Marketplace. It also got journalists dreaming of the possibilities for recognizing multimedia journalism. “A better way to modernize the Pulitzers would be to make the categories platform agnostic,” wrote Vice reporter David Uberti. “Give a prize to an Instagram Story if it’s good enough.”

+ The Newseum is closing this month. Here’s the plan for what’s inside (Poynter); A great gift idea for journos: this board game that turns players into reporters investigating Watergate (Paste)


+ How smartphones turned election news into chaos: In the U.K., groundbreaking research gives a snapshot of a world in which politics coverage is warped by social media algorithms and friendship groups (The Guardian)

+ Why 1 million readers (and a few Illuminati conspiracists) buy into The Economist’s predictions (The Drum)

+ The New York Times’ Style section is all about covering inter-generational conflict: “The job of the section is to upset people. Style desk covers change, it covers generational change, it covers change in how we talk about gender, it covers young people, it covers technology, and it covers love, marriage and how we look. Those are all things that are incredibly fraught at this time.” (Digiday)