Need to Know: December 23, 2020


You might have heard: A network of mysterious “pink slime” local news outlets nearly tripled in size in 2020 (Columbia Journalism Review)

But did you know: ‘Unreliable’ news sources got more traction in 2020 (Axios)

Even as social media platforms attempted to curb the spread of misinformation on their sites, unreliable news websites saw increased engagement from readers in 2020. Of the top 100 news sources on social media, 17% of engagement came with sources that have been deemed unreliable, up from 8% in 2019. Sites are deemed unreliable by NewsGuard’s trained journalists, who look at a long list of criteria, such as if a site repeatedly publishes false content and whether it discloses its funding. Engagement overall was up throughout the year, with low-quality news sources taking advantage of breaking-news moments, when uncertainty is high.

+ Noted: Report for America launches corps for experienced journalists (Report for America); At The Washington Post, Marty Baron’s exit is now a question of “when, not if” (Vanity Fair); The Village Voice, New York alternative weekly, is poised to return (The Wall Street Journal)


Trust Tip: Holiday wishes and January training (Trusting News)

As 2020 wraps up, local news outlets can be proud of the work they’ve done for communities and democracy in a strange year. For those looking to connect more with their audience in the new year, Trusting News’ Trust 101 course is a one-month course focused on building concrete strategies for building and repairing relationships with audiences. The application deadline for the next program is Jan. 4. Sign up for weekly Trust Tips here, and learn more about the Trusting News project — including how your newsroom can get free coaching — here.


How New Mexico local newsrooms survived and thrived during the pandemic (Medium, New Mexico Local News Fund)

In 2020, the nine newsrooms that were grantees of the New Mexico Local News Fund each identified three goals related to revenue and audience engagement. One of the most successful, writes Mark Glaser, was Taos News’ Matching Advertising Grants Program, which used grant funding to match ad spending by local businesses by 3-to-1. Other creative ideas included GPK Media selling guest DJ spots to political candidates on AM radio and The Santa Fe Reporter coordinating a letter-writing campaign from prominent fans of the paper. One key element of the program was cohort-wide Zoom meetings, which participants said was integral to maintaining enthusiasm and developing connections for better serving their communities.


A new supporter every two minutes: How readers powered The Guardian’s journalism in 2020 (The Guardian)

In a year when news outlets around the world struggled to keep the lights on, The Guardian in the U.K. turned to readers to help them stay afloat. In a thank-you letter to readers, the paper’s editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner, writes that the paper’s direct appeal to readers for support during the pandemic was a huge success. The paper gained 268,000 supporters in the past year, and the paper hit 2 billion unique visitors in the year. The letter also includes direct quotes from readers about why they valued The Guardian’s journalism.

+ Related: The Guardian appoints two reporters as community affairs correspondents. The newly-created roles will focus on reporting on the social, political and economic experiences of the U.K.’s diverse communities. (The Guardian)


How Google News sends readers — and advertising dollars — away from local news outlets (The Washington Post)

A new study has found that Google News directs readers away from local news outlets and to larger, national names. In the study, researchers found that even when they entered queries meant to find local news, like “mayor” or “school board,” the site was likely to suggest national outlets at the top of the search results. Given that most users don’t look past the top two links, and almost none make it to the second page of links, most people would have ever seen a local news result. This was true in both big cities and rural communities, regardless of how many local news outlets were available to the user.


The Justice Department is setting a dangerous precedent that threatens reporters — and the truth (The New York Times)

In an opinion piece, Laura Poitras argues that the government’s prosecution of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange crosses a dangerous line. From her reporting on documents leaked by Edward Snowden, Poitras says that she could be charged under the Espionage Act, which does not allow an exemption for exposing classified information in the interest of the public good. Now she says the charges against Assange, for receiving and publishing classified information, cross the line into punishing the everyday activities of news organizations, such as publishing true information of public interest and using encryption tools to communicate with sources. She argues that Assange’s prosecution could open up any journalist covering national security to charges, including foreign reporters, and normalize the prosecution of journalists around the world.


The enduring lessons of a New Deal writers project (Columbia Journalism Review) 

In the 1930s, the Federal Writers’ Project was a New Deal program that paid writers of all sorts to produce an assortment of writing, including regional guidebooks, ethnographies and collections of folklore. The resulting works document the country’s hardships during the Great Depression and reflect a vast array of American experiences, including those of formerly enslaved people. Now, writer and professor David Kipen is advocating for a new federal program, which would run as a grant program administered by community organizations like news outlets. The goal would be to employ writers and to capture the extraordinary era of the COVID-19 pandemic for posterity.


+ Misinformation amplifiers target Georgia Senate races (The New York Times)

+ A look back at the most important Latin American news stories of 2020 (LatAm Journalism Review)

+ How misinformation is distorting COVID-19 policies and behaviors (Brookings)

+ 10 data journalism projects that made an impact in 2020 (

+ “He was not vaping”: The best corrections of 2020 (Axios)

Need to Know will be on hiatus through the rest of the year. We’ll be back on Monday, Jan. 4, 2021. Happy Holidays!