Need to Know: Feb. 7, 2020


You might have heard: A surge in imposter news sites threatens Americans’ already-fragile trust in local news (New York Times)

But did you know: Another network of sites masquerading as local news outlets has been discovered, but its motivation is simple: money (BuzzFeed News)

A BuzzFeed News investigation has uncovered at least 100 sites that have been plagiarizing stories from major news outlets and masquerading as local news and financial outlets. The sites have managed to manipulate Google News and search results to earn money through ads, financial email subscriptions, and even by referring people to dubious financial investments. “These sites show how easy it’s been to bypass the procedures Google uses to keep low-quality sites out of Google News,” writes Craig Silverman. They also serve as “the latest example of how online local news has become polluted by ad fraudsters, political hucksters and operatives, and Russian trolls.”

+ Related: An Atlantic investigation into the “disinformation campaign” to reelect President Trump shows how it plans to target local news. Campaign manager Brad Parscale intends to train “swarms of surrogates” to undermine negative coverage from local TV stations and newspapers, writes McKay Coppins. (Atlantic)

+ Noted: Digital ad revenue for radio surpasses $1 billion for the first time, accounting for 10% of total ad revenue for the industry (Radio+Television Business Report); Two Capital Gazette journalists who covered the shooting in their own newsroom have taken buyouts (Poynter)


In this week’s edition of ‘Factually’

This week was “fertile ground” for conspiracy theories, online ad targeting is one tool for manipulating elections, and YouTube prohibits videos spreading fake election news. Factually is a weekly newsletter produced by API and the Poynter Institute that covers fact-checking and misinformation.


We changed our approach to using mug shots online and on-air then told our community why (Medium, Trusting News)

Last summer Cincinnati’s WCPO made a major decision to publish mug shots only in two circumstances: when a suspect is still on the loose, and when police have arrested a suspect but believe there could be additional victims. But they didn’t immediately make the change public: “I wanted to make sure the policy didn’t have unintended consequences before we made any promises about what we were doing,” writes Mike Canan. Once Canan published a column about the new policy, feedback began to pour in. Communicating the change was not only important for transparency, especially with audience members who had noticed the change but stayed quiet about it, it also opened up valuable conversations with and among audiences.


In the U.K., news consumption goes down as political campaigns ramp up (Reuters Institute)

A study of how people engaged with online news during the U.K. election found that young people spent very little time consuming news — about three minutes per week. Older adults (in the 35-65 age range) spent, on average, 22 minutes per week — but consumption for both groups fell over the course of the campaign, indicating “news fatigue.” Overall, the study found that visits to news websites accounted for just 3% of all internet time. “Much elite and public debate before, during, and after the election focused on the risks of political polarisation, but our analysis suggests that the bigger issue may be that many people do not engage much with news at all,” writes Nic Newman.

+ 145 European news organizations, from Belgium to Ukraine, that will inspire your community engagement work (Engaged Journalism Accelerator)


The New York Times chalks one up to the ‘mini-publisher’ approach (Nieman Lab)

This week The New York Times announced it had generated more than $800 million in digital revenue in 2019, adding 1 million digital subscribers and ending the year with a total of 5.25 million total subscriptions. On the earnings call, CEO Mark Thompson said “the single biggest reason” behind the paper’s success was the decision to give more autonomy to teams working on the publication’s various digital products. Having multiple cross-disciplinary teams working on converting digital subscribers means the Times is able to “continually optimize” by having “parallel tests running in the background,” he said.

+ Earlier: How The Post and Courier created cross-disciplinary teams to launch new products, generating nearly $900,000 in new product revenue and, in two years, increasing digital subscriptions by 250% (Better News); Here’s more on implementing the “mini-publisher” approach in your own newsroom (Better News)


Newsrooms are typically ‘pretty divorced’ from religion — but could it be a bridge to audiences? (Columbia Journalism Review)

Faith is rarely spoken about in many newsrooms — which could be contributing to a public sense that journalists aren’t covering topics many Americans care about. At a panel discussion hosted by CJR, religion reporters talked about how their faith has given them insights into religious communities that lead to better reporting. “In mainstream outlets, faith is covered as it intersects with politics or international affairs or business or terrorism,” said McKay Coppins, staff writer at The Atlantic. He gave examples of typical coverage of evangelical Christians and Muslims. Kyle Pope, editor and publisher of CJR, added that journalists have “a tendency to turn religion into some sort of controversy, as opposed to writing about it as a part of the fabric of people’s lives and belief systems.”

+ On the other hand: A Q&A with the American Atheists’ president explores how the media mishandles the nonreligious (Columbia Journalism Review)


What The Athletic’s success teaches us about monetizing local news (What’s New in Publishing)

Local news advocates may never forgive The Athletic for its aggressive poaching of local sports writers and its intent to “bleed … every local paper out,” in the words of co-founder Alex Mather. But when it comes to monetizing local content, the reviled publisher may be on to something. While local news must traditionally serve a diverse audience with a broad range of topics, The Athletic is serving one very specific type of reader — and they’ve had no trouble getting them to shell out for subscriptions. What if more news organizations dedicated themselves to niche + local coverage? Simon Owens points to several other publishers that have successfully adopted this model, including Technically Media and Chalkbeat.

+ A Twitter thread that may make you laugh and cry at the same time: “What’s the wonkiest thing you’ve dealt with because of your newsroom’s CMS?” (Twitter, @kristenhare)


+ “Right now, the giants of the industry are in a race to grow larger in order to buy time and cut costs while they ‘transition to digital.’ That will not be the road we travel.” (Richland Source)

+ Why The New York Times is using the 1619 Project as the centerpiece of its new marketing campaign (Nieman Lab)