Need to Know: February 11, 2019

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


You might have heard: Facebook declines, Google grows as battle for news audiences continues (

But did you know: Where your new readers are going to come from in 2019 (Nieman Lab)

In the first piece of a two-part installment, Nieman Lab’s Kelsey Arendt, using data from, looks at how online platforms have changed over the last year. “I want to distinguish reliable growth from shiny growth. And if it’s reliable, I want to know what’s driving that growth. Changes in reader behavior? Changes in the product? Both need to be identified and understood.” Arendt found that in any given week in 2018, internal referrals — meaning someone going to a second (or third, or 30th) page within your site — made up over 35 percent of traffic, more than any category of external referrals (search, social, or other). She also found that direct referrals are up slightly, possibly due to more newsrooms implementing email newsletters and subscription packages. For external platforms, Arendt recommends getting onboard in 2019 with SmartNews (“the most reliably growing external referrer”), Flipboard (which shows 15 percent growth year over year), Google News and other Google content recommendation products (like Google Discover, still young but promising to expand).

+ Noted: The Membership Puzzle Project is launching Join the Beat 2.0, where newsrooms can apply to participate in an experimental project on beat networking (Ashley Alvarado); The GroundTruth Project launches fellowship on rise of populist authoritarianism (GroundTruth Project); Hearst, Bauer and more unite for campaign to show media buyers the value of print (The Drum); Local Media Consortium and Local Media Association announce applications available for Facebook-funded branded content project (Local Media Consortium)


How to access academic research for free (Journalist’s Resource)

Academic research is one of journalism’s most important tools for covering public policy and fact-checking claims. But it can be tough sometimes for reporters to find the research they need. Many academic journals keep the published work of scholars and research organizations behind paywalls, and newsrooms can’t always afford to subscribe, leaving journalists to find other ways to access that knowledge. Here are a few resourceful options: Make use of your public library, where you can access online databases of peer-reviewed research. Contact academic journals — some are willing to give journalists complimentary access. Look for Open Access journals and platforms. Reach out to the people who did the research, who will often share copies of their work with journalists. And sign up for alerts from organizations that promote research. For example, Futurity, a partnership among dozens of universities worldwide, highlights the work of scholars in four broad topic areas: culture, health, environment and science. EurekAlert!, a service of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, distributes embargoed reports, press releases and news related to science, medicine and technology research.

+ How often is social media used as a source in news stories? Can a decision-tree algorithm generate tens-of-thousands of 250-word stories? And what is belief-driven data journalism? Six fascinating projects from the 2019 Computation + Journalism Symposium in Miami (StoryBench)


Will Chinese firm’s stake in Reddit normalize censorship? (The Guardian)

The relationship between corporate China and western technology companies, particularly social platforms and search engines that profess free expression and privacy protection as core values, is often contradictory and increasingly alarming to free speech and human rights advocates, writes Emily Bell. Chinese gaming and investment company Tencent’s recent $150 million investment in Reddit sounds one of those alarms, as the company has not said it would refuse Chinese government requests to access user data. “Nobody expects the [Chinese] Communist party to extend its power directly through investments in companies like Reddit,” writes Bell, “but the normalization of a repressive regime through its embrace of a type of state capitalism deserves wider attention.”

+ Saudi Arabia sought Vice’s help to build a media empire (Wall Street Journal)


How ‘question bursts’ make better brainstorms (MIT Management Sloan School)

Outside-the-box thinking doesn’t come easy when you’ve been deeply involved in a project and may be locked into your own perceptions of the situation. “We’re almost locked into what we say, what we don’t say, how we say it,” says Hal Gregersen, the executive director of the MIT Leadership Center. “For a lot of people it’s almost a bit jaded. It’s like ‘Oh, let’s do a brainstorming session,’ and you check it off the list and move on.” Focusing on questions rather than answers provides a new, less familiar lens to explore issues, he said. Brainstorming “question bursts” that Gregersen has orchestrated usually help participants come to a more positive state of mind about their challenge, which leads to new, valuable ideas; or a feeling that the problem is much bigger than they expected; or a realization that they are themselves a part of the problem.


Can subscriptions save all media companies, or just The New York Times? (New York Magazine)

It’s hard not to feel some whiplash when reading news about the media business these days. After weeks of grim layoffs at former powerhouses like BuzzFeed and HuffPost, and a growing sense of doom about the industry among journalists, The New York Times last week announced digital revenues of $709 million in 2018, which come largely from the Times’ thriving digital subscription business. “So what gives?” writes Max Read. “Is the media business tanking or thriving? The answer is, well, both.” A news organization like the Times demonstrates the potential of the subscription business model. “But if the Times (or one of its rivals) can sufficiently chip away at its competitors, poaching journalists, generating big stories, and attracting larger audiences in that same virtuous cycle, it could potentially crowd other papers out. Why pay for two or more subscriptions if everything you want comes in one paper?”


Google News is broken (Charged)

Google a newsworthy term (like “iPhone”) and you’ll see a carousel of top news about the term at the top of the page, right above every other result, which is visually distinct with images and logos to draw you in. But how does one actually appear in that carousel? Owen Williams, writer of the tech newsletter Charged, has spent two years trying to meet Google’s stated requirements for appearing in the news carousel, to no effect. The carousel “drives a disgusting amount of traffic,” Williams writes, but how it works on the backend is a “mysterious process with hidden rules, gotchas and changing goal posts, designed only to allow the largest, well-known of publishers in.”

+ “The typical freelancer will take home around $200 per article at 20 cents per word. In other words, to make the federal minimum wage, the typical freelancer would have to write about six articles per month.” (Columbia Journalism Review); Bob Costas, unplugged: From NBC and broadcast icon to dropped from the Super Bowl (ESPN)