Need to Know: February 18, 2021


You might have heard: Rather than comply with a new Australian law that would force it to pay for news content, Facebook blocks all Australian news content from its site (The Wall Street Journal)

But did you know: Google, meanwhile, cuts a deal with Australian publishers to pay to feature their content in Google’s News Showcase (Platformer)

While Facebook was scrubbing news content originating in Australia from its site Wednesday, Google was signing deals with Australia’s biggest publishers, including News Corp., Seven West Media and Nine Entertainment, that will allow Google to license their content for its News Showcase feature. The deal also allows Google to dodge the mounting demands that it pay publishers to feature their content on search results, reports Casey Newton. “Search, of course, is what Google cares about the most, and explains why the company caved. Removing links to news stories from Google would break the search engine in Australia, opening it up to rivals. And so the company signed a bunch of deals under duress.”

+ Related: Google is suddenly paying for news in Australia. What about everywhere else? (The New York Times)

+ Noted: Applications for the first News Product Alliance Summit are now open (News Product Alliance); Nominations for the John P. Murray Audience Development Award are due Friday (News Media Alliance); Richard Tofel to retire as ProPublica president; board launches search for successor (ProPublica)


Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus hotline connects readers with questions to reporters with answers

Reporters at the nonprofit news site Block Club Chicago had written thousands of stories about the coronavirus in Chicago and live-tweeted countless press conferences about it. They were sharing all they knew on the usual channels. But they wanted a more direct way to match readers with the information they needed. So with funding from the Facebook Journalism Project, they launched a free hotline that readers could call, text or email,and get their questions resolved by the editorial staff. Several months in, they’ve answered hundreds of questions from Chicagoans about testing, vaccinations, housing, unemployment and more.


Use alt text to improve accessibility of social media content (Twitter, @regmack_)

Most news organizations don’t consistently use alt text on images they’re sharing on social media, writes Regina Mack. But alt text — the text attached to images that describes what’s going on in them — can add valuable context for people using assistive technologies online. While Facebook and Instagram automatically generate alt text for images, it’s always better to write your own, suggests Mack. (Twitter doesn’t automatically generate it.) Third-party apps used for scheduling social media posts should have a way to add alt text, although Instagram’s API requires users to do it manually. “Taking this extra step helps your social presence be accessible and signals to readers who use assistive technologies that you are making an effort to serve them,” writes Mack.

+ “Everything I learned in journalism, I learned by eavesdropping on veteran reporters nearby,” journalist S. Mitra Kalita tweeted. Obviously, that’s much harder to do during a pandemic, so Kalita has taken to letting interns silently observe (or listen to) her interviews via phone or Zoom. (Twitter, @mitrakalita)


How developed a loyal audience by going ‘newsletter first’ (Membership Puzzle Project)

When, a Polish news site covering international affairs, launched in 2017, it quickly gained a small but loyal following of its weekly magazine-style newsletter, the Brief. To grow the newsletter audience — and build a strong foundation for the membership program it planned to roll out — they shifted their core success metric to newsletter subscribers instead of site visitors. They redesigned their website and other platforms to look and feel consistent with the Brief’s visually arresting aesthetic, and showcased the newsletter more prominently. They also made sure that the sole call-to-action anywhere on their properties was to sign up for the newsletter. Reporters also devoted time to personally answering readers’ replies to the newsletter, and counting those exchanges as an important engagement metric.

+ The Solutions Journalism Network is leading a virtual workshop for European journalists on “How to Report in (and on) a Polarized World Without Making Everything Worse” (Transitions)


People file lawsuits to test boundaries of California’s privacy law (Digiday)

The California Consumer Privacy Act, which allows Californians to restrict how companies can use their personal data, is notoriously ambiguous. Many people have turned to the courts for clarity, writes Kate Kaye, and meanwhile the California AG’s office has sent dozens of notices to companies demanding that they fix problems leading to noncompliance with the law. Some publishers, for example, have received notices if their websites state only that they share data with “advertising partners” rather than listing specific partner companies by name, or if their opt-out buttons were not prominent — or nonexistent. Civil penalties for noncompliance could amount to $7,500 for each violation.


How Rush Limbaugh’s rise after the gutting of the fairness doctrine led to today’s highly partisan media (Poynter)

When the government stopped enforcing the fairness doctrine — which required that broadcasters grant equal airtime to opposing views — in 1987, it transformed the media landscape almost overnight, and the force driving the change was talk radio. Conservative commentators like Rush Limbaugh, who had long felt ignored by the mainstream media, quickly gained huge followings of like-minded listeners. Speaking shortly after Limbaugh’s death on Wednesday, former Vice President Mike Pence said that Limbaugh “reinvented AM radio. People were talking about whether they were going to turn off AM radio, but Rush Limbaugh changed all of that. He was a broadcast pioneer.” However, Limbaugh’s highly partisan approach, which thrived on personal attacks, earned him many enemies. “The fires that he ignited and fed generated heat even in the hours after his death,” writes Al Tompkins. “The headlines played him in equal parts hated and beloved. And that’s fair.”


The ‘audacious lie’ behind a hedge fund’s promise to sustain local journalism (The Washington Post)

The Baltimore Sun narrowly escaped ownership by Alden Global Capital, but what about the other Tribune newspapers that the hedge fund will soon be taking over? They include the New York Daily News, the Orlando Sentinel, the Daily Press in Newport News and the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk. In a statement, Alden declared its commitment to sustaining “robust local journalism,” but “Being bought by Alden is the worst possible fate for the newspapers and the communities involved,” writes Margaret Sullivan. “When Alden comes in, it’s slash-and-burn time. Newsroom jobs — reporters, editors, photographers — are cut to the bone. Decisions are made not for long-term sustainability, not for service to the community, not for humane treatment of skilled and dedicated staff, but for next quarter’s profit-and-loss statement.”

+ Related: Can philanthropist Stewart Bainum save the Baltimore Sun? (The New York Times)