Need to Know: February 19, 2019

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


You might have heard: The Knight Foundation released a report calling for more philanthropy, transparency, diversity and disinformation-fighting technology to restore the “crisis of trust” in American journalism (Knight Foundation)

But did you know: Knight pledges $300 million to local news, free speech, and media literacy organizations (Nieman Lab)

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation will provide a whopping $300 million over five years to organizations including the American Journalism Project, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and and ProPublica, the foundation announced Tuesday. The funding announcement follows the Knight Commission’s release earlier this month of a report outlining its recommendations for 21st-century journalism. “We’re not funding one-offs,” Alberto Ibargüen, Knight Foundation president, said in a statement. “We’re rebuilding a local news ecosystem, reliable and sustainable, and we’re doing it in a way that anyone who cares can participate.” The bulk of the funding is going to “national organizations working in partnership at the local level,” and Knight also is investing an additional $35 million in research “to support the creation and expansion of research centers around the United States.”

+ Knight calls on funders and individuals to join effort to rebuild trust in democracy from local level up (Knight Foundation)

+ Noted: Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network hires new director and associate director (Poynter); Cox selling Ohio newspapers, Dayton TV and radio stations (WXVU); Facebook labelled “digital gangsters” by report on fake news (The Guardian)


How Capital Public Radio covered a community’s high suicide rate (and developed a tool for residents to keep) (Nieman Lab)

Sacramento-based Capital Public Radio, whose coverage area includes a community with the third highest rate of suicide in California, wanted to take a proactive approach to covering suicide. With $3,000 in grants from USC Annenberg’s Center for Health Journalism, reporter Sammy Caiola and senior community engagement strategist jesikah maria ross partnered with local media to produce a four-episode podcast series, as well as a package of 15 online stories. They also hosted a public discussion attended by more than 100 people. But Caiola and ross knew that once the grant ran out they wouldn’t be able to maintain the same level of coverage. So they created a “conversation kit” that included a guide to convening discussion groups on suicide, snippets of audio from Caiola’s reporting, and discussion questions to guide the conversation. “There has to be a way to wrap a particular project so everyone feels that sense of closure,” ross said. “By having some tools and processes and evaluation measurements in place, our partners can take what we’ve created, sometimes by us or in collaboration with our partners, and move forward.”

+ Why texting continues to be a big opportunity for newsrooms to customize news and start a conversation with their audience (Lenfest Local Lab)


Editorial innovation in news (BBC News Lab)

“It is easy to assume that the future of news will be inevitably technical,” writes David Caswell. “That assumption is dangerous.” Tech innovations like news bots and automation are novel and exciting, but the industry shouldn’t lose sight of the importance of news products that are genuinely useful to people, and as such, rooted in something that is human and familiar. The BBC News Lab’s focus on “editorial innovation” helps them keep the audience at the forefront of every tech product they develop, relying on journalistic expertise as much as technical. “We recognise that our work on news bots, natural language generation, voice interfaces, structured journalism and a host of other technologies must be as editorial as it is technical,” writes Caswell. He explains how dialog trees for news bots, for example, need to be edited, verified and crafted to fit editorial guidelines and objectives, and maintained and extended as feedback or analytics data from news consumers becomes available. “All of this is alien to traditional journalists, but nonetheless it is writing, not technology.”


Prove it with prototyping: How to test your ideas and focus your innovation (Reynolds Journalism Institute)

“The more eager we are to build, the less patience we have for questions that challenge assumptions about what our audiences want or need,” writes James Gordon. “We would rather skip straight to figuring out the tech and doing whatever it takes to push our idea into production.” Prototyping can help you get your ideas into the hands of potential users sooner rather than later, which means you have more time to gather feedback and experiment with design. Gordon walks us through how he and his colleagues used prototyping to design an automated sportswriting tool, explaining how to create rudimentary early-stage prototypes (”Your priority is figuring out what to make, not necessarily how to make it”); how collecting user feedback uses the same observational and interviewing techniques journalists already know; and how to iteratively adapt with new insights. “People often describe innovation in terms of problem-solving,” writes Gordon, “but it’s more practical to think in terms of problem-framing.”   


The importance of opinion writers to journalism (Daily Emerald)

On Jan. 24, the Huffington Post was one of several media outlets that collectively laid off around 1,000 employees. The Post cut its entire opinion section, in an attempt to cut costs after data showed that the content garnered relatively low audience engagement. “Trimming down on expenses is completely understandable, but doing so by cutting the entire opinion section from a media outlet like the Huffington Post is unnecessary,” writes Lizzy Palmquist. “Opinion writing is essential to journalism because it provides a unique perspective on news-related issues that other sections simply cannot.” Palmquist points to recent examples, like the Covington Catholic story, that show how analysis is a critical component of hard news. “Opinion writing may not be the top audience-engager that most people turn to when wanting to gain insight about the news,” Palmquist writes. “Looking at this factor alone, it could be understandable why Verizon Communications and the Huffington Post would think to cut the opinion section first as a means of fixing financial problems. But by doing so, they fail to see the impact opinion writing has on the sharing of current events.”

+ It will take more than NewsGuard’s team of journalists to stop the spread of fake news (Recode)


New AI fake text generator may be too dangerous to release, say creators (The Guardian)

The creators of a revolutionary AI system that can write news stories and works of fiction — dubbed “deepfakes for text” — have taken the unusual step of not releasing their research publicly, for fear of potential misuse, reports Alex Hern. The organization, a nonprofit research organization called OpenAI, says the risk of malicious use is so high that it is breaking from its normal practice of releasing the full research to the public in order to allow more time to discuss ramifications. “If you can’t anticipate all the abilities of a model, you have to prod it to see what it can do,” said OpenAI head of policy Jack Clark. “There are many more people than us who are better at thinking what it can do maliciously.” Fed a paragraph of text, the technology is capable of writing plausible passages that match what it is given in both style and subject. “The system is pushing the boundaries of what was thought possible,” writes Hern, “both in terms of the quality of the output, and the wide variety of potential uses.”