Need to Know: February 20, 2019

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


You might have heard: During a 2016 campaign rally, candidate Trump threatened to “open up” libel laws as president, making it easier to sue news organizations (Politifact)

But did you know: Justice Clarence Thomas calls for reconsideration of landmark libel ruling (The New York Times)

Justice Clarence Thomas on Tuesday called for the Supreme Court to reconsider New York Times v. Sullivan, the landmark 1964 ruling interpreting the First Amendment to make it hard for public officials to prevail in libel suits. He said the decision had no basis in the Constitution as it was understood by the people who drafted and ratified it. “New York Times and the court’s decisions extending it were policy-driven decisions masquerading as constitutional law,” Justice Thomas wrote. He added, “The states are perfectly capable of striking an acceptable balance between encouraging robust public discourse and providing a meaningful remedy for reputational harm.” The Sullivan decision protects news organizations from being sued for libel unless the plaintiff can prove that something false was said about them, that it harmed their reputation and that the writer acted with “actual malice,” meaning that the writer knew the disputed statement was false or had acted with “reckless disregard.”

+ Related: Covington Catholic teen sues Washington Post for defamation, seeking $250 million in damages (Reuters)

+ Noted: Fact-checking organization First Draft has left Harvard, citing problems with brand control (Poynter); In a first for podcasts, American Public Media’s “In the Dark” wins George Polk Award (; Following success of Facebook’s Donate button, Instagram plans to add a fundraiser sticker in 2019 (TechCrunch)


Be ready to discuss content you publish from wire services or outside sources (Trust Tips)

“When was the last time you and your colleagues had a good talk about the stories you publish that you don’t produce yourselves?” writes Joy Mayer, director of the Trusting News project affiliated with API. “If you publish a story — from your staff, from the Associated Press, from CNN, from The Washington Post, etc. — you’re responsible for it. Whether it’s an automatic feed on your website or a carefully selected story leading your newscast or front page, it’s part of the product you’re offering and you should be prepared to stand behind it.” This latest edition of the Trust Tips newsletter provides practical examples of how to explain these choices to readers. Sign up for weekly Trust Tips here, and learn more about the Trusting News project — including how your newsroom can get free coaching — here.


Using design thinking to engage new audiences (Medium, LAist/KPCC)

KPCC, Southern California’s public radio station, wanted to make its education coverage more audience-focused. So it started with some questions: “What if instead of describing the audience as ‘anyone who listened or read KPCC stories,’ we redefined it as parents and caregivers of children ages 0-5 in L.A. County?” wrote Ashley Alvarado, KPCC’s director of community engagement. “Would it change the stories we told? The way we told them?” KPCC used design thinking to find out more about its audience’s “implicit needs” from its coverage. They interviewed several individuals in their target group, asking open-ended questions like “What do you worry about when it comes to your children?” and “If you had more time in the day, how would you use it?” They then worked with a design thinking specialist to identify patterns and themes from the interviews, which helped them identify archetypes within their target audience, as well as key insights that will drive their next phase of early childhood reporting and engagement.

+ “How we report on solutions to Wisconsin’s problems”: The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel explains its approach to solutions journalism and how readers can get involved (Journal Sentinel)


How a free British daily is making £1 million a month (The Guardian)

For Metro, Britain’s most-read daily newspaper, it’s as if the online revolution never happened. Unlike many free local weeklies, which are increasingly starved of advertising revenue, Metro turns a healthy profit from ad revenue — about £1 million a month. But its success is also due to its editorial ethos, writes Roy Greenslade: “This is a newspaper that sticks closely to the demands of the market. Most obviously, its editorial formula makes much of being apolitical. News without bias. News to use. News to amuse. Lots of content packed into cleanly designed pages, with few stories longer than 300 words.” There is no investigative journalism; no public interest news. There are reader opinions, from readers who text or email their comments on the news; punny page-one headlines; and robust travel, fashion, science and tech sections. “Maybe many readers are through the whole paper in five minutes,” writes Greenslade. “Maybe they turn straight to the puzzle page and sit doing the crossword. Even so … people are aware of what they’re going to get and, given its unbiased political agenda, they enjoy its impartiality.”


Amazon Alexa and the search for the one perfect answer (Wired)

In the late 90s, computer engineer William Tunstall-­Pedoe believed search engines — which, at the time, were cumbersome and often led down many paths — should yield “instant, perfect answers” to users’ questions. Two decades later, with the rise of voice computing platforms such as Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, we are getting closer and closer to Tunstall-­Pedoe’s reality. In the era of voice computing, offering a single answer is not merely a nice-to-have feature; it’s a need-to-have one. Market analysts estimate that, by 2020, up to half of all internet searches will be spoken aloud. But the implications of this shift are only just beginning to be understood. “The move toward one-shot answers has been just slow enough to obscure its own most important consequence: killing off the internet as we know it,” writes James Vlahos. “The conventional web, with all of its tedious pages and links, is giving way to the conversational web, in which chatty AIs reign supreme.”

+ “It lets people make it about themselves, and I think that’s why it really blows up”: The viral question phenomenon taking over Twitter (The Daily Beast)


Google’s planned audio news service is dangerous for the news industry (INMA)

Google’s plans to create an audio news service similar to existing radio networks should alarm not just media companies but society as a whole, writes Michael Miller. Audio news is one of the new growth areas for media, with millions of listeners. On the back of this trend, Google is working to shape how news is consumed on its smart speaker, Google Home, and AI-powered mobile app, Assistant. Publishers are being asked to break down podcasts, audio news briefings, and radio broadcasts into “single topic stories” that Google’s algorithm can reorganize into a personalized newsfeed for individual users based on their interests. “That may sound innocuous at first,” writes Miller. “But in reality, it’s a way for Google to drive consumers from publishers’ Web sites and radio stations — and keep them in the Google ecosystem. In other words, Google intends to profit off the creativity and industry of journalists and media businesses without paying for the privilege.”

+ Earlier: “To benefit the industry as a whole, we have together drafted an open specification for single-topic story feeds,” Google wrote in a blog post announcing the effort. “We have also worked closely with publishers” — including the Associated Press, CBS Local, and KQED — “to develop ways for an aggregated audio feed to serve as a discovery platform for their owned-and-operated sites.” (Nieman Lab)

+ CNN’s hiring of ex-Sessions spokeswoman as political editor stirs controversy (CNN); “Journalistically, this is indefensible,” tweeted Rolling Stone writer Jamil Smith. “Yes, folks left and right may snark that CNN isn’t journalism, but there are many professionals who work and report there. They are tarnished by this. Hiring this person as a paid pundit would have been questionable.” (Twitter, @JamilSmith)


YouTube unleashed a conspiracy theory boom. Can it be contained? (The New York Times)

In late January, YouTube announced that it was changing its recommendations algorithm to reduce the spread of misinformation. But the move raises an uncomfortable question, writes Kevin Roose: What if stemming the tide of misinformation on YouTube means punishing some of the platform’s biggest stars? “On Facebook, Twitter and other social platforms, the biggest influencers largely got famous somewhere else (politics, TV, sports) and have other vectors of accountability. But YouTube’s stars are primarily homegrown, and many feel — not entirely unreasonably — that after years of encouraging them to build their audiences with viral stunts and baseless rumor-mongering, the platform is now changing the rules on them.”