Need to Know: February 28, 2019

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


You might have heard: “What independent journalism needs more than ever from Silicon Valley is a significant transfer of wealth.” (Columbia Journalism Review)

But did you know: A tax on digital ad spend (*cough* Facebook and Google) could bring in $2 billion for journalism (Nieman Lab)

A new paper from the advocacy group Free Press argues that tax revenue devoted to quality journalism could be a silver lining of targeted advertising. The group is advocating for a tax that would be levied against targeted ads “to fund the kind of diverse, local, independent and noncommercial journalism that’s gone missing, and to support new news-distribution models, especially those that don’t rely on data harvesting for revenue,” write Timothy Karr and Craig Aaron, Free Press’s senior director of strategy and communications and the organization’s president/CEO. This year, most of the $129 billion forecast for digital advertising budgets will go to Facebook, Google and Amazon. But the tech companies frequently skate by without paying much tax on those revenues. A 2 percent targeted-ad tax on all online enterprises that earn more than $200 million in annual digital-ad revenues would yield more than $1.8 billion for the news industry, Free Press calculates. “Think of it like a carbon tax, which many countries impose on the oil industry to help clean up pollution. The United States should impose a similar mechanism on targeted advertising to counteract how the platforms amplify content that’s polluting our civic discourse.”

+ Noted: White House bans four journalists from covering Trump-Kim dinner because of shouted questions (Washington Post); Medium is tearing down its paywall for readers who visit the site through Twitter (TechCrunch); The National Review’s Jonah Goldberg and Steve Hayes, former editor-in-chief of The Weekly Standard, which shuttered in December, plan to launch a new conservative media company (Axios)


What you need to know before starting your crowdfunding campaign (Medium, European Journalism Centre)

It’s the year of crowdfunding for journalism: Recent examples like The Correspondent or Tortoise show how it has increasingly become a tool for journalists and newsrooms to finance their ventures. But would it be a fruitful strategy for your newsroom? Four news innovators who have successfully navigated the crowdfunding route weigh in with advice: Crowdfunding “is not a business model,” warns Sebastian Esser of Krautreporter. “Once you’ve spent all the money, it’ll be gone. So what’s your plan for after you’ve spent the money?” “I would say you should try a membership or subscription model since you’re aspiring to get funded by a community you need to take care of,” adds Clara Jiménez Cruz, co-founder of Working to build a dedicated audience before launching a crowdfunding campaign is a theme the four touched on again and again. “We … starting priming our established audience for the crowdfunding campaign a few months before launch,” says Sean Dagan Wood of Positive News. “Hitting the ground running with our core audience piling in to buy shares created a crucial start.”


How used a chatbot to crowdsource 15,000 questions (Engaged Journalism Accelerator)

Voxe, a civic technology company based in Paris, wanted to encourage more young people to participate in political discussion and debates. In 2015, it launched What The Voxe?!, a newsletter that analyzes a particular law going through the French Parliament and breaks down the arguments for and against it. It got 5,000 subscribers in six months. It also created a chatbot as a way to gather questions from Facebook users which would then be taken to the politicians to answer. The French primaries and citizen primaries were taking place in 2016 so the candidates were incentivized to work with Voxe. Users interact with the bot to pick the candidate they want to ask a question to, then write down their question and send it to the Voxe team. Over six months, 9,500 users asked 15,000 questions of the candidates. The Voxe team also created a series of voluntary questions for users to gain a sense of the stories they’re interested in. “We found out some people who use the chatbot want a simple take on politics but others are in high school or working but don’t have people they can discuss the news with,” said Léonore de Roquefeuil, CEO and co-founder.

+ Jorge Ramos: “The dictator of Venezuela earns his title” (The New York Times); BBC and ITV team up to launch Netflix rival BritBox (The Guardian)


The advice column renaissance (Columbia Journalism Review)

When John Paul Brammer started writing ¡Hola Papi!, a column he originally intended as a spoof on advice columns, he was surprised at the number of earnest letters from readers that began piling up. And then he looked around and realized that, despite growing discontent and vanishing trust in the media, advice columns are flourishing. “This advice renaissance might seem paradoxical: Why hasn’t distrust in the media as a whole negatively affected advice columns, where you would think that trust is paramount?” Brammer’s theory: “Maybe it’s because, following the election of Donald Trump to the White House, readers have landed on a truth that many within the profession refuse to grapple with: objective, neutral journalism doesn’t really exist; media is inherently biased. The rise of advice columnists, we might conclude, is consistent with a growing desire among the public for members of the media to express moral clarity.”


Now is the time for equity journalism (LitHub)

There has been a long-held disregard for “advocacy journalism” in the news industry — but does that keep marginalized and disadvantaged groups from telling their stories? “With parity comes a freedom to choose our own narrative,” writes Melissa Chadburn. “A freedom to shape the bigger story. There’ve been times when my pitches have been passed up because how could I possibly report on the child welfare system when I am the product of the child welfare system? I must have some inherent bias, right?” Last year Chadburn managed a communications fellowship for the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, which helps publish work from writers, filmmakers, artists and other storytellers who have experienced economic hardship, with the aim of humanizing inequality. While traditional media outlets may peg this approach as advocacy, Chadburn calls it equity — a chance for those living on the margins to be heard.  


‘Value over volume’: The Economist tightens its paywall (Digiday)

The Economist has tightened its paywall so readers have access to five articles a month — rather than three a week — in order to nudge more registered users over into subscribing. At the end of January, the publisher changed its metered access after reader research found that on average people either read five articles before subscribing or they sign up right away. A high content threshold would allow potential subscribers to slip through the net and never hit the paywall. The Economist has been pretty generous with content, erring on the side of publishing more in front of the paywall and sharing through social platforms to drive people back to subscribe, believing its journalism is its best asset. But now that its priority is retaining subscribers (which is cheaper than acquiring them), the strategy is “value over volume,” says Marina Haydn, managing director of global circulation. “Retention is the biggest strategic priority for us. To be ambitious you need to improve, we want to improve retention on our first-year customers. Retention of those who are with us for one year is very strong.”

+ Decades of investigative reporting couldn’t touch R. Kelly. It took a Lifetime TV series and a hashtag. (Washington Post); The Rocky Mountain News closed a decade ago this week. Poynter’s Tom Jones takes a look back at the death of an American publishing powerhouse and the city it left behind (Poynter)