Need to Know: February 4, 2019

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


You might have heard: The Washington Post aired a Super Bowl commercial, narrated by Tom Hanks, defending journalism: “Knowing keeps us free” (Washington Post)

But did you know: Many people, including journalists, are troubled by the fact that the Washington Post ad reportedly cost about $5.2 million (HuffPost)

While some applauded the ad, the amount of money the newspaper paid to get the commercial on air did not sit comfortably with Fredrick Kunkle, co-chair of the Washington-Baltimore News Guild’s bargaining unit at The Washington Post. Kunkle said he thought the message conveyed in the ad is important, but that the millions of dollars that went toward it could have gone to actual journalism. There was a spate of high-profile layoffs last month at multiple news organizations. “While I too am extremely proud of the Post and its legacy, this seems like an especially infuriating expense for a company that has a) tried to take away health care insurance from part-time employees  b) moved everyone toward riskier forms of health insurance,” Kunkle tweeted. Others echoed his sentiment, pointing out that the money could have gone toward paying journalists’ salaries.

+ Noted: McClatchy follows BuzzFeed, Vice, and others in cutting staff (Miami New Times); Snopes pulls out of its fact-checking partnership with Facebook (Poynter); The Colorado Media Project announces new investments and partners for Colorado’s local news ecosystem (Colorado Media Project); Media groups advocate for affordable access to court records (Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press)


How the Minneapolis Star Tribune helped its readers ‘be better voters’

The Minneapolis Star Tribune turned its standard digital elections guide into a series of utilitarian features and tools to help voters make better decisions at the polls. They created a series of posts — branded as their “Be a Better Voter” series — that devoted each week to a different election topic (candidates, campaign finance, polling, etc.), with links to and discussion of many of the online resources journalists use in the course of reporting on campaigns and elections. This story is part of a series on Better News that showcases innovative and experimental ideas that emerge from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative; and shares replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole.

+ Related: Note to newsrooms: Election coverage doesn’t have to be a horse race — A pilot project at two small, local papers shows the power of connecting with the disconnected (Medium, Sara Catania)


How Rivard Report turned criticism into cash (Lenfest Institute)

When a city councilman called a press conference to denounce a completely fair and accurate story by Rivard Report, the San Antonio-based nonprofit didn’t back down from the accusations — instead, they turned it into a fundraising appeal. Publisher Robert Rivard drafted a message to subscribers (not-yet-paying members) explaining the controversy and defending their reporting, but also raising awareness of broader implications. “We wanted the message to be really focused on our mission, not just this issue itself, but what this issue means in a broader context,” said membership and audience engagement coordinator Kassie Kelly. “Why we’re important, why journalism matters, and what our role is in the community.” The email raised $3,075. Ten donors signed up for monthly or annual recurring donations, so Rivard expects the lifetime value of those contributions to exceed $4,000. Many of the donations came from first-time contributors. Although the team hopes it isn’t often called out by city councilmembers like this, says Kelly, it’s planning to mobilize fundraising emails when there are big stories that call for this type of approach.


Boosting local news with data journalism and automation (Columbia Journalism Review)

Amidst declines in local news, journalists in the UK are experimenting with data journalism and automation as one way to fulfill local information needs. The RADAR (Reporters And Data And Robots) project, born out of a collaboration between the UK Press Association and London startup Urbs Media, uses freely available open government datasets that are tabulated by geographic area to form the basis for automatically generated stories. A team of five reporters and two editors develops about two stories per week into data-driven templates, which include fragments of text and logical if-then-else rules for translating the data into location-specific text. Using this method, a single data journalist can produce about 200 regionally specific stories for each of the two templates they write every week. The stories are then shared with media outlets around the country via wire service.

+ Related: Guardian Australia has just published its first automated article using a tool called ReporterMate, which takes a dataset and a story template file then turns it into a news story with little human intervention (The Guardian)


The ‘complete’ cancer cure story is both bogus and tragic (Wired)

“The latest version of the fake cancer cure story” — in which an Israeli outlet interviewed the chairman of a small research company, who claimed, without any substantiating evidence, that they would cure cancer within a year — “is even more flagrantly flawed than usual,” writes Megan Molteni. “The public’s cancer cure-shaped amnesia, and media outlets’ willingness to exploit it for clicks, are as bottomless as ever.” The Jerusalem Post neglected to interview a single outside expert in the oncology field, who would have pointed out the impracticality of such a claim in an instant. But despite the obvious flaws in the story, it spread rapidly and was picked up by major outlets around the world. “While outrage may be the fuel that feeds the virality of most fake news stories, when it comes to news about our health, people tend to be motivated by a more upbeat impulse,” writes Molteni. But whether it’s fake news or false hope, she says, peddling bad information is immoral.


‘The media feel safest in the middle lane’ (The Washington Post)

Who is the media’s middle-lane approach actually benefiting? “Not the public, certainly, since readers and viewers would benefit from strong viewpoints across the full spectrum of political thought,” writes Margaret Sullivan. “But it is great for politicians and pundits who bill themselves as centrists.” Sullivan argues that presidential-hopeful businessman Howard Schultz, former Ohio governor John Kasich, and former Republican senator Jeff Flake — who have all painted themselves as voices of moderation in a divided political climate — have attracted attention from media outlets because their centrist platforms suit the media’s efforts to appear even-handed. Their careful middle-of-the-road coverage is a “shame,” Sullivan says, “because a lot of Americans actually seem to appreciate having their minds stretched by unfamiliar ideas.” While impartiality is good, “…the media’s center-lane fixation puts us all to sleep. And that’s no way to drive a democracy.”


Missouri teens engage with local newspapers to see value, lives in news (Reynolds Journalism Institute)

News outlets need the buy-in and trust of teens now and in the future, says Nico Gendron, freelancer and creative strategist at The New York Times. That inspired her fellowship project at the Reynolds Journalism Institute to help a group of Missouri teens see themselves in news and see the value of news. “If you see yourself reflected in your local paper or the media overall, you’ll see the media as a resource and news as worth reading,” says Gendron. She says she believes there’s no better way to see the value of news and see oneself in it than to develop a story from start to finish. During the first part of her fellowship, Gendron is connecting local community newspapers with students from five Missouri high schools — four of which don’t have a student newspaper — to help students publish a story in their local paper.

+ “I have come to believe that the problems we are facing as a society and as an industry will best be solved at a local level, where it’s easier to see the humanity in each other and to appreciate the importance of separating facts from propaganda” — Kathleen Kiely, the Lee Hills Chair in Free Press Studies at the Missouri School of Journalism, where she works with local news outlets to teach community reporting to students (Medium, Kathleen Kiely)