Need to Know: February 8, 2019

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


You might have heard: There was less misinformation during the 2018 midterms than in 2016 (Poynter)

But did you know: Researchers say fears about ‘fake news’ are exaggerated (Columbia Journalism Review)

Researchers at the University of Michigan recently came to the conclusion that fears about the spread and influence of fake news have been over-hyped, and many of the initial conclusions about the scope of the problem and its effect on U.S. politics were exaggerated or just plain wrong. Their data says “fake news” reached only a tiny proportion of the population before and during the 2016 election. In most cases, misinformation from a range of fake news sites made up 2 percent or less of the average person’s online news consumption, and among the group of older conservatives who were most likely to consume fake news, it made up about 8 percent. Not only that, but the researchers say the reach of fake news actually fell significantly between the 2016 election and the midterm elections last year, which suggests Facebook has cracked down on the problem, and that “no credible evidence exists that exposure to fake news changed the outcome of the 2016 election.”

+ Related: “The most worrisome misinformation in U.S. politics remains the old-fashioned kind: false and misleading statements made by elected officials who dominate news coverage and wield the powers of government” (Medium, Brendan Nyhan)

+ Noted: Jeff Bezos publishes what he says are threats from National Enquirer owner AMI over his investigation into the Enquirer’s reporting about his divorce (Medium, Jeff Bezos); “I was up all night” going through plagiarism claims, Jill Abramson says (The Washington Post); Twitter finally shared how big its daily user base is — and it’s a lot smaller than Snapchat’s (Recode); Amid bad news in the industry, Business Insider parent says it crossed $100m revenue mark and is profitable (Digiday); Scroll acquires the news-reading app Nuzzel, but it’ll remain free (Nieman Lab)


The week in fact-checking

As part of a fact-checking journalism partnership, API and the Poynter Institute highlight stories worth noting related to truth in politics and on the Internet. In the latest edition of Factually (formerly “The Week in Fact-Checking”): what we learned from the “Super Bowl of fact-checking” (otherwise known as the State of the Union); Sen. Elizabeth Warren becomes latest politician to launch her own fact-checking project, part of her 2020 presidential campaign; and The Washington Post Fact Checker offers a deep dive into claims about sexual assaults against female migrants traveling to the U.S. border.


How Reach NC Voices converses with people across North Carolina (Lenfest Institute)

EdNC, a North Carolina-based nonprofit covering education, wanted to find a more strategic way to engage in conversations with readers across North Carolina. The site worked with a local civic tech company to develop Reach NC Voices, a project and tech platform that allows the site to communicate across multiple platforms while measuring loyalty. Reach NC supports SMS text messaging, email newsletters, and surveys. These functions are designed to help readers inform EdNC’s coverage and ensure that their voices are heard by policymakers, and it also measures engagement across the different mediums. “We could see if we’ve texted them, if they’ve emailed them, what surveys they’ve responded to, what articles they’re reading on our website,” said Bryan Noreen, a data scientist from the civic tech firm that worked with EdNC. “The whole view of everything they do in our system, we can see that there.” The information is then presented to the staff in the form of a funnel, which shows how readers are moving toward becoming loyal readers.


How Krautreporter uses data to commission articles that grow its membership (Engaged Journalism Accelerator)

Krautreporter, an independent, ad-free digital magazine based in Germany, gives its reporters regular access to both quantitative and qualitative data around the kind of articles that boost subscriptions. The qualitative data also helps reporters identify potential sources among their readers. When new subscribers register, the site asks five (voluntary) questions, including what they study, their field of expertise and overseas contacts. Thirty-six percent of members have filled in this data. Krautreporter also does regular surveys that allows it to know more about overall readership. For example, most subscribers class themselves as politically central or to the left, and their education and income is above the national average. These insights are shared among the team. “We quickly realized that the best KPI we have is new paying members,” said editor-in-chief Rico Grimm. “This captures well whether you’re doing good journalism.”

+ BBC Radio 4 sheds 750,000 listeners in the last year as it faces challenges from commercial rivals (The Guardian); International outcry goes up as Philippine government hits Rappler journalists with new charges (The Guardian)


We need a national rural broadband plan (The New York Times)

Since the 1930s, policymakers have known that rural communications is a “market failure” — a condition in which private companies cannot or will not provide a socially desirable good because of a lack of return on investment. In 2017, 30 percent of rural Americans (or 19 million people) and 21 percent of farms lacked broadband access. What we need to solve this digital divide is a national rural broadband policy, writes Christopher Ali, who recently traveled to the Midwest to find out how federal broadband policies have failed rural America. “On the trip, I learned how high-speed broadband keeps professionals living and working in rural America, like the insurance agent I met in Rock County, Minn., who no longer has to lease a second office to digitally file paperwork. It keeps rural businesses competitive, like the radio station in Rock County that no longer needs to subscribe to two Verizon accounts, paying over $1,000 per month for internet service. And it keeps rural students studying, since around 70 percent of teachers assign homework that requires an internet connection.”

+ Earlier: “If an informed electorate is a vital part of our democracy, then we cheapen it by making access to information a privilege rather than a right”: Rural broadband, and the unknown costs of the digital divide (Columbia Journalism Review)


Journalism should be free (The Outline)

“If journalists really believe that what they do is a public good, they should make sure that it is accessible to as many people as possible, not just those who can afford subscriptions to a half-dozen newspapers,” write journalists Mari Cohen and Christian Belanger. Investigations into public corruption, information about housing, healthcare and education should have the widest audience possible — expanding beyond just those who have extra disposable income to toss at paywalls. “There are reasons to believe that free journalism models work,” said Cohen and Belanger, pointing to research that shows that people are more willing to donate to their preferred outlets than to pay the same amount for premium content, and to pay-what-you-can outlets like The Correspondent that have experienced a wave of public support. “It may be true that holding fast to the principle of journalism as a public good is incompatible with the demands of the market. But instead of capitulating to the demands of capital, we should be thinking about how our social and political worlds prioritize profiteering above all else, and how we might move beyond that.”

SHAREABLE tries a membership program, with a twist: It’s focused on video and entirely on YouTube (Nieman Lab)

Six months in, Vox’s seemingly improbable video membership program appears to be working (although it won’t give away the exact number of paying members it now has). For $5 per month, Vox Video Lab members get access to behind-the-scenes content, videos explaining Vox’s process, recommendations for non-Vox videos, and a monthly live Q&A with a producer. For $10 per month, members get all that and access to quarterly Google Hangout meetings where they can give Vox more advice about its membership program. In its first such meeting, Vox fans logged in from nine different countries. “I was floored,” said Blair Hickman,’s director of audience. “They were asking questions like, ‘Can we have Slack rooms so we can better prepare for these meetings? How can we coordinate in helping you reach your goals outside of these quarterly meetings?’” Many of the members are Vox “super fans” interested in making videos themselves, something Vox found out when it surveyed readers on what they wanted from a membership program.

+ What Spotify needs in order to become a great podcast app (The Verge)

For the Weekend

+ Why is the NYT Cooking comment section so civil, so filled with useful tips and encouraging advice — in stark contrast to every other comment section on the internet? Maybe it’s because it’s not officially a “comment” section at all. “We made the conscious decision not to call them comments,” says Times food editor Sam Sifton. “The call to action was to leave a note on the recipe that helps make it better. That’s very different from ‘Leave a comment on a recipe.’ And the comment might be ‘I hate you.’ ‘You’re an asshole.’ ‘This is bad.’ And that’s helpful to no one. I see that on other recipes, and I’m glad that we don’t have those comments, because we don’t have comments. We have notes.” (The Ringer)

+ “On stormy afternoons and the wee hours of violent nights, he would be on air. He treated storms with respect and caution, putting safety first without sensationalizing. He helped me learn more than I thought I’d ever want to know about how storm fronts form and move, and the more I understood how they worked, the less terrifying they were” — RTDNA’s Karen Hansen writes a thank-you to meteorologists and weathercasters everywhere (RTDNA)

+ “They laid me off via Facetime. I wore it like a badge of honor”: Meet the 26-year-old journalist who has been laid off three times (Columbia Journalism Review)