Need to Know: Jan. 29, 2020


You might have heard: BuzzFeed News editor Ben Smith to join New York Times as media columnist (NBC)

But did you know: Ben Smith turned BuzzFeed from a clickbait factory into an award-winning news operation (Washington Post)

“When Ben arrived in 2012, there was no news organization here,” Matt Mittenthal, BuzzFeed communications director, told The Post’s Margaret Sullivan. But during Smith’s tenure, the organization was twice a Pulitzer Prize finalist, an Emmy nominee and the winner of top awards, including the George Polk. Some of Smith’s memorable moments as reporter and editor at BuzzFeed include a 2014 story that exposed how Uber went after its media critics, and his 2017 decision to publish the infamous Steele dossier, when traditional outlets — including The Washington Post and the New York Times — held back because they couldn’t independently verify its contents. Smith told Sullivan that he’s most proud of proving that “tough, ambitious journalism” cannot only be done on the Internet but that “it’s a superior medium to print.”

+ Smith’s departure comes after a year of layoffs at BuzzFeed, when the company was operating in the red, generating much hand-wringing about the future of digital media. Now, Smith is moving to a news company that has far fewer question marks, writes Peter Kafka. (Vox)

+ Noted: Washington Post reinstates reporter Felicia Sonmez after suspension for Kobe Bryant tweets (Deadline); CUNY’s Center for Community Media is expanding its reach beyond New York City (Nieman Lab); Flipboard will begin pointing readers in 23 North American cities to local news sources (Axios)


How WFAE used a podcasting contest to reach diverse audiences (Better News)

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: WFAE kicked off a community podcast competition that sparked hundreds of new podcast ideas, revealed issues important to the community and empowered residents of all ethnicities and backgrounds to share their stories. This story is part of a series on Better News that showcases innovative and experimental ideas that emerge from Table Stakes, the newsroom training program; and shares replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole.


Build better platforms and mechanisms for audiences to discuss your journalism (

News sites continue to shut down their comment sections, pushing audiences to engage on social media instead. But that’s not a wise strategy, says Adriana Lacy — social media has failed to provide a sustainable engagement model for publishers, and moderating discussion on those platforms is difficult at best. Lacy points to publishers like The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times (where Lacy is audience engagement editor) who, instead of shutting down comments, have begun restricting who can comment on articles, when and how; and tapping reporters to serve as discussion moderators. “We are seeing … owned-platforms like newsletters, live chats and other editorial products which enable publishers to have more control over the look and feel of how readers engage with its work,” writes Lacy.


Why the BBC is so bad at engaging younger audiences (The Guardian)

Coming off a year in which the BBC was told that it must connect with younger audiences or risk losing public support, still not enough effort is being made to do so, writes Sarah Manavis. “What social media the BBC uses is far from millennial-friendly,” she says, and the broadcaster’s efforts to create content specifically for young viewers has fallen flat. The BBC is also ignoring two key platforms that younger people are increasingly using for news — TikTok and YouTube.

+ Related: What should a public broadcaster be in the digital age? The BBC is asking and being asked that question (Nieman Lab)


Most Americans support the right to have some personal info removed from online searches (Pew Research Center)

The struggle to keep certain information about oneself from being searchable online is at the crux of the “right to be forgotten” debate, which gained notoriety in 2014 when the European Court of Justice ruled that, under certain circumstances, Google must remove information about European Union residents if they request. A recent Pew survey found that 74% of U.S. adults say it is more important to be able to “keep things about themselves from being searchable online,” while 23% say it is more important to be able to “discover potentially useful information about others.” While journalists could be expected to be part of the latter camp, some local news orgs have lately decided to voluntarily remove or refrain from using certain personal information associated with minor crime stories, including, in some cases, mugshots and names of perpetrators.


Should journalists sacrifice their right to vote in primaries to keep their politics private? (Poynter)

When journalists publicly declare their political party affiliation via primary voting it can expose some newsrooms’ failure to recruit a politically diverse workforce. That’s especially problematic if the staff’s political views diverge in a significant way from the population they serve, writes Kelly McBride. However, forbidding journalists to vote in the primaries is a “weak, short-term fix to the long-term diversity problem that plagues the entire industry,” says McBride. “As a profession, only a few commendable newsrooms make themselves publicly accountable for easily measured forms of diversity, like gender and race. I’ve never heard of a newsroom promising ideological diversity, although many editors agree that achieving it would improve the news product.”

+ NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly speaks out: “Pompeo called me a ‘liar.’ That’s not what bothers me.” (New York Times)


Revolutionary? A hit? A miss? In any case, Tony Haile’s Scroll has launched at last (Poynter)

Scroll, whose key functionality is that it converts ad-heavy articles from participating publishers into ad-free displays for a small monthly fee, launched yesterday after three years in the making. Early subscribers will have access to a long list of publishers who have already signed on, including USA Today, The Atlantic and Slate. Publishers will be compensated according to how much time subscribers spend engaging with their content. Founder Tony Haile, the former CEO of Chartbeat, says that this should more than make up for missed ad revenue. For readers, Scroll will help them escape clutter, cookies, slow load times and other irritants when consuming digital content — something publishers should be working on but haven’t figured out yet.