Need to Know: Jan. 7, 2020

OFF THE TOP

You might have heard: How an Iranian disinformation operation impersonated dozens of media outlets to spread fake articles (BuzzFeed News)

But did you know: A new breed of PR firms is selling lies online (BuzzFeed News)

Using tactics like fake social media accounts, content-generating bots and pseudo news websites, an army of PR and marketing companies worldwide have begun offering “disinformation services” to clients that range from companies, brands, political candidates and incumbent officials. A BuzzFeed News review — which looked at account takedowns by platforms that deactivated and investigations by security and research firms — found that since 2011, at least 27 online information operations have been partially or wholly attributed to PR or marketing firms. Of those, 19 occurred in 2019 alone. “2020 is shaping up to be the year communications pros for hire provide sophisticated online propaganda operations to anyone willing to pay,” write Craig Silverman, Janet Lytvynenko and William Kung. “Around the globe, politicians, parties, governments, and other clients hire what is known in the industry as ‘black PR’ firms to spread lies and manipulate online discourse.”

+ Noted: Google is killing digital magazines in news (Engadget); 4 Maine newspapers to publish digital-only on Mondays (News Center Maine); Columbus Dispatch print production to move, reporting will remain local (Columbus Dispatch)

API RESOURCES

How the press and public can find common purpose

Journalism’s future depends on how Americans view its contribution to democracy and their communities. Our survey, conducted in collaboration with NORC at the University of Chicago, examined several data points around this issue, including how Americans feel about the accountability role of the press and their own ability to question political leaders and improve their communities.

TRY THIS AT HOME

Swearing off polls and horserace coverage is relatively straightforward — but what about other media mistakes, like amplifying false information and parachute journalism? (The Guardian)

The Guardian and CJR talked to 30 top editors, reporters and TV news executives across the U.S. to get an idea of how they plan to avoid the mistakes of the last election cycle. (The complete findings are compiled in a report ominously titled “Sleepwalking Into 2020.”) Many of those interviewed said they would no longer make use of forecast modeling, which gives probabilities of each candidate winning. Editors are also avoiding horserace coverage — “Horserace coverage is dead,” said Ben Smith, editor in chief of BuzzFeed News. But they appear to be still be struggling with issues like how — or whether — to cover President Trump’s false or misleading claims, and how to accurately cover huge swaths of the country where Trump’s supporters are based (and where much of the news media is no longer located).

+ Earlier: We look at four ways to cover falsehoods without amplifying them; A database that fights parachute journalism by connecting editors with local reporters around the country (New York Times)

OFFSHORE

How Finland’s fake four-day week became a ‘fact’ in Europe’s media (News Now Finland)

It made for a great headline — “Finland’s new prime minister calls for four-day working week” declared The Independent, as other European news outlets quickly picked up the story. The only problem is, it’s not true. While Prime Minister Sanna Marin had informally floated the idea of reduced working hours during an unrelated event over the summer, there was never any indication that it would become government policy. However, after one Austrian news outlet published a story quoting Marin, other news outlets began running stories claiming that Marin had “called for” or “promised” a shorter working week.

+ Through Bloomberg Media, candidate Michael Bloomberg is profiting from conference business in China (Financial Times)

OFFBEAT

News publishers are sending a message through powerful marketing campaigns (Editor & Publisher)

Most of us are familiar with The New York Times’ Truth campaign, and more recently, The Wall Street Journal’s Read Yourself Better campaign. Now, local news outlets are following suit with creative ways of reminding their communities of the value of their journalism. The Dallas Morning News launched its What Matters campaign last fall, which uses digital and in-person outreach to get local residents to weigh in on the issues that matter to them. The Bay Area News Group partnered with Klay Thompson, a basketball player for the Golden State Warriors and a fan of the East Bay Times, to encourage young readers to see the newspaper as an authentic news source (and created this special edition sneaker as marketing collateral). And Newsday’s Supporting Local Journalism campaign features ads that ran across TV networks and on Newsday’s website, highlighting investigative journalists who break important local stories.

UP FOR DEBATE

With Trump’s Iran conflict, the media is under a microscope (Vanity Fair)

In the days following the U.S. attack that left Iranian general Qasem Soleimani dead, the nation’s leading news outlets have been demanding evidence from the Trump administration that the attack — which has opened the possibility of another drawn-out war in the Middle East — was justified. Their persistent skepticism shows that the media is still trying to recover from the “long-lasting stain of journalistic credulity as the Bush administration sold the Iraq war,” writes Joe Pompeo. But this time, the media walks a fine line — attempting to uncover truth in an administration that is notorious for bald-faced mendacity, while not being accused of pursuing an anti-Trump agenda. “Depending on who you talk to,” writes Pompeo, “they’re either not calling out the bullshit loudly enough, or doing everything in their power to take out a president who is abhorrent to them.”

+ “It is patriotic to question America’s leaders in wartime,” says CNN’s Brian Stelter (CNN)

SHAREABLE

6 examples of newsroom-library collaborations (International Journalism Network)

Libraries and local news outlets are both “contextual experts in the communities they serve,” writes Celeste Sepessy. “And both are working to reinvent themselves in the digital world.” Sepessy highlights several ways newsrooms and libraries are working together toward a shared mission, including creating a program for high school students to research and write community-focused stories (Dallas Morning News); teaching community members how to access information using library resources, while also highlighting how reporters uncover information through public records (The Kansas City Star); and creating a pop-up library newsroom that allows patrons a glimpse into how newsrooms operate (The Sprawl).

+ Here are 21 journalism conferences to attend in 2020 (Lenfest Institute)