Need to Know: March 5, 2019

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


You might have heard: “Tennessee Breitbart” is part of a growing trend of opaque, locally focused, ideological outlets, dressed up as traditional newspapers (Politico)

But did you know: How PAC-connected activists continue to set up ‘local news’ outlets (Snopes)

On February 6, 2017, a website of uncertain origin named “The Tennessee Star” was born. At the time, it was unclear who funded or operated this “local newspaper,” which was filled with freely licensed content from organizations tied to conservative mega-donors. After some prodding by Politico in early 2018, the Tennessee Star revealed its primary architects to be three Tea Party-connected conservative activists: Michael Patrick Leahy, Steve Gill, and Christina Botteri. Now, a Snopes investigation reveals in detail how these activists created what appear to be local newspapers to promote messages paid for or supported by outside or undisclosed interests. Since the Tennessee Star, Leahy, Botteri, and Gill have been expanding their version of journalism to other battleground states in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election. So far, they’ve added The Ohio Star and The Minnesota Sun to their network of purportedly local newspapers — publications that, when Googled, are described identically as the “most reliable” newspapers in their respective locales.

+ Noted: Microsoft Excel will now let you snap a picture of a spreadsheet and import it (Verge); Twitter confirms it’s working on a “Hide Tweet” feature (TechCrunch)


For true newsroom innovation, start with STOP (RTDNA)

Efforts at newsroom innovation often fail — not because the ideas are bad, but because there is no time to implement them. “There is no better way to crush the spirit of innovation than to bring together a group of creative thinkers, turn them loose to brainstorm, allow them to become excited about implementing some of these innovations … and then require them to add new projects to their existing workloads,” writes Frank Mungeam. Adding new activities without eliminating other tasks is a surefire way to sabotage a promising innovation. That’s why smart managers start their innovation process by brainstorming a “Stop Doing” list before they generate a “Start Doing” list.

+ Earlier: Our case study on how to make a “Stop Doing” list, from The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Better News)

+ 10 Newspapers That Do It Right 2019: Honoring innovative revenue strategies, impactful journalism and creative audience growth (Editor & Publisher)


Millions of Ugandans quit internet services as social media tax takes effect (The Guardian)

Millions of people in Uganda have abandoned social media after punishing taxes were imposed on the use of networking sites and on money transactions using mobile phones, report Rebecca Ratcliffe and Samuel Okiror. A daily levy, introduced in July to tame “idle talk” online and raise revenue, affects more than 60 online platforms including Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter. To use such sites, Ugandans are expected to pay a tax of 200 Ugandan shillings (5 cents) a day. In the three months following the introduction of the levy, the number of internet subscriptions to such services fell by more than 2.5 million, according to the Uganda Communications Commission, and fears have been raised over the impact on the economy.

+ The Financial Times has acquired a controlling stake in The Next Web, an events and media company with a focus on new technology and startups in Europe (Financial Times)


A guide to the most — and least — politically open-minded counties in America (The Atlantic)

Are there communities in America that are more or less politically forgiving than average? And if so, what can we learn from the outliers? To find out, The Atlantic worked with polling and analytics firm PredictWise to create a ranking of counties in the U.S. based on partisan prejudice. The results were surprising: In general, the most politically intolerant Americans tend to be whiter, more highly educated, older, more urban, and more partisan themselves. This demographic doesn’t routinely talk with people who disagree with them; making it easier for them to caricature their ideological opponents. By contrast, many nonwhite Americans routinely encounter political disagreement. They have more politically diverse social networks and therefore tend to have more complicated views of the other side. According to The Atlantic’s analysis, swaths of North Carolina and upstate New York tended to be the most open to political diversity; in much of Massachusetts and Florida, by contrast, people appear to have far less tolerance.

+ Related: “I’d still rather know real people than believe in cartoon villains” — Amanda Ripley, who co-wrote “The Geography of Partisan Prejudice,” finds out why Watertown, New York, is the least politically prejudiced place in America (The Atlantic)


Is it news you can use? An ad? Both? On some morning TV programs, it’s hard to tell. (Washington Post)

With viewers increasingly able to screen out ads with digital video recorders or turning away altogether, TV stations have tried to find new ways to increase revenue. One answer has been magazine-style programs that seamlessly blend the look of informational and news programming with outright salesmanship, leaving viewers to figure out which is which, writes Paul Farhi. There’s no regulation against weaving ads into such programs, as long as the stations disclose on the air that they were paid or received some other form of compensation from a sponsor. But lax enforcement of these rules have resulted in an increasingly blurry distinction between straightforward editorial content and advertising. Generally, station news directors object to “pay for play” segments that don’t make their true nature plain, said Dan Shelley, executive director of RTDNA. Mimicking the look and feel of news or lifestyle reporting, without full disclosure that a source paid to appear, is “deceptive and unacceptable,” he said, especially in light of the declining public trust in journalism.


The comment moderator is the most important job in the world right now (BuzzFeed News)

Moderating content and comments is one of the most vital responsibilities on the internet, writes Ryan Broderick. The job protects — or curtails — our freedom of speech, monitors and takes down (or attempts to) viral hoaxes, threats, demonstrations of violence and hate speech, and seeks to maintain basic civility in our online conversations. And yet the big tech platforms seem to place little value on it: The pay is poor, workers are often contractors, and it’s frequently described as something that’s best left to the machines. But until the machines can figure out how to vanquish problems like fake news, marketing scams, coordinated harassment, or even the possibility of information warfare culminating in nuclear war, it’s up to human content moderators. It seems like a losing strategy, writes Broderick — “When the barbarians are already inside the gates, you don’t tell the villagers to stay tuned for an algorithmic solution.”

+ Earlier: The trauma floor: the secret lives of Facebook moderators in America (Verge)

+ “Sports is almost like a religion beat. People are really, really passionate about it and they really, really care. That can be a blessing or curse” — When sports fans harass female journalists online (Committee to Protect Journalists)