Need to Know: Oct. 22, 2019

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

OFF THE TOP

You might have heard: Democrats are launching “news” outlets to turn swing-state voters against Trump (Vice) and Republicans are trying the same tactic to sway voters in battleground states (Salon)

But did you know: The same thing is happening again in Michigan (Lansing State Journal)

Nearly 40 websites branding themselves as local news outlets launched throughout Michigan this fall, with names like the Lansing Sun, UP Gazette, and Ann Arbor Times, but carrying conservative political messaging. The network of new sites was first discovered by Matt Grossmann, director of Michigan State University’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research. While public information outlets aren’t new, presenting them as non-biased local news sources is, says Grossman. “The big issue is this extent to which they have gone to try to confuse about this being the site of a local newspaper,” he said. The websites are owned by a company called Metrics Media, which says it plans to launch thousands of such sites nationwide.

+ “It’s not just local websites posing as news outlets in Michigan. It appears this same outfit or some affiliated group has created a 50-state network on ‘Business Daily’ websites … the new Arizona Business Daily, the Missouri Business Daily, the Vermont Business Daily, you get the idea.” (Twitter, @ChadLivengood)

+ Noted: Advance Local’s Project Text, which allows subscribers to have direct conversations with reporters they follow, is being rebranded as Subtext as it reaches 1 million texts and looks to expand (Medium, Subtext); News Corp, The Wall Street Journal, BuzzFeed and others reach deal with Facebook to feature their headlines in Facebook’s upcoming News Tab (Reuters)

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TRY THIS AT HOME

Coloradans propose more taxpayer support for local news. Here’s what that means. (Colorado Independent) 

Members of the Colorado Media Project have proposed a number of ways taxpayers could support local news, including letting voters designate “special information districts” in which they would be taxed, and developing programs that help commercial media outlets convert to employee or audience ownership. CMP has already begun bringing their ideas to local lawmakers in both parties. “A lot of R[epublicans] look at it and say, ‘Gee, that’s an economic development, Colorado-innovation, small-business development opportunity,’” said JB Holston, a member of the CMP’s executive committee. “Those on the other side of the aisle resonate with the notion that democracy is at risk.”

OFFSHORE

‘My new friend is a news bot from Chile called LaBot’ (ICIJ)

The chat bot, launched by three female Chilean journalists in 2017, breaks news stories into conversational bits — replete with GIFs and emojis — and distributes them to subscribers on Facebook Messenger and Telegram. The stories often ask questions of readers, and their responses trigger more messages from LaBot. “We realized that there was a demand for company, for conversing about the news,” said Francisca Skoknic, one of LaBot’s co-founders. (That conversational tone, as though you’re chatting with your friend about the day’s news, is also what made the news digest TheSkimm so popular.) Since its launch, LaBot has amassed 10,000 followers. And though it frequently uses humor as a tool to engage readers, “Above all for us it’s important that people are informed about topics on which they’re going to have to make decisions,” said Andrea Insunza, another co-founder. 

+ Earlier: On the heels of its own success, Spain’s Politibot is opening up a chatbot builder for other outlets (including LaBot) (Nieman Lab)

OFFBEAT

The America’s Test Kitchen recipe for profitable media (Digiday)

Before “reader revenue” became such a well-used term, Cook’s Illustrated was building a business around it. The magazine is proudly ad-free, relying solely on subscription revenue. To keep subscription renewals high (they’re currently around 80%), the magazine — as well as other America’s Test Kitchen products — is built around reader input. America’s Test Kitchen has a well-maintained network of 50,000 recipe testers, and it doesn’t publish a recipe until it gets those testers’ seal of approval. The reader-first approach is expensive and time-consuming, says Chief Content Officer Jack Bishop, but he says it’s what helps differentiate the brand and make it worth subscribers’ money. 

UP FOR DEBATE

The journalist as influencer: how we sell ourselves on social media (The Guardian)

Making a career out of writing in this day and age is “to make yourself a product for public consumption on the internet, to project an appealing image that contextualizes the actual writing,” says Allegra Hobbs. She points out how “extremely online” many writers are, to the point where their lifestyle is blurred with their actual work. “It struck me that there is functionally little difference between a lauded writer with a recognizable avatar and a prominent social-media influencer. … As digital journalism has converged with influencer culture, a whole genre of coverage has sprung up to account for it, including breathless book-launch coverage around star authors that feels more like celebrity voyeurism.”

SHAREABLE

Apple should do for mobile news in Safari what Google has done in Chrome (Nieman Lab)

That would be putting headlines from Apple News on every empty tab users open in Safari. When Google did the same thing last year for the mobile version of Chrome, “those article suggestions … went from being a nothingburger to driving more traffic to news sites than all of Twitter,” writes Joshua Benton. “And they kept increasing: By the end of 2018, Parse.ly data found ‘Google (other)’ referrals (which is traffic from Google that isn’t search or Google News — a proxy for these browser recommendations) were up 67% year over year. And it’s still a force: Parse.ly’s Google (other) category is today the No. 4 traffic source in its network of news sites.” Given that Safari is the U.S.’s most popular mobile browser, a similar move from Apple could have a big impact on publishers, Benton points out. 

+ Biggest late-night guests now bring a news angle, not a movie clip (New York Times); “One grotesque irony after another”: inside the rise and fall of Gawker 2.0 (Esquire)