Need to Know: September 24, 2018

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


You might have heard: We need a new model for tech journalism: “Journalists have been too slow to spot how things have changed and to cover the sector as the corporate behemoth it is” (Columbia Journalism Review)

But did you know: Craigslist founder Craig Newmark gives $20 million to fund news site dedicated to investigating big tech (The New York Times)

ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative news site, used to be known as “big tech’s scariest watchdog.” Now, with a $20 million gift from the Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, two former ProPublica journalists are starting The Markup, a news site dedicated to investigating technology and its effect on society. The newsroom will be guided by the scientific method and each story will begin with a hypothesis, says founding journalist Julia Angwin. (For example: “Facebook is allowing racist housing ads.” At ProPublica, Angwin’s team bought ads on the site and proved that hypothesis.) Journalists at The Markup will be partnered with a programmer from a story’s inception until its completion, says Angwin. “Just like I got an M.B.A. when I was a business reporter, I believe that technologists need to be involved from the very beginning of tech investigations.” Like ProPublica, The Markup’s stories will be released under a creative commons license, so that other organizations may republish them.

+ Related: How many news investigations into big tech have been stymied by the specter of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (Columbia Journalism Review)

+ Noted: PEN America announces grants for writers and journalists as part of expanded press freedom program (PEN America); Mic looking for investors amid cash woes (Columbia Journalism Review); The New York Times stands by its Rod Rosenstein scoop (Slate); Global spending on digital marketing nears $100 billion, with 44 percent growth last year in the U.S. and Britain (Reuters)


Events are extremely difficult. You should do them anyway. (Better News)

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: The Minneapolis Star Tribune looks for gaps in a very crowded events market, then ventures in cautiously. This story is part of a series on Better News that showcases innovative and experimental ideas that emerge from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative; and shares replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole. Steve Yaeger, vice president and chief marketing officer at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis-St. Paul, explains the criteria they use to evaluate event ideas. “Events can be high-risk, low-margin, and resource-intensive,” he said. “We can’t afford to lose money speculating on things that might work. We have to be very selective and very disciplined in our evaluation process.”

+ Earlier: Our guide to the best strategies for generating revenue through events; Our complete collection of resources for how to do live events (Better News)


How newsroom managers can make the most of performance reviews (Poynter)

Although managers are typically required to follow a process set by leadership and HR, there are steps they can take to personalize and improve performance reviews for their employees. Kelsey Proud, the managing editor for digital at WAMU in Washington, D.C., takes time to talk with her direct reports about three things: reflecting on how things have gone in the past year, articulating how things should go in the next year, and looking toward the future with a focus on what they are working toward three to five years out. She said she looks for ways she can elevate her employees throughout the year, such as having them lead a project or give a presentation. “It helps them, I hope, feel more consistently fulfilled with what they are doing and how we are working together,” she said. “It’s more sustained support throughout the year.”


Learning to survive without WeChat in China (The New York Times)

WeChat, as China’s answer to WhatsApp, Facebook, Uber and Apple Pay, has become an indispensable part of life in China, writes Audrey Jiajia Li. Yet public accounts on the platform are heavily censored, there are many reports of private chats being monitored and in some cases shut down, and a recent move to implement a national identification card system on the app shows the extent to which the Chinese government can invade users’ privacy. “I have tried to persuade people I know to switch to other messaging services that have end-to-end encryption — to no avail,” writes Li. “Since most of their contacts are on WeChat and they are so reliant on its services, they see no reason to leave. Whenever I bring up privacy concerns, the usual response is, ‘If you have nothing to hide, why do you mind the government accessing your data?’” Li, for her part, has strictly limited her use of WeChat: “Giving up my privacy and freedom of speech in exchange for convenience is not a trade I’m willing to make.”

+ Related: China shuts down thousands of websites in clean-up campaign (Reuters)


How bots ruined clicktivism (Wired)

The art of clicktivism — the use of social media to organize, support, or promote a cause — isn’t new, writes Renee DiResta. But around the time of the U.S. presidential election in 2016, it became apparent that bad actors were also participating in clicktivism, using bots and other tactics to push out and amplify disinformation. Bad actors can opportunistically commandeer or hide inside legitimate clicktivism campaigns, writes DiResta, making the line between activism and manipulation even blurrier. Platforms find themselves in the difficult position of deciding what’s real and what isn’t, which digital marketing tactics are okay and which are too easily exploited. Unfortunately, for the 2018 midterms — and the near future — internet users’ best tool to filter through the messages is their wits. Ask: Who is saying this? Why? And how is the message being spread?


Is the podcast bubble bursting? (Columbia Journalism Review)

Podcasting was supposed to be one of the saviors of digital media — inexpensive, addicting, profitable, and popular, writes Mathew Ingram. But now it’s like the old line from baseball legend Yogi Berra: “That place is so popular, no one goes there any more.” In recent weeks major media companies like BuzzFeed and Slate have shut down or downsized their podcasting operations, and many other news organizations have struggled to grow audiences — and thus revenue — from their podcasts. “Like anything else, it requires an investment of time and money to do well, something that not every media company has a lot of right now,” writes Ingram. “Perhaps it always made more sense as a niche market for a passionate few rather than the next big solution to the media’s financial woes.”

+ Related: Moving from one shiny object to another: “Everybody wants a ‘Serial,’ but nobody wants to spend ‘Serial’ money,” says one veteran podcast editor. (Poynter)


When Facebook goes down, people go read the news (Quartz)

When Facebook experienced a 45-minute outage on Aug. 3 in many parts of the world, traffic to news websites sharply spiked, according to a data from Chartbeat, a firm used by many major news publishers to track traffic to their websites. From the data, it appears that once Facebook went down, internet users went directly to news websites (for example,, driving a spike in traffic by 11 percent; or they searched for news (of any kind, including entertainment and sports) through Google or other search engines to replace their Facebook browsing fix, resulting in an 8 percent spike in search referrals.

+ It’s Anthony Bourdain’s journalism that we’ll miss most: Reporter Jason Rezaian on why Bourdain’s storytelling was something “all foreign correspondents aspire to.” (The Washington Post)