Canada’s $50 million journalism fund seen as too little, too late

The Canadian government has pledged to create a fund that will dispense $50 million over the next five years to support local journalism in Canada, but many observers say it is too little money, and comes too late to make much of a difference to the country’s struggling media industry. The pledge was made as part of the federal budget that was handed down late Tuesday afternoon.

Erin Millar, co-founder of a digital-only media outlet called Discourse Media, says she was afraid at first that the budget proposal was going to be a bailout for failing media entities like The Toronto Star and Postmedia—which owns daily newspapers in most of Canada’s major cities, including Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Vancouver—but doesn’t think the fund qualifies because it is so small.

“If you gave $5 million to Postmedia or the Star that would be gone by lunch,” Millar said in an interview. “So if it’s not a bailout, the next question you have to ask is whether this money is going to actually have any impact or not. And is this all going to newspapers, or is there going to be some going towards new digital startups? We just don’t know.”

The government has yet to provide any details about the funding, but sources who have been involved in the decision-making process say the money may go to The Canadian Press, a wire service owned by several large publishers including Torstar and The Globe and Mail, so that it can hire reporters in local markets. This was one of the proposals made in a report from the non-profit Public Policy Forum that was commissioned by the government to look into the future of news.

“If they spend it directly on hiring journalists in local markets, that’s better than supporting a dying business model I suppose,” Millar says. “But it’s not really an investment in the future because those journalists will go away when the money goes away.” What is most depressing, she says, is that “I feel like it’s going to be all the same people in charge of handing out that money—it’s like the same 12 people who were there when things went bad are still controlling the discussion and all the money.”

Discourse has built a 20-person operation in three years based in Vancouver and Toronto, with reporters in several smaller markets in BC and Saskatchewan. “The only reason I was able to do this is because I was willing to put my house on the line,” Millar says. The company—which had $750,000 in revenue last year from subscriptions and donations—has raised $350,000 through a share issue and $250,000 from a private investor, and Millar says it is close to closing another $400,000 funding round.

Jeremy Klaszus, founder and editor of a Calgary-based journalism startup called The Sprawl, said that he hopes none of the funds the government has promised will go to existing media outlets like Postmedia. “They have relentlessly devalued local journalism,” he said in an interview. “The thought of them getting any kind of support for local journalism is a bit of a joke.”

Writer and editor Selena Ross says she is encouraged by the fact that the government seemed to be focusing on under-served communities rather than bailing out existing media businesses. “I think the focus on under-served communities is really good to hear because it eliminates places that are covering Toronto or Ottawa or these major cities,” she said in an interview.” There are some places in Canada that are medium-sized and small towns that are in really dire straits.”

Ken Whyte is the former editor of the National Post, a national daily newspaper owned by Postmedia that was created in 1998 by erstwhile media mogul and Conservative pundit Conrad Black, and is also a former senior executive with Rogers Communications, one of Canada’s largest cable companies. He says he would rather the government had done nothing instead of creating the $50 million fund, because it is too little money to make a difference to the industry, and comes too late to be of any use.

“They’d be better off not doing anything,” Whyte said in an interview. “There’s three problems with what they’re doing—the first is that there’s no amount of money that they’d be willing to spend that’s going to save print journalism. If they wanted to do that they’d just be writing endless cheques to support a product no one wants. The second reason is that to the extent they try to prop up old businesses, they interfere with the birth and growth of new media outlets, and third, there’s a sizeable constituency out there that doesn’t trust the mainstream media, and will trust it even less if it’s subsidized by the government.”

John Hinds, president of an association of newspaper publishers called News Media Canada, said in a statement that his group is concerned that “the amount announced is far too little to address the growing challenge of providing local news. The association had been proposing that the government remake the Canadian Periodical Fund (which supports the print magazine business) and give it $350 million in funding.

According to Hinds, the Canadian journalism industry has lost more than 16,000 jobs in the past decade, as publishers have been forced to cut staff and other costs in order to keep pace with plunging advertising revenues. Postmedia has been the victim of deep cuts due in part to high levels of debt, incurred when the company was restructured after going bankrupt in 2010. A number of US-based hedge funds, including Golden Tree Asset Management, acquired a large stake in the company.

As in the US, local media markets have been hard hit by cutbacks, with many municipalities losing their only newspaper due to closures. Postmedia and Torstar—which owns the daily Toronto Star newspaper as well as a chain of small weeklies—recently did a deal in which they swapped ownership of more than 40 small newspapers, and the vast majority of them were subsequently shut down.

The government also said in the budget that it will make it easier for existing media organizations to seek non-profit status, so that they can accept donations from the public and from charitable foundations. Canadian law currently doesn’t allow media companies to define themselves as non-profit, which makes it difficult for them to get contributions from foundations and other benefactors.

“If it’s non-profit status, all that really does is confirm that these things don’t make money any more, and allows them to go out and beg with a certain amount of dignity,” says Whyte. “So instead of issuing shares, Torstar could go out and ask for donations, and people might be more likely to do that if it wasn’t a commercial enterprise and their money wasn’t going to pay Torstar dividends. If they want to do that they can go ahead I suppose, it might be incremental revenue but it’s not going to save the model.”

Klaszus said he is interested in the possibility of changes to non-profit rules, because that would make a tangible difference to his ability to raise money for his startup. “The part that catches my interest is making it so media organizations can get foundation support, which is really hard in Canada right now.”

Ross said the non-profit changes are “a huge, huge move and will actually make a much bigger difference in the long term, because it will allow organizations to restructure a little bit and try and find if there are foundations or people or maybe even ongoing crowdfunding that would work for them. It could turn into a longer-term thing or it could help tide newspapers over until they sort out their financial problems.”

The media today: Facebook throws a dime at local journalism

As Facebook continues to take fire for leaving the media industry twisting in the wind with its new algorithm changes, not to mention the pressure to do something about fake news and disinformation on the platform, the social network appears to be looking for olive branches with which to help smooth over its fractious relationship with the press. The latest was the announcement on Tuesday of a local journalism “accelerator” project which Facebook says is designed to help small newspapers and other local media outlets figure out how to boost their subscription revenue.

In a blog post, Facebook’s Head of News Partnerships, Campbell Brown, called the project “a $3 million, three-month pilot program to help metro newspapers take their digital subscription business to a new level.” Conspicuously absent, not surprisingly, was any mention of the main reason why newspapers and other media outlets are being forced to focus on subscription revenue—namely, that Facebook and Google have vacuumed up the vast majority of digital advertising over the past few years, leaving much of the media industry with a giant, smoking crater where their ad revenues used to be.

According to Brown, the new venture will work with 10-15 metro news organizations to “unlock strategies” that could help them build subscriptions using Facebook’s platform, and will be led by former former Texas Tribune publisher Tim Griggs. Newspapers already enrolled include The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Boston Globe and The Miami Herald. Brown said Facebook has also partnered with The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, a non-profit foundation set up by former cable magnate Larry Lenfest that owns and publishes The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Philadelphia Daily News. The Institute will distribute case studies from the pilot group through the Local Media Consortium.

If Facebook hoped that its announcement of financial support might be greeted by cheers, or even a weak thumbs up, it was likely disappointed in the response. Much of the reaction from media Twitter was highly skeptical of the effort—in part because of Facebook’s history of giving to the media industry with one hand and taking away with the other, but also because of the tiny sum of money involved. Although something is always better than nothing, the money that the social network has committed to this three-month pilot project amounts to 0.00007 percent of Facebook’s 2017 revenues, which feels a little like a Wall Street investment banker giving a homeless man a two-cent donation to help him get back on his feet.

Here’s more on Facebook and its tangled relationship with the media and advertising:

  • Facebook may want to help media outlets do more on the subscription front, but some industry insiders say that isn’t going to be much help for a lot of existing publishers. “A lot of people are going, ‘Reader revenue, it’s working for The New York Times, it’s working for specialty publications; that’s our path,'” former Twitter and NPR executive Vivian Schiller told Digiday. “I’m afraid for most news publishers, it’s going to end in tears.”
  • In a recent piece on Facebook and the 2016 US election, Wired magazine said the Trump campaign was helped by the fact that its advertising was more controversial, because that meant it paid less for its ads than the Clinton campaign, something former Trump digital director Brad Parscale appeared to confirm (Facebook’s ad prices are based in part on how much engagement they get).  But Facebook’s former VP of ads Andrew “Boz” Bosworth said on Twitter that this isn’t the case.
  • On a related note, Trump’s team announced Tuesday that the president has named Parscale as his campaign manager for 2020. Parscale has been credited with designing and overseeing the Facebook-based advertising machine that some believe helped put Trump in the White House.
  • Barack Obama spoke at an MIT event that was closed to the media, but Reason magazine got a copy of his remarks, in which he said platforms like Facebook and Google “have to have a conversation about their business model that recognizes they are a public good as well as a commercial enterprise. They’re not just an invisible platform, they’re shaping our culture in powerful ways.”
  • The newspaper industry doesn’t intend to hand over the media business to Facebook and Google without a fight, it seems. David Chavern, the head of the News Media Alliance (formerly the Newspaper Association of America) argues in the Wall Street Journal that Congress should give media companies an exemption from anti-trust law so they can compete.

Other notable stories:

  • The New York Times is said to be working on a new 30-minute weekly TV-style news show, and is in talks with streaming services and cable channels about a deal to distribute it, assistant managing editor Sam Dolnick told CNN. The paper says the series “will include groundbreaking investigations, on-the-ground reporting, agenda-setting interviews and new formats yet to be invented.”
  • Civil, a startup that is building a platform for financing and distributing journalism using the blockchain and its own crypto-currency, announced its newest partner site this morning. The new site will be helmed by Gawker Media veteran Tom Scocca, who said he hopes it can become a place for smart social and political commentary that promotes new voices.
  • Quinn Norton, who was briefly hired as a new columnist for The New York Times opinion section and then abruptly un-hired after controversial comments she made on Twitter resurfaced, has written an essay for The Atlantic about the experience. She says the backlash on Twitter, which was based in part on her friendship with a neo-Nazi, involved “a bizarro version of myself.”
  • The Knight Foundation has released a fascinating study that looks at how various sub-cultures on Twitter, including Black Twitter and Feminist Twitter, interact with the mainstream news media. The research looked at over 46 million tweets between 2015 and 2016 and found that issues which later became broadly important often started within those sub-groups.
  • Kim Ruehl writes for CJR about a digital alternative-music magazine called No Depression that is larger than ever and still publishing a quarterly filled with long-form articles by a group of paid freelancers, almost a decade after it stopped printing.

The media today: Are Russian trolls behind everything?

Now that special counsel Robert Mueller has indicted more than a dozen Russian agents and several Russian corporations as part of his investigation into interference in the 2016 US election, it’s tempting to believe the problem has been solved. But while the “troll factory” known as the Internet Research Agency appears to be defunct, that doesn’t mean trolls have been stopped in their tracks. If anything, in fact, they seem to be popping up almost everywhere: The New York Times reported that Twitter accounts with links to Russia moved quickly to take advantage of the attention focused on the mass shooting at a school in Parkland, Florida — posting hundreds of updates related to the event and to the topic of gun control under popular hashtags.

How extensive or influential this was, however, is unclear. The Times relied in part on data from Hamilton68, a site which tracks the behavior of a range of Russian accounts, but the site’s conclusions have been questioned by some. The dashboard of alleged activity was created by The Alliance For Securing Democracy, which in turn is associated with the German Marshall Fund. According to The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald, the Alliance and the Fund are backed by notorious right-wing warmongers such as Bill Kristol and Mike Chertoff, and their conclusions should be taken with a grain of salt. Others have also raised concerns: The Russia-focused news site Meduza notes Hamilton68 won’t say which accounts it follows, and in some cases they appear to just be accounts set up by actual Russian entities such as the broadcaster Russia Today.

Russian trolls seem to have become everyone’s favorite excuse for just about any negative outcome. Newsweek and the site RawStory, for example, both ran with pieces that claimed former Senator Al Franken’s resignation after sexual harassment allegations was driven by Russian trolls hijacking the #MeToo campaign. These reports were also based at least in part on conclusions by Hamilton68, which Newsweek said called the anti-Franken campaign “officially a Russian intelligence operation.” But fact-checking by found some holes in the story, including the fact that a piece by Ijeoma Oluo was supposedly part of the campaign and was promoted by trolls, even though Oluo told Snopes her article was written after Franken had already decided to resign.

Even New Yorker writer Adrian Chen, who wrote what is probably the definitive profile of the Russian “troll factory” known as the Internet Research Agency, has actually been down-playing the influence of the IRA to some extent. In an interview with Chris Hayes on MSNBC, Chen said that while some commentators have compared the troll campaign to Pearl Harbor and other major global events, it was “essentially just a social-media marketing campaign” and therefore probably not worth plunging the US into a state of national emergency. Atlantic writer Alexis Madrigal seems to concur: he says the Russian troll campaign “wasn’t that sophisticated,” and that if the IRA had been a Silicon Valley startup “they probably would not be picking up a fresh round of venture capital” because their methods were so haphazard.

Here’s some further reading on the topic of Russian trolls and their alleged activity in the US:

  • Nate Silver at Five Thirty Eight asks the question “How much did Russian interference affect the 2016 election?” and comes up with a not very satisfying answer: “It’s hard to say.” Russian activity was part of a campaign that had been going on for years even before the election, Silver says, and its actual influence is difficult to measure. He believes a letter from former FBI director James Comey to Congress — saying the investigation into Hillary Clinton was still open — probably had more impact.
  • Foreign policy analyst Molly McKew, however, who specializes in information warfare and has advised several European governments, says in Wired that “it’s now undeniable” Russia affected the 2016 election. The troll factory campaign involved tens of millions of dollars spread over several years to build what she calls a “broad, sophisticated system that can influence American opinion.” For example, McKew notes that actual events took place that were orchestrated by the Russians.
  • But were those events actually successful in changing anyone’s mind about Trump or Clinton or the election? A piece in The New York Times makes it sound as though at least a few of them were poorly organized and failed to amount to much of anything. A fake group called Heart of Texas, for example, set up an anti-Muslim rally in Houston, but only a dozen people showed up.
  • Also in The New York Times, Amanda Taub and Max Fisher argue that whatever Russian meddling there was amounts to “a drop in the ocean of American-made discord.” The real problem, they say, is a wave of partisan polarization that has “infected the American political system, weakening the body politic and leaving it vulnerable to manipulation.” In particular, Taub and Fisher say, research suggests that people who are hyper-partisan in their views are more susceptible to “fake news.”
  • Meanwhile, a Facebook executive was forced to apologize to his colleagues after comments he made on Twitter about the Mueller investigation were retweeted by Donald Trump. Rob Goldman, a vice-president in charge of advertising, suggested that the main goal of the Russian troll campaign was not to influence the election but to destabilize American society. Goldman sent a message to staff apologizing for his comments, and said he didn’t intend to undermine the special counsel or his conclusions.

Other notable stories:

  • In a recent speech at the University of Oxford, Washington Post executive editor Martin Baron talked about how much the media and social landscape in the US has changed, and how the rise of “fake news” and conspiracy theories has changed the game. “I think we must recognize that something profound has changed in our profession,” he said. “Journalism may not work as it did in the past. Our work’s anticipated impact may not materialize. The public may not process information as it did previously.”
  • Adeshina Emmanuel writes in CJR about his experiences with alt-weekly Chicago Reader editor Mark Konkol, who was fired after less than three weeks on the job. A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Konkol had pledged to “bring a new vibe” to the magazine, but quickly acquired a reputation for being a bully, and also drew controversy with a racially charged image he chose for the cover of a new issue.
  • Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has banned a local news site called Rappler from covering his official events, according to a Reuters report. The president blamed the site for publishing “fake news” about his government, including a story that said his senior aide had intervened in a navy procurement deal. Philippine securities regulators recently revoked Rappler’s license to operate because of what it said were irregularities involving one of its investors, eBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar. Rappler is appealing.
  • Dylan Byers of CNN has launched a beta test of a newsletter called Pacific, which will cover “the innovation economy.” According to a tweet from Byers with a mockup of the newsletter masthead, a group of 150 tech and media executives, journalists and friends have been given access to a trial version of the newsletter, which was announced in September and is set to officially launch in March. CNN said it will focus on the West Coast-based companies “that have changed media, technology, and politics.”
  • A judge in St. John’s, Newfoundland has ruled that it was not a criminal act for a man to yell an offensive phrase at a TV reporter as he drove past her in his truck while she was interviewing the mayor. The phrase in question has become a popular Internet meme, and has been shouted at journalists both in the US and elsewhere. But the judge ruled that while it was offensive and hurtful, it was not a criminal offense.

The Disconnect: A digital magazine that forces you to unplug from the Internet

At first glance, it seems like an oxymoron: A magazine that exists only on the Internet, filled with content that can only be consumed once you have disconnected from the Internet. But that’s exactly the kind of contradiction founder Chris Bolin says he was going for when he created his new magazine, The Disconnect.

Bolin makes a point of saying he isn’t some kind of Internet-hating Luddite, trying to show how evil the global computer network or technology in general is. In fact, he’s a computer programmer who works with digital technologies for a living, with no background in publishing literary magazines. So why did he create one that makes such a dramatic point about the need to disconnect from the Internet?

“I created it in part because I think it’s funny to use irony in that kind of way — to have a piece of the Internet that forces you to leave the Internet,” Bolin said in an interview with CJR. “To create something new that functions as commentary but is also participatory, in that it forces you to participate by disconnecting.”

And how does it do that? Bolin says it takes advantage of a function built into most web browsers, which detects whether a user is connected to the Internet. There are ways around that process, he says — for example, by putting the browser into developer mode — but he figures most people probably won’t go to those lengths. Plus, the request to disconnect is mostly designed to make a point.

“I guess it’s kind of like a paywall,” Bolin says of the banner on the site that asks users to turn off their connection. “But it’s more of a pay-attention wall.”

The process works because all of the content is downloaded when a user first visits the site, but access isn’t provided until the browser detects that it is no longer connected. Bolin says the entire magazine is only about 250 kilobytes because there are few images and no ads. The content consists of essays — including one that argues getting away from the Internet has become a privilege — as well as poetry and fiction.

Bolin says he was driven to create The Disconnect in part because he noticed his own tendency towards a kind of Internet addiction, where you find yourself following link after link for no real purpose, until you have disappeared down a rabbit hole and you look up to see that hours have gone by.

There are a number of different apps that are designed to help users focus on a task and screen out some of the random interruptions that occur when you’re online, but Bolin says he personally found that sometimes the only way to really get away from that kind of distraction was to actually pull the plug, something he says he did occasionally while trying to write his graduate thesis. “It’s disconnecting as a way of saving you from yourself.”

Bolin first experimented with a site called Offline, which contained a single essay by the same name that talked about the need to disconnect, which could only be viewed once a user had disconnected.

As he put it in the essay: “I have spent hours caught in webs of my own curiosity. Most dangerous is the split-second whim: ‘I wonder what the second most commonly spoken language is?’ Those 500 milliseconds could change your day, because it’s never just one Google search, never just one Wikipedia article. Disconnecting from the internet short-circuits those whims, allowing you to move on unencumbered.

The Internet is a tremendously useful thing, says Bolin. “But it’s not really designed for people — or rather it’s designed for perfect people. If you were a machine, you could decide which links you see are relevant to your task and just follow those. But for human beings, the unknown is always more interesting than the known, so maybe you open a link in another tab — it’s kind of the thrill of the hunt.”

With the magazine, Bolin says he wanted to encourage people to think about their need for a constant connection to the Internet or the web. ” Overall I think Internet is a good thing, but I also think it’s beneficial to go through the process of removing yourself from that thing and forcing yourself to think about what’s good about it and what’s not. This isn’t a Luddite rallying cry, the Internet is here to stay, but confronting it and thinking about it and what it means still seems like a good idea.”

One response he has gotten to the idea of The Disconnect, says Bolin, is a kind of sarcastic suggestion that if he really wanted to create something where people couldn’t read it online, he could have just published a regular printed magazine instead of going to such lengths.

“The sardonic take is ‘Hey, congratulations, you’ve invented a magazine,'” he says. “But in this case in order to get it, you don’t have to order it, you don’t have to go to a newsstand, you don’t even have to have a physical address, you don’t have to waste trees, and so on.”



“I don’t think the internet is bad — in fact, I think it is very good,” says Bolin. “It does a great job of connecting people who would never be connected, and creating business opportunities, just like the printing press was a good thing. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, I just think we should reflect on it a bit.”

Fake news is just part of a much bigger problem: Automated propaganda

So-called “fake news” has become a hot button topic of late, thanks to the repeated use of that term by Donald Trump and his followers, who use it to describe any story they disagree with. After initially dismissing the problem, Facebook has promised to crack down on disinformation, and so has Google. But experts say the problem of what they call “computational propaganda” doesn’t just piggy-back on social platforms — it is arguably baked into the DNA and the business model of companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter. And it’s going to take more than a few algorithm tweaks to get rid of it.

Dipayan Ghosh is a computer scientist who helped provide technical advice to the Obama administration while working on his PhD, and then wound up working at Facebook as part of the privacy and public policy team. In 2016, he says, he and others started to notice a deluge of “fake news” and other disinformation, one that appeared to be driven by the News Feed algorithm. When Donald Trump was elected, Ghosh says he had a kind of crisis of conscience, because he believed that politically motivated misinformation had helped Trump win.

“I was sitting on the floor at the Javits Center watching and I was shaken to the core,” Ghosh says. “It was just such a shocker. I couldn’t understand it given [Clinton’s] rise in the popular vote, and I thought there might be something else going on, a pro-active campaign going on under the table that was manifesting itself in the election.” Facebook later admitted before Congress that Russian trolls had promoted fake news and taken advantage of the platform in order to reach more than 125 million people.

After his election-night disillusionment, Ghosh joined the New America foundation and Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, where he started researching the impact of digital propaganda distributed by social platforms. In January, he published a report called “Digital Deceit: The Technologies Behind Precision Propaganda on the Internet” with Ben Scott, a former innovation adviser at the US State Department.

While most of the attention focused on content from the Internet Research Agency, a Russian “troll factory,” the New America report notes that this is just the tip of a very large digital iceberg. “These platform companies are at the center of a vast ecosystem of services that enable highly targeted political communications that reach millions of people with customized messages that are invisible to the broader public,” Ghosh and Scott wrote.

In effect, they say, Russian trolls and others take advantage of how social platforms and ad networks are constructed in order to turn them to their own purposes. “Disinformation campaigns are functionally little different from any other advertising campaign, and the leading internet platforms are equipped with world class technology to help advertisers reach and influence audiences,” the report says.

What that means is that “there’s a fundamental alignment between the goals of the Internet platform and the goals of the disinformation operator,” Ghosh said in an interview. “That fundamental goal is to get the user to stay there as long as possible. Their motivations are different — for platform it is to maximize ad space, to collect more information about the individual and to rake in more dollars, and for the disinformation operator the motive is the political persuasion of the individual to make a certain decision. But until we change that alignment, we are not going to solve the problem of disinformation on these platforms.”

After Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies for their attempts to influence the US election, sociologist Zeynep Tufekci noted on Twitter that the indictment “shows RU used social media just like any other advertiser/influencer. They used the platforms as they were designed to be used.”

Facebook and Google, says Ghosh, “have not necessarily encouraged the environment of disinformation but have enabled it through the mass collection of individual data, with as much granularity as possible within legal limits,” something Tufekci has described as “surveillance capitalism.” This kind of structure allows advertisers to target users based on a wide range of interests, but it also allows political parties and much more nefarious groups to do the same, and to fine-tune their propaganda to have as much effect as possible.

“It’s a very hard problem — how to distinguish between disinformation and authentic political speech,” Ghosh says. “Those that are clearly foreign agents can be blocked, but with domestic operators there’s an obvious tension there between preventing harm and impacting on free speech, and I don’t think there’s a clear solution yet. But we are definitely going to see more domestic actors in 2018 and that is frightening.”

Although Facebook has gotten the lion’s share of the attention for the way it was manipulated by Russian trolls, it is not alone in facing this problem. Guillaume Chaslot is a former Google engineer who helped develop the algorithms that determine which videos to recommend to YouTube watchers, and he says the platform has a very real issue with promoting fake news and disinformation.

Chaslot says while studying the functioning of the recommendation algorithm, he noticed that in many cases, the videos that the software was promoting were of questionable quality — factually inaccurate reports from dodgy websites pushing conspiracy theories and hoaxes. So he tried to come up with ways to improve the quality of the recommendations, but says his superiors at YouTube weren’t interested. All they wanted, he says, was for the team to come up with ways of getting people to spend more time on the platform.

“Total watch time was what we went for — there was very little effort put into quality,” Chaslot said in an interview with CJR. “All the things I proposed about ways to recommend quality were rejected.”

In a blog post in early 2017 entitled “How YouTube’s A.I. boosts alternative facts,” Chaslot described an experiment he conducted which pretended to view YouTube videos and then catalogued the automated recommendations. In a number of cases, the most recommended videos involved conspiracy theories about the earth being flat, the Pope being an agent of evil, Michelle Obama being a man, etc.

“I came to the conclusion that the powerful algorithm I helped build plays an active role in the propagation of false information,” Chaslot wrote. And it does so because YouTube wants to keep people using the service, and salacious or bizarre hoaxes and conspiracy theories keep people engaged.

In addition, as Chaslot describes, “once a conspiracy video is favored by the A.I., it gives an incentive to content creators to upload additional videos corroborating the conspiracy. In turn, those videos increase the retention statistics of the conspiracy. Next, the conspiracy gets recommended further. Eventually, the large amount of videos favoring a conspiracy makes it appear more credible.” As a result, the problem snowballs.

It’s not just fake news or hoaxes that are involved in these organized propaganda campaigns, Tow Center researcher Jonathan Albright notes. He looked at more than 200,000 tweets that were connected to Russian troll accounts — tweets that were provided to NBC by Twitter insiders before they were deleted — and analyzed them based on the content they were linking to. Many of them distributed real news stories from traditional sources, but in a way that was designed to promote a specific pro-Trump agenda.

When The Guardian wrote about his research, Chaslot says representatives from Google and YouTube criticized his methodology and tried to convince the paper not to do the story, promising to publish a blog post refuting his claims, but no such post was ever published. The company said it “strongly disagreed” with the research — but after Senator Mark Warner raised concerns about YouTube promoting what he called “outrageous, salacious and often fraudulent content,” Google thanked the paper for doing the story.

After The Wall Street Journal reproduced some of Chaslot’s findings, the head of YouTube’s recommendations team said that “We recognize that this is our responsibility, and we have more to do.” The search giant has come under fire for a number of similar problems in the past, including an incident in which a fake news story was one of the top recommended links related to the mass shooting in Las Vegas. Google says it is trying to surface “more authoritative” content when people look for hoaxes or conspiracy theories.

“They have made some changes to the search algorithm so it recommends more high-quality content,” says Chaslot, “but if you look at what is recommended, it is still very divisive politically.” In the US this might not be a problem because of the country’s strong democracy and a culture of respect for the First Amendment, he says, “but in some countries where you don’t have that culture it could be a much worse problem. There is the same issue in France, where recommendations quickly get into conspiracy theories.”

Platforms like YouTube and Facebook “seem very democratic, because anyone can click the like button and have a vote on the content,” Chaslot says. “But if you know how the system works, if you’re a Russian troll or someone like that, you can figure out how to have a lot more impact, because you know how to organize your content, when to publish, and a lot of other things that increase the probability of your video being seen.”

Google and Facebook often say that they don’t want to get into the business of deciding what is true and what isn’t, but Chaslot describes this argument as “total bullshit.” Both platforms could easily create the kinds of tools or processes that are used on a site like Wikipedia, he said, where a group of moderators decide what information to keep and what not to keep. “There are lots of tools they could try, but they don’t really have any interest in doing it,” Chaslot says. “They have the money to do it, and there are people working there who want to do it, but they don’t bother to try and do it because there is no incentive to do so.”

Lisa-Maria Neudert is part of a team of researchers who work on the Oxford Internet Institute’s computational propaganda project. In a recent report, the Institute looked at how and where “fake news” stories and related content were shared on Twitter and Facebook, and found that those who shared such posts tended to be Trump supporters or from the conservative end of the political spectrum.

Propaganda isn’t new, says Neudert. But what is new is the ease with which it can be created and distributed, and the speed with which such campaigns can be generated — and the fact that they can be targeted to specific individuals or groups, thanks to Facebook and Google’s ad technologies.

“This ability to have mass distribution at extremely low cost enables propaganda at an entirely different scale, one we’ve never seen before,” she says. “And it uses all of the information that we as users are consciously and unconsciously providing, to produce individualized propaganda.”

In a sense, just as Facebook and Google and Twitter have democratized social communication and media, they have also democratized propaganda. “Social media has shifted the capability of designing propaganda to regular users,” says Neudert. “So it’s no longer something that is created by big companies or governments — now the everyday lay person can make a propaganda campaign or a disinformation site or create a bot army.”

For example, critics say Twitter has made it easy for groups or even individuals to create what some call “astro-turfing” campaigns, which are designed to give the impression that there is widespread support for certain views, because the service allows users to create and distribute sponsored posts for entirely fictitious organizations, without even having to have a Twitter account or a website to point to.

A non-profit group called The Alliance for Securing Democracy, which is funded by the German Marshall Fund, runs a site called Hamilton68 that tracks the behavior of Russian troll accounts, and has shown that they exhibit organized behavior around specific news hashtags, including those that were used prior to the release of the Nunes memo, as well as hashtags used following the Parkland shootings.

The social platforms have been slow to realize just how integral a role they play in this new form of disinformation, Neudert argues.

“I think [Facebook] has had a rude awakening, that the way they structure their platforms has contributed to this problem, but it has been a slow awakening,” she says. “It was only after months and months of pressure that we saw some of the data being shared, and they still haven’t shared even a small part of the massive amounts of data they have. If they shared more, I think maybe we could come up with better solutions.”

Some of Facebook’s proposed news-feed changes could actually make the disinformation problem worse, Neudert says.

“The content that is the most misleading or conspiratorial, that’s what’s generating the most discussion and the most engagement, and that’s what the algorithm is designed to respond to,” she says. “So it promotes these kinds of issues even more by exploiting the way that human attention works. The environment maximizes for outrage. They say they want more meaningful conversation, but it’s not clear how they are going to define that.”


The media today: Facebook wants you to know it’s really trying

Facebook has announced a number of new features recently that appear to be designed to repair the company’s relationship with the media, the fractious state of which was the subject of a long cover story in the latest Wired magazine, featuring an artist’s rendering of Mark Zuckerberg looking as though he has just been mugged. Two senior executives also talked at a Recode event about their view of the Facebook/media landscape. There are a lot of moving parts to all of these various developments, so here’s a quick overview.

The Wired story goes into some detail (thanks to what it says were over 50 conversations with current and former employees) about how Facebook’s view of itself has evolved over the past few years, how it first denied being a media entity and only recently grudgingly admitted to having played a key role in the dissemination of political disinformation orchestrated by Russian troll factories. One key turning point was the controversy in 2016 over alleged manipulation of the “trending topics” feature, and another key point was getting hauled in front of Congress for hearings into foreign political activities on the platform.

Since then, Facebook has said it is moving the news-feed algorithm away from mainstream news and more towards user-generated content that generates discussion, with the proviso that it will introduce “high quality” news into a user’s feed, based on user surveys of trusted news sources. “This is not us stepping back from news,” Head of News Campbell Brown said at Recode. “We are, for the first time in the history of Facebook, taking a step in trying to define what quality news looks like and try to give that a boost.”

Both Brown and VP of News Feed Adam Mosseri said they are trying to make things easy for media companies, but there is only so much they can do. “My job isn’t to convince them to stay on Facebook,” said Brown. “If someone feels that being on Facebook is not good for your business, you shouldn’t be on Facebook. This is not about us trying to make everybody happy.” That said, Brown and Mosseri announced several features designed to soothe the ruffled feathers of news entities, including a hard-news section for Facebook Watch videos and support for paywalls in Instant Articles, which will integrate directly with publishers’ paid offerings. Whether that changes the skepticism some companies seem to have towards Instant Articles remains to be seen.

Here are some more links related to Facebook and its evolving relationship with the media:

  • The Hollywood Reporter has details about the company’s roll-out of both paywall support in Instant Articles and a news section for Facebook Watch. The integration of subscriptions into Instant Articles was reportedly held up because of a dispute with Apple about revenue sharing that has apparently been settled.
  • Facebook’s Mosseri admitted that while the changes to the ranking of news in a user’s feed could help some media outlets, including some local publishers that are highly trusted, it could also result in “meaningful downward pressure in the months ahead” for other publishers who don’t make the cut.
  • Mosseri said his biggest fear for the future is that Facebook may miss the next big problem caused by foreign agents because of a blind spot, the same way it was slow to recognize the problem of disinformation or fake news coming from Russian troll factories during the 2016 election.
  • Meanwhile, a Facebook crackdown on sponsored content is forcing some publishers to modify or even cancel programs aimed at distributing their stories and videos through other outlets, according to Digiday. Publishers are no longer allowed to accept anything of value in return for sharing content that they didn’t actually create, which means sites like Diply are scaling back their so-called “influencer” networks.

Other notable stories:

  • The New York Times’ popular podcast The Daily, which the company says has more than 4.5 million listeners, is coming to public radio via a partnership with American Public Media. The broadcast will consist of a 30-minute edited version of the podcast, produced by the same team.
  • Salon is telling readers that they can either disable their ad-blocking software when reading the site’s articles, or they can opt in to an ad-free offering that allows the site to use their computer’s spare processing power to create crypto-currency tokens, a process known as “mining.”
  • Jarrod Dicker, formerly VP of innovation at The Washington Post, has left to join a media startup called Poets that he said is trying to create “a better model for the media ecosystem” using what crypto-currency advocates call the “blockchain,” a kind of distributed ledger for tracking digital activity.
  • CJR’s Alexandria Neason writes in the latest issue of the magazine about the stress, burnout, and guilt many journalists can go through when reporting on issues that affect them personally, such as racism and sexism, and how poorly equipped the media industry is to deal with that problem.
  • A German court has ruled that Facebook’s “real name” policy, which requires users to post under their real identities, is illegal and that under a German law designed to protect privacy, Facebook has to allow users to sign up and post under pseudonyms. The social network said it plans to appeal the decision.

The media today: Tronc said to be selling the Los Angeles Times

Staffers at The Los Angeles Times have been through the ringer over the past few weeks, as the paper has been hit by an unprecedented amount of turmoil at the top, including the departure of its publisher and a revolving door in the editor-in-chief’s office. Now there is word that the venerable daily is about to be sold. According to a report late Tuesday by The Washington Post, the paper’s parent company—Chicago-based Tronc Inc., which owns a number of other prominent dailies including The Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun and The New York Daily News—is in talks to sell the Times and its sister paper The San Diego Union-Tribune to Los Angeles-based billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong.

If the deal goes through, it could bring an end to a long-running legal drama that has been taking place at the corporate level at Tronc. Soon-Shiong is a former surgeon and investor who made his fortune developing a popular cancer drug, and is already a major shareholder in Tronc, formerly known as Tribune Co. Tronc CEO Michael Ferro brought him into the company as an investor in 2016, as a way of blocking a takeover attempt by the Gannett newspaper chain, which had made an $800-million acquisition offer. The billionaire physician bought about 13 percent of the company and became chairman, and after a number of attempts to sweeten its bid, Gannett ultimately walked away from the deal.

The relationship between Soon-Shiong and Tronc’s CEO subsequently deteriorated, however, with the LA-based investor accusing Ferro of spending lavishly and of failing to follow through on the terms they had agreed to when he invested, including a promise to license some technology that Soon-Shiong’s company had developed. Soon-Shiong also at one point tried to get Ferro to sell him The Los Angeles Times, according to some reports, but the Tronc CEO refused. The Post report suggests they have managed to come to a deal, but whether the billionaire’s acquisition of the Times is enough to justify the “smiles and laughter” some Times staffers reported after the news broke remains to be seen. Soon-Shiong, who had no history of investment in media or journalism before he joined Tronc, has been critical of the media in the past for what he called “false reporting” about the health of his company.

Here are some more links if you want to catch up on the saga at both the Times and Tronc:

  • The chaos factory: Veteran media analyst Ken Doctor summed up some of the turmoil and upheaval at The Los Angeles Times in a recent article that was published just after editor-in-chief Lewis D’Vorkin was moved out of that job and into a position as chief content officer for Tronc.
  • The Prince of Darkness: A CJR feature on D’Vorkin may have helped play a role in his sudden departure as editor-in-chief at the Times. Former colleagues—including some who said they actually liked the former Forbes editor—described him as having no journalistic ethics to speak of, and of being more interested in clicks than journalism.
  • Portrait of a billionaire: A Fortune magazine profile in 2013 called Patrick Soon-Shiong the richest man in Los Angeles, and described how the South African-born doctor bought a struggling generic pharmaceutical company, patented a cancer drug and turned the venture into a multi-billion-dollar enterprise. Along the way he acquired a stake in the Los Angeles Lakers and was sued by his brother.
  • Seeing the future? Soon-Shiong talked to Bloomberg in 2016 about using machine-vision technology that he had patented to help revive print newspapers by adding augmented-reality features. For example, he said, a reader could use their smartphone camera to scan a picture of basketball star Kevin Durant or Donald Trump, and then “you’d hear him speaking or Kevin Durant would be dunking.”

Other notable stories:

  • Atlantic writer Ed Yong wrote about how he spent two years trying to fix a gender imbalance in his stories, inspired by a piece his colleague Adrienne LaFrance wrote after analyzing her own stories for gender imbalance. “I knew that I care about equality, so I deluded myself into thinking that I wasn’t part of the problem,” Yong writes. “I assumed that my passive concern would be enough [but] passive concern never is.” (Hat tip to my CJR colleague Karen Ho for this one).
  • Veteran NPR investigative reporter Daniel Zwerdling has left the company as a result of accusations of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior. At least two NPR staffers reported Zwerdling to human resources, and half a dozen others told they had been subject to unwanted advances and other behavior. Zwerdling has said the allegations are untrue.
  •  The Inter-American Press Association routinely visits countries where the media and journalism are said to be under attack, and for the first time this year the organization is sending an IAPA delegation to the United States, where journalists from Venezuela, Argentina, Peru and Mexico will meet with legislators and media representatives about the undermining of press freedom in the country.
  • In interviews about the magazine’s new paywall, Wired editor Nicholas Thompson said he believes charging readers for a subscription helps media companies  produce better journalism, but Mollie Bryant disagrees. The former investigative reporter for Oklahoma Watch and The Clarion-Ledger in Mississippi writes that having paywalls “didn’t stop the papers I worked for from favoring “quick hits” over the kind of journalism that takes time to put together–which is most journalism–or from cutting or whittling down beats that didn’t lead to enough pageviews.”
  • CJR writer Alexandria Neason has a wonderful story about a man who lives in a small town in upstate New York and has spent the past several years digitizing the archives of thousands of small-town newspapers, to the point where he now has almost 50 million pages stored—more than the entire collection of the Chronicling America project, which is a joint newspaper-digitization effort by the Library of Congress and the National Endowment of the Arts.
  • Macedonia has gained a reputation as a haven for “fake news” publishers who are trying to make a buck by publishing hoaxes and conspiracy theories. In most cases the perpetrators are teenagers or online trolls, but a fact-checking site called Lead Stories determined that a number of them are run by a rather unusual figure: A man who works as a senior officer with the country’s Ministry of Defence, who described his work as “a little side business.”

Can BuzzFeed afford to keep funding BuzzFeed News?

The fact that BuzzFeed News head Ben Smith has had discussions with billionaire philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs about potentially investing in the company’s news operation suggests BuzzFeed is wrestling with the same issue that many other media companies are: Namely, how do you justify continuing to invest in news when it doesn’t make any money?

Becoming a global news player might have seemed like a worthwhile investment when BuzzFeed was a rapidly-growing digital superstar, but in the past few months the company has reportedly missed its revenue growth targets for 2017 by a significant amount, put its plans for an initial public offering on hold and laid off more than 100 people—including a number of staffers in its UK office.

BuzzFeed’s overall financial results are private, but the news operation is said to be unprofitable. The British unit certainly is, or at least was before the recent cuts: The company filed a financial statement with UK regulators that said revenues in 2016 doubled to almost $30 million, but costs also ballooned and the unit reported a pre-tax loss of more than $4 million.

On the one hand, selling a stake in BuzzFeed proper to Powell Jobs or having her back the news unit as a standalone company makes a certain amount of sense, as Peter Kafka noted at Recode. After all, Powell Jobs is a billionaire, and a spinoff would get costs off BuzzFeed’s balance sheet at a time when the company’s finances are under increasing scrutiny.

Powell Jobs has already funded a number of media companies through the Emerson Collective: She acquired a majority stake in The Atlantic last year, and also has investments in Axios (the new media venture from Politico founder Jim VandeHei) as well as ProPublica, podcast startup Gimlet Media and the non-profit investigative entity know as The Marshall Project.

BuzzFeed also wouldn’t be the first company to decide that having a news operation is more trouble than it’s worth. Time Warner sold off its publishing arm—which consisted primarily of news magazines like Time, Fortune and Sports Illustrated—in 2013 because it was losing money (it was just acquired by Meredith Corp.). Mashable laid off most of its news reporters as part of a pivot to video last year, but was ultimately forced to sell itself to Ziff Davis for a fraction of its previous value.

Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. also split off its publishing unit—which includes The Wall Street Journal and The New York Post—in 2013, although that move was at least in part to distance the company from charges that the Murdoch-owned News of the World newspaper hacked into the cellphones of celebrities and politicians. British giant Pearson PLC sold off its stakes in both The Financial Times and The Economist in 2015 to concentrate on its educational publishing business.

In 2016, BuzzFeed split the news operation off from the rest of the company, a move that was seen as an attempt to de-emphasize news and focus more on entertainment products produced by BuzzFeed’s video unit (which was recently downsized). Some observers suggested news wasn’t generating enough revenue to make it worthwhile as an investment, but that BuzzFeed wanted to keep the operation going in order to enhance its reputation as a serious media entity.

Ironically, the fate of BuzzFeed’s news operation seems to be up in the air at a time when many believe it is doing some of its best work, including reporting on Trump’s Russia connections and the proliferation of misinformation and “fake news” driven by trolls and Macedonian teenagers.

Mega-brands like The New York Times or The Guardian have shown that they can convince their audiences to subsidize their reporting through subscriptions or memberships and donations, but where does that leave a company like BuzzFeed, which is entirely reliant on digital advertising revenue at a time when Google and Facebook are vacuuming up more of the industry every day?

For the record, Peretti said in an exclusive interview with CJR he is committed to news, and that it’s an important part of what BuzzFeed does. He called BuzzFeed News a “strong brand” and said it ranked highly with millennials and other younger web users in terms of trust, so he thought it would probably not be as affected by the recent News Feed changes announced by Facebook.

“We haven’t de-emphasized news at all,” Peretti said in his interview with CJR. “BuzzFeed News had really tremendous year, with lots of scoops and high-impact stories [but] there’s always a question of, over time, what is the rate of growth of news vs. entertainment.” He said news “has been part of some great businesses throughout history,” and that recent experiments like the Twitter-based morning TV-style show AM2DM have brought in valuable sponsors.

“Once you build a great news-gathering operation, there are a lot of things you can do with it,” said Peretti. “There are reputational benefits [for the company] but there are also benefits to the world. And it’s important to the platforms, to the Snapchats and so on, to have a source of digitally native news that is global the way we are.”

But even the goodwill of those platforms isn’t translating into enough money to make news worthwhile, it seems. Peretti said he is happier than most media companies with Facebook efforts such as Instant Articles (which many publishers have stopped using, according to some recent Tow Center research), but that so far the company still isn’t providing enough advertising revenue.

“Of all the partners, we’re one of the most happy with Instant Articles,” Peretti said. “It’s meaningful for us—in fact it’s the thing that’s working the best out of everything. But it’s still not a good enough product to support news; they’re still not paying enough to fund journalism.”

The larger problem for BuzzFeed, by extension, is that if news isn’t making enough money to fund itself despite the company’s best efforts to integrate with Facebook and other platforms, and if Facebook intends to further decrease the presence of news in the streams of users, how does BuzzFeed justify continuing to invest in it? An acquisition by Laurene Powell Jobs no doubt looks like an attractive way out of the dilemma.

CJR has confirmed from multiple sources that BuzzFeed News head Ben Smith had discussions recently with The Emerson Collective—a non-profit organization created and funded by billionaire Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs—about the idea of making an investment in BuzzFeed’s news operation, possibly as a standalone entity.

It’s not clear who initiated the recent discussions, or whether CEO Jonah Peretti is in favor of getting an investment from Powell Jobs or spinning off the company’s news operation. The board was reportedly not informed of the talks, and a spokesman for BuzzFeed told CNN the company is not currently looking for outside investment. The Financial Times was the first to report the talks.