Is engaging with readers the key to both trust and revenue?

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

As more media companies move towards subscription and membership-based models to try to generate additional revenue, engaging with the people formerly known as the audience has become much more important. And yet, some media companies and journalists still seem uncomfortable with this concept. How important is community building and engagement, and how should journalists and media outlets approach this task? What are the best practices? How do community or engagement-focused staffers make the case that it matters and resources should be devoted to it? These are some of the questions we asked a group of experts and practitioners during a week-long series of interviews on our Galley discussion platform. We spoke with people like Techdirt founder Mike Masnick, Ariel Zirulnick of the Membership Puzzle Project, Christine Schmidt of the Nieman Lab, Summer Fields of Hearken, Hanna Ingber of the New York Times‘ Reader Center, and Joy Mayer of Trusting News. All of those conversations and more are available here:

Masnick, who said he started Techdirt with a focus on community from the beginning when it was a one-man blog, said that he feels the fundamental mistake many in the news business make is “not realizing it’s always been a community building business.” Historically, much of that community was based on a geographic area, or possibly specific topics or interests, Masnick says, but “many structured their businesses in a way that let them pretend the news” was the business, rather than a means to building a community.” Summer Fields said one thing Hearken does is to demonstrate the
connection between engagement and revenue. “We’ve seen that the more your audience sees you are valuing them, the more likely they are to trust you as well as support you, either financially, or with their time,” she says. Simon Galperin of GroundSource — which offers media companies a text-messaging platform for connecting with their readers or audience — said that research shows engaged audiences are three times as likely to become donors.

Joy Mayer of Trusting News said at a time when trust in journalism is extremely low, and many readers are suspicious about bias, engaging with them is often the best way to convince them you deserve their trust. “We work with newsrooms on ways to draw attention to their own mission, motivations, processes and ethics. If you work to be fair, what does that look like?” Mayer says. “It’s natural for the public to be confused, overwhelmed and frustrated by what they see journalists do. But if journalists believe in their own work, they need to take the time to explain why.” Najva Sol of Quartz says
the biggest change the company has seen in engagement came from revamping the site’s comment section. “We knew that creating a civil community experience requires a culture change,” she says. So the site did a number of things, including shifting its terminology from commenting to “contributing,” writing community behavior agreements and reaching out to experts in the Quartz reader community.

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How does fact-checking work when no one can agree on the truth?

Note: This is something I originally wrote for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

Facebook’s still-controversial decision to exempt political advertising on the platform from the fact-checking process has focused a lot of attention not just on the state of disinformation in general (News flash: It’s bad) but on the practice of fact-checking itself. There are more people and places than ever debunking and checking the facts on every tweet or statement from Donald Trump, and yet the volume of inaccuracies and outright falsehoods never seems to diminish. How did we get here? And what are the best practices when fact-checking in a chaotic, real-time news environment like the one we’re living in now? Can we say with any certainty that fact-checking is working at all, in the sense of correcting people’s impressions of misinformation? To explore these and other related questions, CJR convened a virtual symposium of experts and practitioners on our Galley discussion platform, including NewsGuard co-founder Gordon Crovitz, Snopes founder David Mikkelson, Jonathan Albright of Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Baybars Orsek of the International Fact-Checking Network, and Renee DiResta of the Stanford Internet Observatory.

Albright, who runs the Digital Forensic Research unit at the Tow Center, says that his research shows many of the basic disinformation strategies from the 2016 election — aimed at reinforcing polarization and institutional distrust — are being leveraged this time around, built on the same wedge issues as before: religion, immigration, science. But the tactics being used are evolving quickly, he says. When it comes to political advertising, Albright said fact-checking isn’t enough. “We need a [Federal Election Commission]-style portal on how citizen data is used in political campaigns, not separate platform political ad APIs.” Orsek says that Facebook’s decision not to fact-check political ads is a mistake. “I think fact-checkers should be able to flag not only political advertisements but also political claims and statements on Facebook, not necessarily with demotion enforcement, but in a way to promote fact-checkers work on areas where there is public interest for users to know more about,” he says.

Rampant disinformation may seem like a modern invention, but Kelly Weill of The Daily Beast pointed out that “the US is a country that’s always held conspiratorial thinking close to its heart. The signers of the Declaration of Independence believed a number of falsehoods about plots by King George III against America.” Conspiratorial thinking often comes with new communication methods as well, Weill notes: the modern Flat Earth movement got its start when newspapers became widely available in the UK in the mid 1840s. Brooke Binkowski, a former managing editor at who now works for a fact-checking site called Truth or Fiction, said fact-checkers need to adopt a more aggressive stance for these times. “You have to be prepared to stand up for the truth and defend it, in this Disinformation Age,” she says. “This isn’t ‘view from nowhere’ journalism — you have to be willing and prepared to get into peoples’ faces a bit, to tell them they’re wrong, to point your finger at them in the public square and say, Look. This is a lie, and here is the liar who is spreading it.”

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Journalists are sharing their salaries on a Google Doc

Note: This is something I originally published at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

When journalists want to talk among themselves about something difficult, the anonymous Google Doc seems to have become a go-to mechanism for doing so. First there was the “Shitty Media Men” document, which was circulated in 2017, and eventually grew into a long list of alleged sexual harassers, working at some of the leading media outlets in the country. Now, there is a document circulating in which journalists are being encouraged to share the details of their salaries (Note: CJR hasn’t verified any of the salary information in the document).

The salary list doesn’t generate quite the same kind of ethical quandaries as the SMM list did, of course. Although the latter got a lot of favorable attention for shedding light on a chronic problem, some questioned the morality of identifying men as sexual harassers based solely on anonymous reports (a Poynter report called it “Wikipedia wrapped in razor blades). That said, however, it did have a positive impact, despite the fact that it was only online for about 12 hours (creator Moira Donegan took it down after reports that BuzzFeed was writing about it). The list reportedly helped contribute to the departures of a number of those who were named, including Leon Wieseltier of The Atlantic and Paris Review editor Lorin Stein.

You might think talking about salaries would be a lot less contentious than naming sexual abusers, but what people get paid has always been a touchy subject in the media business, in part because it dredges up all sorts of awkward and uncomfortable issues like lower pay for women and people of color (something a recent Washington Post salary survey confirmed is still a problem). On top of that, everyone is either ashamed to admit how small their salary is, or embarrassed to admit how large it is. Which presumably explains why the list is anonymous.

The trend towards anonymous Google Docs as a source of insider information is fascinating for a number of reasons (journalists doing anonymous journalism about journalism), and examples like the SMM list definitely bring up ethical implications that should be considered. But in the long run, we would probably all be better off — and certainly women and people of color might be — if the salary list sparked a healthy conversation about who is paying whom how much, and for what. So feel free to add yourself — don’t be shy! — and circulate it widely.

Nuzzel newsletter for Nov 6

This is a newsletter that is made up of links I’ve either found on Twitter or Facebook, or that have been shared by my social network. More here:

‘Game-Changer’ Warrant Let Detective Search Genetic Database
The New York Times – Kashmir Hill – Nov 5, 12:14 PM

For police officers around the country, the genetic profiles that 20 million people have uploaded to consumer DNA sites represent a tantalizing resource that could be used to solve cases both new and cold. But for years, the vast majority of the…More info…

Perspective | NBC needs a transparent, external investigation of its failure to air Ronan Farrow’s #MeToo reporting
The Washington Post – Margaret Sullivan – Nov 5, 10:35 AM

In recent weeks, NBC has made a loud and clear statement about its values: Profits matter more than journalism, ratings more than truth. The official words, of course, say something different. But actions — actually lack of actions —…More info…

Turns Out Blogging Is Hard
vice – Anna Merlan – Nov 5, 11:41 AM

The first time I logged onto as a writer, it was early evening, my name was temporarily Enid, and I was clutching my asthma inhaler, toying with the outlines of a panic attack. I’d already worked a full day at my staff writing job at the…
More info…

New York Times Co. Says It’s on Pace for 10 Million Subscribers by 2025
The New York Times – Edmund Lee – Nov 6, 4:03 AM

Readers continue to shower The New York Times with money. Advertisers, not so much. The publisher added 273,000 new online subscribers in the third quarter, for a total of four million digital readers, the company reported Wednesday. The number of…More info…

Reveal has been fighting a lawsuit for three years. Now we’re speaking up about it
Reveal – Christa Scharfenberg – Nov 5, 1:49 PM

In 2016, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting began publishing stories resulting from a wide-ranging investigation into Planet Aid, an international charity that had received U.S. government funds for aid programs in impoverished…More info…

Disinformation still running rampant on Facebook, study says

Note: This is something I originally wrote for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

Most of the attention on Facebook and disinformation in the past week or so has focused on the platform’s controversial decision not to fact-check political advertising, along with the choice of right-wing site Breitbart News as one of the “trusted sources” for Facebook’s News tab. But these two developments are just part of the much larger story about Facebook’s role in distributing disinformation of all kinds, an issue that is becoming more crucial as we get closer to the 2020 presidential election. And according to one recent study, the problem is getting worse instead of better, especially when it comes to news stories about issues related to the election. Avaaz, a site that specializes in raising public awareness about global public-policy issues, says its research shiws fake news stories got 86 million views in the past three months, more than three times as many as during the previous three-month period.

The study isn’t online yet, but Avaaz supplied a preview of its research to Judd Legum, who writes the progressive newsletter Popular Information (the study was also reported on by Associated Press, Venturebeat, CNN and Vice News). According to Legum, the report says that in the first ten months of this year, “politically relevant disinformation was found to have reached over 158 million estimated views, enough to reach every reported registered voter in the US at least once.” The report looked at the top 100 fake news stories about US politics on the platform, as defined by Crowdtangle, the Facebook-owned traffic-measurement tool that tracks the network’s most popular pages and links. Avaaz says it looked at viral stories that had already been fact-checked and debunked by reputable US fact-checking organizations at the time of the study, and found that they were still drawing in vast amounts of viewership.

According to Legum’s summary of the study, Avaaz found that almost all of the fake news stories that went viral on the network — more than 90 percent — were negative, and the majority of those were about Democrats or liberals. Positive news was only a tiny proportion of the total, the study says, and 100 percent of it was about Republicans or conservatives. One significant exception to this general trend, according to Avaaz, was the top most-viewed fake story, which was about Donald Trump’s father, Fred, which came from a purported news website calling itself The American Herald Tribune. The story said the elder Trump was “a pimp and tax evader,” and that Fred’s father was a member of the Ku Klux Klan (none of these allegations are supported by any factual evidence). Despite being debunked by an official Facebook fact-checking partner, the Trump article was viewed more than 29 million times, according to Avaaz.

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