Cheatsheet: How Europe is moving to regulate Google and Facebook

Government authorities have faced mounting pressure to regulate technology platforms across the world. This week, an independent watchdog recommended U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May introduce two new laws that would see platforms like Google and Facebook face similar regulations to publishers. Add to that the ongoing antitrust cases in Europe and accusations of spreading Russian propaganda, and platforms have been faced with more government intervention than they could have anticipated. Here’s what you need to know about how governments are trying to control the ways platforms conduct business in Europe. Continue reading “Cheatsheet: How Europe is moving to regulate Google and Facebook”

Can AI Win the War Against Fake News?

Developers are working on tools that can help spot suspect stories and call them out, but it may be the beginning of an automated arms race.

“Testing a demo version of the AdVerif.ai, the AI recognized the Onion as satire (which has fooled many people in the past). Breitbart stories were classified as “unreliable, right, political, bias,” while Cosmopolitan was considered “left.” It could tell when a Twitter account was using a logo but the links weren’t associated with the brand it was portraying. AdVerif.ai not only found that a story on Natural News with the headline “Evidence points to Bitcoin being an NSA-engineered psyop to roll out one-world digital currency” was from a blacklisted site, but identified it as a fake news story popping up on other blacklisted sites without any references in legitimate news organizations.”

Are you in a newsroom right now? Take a look at your social media team. What are they doing Most likely, they’re posting stories from your staff on Twitter and Facebook. They’re checking Google Analytics or Parse.ly or Chartbeat to see if those links are successfully penetrating the fickle social media universe. They’re explaining to another young reporter why she needs to change the name on her Twitter account to, well, anything else but @FoxyGrrrl15.

Read full post on MediaShift

A potted history of the last 6 years? How the Online Journalism Handbook changed between 2011 and 2017

Continue reading “A potted history of the last 6 years? How the Online Journalism Handbook changed between 2011 and 2017”

Scoring stories to make better recommendation engines for news

by Frederic Filloux

An early version of Netflix recommendation engine. Photo: Reed Hastings (and Nasa)

News media badly need improved recommendation engines. Scoring the inventory of stories could help. This is one of the goals of the News Quality Scoring Project. (Part of a series.)

For news media, recommendation engines are a horror show. The NQS project I’m working on at Stanford forced me to look at the way publishers try to keep readers on their property — and how the vast majority conspire to actually lose them.

I will resist putting terrible screenshots I collected for my research… Instead, we’ll look at practices that prevent a visitor from continuing to circulate inside a website (desktop or mobile):

— Most recommended stories are simply irrelevant. Automated, keyword-based recommendations yield poor results: merely mentioning a person’s name, or various named entities (countries, cities, brands) too often digs up items that have nothing to do with the subject matter. In other words, without a relevancy weight attached to keywords in the context of a story, keyword-based recommendations are useless. Unfortunately, they’re widespread.

Similarly, little or no effort is made to disambiguate possibly confusing words: in a major legacy media, I just saw an op-ed about sexual harassment that referred to Harvey Weinstein connected to… a piece on Donald Trump’s dealings with Hurricane Harvey; the article is also linked to Amazon’s takeover of the retail industry… only because of a random coincidence: the articles happened to mention Facebook.

— Clutter. Readers always need a minimum of guidance. Finding the right way to recommended stories (or videos) can be tricky. Too many modules in a page, whatever those are, will make the smartest recommendation engine useless.

— Most recommendation systems don’t take into account basic elements such as the freshness or the length of a related piece. Repeatedly direct your reader toward a shallow three-year-old piece and it’s highly likely she might never again click on your suggestions.

— Reliance on Taboola or Outbrain. These two are the worst visual polluters of digital news. Some outlets use them to recommend their own production. But, in most cases, through “Elsewhere on the web” headers, they send the reader to myriads of clickbait sites. This comes with several side-effects: readers go away, so are their behavioral data, and it disfigures the best design. For the sake of a short-term gain (these two platforms pay a lot), publishers give up their ability to retain users, and leak tons of information in the process — that Taboola, Outbrain and their ill ilk resell to third parties. Smart move indeed.

I could mention dozens of large media brands afflicted with those ailments. For them, money is not the problem. Incompetence and carelessness are the main culprits. Managers choose not to invest in recommendation engines because they simply don’t understand their value.
. . . . .

Multibillion businesses are based on large investment in competent recommendation engines: Amazon (both for its retail and video businesses); YouTube and, of course, Netflix.

The latter is my favorite. Four years ago, I realized the size and scope of Netflix’s secret weapon, its suggestion system, when reading this seminal Alex Madrigal piece in The Atlantic.

Madrigal was first in revealing the number of genres, sub-genres, micro-genres used by Netflix’s descriptors for its film library: 76,897! This entails the incredible task of manually tagging every movie and generating a vast set of metadata ranging from “forbidden-love dramas” to heroes with a prominent mustache.

Today, after a global roll-out of its revamped recommendation engine (which handles cultural differences between countries), the Netflix algorithm is an invaluable asset, benefiting viewership and subscriber retention. In his technical paper “The Netflix Recommender System: Algorithms, Business Value, and Innovation” (pdf here), Carlos Gomez-Uribe, VP of product innovation at Netflix says (emphasis mine):

Our subscriber monthly churn is in the low single-digits, and much of that is due to payment failure, rather than an explicit subscriber choice to cancel service. Over years of development of personalization and recommendations, we have reduced churn by several percentage points. Reduction of monthly churn both increases the lifetime value of an existing subscriber and reduces the number of new subscribers we need to acquire to replace canceled members. We think the combined effect of personalization and recommendations save us more than $1B per year.

Granted, Netflix example is a bit extreme. No news media company is able to invest $15M or $20M in just one year and have 70 engineers working to redesign a recommendation engine.

For Netflix it was deemed as a strategic investment.

Media should consider that too, especially given the declining advertising performance, and the subsequent reliance on subscriptions. Making a user view 5 pages per session instead of 3 will make a big difference in terms of Average Revenue per User (ARPU). It will also increase loyalty and reduce churn in the paid-for model.

How can scoring stories change that game? Powered by data science, the News Quality Scoring Project is built on a journalistic approach to the quantitative attributes of great journalism. (This part is provided by a great team of French data scientist working for Kynapse, which deals with gigantic datasets of the energy or health sectors.)

Let’s consider the ideal attributes of good recommendation engines for news, and see how they can be quantified.

—Relevancy: meaning, how it relates to the essence of the referential article, as opposed to an incidental mention (which should rule out a basic keyword system that generates so many and embarrassing false positives).

—Freshness: The more recent, the better. Sending someone who just read a business story about the digital economy to an old piece make no sense as that environment changes fast. Practically, it means that an obsolescence weight should be applied to any news items. Except that we need to take into account the following attribute…

—…“Evergreenness”: The evergreen story is the classic piece that will last (nearly) forever. A good example is the Alex Madrigal piece mentioned above: its freshness index (it was published in January 2014), should exclude it from any automated recommendation, but its quality, the fact that very few journalistic research rivals the author’s work, also the resources deployed by the publisher (quantified by the time given by The Atlantic editors to Madrigal, the number of person-hours devoted to discuss, edit, verify the piece), all of it contribute to a usually great value for the piece.

—Uniqueness: It’s a factor that neighbors the “evergreeneess”, but with a greater sensitivity to the timeliness of the piece; the uniqueness must also be assessed in the context of competition. For example: ‘We crushed other media with this great reportage about the fall of Raqqa; we did because we were the only one to have a writer and a videographer embedded with the Syrian Democratic Force’. Well… powerful and resource-intensive as this article was, its value will inexorably drop over time.

—Depth: a recommendation engine has no business digging up thin content. It should only lift from archives pieces that carry comprehensive research and reporting. Depth can be quantified by length, information density (there is a variety of sub-signals that measure just that) and, in some cases, the authorship features of a story, i.e. multiple bylines and mentions such as “Additional reporting by…” or “Researcher…” This tagging system is relatively easy to implement in the closed environment of a publication but, trust me, much harder to apply to the open web!

The News Quality Scoring platform I’m working on will vastly improve the performance of recommendation engines. By being able to come up with a score for each story (and eventually each video), I want to elevate the best editorial a publication has to offer.

=> Next week, we’ll look at the complex process of tagging large editorial datasets in a way that is comparable enough to what Netflix does. This will shed light on the inherent subjectivity of information and on the harsh reality of unstructured data (unlike cat images, news is a horribly messy dataset). We’ll also examine how to pick the right type of recommendation engine.
Stay tuned.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

To get regular updates about the News Quality Scoring Project and participate in various tests we are going to make, subscribe now:


Scoring stories to make better recommendation engines for news was originally published in Monday Note on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

How the Huffington Post Redesign Can Inspire Digital Publishing

Newspaper Vending Machines

When I was first a reporter in a radio newsroom in Spain in the late nineties, typewriters and reel-to-reel tape machines were still the norm. A few decades later, a single person in front of a touch screen can run a whole radio station like a one-man band. But even more than they have affected the profession, technology, digital publishing, and emerging media platforms have complicated the business of journalism beyond recognition.

Companies have become publishers themselves, and in this evolving context, they’re struggling to leave behind the corporate blog stage and enter the realm of brand journalism.

The strategies developed by traditional and digital media serve as a model—in some cases to survive the digital transformation and in others to disrupt the news market. The way I see it, however, brands don’t need to stick to a single template. The structure of a brand newsroom or a content team is more agile than that of a media newsroom, their needs more diverse, and their stories more varied than news stories. It stands to reason that they would cherry pick the best ideas for every circumstance.

There is one condition. Content hubs have to be digital publications capable of creating value by themselves. If they are able to do that, companies can personalize their digital publishing as much as they want, and that’s why they need to know their options. Here’s how Lydia Polgreen, who in December succeeded Ariana Huffington as head of the renamed HuffPost, is revitalizing the digital news company.

A Redesign in Search of Tabloid Roots

To date, the Huffington Post has seventeen editions globally, and more than half of its monthly unique users are international. That’s reason enough for global brand publishers to keep an eye on the ideas the digital newspaper is putting in place to regain some of the 30 million monthly users lost over the past two years while still keeping it true to its tabloid-inspired origins.

1. The Splash

As Julia Beizer, HuffPost’s head of product, told NiemanLab, “When we sat down to think about what we wanted the site to look like, we did all the things we usually do—looked at user data, analyzed traffic patterns. But we also asked ourselves, what do we think makes us who we are? The answer was: our splash.”

The HuffPost’s most popular splashes, with their punchy short headlines, work well both in the webpage and across platforms.

Huffington Post Splash

The concept refers to the way a newspaper splatters a story or picture on the page to make it noticeable, much like a tabloid’s front-page stories. Marketers should be aware that this carries all the qualities commonly associated with the tabloid press: popular in style, with eye-catching layout, big headlines, plenty of images, and a focus on sensational stories. Splashes don’t provide much actual content; they only work as a hook to get visitors interested.

Beizer describes splashes as “funny, immediate, bold, [and] of the moment.” In brand publishing, they can get a lot of shares and serve to visually connect the company’s homepage and its activity across different distribution platforms. Splashes could be especially useful in a real brand newsroom—that is, a team with the ability to react in real time and with confidence that their readership is familiar and comfortable with the format.

2. The Readers’ Participation

Beizer previously served as the director of mobile product at The Washington Post, where Amazon founder Jeff Bezos encouraged a spirit of radical experimentation after he bought the newspaper in 2013.

Beizer has instilled some of the same values and passion into the HuffPost. In January 2016 she told NiemanLab that “what’s interesting about the brand is that […] it has a really active voice. I want to extend that sensibility throughout our products. That’s a big challenge—how to make news articles feel as active as the writing on the page is.” In October they launched Action Button as part of a collaboration with the technology company Speakable, fellow news outlets Vice and the Guardian, and a group of nonprofits including Amnesty International, CARE, and UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency).

Action Button

The Action Button enables the audience to act on the stories they care about by signing a petition, taking a poll, donating to an NGO, or emailing a policymaker. A tool like this can give marketers a great starting point for advancing a more customer-focused culture. Often the readers of brand content, much like the readers of newspapers, feel compelled to respond to a story but are frustrated when leaving a comment doesn’t take them as far as they would like to go. They want the active voice that Julia Beizer talks about, and something like the Action Button makes it possible for those interested to change headlines instead of being passive consumers and spectators.

3. Third and Foremost—the Story

Editor-in-chief Lydia Polgreen took charge of The Huffington Post after a fifteen-year career with The New York Times. Her experience in two very different media settings gave her insight as to how to reach an audience outside those who are willing to pay for their news. In her view, there seems to be nothing better than finding a story that resonates with them. When asked how she wanted to approach Obama voters who became Trump voters, people who are in her own words “passive consumers of news,” Polgreen considered her own experience.

“Did you read de Tocqueville in college? So de Tocqueville talks about how what makes American democracy possible is this idea of ever-expanding opportunity and optimism. And the fact that our optimism is built on the premise that you could in one generation go from—take my story. My mother was born a daughter of a coffee farmer in Ethiopia. One generation and here I am running this big news organization, right?”

Choose the right story in order to reach the audience you’re aiming for. Digital publishers can certainly take that away from journalism, but they have to gain the reader’s trust first. In order for stories to be effective, storytellers need credibility.

Building Trust and Authority in the Era of Fake News

Post-election studies have shattered many commonly-held beliefs about fake news.

The BBC reported that fact-checking websites are noticing a rise in anti-Trump, “left-wing fake news,” but their evidence is merely their own experience. CBS, on their side, took a more technical approach and asked the Internet advertising company Trade Desk to investigate for them using specialist software. They were surprised to find that liberal fake news readers are more likely than the general population to be affluent and college-educated, and on the conservative side are more likely to be among the top 20 percent of income earners.

But regardless of demographics, everyone agrees that most fake news sites just care about generating clicks. So how can readers protect themselves against unscrupulous broadcasters and their own appetite for bias-confirming stories? Brooke Binkowski from Snopes, the same fact-checking website that the HuffPost uses for trustworthiness ratings, told the BBC’s Trending team, “[A]sk yourself, by reading the headline, what emotions do I feel? Am I really angry, scared, frustrated, do I want to share this to tell everybody what’s going on? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then check your sources.”

Corporate publishers definitely care about clicks and they often appeal to emotions, so many are certainly wondering if it’s possible to be both trustworthy and popular at the same time.

The HuffPost answer is called The Flipside.

The Flipside, HuffPost

Headlines for The Flipside are a reflection of the previous two hours of Twitter feeds from fourteen publications. They are displayed in an interactive graphic designed using Snopes.com trustworthiness rankings and the 2016 Public Opinion Quarterly study for ideological rankings. Readers can explore different topics and tap the bubbles to see headlines from each publisher.

Content marketers can surely see here all the possibilities of curated headlines or news stories as they relate to their field of activity or to the interests of their audience. Being able to display different points of view on a topic that matters to customers shows expertise and will certainly help to build authority and engagement.

How to Plan a Strategy Using Journalistic Models

Brand publishers can afford to be more flexible than a news organization, as their company’s primary business is not information. This can be seen in the distribution alternatives available to firms.

Content distribution no longer relies solely on corporate websites. Distributed content is consumed on Facebook’s Instant Articles, on Snapchat’s Stories stream, on LinkedIn’s long-form posts, through Twitter Cards, and in numerous other ways. It means that digital publishing no longer has control over distribution, but it also means that content ends up finding the public anyway—if brands choose the right strategy.

A recent report from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University shows the different ways that organizations like The New York Times and The Huffington Post use the platforms available to them. While the former utilizes more networked posts, aimed to draw in readers willing to pay for their news, the HuffPost prefers native content that maximizes their reach, since they don’t depend on subscriptions.

This is what I mean by flexibility. A business may find that the tabloid format of the HuffPost suits its content best, but if the goal is to link back to a main site, then The New York Times distribution choices are certainly a better fit—and it’s no problem to adopt them. Whatever combination digital publishers decide to use, they must strive to keep their content recognizable, wherever it appears.

Brand journalism can be every bit as innovative as traditional journalism, and there is nothing wrong with taking hints from media companies from time to time. The greatest discovery for marketers, anyway, is the realization that they too can inform and entertain their audience—instead of walking in front of the screen when the movie has started.

For more insights into brand journalism, subscribe to the Content Standard Newsletter.

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Featured image attribution: Jon Ottosson

The post How the Huffington Post Redesign Can Inspire Digital Publishing appeared first on The Content Standard by Skyword.

This contest is looking for more ideas on innovation ways to present factchecks (grand prize: $10,000)

If most fact-checking as it’s presented to readers today bores you, now’s your chance to figure out more exciting formats — and maybe win a big cash prize doing it.

The International Center for Journalists is running a contest called TruthBuzz that seeks ideas to make fact-checking and debunking stories more appealing to readers, and to increase their chances of going viral.

From the contest description:

We want your creative solutions for taking fact-checking beyond long-form explanations and bullet points. We’re looking for ideas — from everyone, not just journalists — that turn fact-checking into engaging, visual and interactive stories that are instantly understandable and shareable.

A successful entry to TruthBuzz will refute or clarify a false or misleading report or statement in an engaging, entertaining way that convinces audiences of its veracity and encourages them to share it.

Any digital format in any language is welcome, from individuals or teams (though the application form itself must be filled out in English). What’s more, the grand prize winner will get $10,000 in cash ($5,000 and $2,500 for the second and third-place awardees), sponsored by the Craig Newmark Foundation.

Curious what the TruthBuzz judges are looking for, exactly? ICFJ recorded a webinar with a few of those judges, detailing their thinking. Some important criteria:

— “We want to be surprised. We want rich information, but conveyed in a way that surprises us,” Aimee Rinehart of First Draft News said. “How are you telling the story? Is how you’re telling it authoritative? Are you professionally developing it? Can we see the mic in the frame? Can we see sloppy code? Those are things I think that would prevent someone from winning the contest.”

— “Content is going to be at least 60, 70 percent for me, when it comes to the entries. And then we’ll come to the presentation of things,” Shaheryar Popalzai, an ICFJ Knight fellow, said. There are also existing tools that can help you improve the presentation of a fact checking item, if you don’t have the resources yourself.

More FAQ at the end of the video:

The contest ends June 30. You can enter it here.

What an academic hoax can teach us about journalism in the age of Trump

Call it, if you like, a replication experiment. Twenty-one years ago, the New York University physicist Alan Sokal attempted to prove that the influence of postmodern ways of thinking in the humanities had reached the point where academic nonsense was indistinguishable from academic sense. As a physicist, Sokal found writing about science to be particularly offensive, and he submitted a “hoax” paper to the important academic journal Social Text titled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” Sokal was conducting an experiment to see if “a leading North American journal of cultural studies — whose editorial collective includes such luminaries as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross — [would] publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.” They did.

A few days ago, scholars Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay, in their words, published “‘The conceptual penis as a social construct,’ a Sokal-style hoax on gender studies.”

The paper was ridiculous by intention, essentially arguing that penises shouldn’t be thought of as male genital organs but as damaging social constructions. We made no attempt to find out what “post-structuralist discursive gender theory” actually means. We assumed that if we were merely clear in our moral implications that maleness is intrinsically bad and that the penis is somehow at the root of it, we could get the paper published in a respectable journal.

Journalism and the post-truth society

There is an academic context to all this silliness, both in the abstract (various arguments about truth and various “posts” — post-truth, post-modernism, post-structuralism, etc.) and driven by real events (there are many I could point to, but googling “Tuvel controversy” or just clicking here will give you a good sense of what’s going on).

But there’s a way all this stuff actually matters for journalism, too, and it has to do with the arguments we’ve having about facts, fake news, Donald Trump, and the people who voted for him, despite all the factual evidence presented that they might be making a bad decision. The best summary of this whole conversation can be found in an article in Nieman Reports and another one in Vox. The Vox piece draws on an earlier piece by former Politico editor Susan Glasser to argue:

While there was plenty of great political journalism this cycle — all those stories about Trump’s bogus charity, his history of scams and bankruptcies, his record as a sexual predator — it “didn’t seem to matter,” Glasser says. The signal was lost in the ideological noise…she is right to see it as an institutional problem, a matter of authority and legitimacy. Facts do not, contra common belief, speak for themselves. Accuracy doesn’t matter unless there are institutions and norms with the authority to make it matter. The question for the press is how to make truth matter again.

What unites the hermeneutics of quantum gravity, the conceptual penis, and Trump is a general feeling amongst a great many people that goes something like this: Facts don’t matter any more. It’s all opinion. We can’t know what truth is, and we are all just running around trying to get more power for ourselves or our political parties or our conceptual theories. It’s all post-truth, whether journalism or science. And this feeling has also prompted a backlash amongst the scientists of the world, prompting the rise of what the conservative science journal The New Atlantis calls “the cult of science.”

The infrastructures of truth

Does life determine consciousness? Or does consciousness determine life? In other words, does the way the world is set up — its economics, its politics, its institutional arrangements — determine how we think about things, or does how we think about things to some degree determine the way the world gets set up? This is an old argument, at least as old (if not older) than when Marx first gave his answer to the question in a book called The German Ideology. The relevance of this question to the current conversation about post-truth politics is this: Can we reverse the trend? Can we stop what seems like the descent of the Western world into irrationality and tribalism? Should we focus on changing human consciousness, or on the structures that underlie this consciousness?

Because here’s an important point: The “conceptual penis” hoax of 2017 was not a replication of the Sokal hoax of 1996. In fact, the editors of the journal that Boghossian and Lindsay originally submitted the article to, NORMA: International Journal for Masculinity Studies, rejected the article, pointing the authors instead to Cogent Social Sciences, a pay-to-publish predatory journal with far lower standards of peer review. This leads Boghossian and Lindsay to claim that their hoax demonstrated two “problems damaging the credibility of the peer-review system in fields such as gender studies:

(1) the echo-chamber of morally driven fashionable nonsense coming out of the postmodernist social “sciences” in general, and gender studies departments in particular and

(2) the complex problem of pay-to-publish journals with lax standards that cash in on the ultra-competitive publish-or-perish academic environment. At least one of these sicknesses led to “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct” being published as a legitimate piece of academic scholarship, and we can expect proponents of each to lay primary blame upon the other.

Notice something here? The first problem is a cultural one (“fashionable nonsense”) while the second one is a structural one (“the complex problem of pay-to-publish journals with lax standards that cash in on the ultra-competitive publish-or-perish academic environment”). And this has implications for how we approach the problems of “fake news” and “post-truth” in journalism as well.

Do we live in a world that has become fundamentally unmoored from reality? This is the cultural explanation for the political crisis that grips America in general and journalism in particular. The problem lies with human nature, argues Fortune writer Mathew Ingram. “The problem is…us,” writes danah boyd in a brilliant column on why Facebook and Google can’t solve the fake news problem alone.

The puzzles made visible through “fake news” are hard. They are socially and culturally hard. They force us to contend with how people construct knowledge and ideas, communicate with others, and construct a society. They are also deeply messy, revealing divisions and fractures in beliefs and attitudes. And that means that they are not technically easy to build or implement.

And yet: The world has changed a great deal since Alan Sokal first published his hoax in Social Text. There were fewer predatory academic journals of the kind we’ve come to recognize today. Fox News, for heavens sake, was barely a year old! The World Wide Web was 2. Mark Zuckerberg was 12. Jack Dorsey was still in college. The technologies that allowed our post-truth society to take hold in the way it has hadn’t really been invented in any meaningful way.

The problem, in other words, may not be that we — as either academics, humanists, journalists, or citizens — have lost our grip on reality in some cultural or philosophical or human way. The problem may be less human nature and more that the epistemological systems designed to facilitate the deployment of reason and truth in politics and academia are failing us. The “conceptual penis” article was, after all, rejected. Facebook, Twitter, Google, and newsrooms exist as actual organizations with policies and technologies, not simply as an outgrowth of human nature. They are infrastructures — infrastructures which are part of a cultural and symbolic system, but infrastructures nonetheless. Scholars who study infrastructures (whether of the journalistic or academic kind) know that changing them is hard. But they are easier to change than human nature. The least we can do, in that case, is try.

C.W. Anderson is an associate professor at the College of Staten Island (CUNY) and the CUNY Graduate Center.

Photo illustration based on a Stuart Rankin vector of an illustration from an 1894 issue of Puck.

Study: More Americans than ever are getting their news on mobile, but there are huge partisan divides over the media’s proper role

It turns out that The Resistance to President Trump is accelerating changes in how many Americans — especially Democrats — are consuming news.

Americans increasingly prefer to get their news on mobile devices and are accessing more national news, according to a study out Wednesday from the Pew Research Center. These changes are being driven by Democrats; the report also highlights a number of growing divisions in Democrats’ and Republicans’ attitudes about the media.

Pew reports that 45 percent of U.S. adults now “often” get news on mobile devices. That’s an increase from 36 percent last year and 21 percent in 2013. The percentage of Americans who “often” get news on their laptop or desktop stayed practically the same from 2013 through 2017 with 31 percent of U.S. adults saying they “often” read or watch news in that way, according to Pew.

In total, 85 percent of Americans now get news on their mobile devices — the same percentage of people who access news on desktops and laptops, the study said. But of the people who access news on both desktop and mobile, 65 percent prefer consuming it on their mobile devices. That’s up from 56 percent in 2016.

The Pew survey found that the increase in mobile news consumption were primarily driven by Democrats: 52 percent of Democrats surveyed said they now get news on mobile devices often — a 15 percent increase from 2016.

“The gains here were not due to the fact that Democrats tend to be younger than Republicans; in fact, the largest gains were seen among Democrats 50 and older,” the study notes.

Democrats are also spurring increased interest in national news and are consuming more news directly from news organizations. 40 percent of Americans say they follow national news “very closely” now, up from 33 percent in 2016, the study found — an increase split between a 16 percent increase among Democrats and no change among Republicans. And much as with mobile news consumption, it’s older Democrats who are pushing the growth:

Sharp increases occurred among both Democrats ages 35 to 49 (from 26% who followed national news very closely in 2016 to 44% in 2017) and Democrats 50 and older (from 41% in 2016 to 63% in 2017), while there was no significant change among Democrats ages 18 to 34.

That increased interest hasn’t carried over to local or international coverage, for which interest has remained steady or declined:

Interest in local news actually saw a slight decline (33% follow local news very closely, compared with 37% in 2016) while interest in international and neighborhood did not change significantly. There were also no party-line changes here other than among independents whose interest in local news fell 9 points from 2016 (35% saying they very closely follow local news) to 2017 (26%).

45 percent of people who get news from digital sources also said they often get news directly from news organizations, as opposed to from people they know well or people they don’t know well, the study found: “As with interest in national news, this increase is driven primarily by Democrats (55% often get news this way today, up from 41% in 2016). No significant shifts occurred among Republicans or independents.”

Many news organizations have been able to grow their subscription bases due to this pronounced interest in news. The New York Times, for instance, added 308,000 digital subscribers in the first quarter of 2017, and the paper has positioned itself as a defender of truth with a new advertising campaign that it debuted during the Oscars broadcast.

Still, the Pew study found that Democrats and Republicans are sharply divided about what role the media should play.

According to the study, 89 percent of Democrats said it was critical for journalists to play a watchdog role and keep an eye on public officials. Just 42 percent of Republicans agreed. That’s the largest partisan gap since Pew began polling the question in 1985.

“While Republicans have been more likely to support a watchdog role during Democratic presidencies and vice versa, the distance between the parties has never approached the 47-point gap that exists today. The widest gap up to now occurred during the George W. Bush administration, when Democrats were 28 points more likely than Republicans to support a watchdog role.”

Republicans and Democrats also had sharply differing views on whether news organizations favor a particular side, whether information from national news organizations is trustworthy, and whether the national media keeps them informed.

However there is one area where both Democrats and Republicans agree: They both have low levels of trust in social media. Only 5 percent of web-using U.S. adults place a lot of trust in information they get on social media.

The full Pew report is available here.

Ad Buyers Have a Say in Whether Real News Survives

“America’s Advertisers, I’m talking about democracy, and your role in it. News flash: You have one. Let me explain. We are still very much in the midst of a fascinating, often exciting but sometimes scary digital transformation in which advertising dollars are moving to Google and Facebook in a hurry.

But as those dollars are moving toward Google and Facebook, they are often moving away from quality news and information providers, starving them of the direct digital revenue they need to pay for fact-based news gathering. Real news costs real money; fake news comes cheap.”

Read full story on NYT

Attacks on the press: the rise of ‘Repression 2.0’

“This is the most dangerous time in history for journalists.”

That was the warning given last week by the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, Joel Simon, at the launch event in Oxford of the annual Attacks on the Press report – a study based on information from journalists, academics and activists across the globe.

More journalists have been jailed than ever since records started in 1990. In the past six months BBC journalists have been shot at in Ukraine and Mosul, attacked in China and forced to sign a confession for conducting an ‘illegal interview’, detained in Turkey without explanation and branded ‘fake news’ by US president Donald Trump’s administration.

In the light of new technological forms of censorship, the US president’s unprecedented assault on the media, and a recent shift away from democracy in Turkey, panel members at the launch argued this year’s report is more essential than ever. Alan Rusbridger, former editor in chief of The Guardian, highlighted recent challenges to media freedom in the West: “for the people who used to be held up as the guards to press freedom to be behaving as they are, think what kind of example that gives to Turkey, or Kenya, or anybody else”.

From left: Jon Williams, RTE; Joel Simon, CPJ; Lindsey Hilsum, Channel Four News; Alan Rusbridger, former Guardian editor; Razia Iqbal, BBC.

There are three new challenges to global information identified in this year’s report.

The first, labelled ‘Repression 2.0’, is the use of the online technology to extend previous methods of control, from state censorship to the identification and subsequent imprisonment of critics.

The second, named ‘Masked political control’, is when, as Simon put it, “political leaders try to hide repressive policies behind a democratic façade”. He cited the Turkish president Erdoğan’s recent referendum on adopting a presidential system of government as an important example.

Finally, ‘Technology capture’ means using the latest technology to disrupt journalists and stop people’s media access.

The report says all pose significant problems for journalists across the world.

Censorship has taken on a more elusive guise in the digital world. Censorship systems of the past were clearer to pinpoint whereas in today’s world, as Joel pointed out: “we don’t always know what we don’t know.

”Journalists need to find a way to persuade people that amongst the continuous hubbub of online chatter, they are the ones to listen to. As Rusbridger put it: “we have to find a reason why people would come to us rather than the multiplicity of sources available elsewhere.”

The BBC, Channel 4 and The Guardian have recently set up platforms to identify and debunk ‘fake news’. Journalists will undoubtedly be seeing an increased focus on techniques like this in future.

Another growing problem for journalists, identified in the report, is the difficulty of guaranteeing safety to their sources because of increased surveillance. “It is almost impossible now to guarantee a source or a stringer anonymity”, said Rusbridger.

The report claims that the Chinese authorities are trying to stem criticism by affecting the credit rating of dissenting voices.

Australian protest against online censorship in China

The panel agreed a normalisation of hostility towards journalists and downgrading of the value of facts themselves has taken place across Western countries, including in the UK, which has fallen to fortieth in the World Press Freedom Index. This is a significant drop of ten places since 2013.

Lindsey Hilsum, Channel 4 News’s international editor, argued that much of the press themselves have adopted a negative attitude to freedom of speech – citing recent headlines from the Daily Mail such as ‘crush the saboteurs’.

The unanimity of the room was challenged by a point from Hilsum, asking how many people present regularly read the Daily Mail. Only one person in the audience raised their hand (admitting only to reading the paper for research purposes) – highlighting the substantial cultural divide between much of UK society and media professionals.

The event took place on 25 April at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford. More detailed information about the study and the impact of technology on journalism is available on the University of Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism website.

 

Related Links:

BBC Academy: Safety for women journalists

BBC Academy: Trauma in journalism

BBC News: Facebook ‘observed propaganda efforts’ by governments

BBC News: Donald Trump attacks US media at 100-day Pennsylvania rally

How Apple can fix news


Two months ago, Tim Cook railed against the rise of “mind-killing” fake news and pledged Apple News’s support in the battle against it. And so far, Apple News has done an admirable job of curtailing false news. But it’s done a lousy job of elevating good journalism.

Here’s why that’s an issue: Starting with iOS 10, Apple News comes as a preinstalled widget on the iPhone. Because few people customize their widgets, Apple News enjoys undue influence in shaping daily news perception.

With that power, Apple has had the opportunity to usher-in a new standard for digital journalism. Instead, it has eschewed bold strokes for mediocrity and sensationalism.

Here are the two key mistakes Apple is making:

1. Too much randomness

The Apple News widget displays two headlines in each of two categories: “Top Stories” and “Trending Stories.”

The logic behind this separation appears sound: Every media outlet has a top and trending list, right?

But at a single media outlet, editors choose top stories and readers choose trending stories. The lines are clear. Apple News isn’t a single media outlet; it’s an aggregator that algorithmically scours the field. Meaning, for a top story to make the cut, it’s probably trending among its peers, and for a trending story to make the cut, it has to be on top. The lines are mish-mashed.

Sometimes, the same story appears both under the “Top” heading and the “Trending” heading. Other times, a fluff story appears under “Top” and a story of material importance appears under “Trending.”

I bring up the poor category distinction not because it’s particularly harmful but to underscore the chaos that Apple introduced into its widget design. It gave its product privileged placement but left to chance the quality and social responsibility that that placement demands.

Let’s assume Apple will improve on its categories. Perhaps it will only feature lighter stories under “Trending.” Well, that raises a question: Why should the important stories share equal real estate with the popular stories? Especially in this age when so many stories trend for the wrong reasons — because they appeal to our baser instincts, because their parent is a master of social media, or because they went through 100 headline iterations.

Apple should remove “Trending” altogether, or at least rethink the split.

“I would probably emphasize top news with at least a 2 to 1 ratio,” said digital culture guru Douglas Rushkoff, when I asked him about this recently. “It would be nice to lose trending stories altogether, but people feel disconnected without them; they need to see headlines about Taylor Swift or scandals in order to feel relevant.”

With such a change, Apple would lose empty clicks in the process, but who cares? As Rushkoff pointed out, “Apple’s competitive advantage is their business model: they are not delivering eyeballs to advertisers or data miners, they are delivering news to customers.”

In a CNN interview, Apple SVP Eddie Cue said as much.

“We benefit by creating a great application on our devices. And we think this is a really, really important application for the world,” said Cue.

In an age when clickbait dominates social media, wouldn’t it be more important for iPhone owners — and society — for Apple to highlight substance over buzz?

2. Extreme perspectives

We all love editorials, obviously, but if you could pick four headlines from every media outlet in the world to represent the most important news of the day, how often would an editorial make the cut? How about a comically spun editorial from a hard-skew outlet? Probably not very often. Yet the Apple News widget promotes sensationalist editorials every day.

Apple showcases extreme stories from both sides of the spectrum. Like boxers in a ring, one day Fox News uppercuts and the next day HuffPost counter punches. Meanwhile, Apple holds the mic as the prime time promoter.

“Stories with extreme perspectives are bifurcating our society,” said Rushkoff, “and Apple can use human beings to curate the news people actually need rather than the clickbait that simply gets our attention for no good reason. They already use humans to curate playlists for music and apps.”

As a discerning moderator, Apple could feature editorials with balanced, nuanced analysis and penalize the rest.

Apple could also curtail or rewrite clickbait headlines, cutting phrases like “you’ll never believe what…” or replacing “Trump absolutely crushed liberal reporter…” with “Trump criticized Times reporter…” Rewriting headlines sounds dramatic, but Techmeme, a gold standard in news aggregation, has been doing it since 2013.

Rewriting headlines would solve another problem: that many headlines as-written are too long for the widget. It’s common for long widget headlines to end abruptly in an ellipse, obfuscating their meaning. This helps no one: readers get confused and publishers receive less engaged clicks.

Right now, media outlets are incentivized to run clickbait headlines. The upside is unlimited and the penalties are non-existent. Apple can change the paradigm.

A silver lining: no personalization

One thing Apple is getting right, though, according to Rushkoff, is the lack of personalization options for its News widget.

The first time a distrusted media outlet appeared in my widget, I dove into the depths of Apple News and emerged with a dozen sources added and blacklisted. Wiping the water from my eyes, I looked up at the scoreboard only to see that it hadn’t changed.

It turns out that while you can customize Apple News to jelly, those changes don’t carry over into its widget. And the widget doesn’t appear to take your reading activity into account (I tested this with three iPhone devices).

While I found this lack of customization personally frustrating, especially in lieu of the problems discussed earlier, Rushkoff sees it as necessary. He praised Apple’s decision to show everyone the same headlines and contrasted that decision with Facebook and Google’s take on the news, which hides too much. “At least with a newspaper, you knew the stories you were ignoring,” said Rushkoff, “they stayed in your awareness.” With Apple’s News widget, that’s true again.

How could Apple improve its news widget?

The short answer is “obsessive human curation.” The long answer is:

  • Obsessive human curation
  • Rethink the “Top Stories” and “Trending Stories” distinction and ratio
  • Prioritize thoughtful editorials over spin
  • Penalize clickbait headlines or rewrite them
  • Hide or rewrite headlines that are too long for the widget
  • Add more media outlets, especially smaller outlets

Living up to the name

So far, I’ve referred to Apple News as “Apple News.” That’s the official designation on the App Store, but not what the app calls itself. Underneath its pink icon and headlining its widget is one word: “News.”

Apple names a lot of its apps in the shorthand, like “Calculator,” “Weather,” and “Watch,” but “News” is a loaded word. It represents an ideal in a sea of coverage tarnished with a human point-of-view.

I bring this up not to criticize Apple for falling short of “News” — everyone does — but to give it a loftier target. With a thoughtful, socially responsible approach, this little widget can set the standard for the news. And that’ll benefit everyone, most of all Apple itself.

Adam Ghahramani is an independent product and marketing producer based in New York and a frequent contributor to VentureBeat. Find him at adamagb.com or make friends on Twitter (@adamagb).

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