By paulgillin | February 29, 2024 - 5:17 pm - Posted in Uncategorized

CNN Senior Media Reporter Oliver Darcy has a searing send-up of the free pass legislators and the reading public give to social media companies while holding mainstream outlets to higher standards.

Noting the recent shutdown of The Messenger, layoffs at the already tottering BuzzFeed and the gutting of one-time high-flyer Vice, Darcy contrasts the principles these outlets are expected to uphold with the sewer that is big social media.

Photo: Unsplash

“Time and time again, companies like Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, Snapchat and others have been caught allowing harmful content to exist on their platforms,” he writes. “In many cases, such content has not only been permitted to exist but turbocharged via powerful algorithms. Child exploitation? Check. Promoting eating disorders? Check. Batshit crazy conspiracy theories that radicalize audiences? Check.”

Yet when confronted about this bad behavior, executives at these firms feign ignorance or hide behind the First Amendment. The New York Times would be pilloried for promoting child exploitation, but the same stuff gets by on Facebook and Instagram with a wink and a nod.

“News organizations, crucial to a functioning society, are being hollowed out if not outright dying. Meanwhile, technology giants, which have allowed harmful content to gain a foothold in the digital public square, are thriving,” Darcy writes. Sadly, the consuming public sees nothing wrong with this double standard.

By paulgillin | February 26, 2024 - 6:42 pm - Posted in Uncategorized

A collective of local news entities encompassing over 100 newspapers across New York, inaugurated the Empire State Local News Coalition last week, hoping to propel a legislative agenda to secure the enduring viability of local news.

The move comes at a critical time since the U.S. has seen more than 3,000 newspapers close since 2005, leaving many communities devoid of a single new platform. New York saw a 40% reduction in its newspaper population between 2004 to 2019, along with a halving of the journalistic workforce and a 60% decline in circulation. Thirteen New York counties are now served by a single newspaper.

All this has come to a head during a consequential election year. Studies have established a clear link between the scope of local media coverage and the degree of civic participation, the group said.

Zachary Richner, a founding member of the coalition and director of Long Island-based Richner Communications, said the coalition intends to advance a bipartisan legislative package to provide a support mechanism for newspapers statewide. He called upon governmental and community stakeholders to support the endeavor.

Key initiatives include:

  • The Local Journalism Sustainability Act (S.625B/A2958C), introduced by New York State Sen. Brad Hoylman-Sigal, proposes tax credits for local news organizations employing journalists. It’s intended to expand employment opportunities in New York-based journalism community.
  • Unspecified incentives for small businesses to invest in local media advertising.

A 2022 study found that around 354 New York newsrooms, including 53 in New York City and 21 catering to black, indigenous and people of color would benefit from the proposed local journalism payroll tax credit.

Comments Off on New York Newspapers Band Together to Advocate for Themselves
By paulgillin | February 8, 2024 - 7:04 pm - Posted in Uncategorized

The New Republic’s Ellie Quinlan Houghtaling scalds newspaper owners for the mass layoffs that are making 2024 look like “one of the worst years on record for journalism.”

The body count of laid-off journalists for January alone totals 800 in a year that will see one of the most important elections in generations. A particularly galling action was the Washington Post’s decision last fall to ax 240 jobs – or nearly 10% of its total headcount – through buyouts. When billionaire Jeff Bezos bought the Post in 2013, he said he was doing so to preserve high-quality journalism, but the paper’s declining fortunes – it reportedly was on track to lose $100 million in 2023 – evidently prompted a change of attitude by the famously patient executive.

While there’s no question that $100 million is a lot of money, it’s only .05% of Bezos’ $192 billion net worth. Houghtaling sees the penny-pinching as typical of the rash decisions billionaires and hedge funds have made in media investments.

She cites the example of Sports Illustrated, the venerable magazine that once boasted more than 3 million subscribers, which was all but shut down in January. Thanks to a series of transactions, the magazine had come to be owned by The Arena Group, which is “primarily a licensing company that acquires the rights to celebrity brands,” according to The New York Times.

Then there’s The Messenger, an online publication that promised to restore the value of high-quality journalism when it launched last year. Owner Jimmy Finkelstein abruptly shuttered the operation last month after reportedly burning through $50 million, including spending $8 million on office and a $900,000 salary for its editor-in-chief.

Owner Jimmy Finkelstein cited “economic headwinds” as the reason for the collapse, but critics have said its business model, which was heavy on aggregation and set an unreasonable goal of 100 million unique monthly visitors, never made sense. Defector’s Chris Thompson charged that the company dumped about one-quarter of its startup capital on luxuries and spent lavishly on office space in expensive locations like New York City and West Palm Beach. Upon closing, it shut down its website, leaving roughly 300 journalists without clips to show for their labor.

Houghtaling takes aim at other clueless billionaires, including Patrick Soon-Shiong for his purchase of the Los Angeles Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune without any apparent plan to reverse their declines. Soon-Shiong later sold the Union-Tribune to hedge fund Alden Global Capital, “which so ruthlessly squeezes local papers for every drop of cash that it has been referred to as the ‘Grim Reaper.’”

She also rips right-wing media magnate David Smith, chairman of Sinclair Broadcast Group, for purchasing The Baltimore Sun and then holding an insulting two-hour meeting with the paper’s staff during which he spoke mainly about profits and told journalists to “go make me some money.”

Writing on Press Watch, Dan Froomkin asks plainly, if less elegantly, “Why are billionaire newspaper owners so damn cheap?” His argument amounts to wondering why people with more money than they can ever spend become penurious when it comes to the news business. He suggests that nonprofits and foundations would make better owners and can easily afford to purchase even the largest newspapers at their current tiny valuations.

By paulgillin | March 23, 2022 - 5:25 pm - Posted in Uncategorized

We were excited when BuzzFeed announced a major commitment to investigative journalism and hired old friend Craig Silverman as one of its top editors back in 2015. We were even happier when BuzzFeed, which cut its teeth on riveting stories like 15 Celebrities Who Waited Until They Were Married To Have Sex, won a Pulitzer last year for its exposé on China’s detention of Muslims in its Xinjiang region.

Photo: Wikipedia

So we were disappointed, though not altogether surprised, to read that many of the top editors have abandoned ship in the wake of a $25 million loss from operations in the most recent fiscal year, down from a $12 million profit the year before. CNBC says some large shareholders ever urged CEO Jonah Peretti (pictured) to shut down the company’s news organization entirely because it’s losing $10 million a year.

“This morning we announced plans to accelerate profitability for BuzzFeed News, including leadership changes, the addition of a dedicated business development group, and a planned reduction in force,” Peretti said Tuesday, burying the lead. “We will prioritize investments around coverage of the biggest news of the day, culture and entertainment, celebrity, and life on the Internet.”

In other words, those Chinese Muslims can go pound sand.

To give Peretti his due, he was under pressure to do something as the stock has fallen more than 50% over the last six months since its initial public offering as a special-purpose acquisition company in December. The situation worsened with a disastrous quarterly earnings report and projected revenue decline on Tuesday.

Peretti has had success turning around HuffPost with a similar cutback strategy. BuzzFeed isn’t giving up on news entirely, but it will clearly emphasize those stories that generate clicks and eyeballs. It’s another indication that in an environment of social media misinformation and 10-second attention spans, the market for serious journalism continues to wither.

Comments Off on BuzzFeed cuts and runs on serious news
By paulgillin | July 24, 2018 - 7:54 pm - Posted in Hyper-local, Layoffs

The cure for the newspaper  industry’s ills was once thought to be a “hyper-local” focus, but that’s not proving to be the salve for New York City, which is suffering an unprecedented decline in local news coverage. The latest casualty is the New York  Daily News, which on Monday said it would cut its newsroom staff by half. The Washington Post points out that this means that a paper that employed 400 journalists in 1988 will have a reportorial staff of just 45 when the latest cuts new owner Tronc take effect.
U.S. newspaper employment has fallen by 55% since 2000, from 424,000 people to 183,300 in mid-2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Ironically, the cuts are hitting hardest in New York, which is one of the media capitals of the world. Politico notes that The Wall Street Journal shut down its own experiment in hyper-local journalism called “Greater New York” in 2016 while The New York Times has cut back on metro coverage and the Village Voice shut down its print edition last year. Newsday pulled out of Manhattan long ago and no one knows about the condition of The New York Post, whose finances are closely held secret of owner Rupert Murdoch.
BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith, who is a veteran New York reporter, summed it up best, telling the Post, “Politicians know nobody is watching in a state where everything from economic development to the electoral system is plagued by systematic corruption.” The Daily News has won 11 Pulitzer Prizes, including one last year for its work with ProPublica on the abuse of eviction rules in New York City.
Arthur Browne, who served as editor-in-chief of the Daily News last year, told the Daily Beast last year that the borough of Queens, which has 2.3 million residents, now has no full-time court reporter, despite the fact that it experiences 35,000 major crimes a year and that the local courthouse hears 200,000 criminal cases annually.
Robert York, the Daily News‘s new EIC, asked the staff for 30 days to define a new strategy, which was apparently not in place before the firings were announced. York has a 20-year-plus journalism career, including some recent successes with the Allentown, Pa. Morning Call, but his background has been mostly limited to features and photography, and he has no experience in the rough-and-tumble New York market.
Among the casualties was former Daily News EIC Jim Rich, who had reportedly resisted demands for further staff cuts. Rich didn’t respond to media inquiries, but issued this tweet, which sort of sums up the situation in NYC right now.

Cuts are expected at other Tronc papers, which include The Baltimore Sun and The Chicago Tribune, but Tronc CEO Justin Dearborn said they wouldn’t be as draconian as they were at the Daily News. 

Image: Pixabay

By paulgillin | May 24, 2018 - 10:20 am - Posted in Uncategorized

The United States Holocaust Museum is conducting an interesting exercise in crowdsourced research using newspaper archives from the 1930s and 40s. Called “History Unfolded,”, the project asks students, teachers and anyone else who’s interested to look in local newspapers for accounts of 34 different Holocaust-era events that took place in the U. S. and Europe, and to submit those articles to the national database.
As of May 24, nearly 3,000 people had scanned and uploaded more than 17,600 articles. The contributions not only form an archive of the “first draft of history,” but also deliver a historical snapshot of how the Nazi threat was perceived in its earliest days. It’s fascinating reading and a treasure trove for history buffs.

By paulgillin | March 21, 2018 - 1:29 pm - Posted in Fake News, Google, Paywalls

With the media world buzzing about the fake news engine that is Cambridge Analytica, news about a new Google initiative to support quality journalism might easily be overlooked. The multi-faceted investment covers everything from website analytics tuned to the needs of publishers to machine learning tools that identify potential subscribers.
Of particular note is Subscribe with Google, a service that enables readers to easily subscribe to a news source using their Google accounts, with payments handled automatically through Google’s established payment mechanisms. The search giant handles all of the back-end accounting securely and lets publishers handle all subscriptions in one place. The company is also applying machine learning to identify revenue opportunities for publisher with its Insights Engine Project, which delivers better ad targeting and peer comparisons for ad performance.
A particular interesting new dimension of Insights Engine is a feature that identifies readers who are likely to become subscribers and helps publishers to optimize offers when they are most likely to pay. With big papers like The New York Times and The Washington Post collectively boasting more than 4 million paying subscribers, this is an opportunity for small publishers to cash in on the paywall trend.
The problem Google hasn’t conquered yet is how to identify and elevate trustworthy information ahead of fake news. If it can figure that out, it can perform a much greater service than just identifying revenue opportunities for publishers; it can restore civility to our national conversations.

Comments Off on Google Pledges $300 Million to Support Quality Journalism
By paulgillin | February 20, 2018 - 12:13 pm - Posted in Facebook

“Research has shown that the downside of powerful, centralized networks is their susceptibility to being subverted and exploited,” writes The Wall Street Journal’s Christopher Mims in a fascinating analysis of why social networks, which were supposed to challenge hierarchy, have reinforced it instead.
Delving into network theory, Mims explains why networks that start out with flat, distributed power structures ultimately, become vertical hierarchies. That was true in the Bolshevik revolutions of 1917, when a circle of insiders around Joseph Stalin created a hierarchy within the supposedly distributed network of citizens who overthrew the Czar.
It is also true in the 16th century, when the printing press and Martin Luther’s vernacular versions of the Bible, rather than democratizing access to information, led to nearly 200 years of civil war. The impact of the internet has often been compared to that of Gutenberg’s invention.
“Even when networks aren’t architected for this kind of control, they tend to organize themselves in ways that lead to disproportionate influence by a handful of their members,” Mims writes. “When any new person or entity joins a network, it is likely to attach to the most visible hubs, making them even more influential.”
Facebook magnified this effect by designing its algorithms to optimize for engagement rather than for truth. Russia understood this, and brilliantly exploited it to foster confusion and misinformation in the 2016 election.

Pro Publica is using fire to fight fire. Co. Design reports on the work that a team at the nonprofit news organization has been doing to employ the tools of big data to see if companies like Amazon and Facebook are living up to their own policies.
The team crowdsourced the process of identifying examples of people who felt their free-speech rights had been violated by Facebook, or that they had been denied information because of some arbitrary decision. Facebook publishes its censorship rules, but verifying compliance is nearly impossible. That’s what the big data team at Pro Publica figured out a way to do. It used a Facebook Messenger survey to gather input from the crowd and then combed through the most puzzling cases by hand. In the end, Facebook had to admit not following its own policies in 22 examples brought forth by members.
The Pro Public team’s next step will be to investigate how political ads work by using a browser plug-in that scrapes Facebook ads and analyzes them using machine learning. The team has already published some of its initial findings, including the fact that many political ads don’t carry the required disclaimers or candidate endorsements.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Comments Off on Why Facebook Was So Easily Gamed
By paulgillin | October 19, 2017 - 12:21 pm - Posted in Facebook, Fake News

Image credit: Wikipedia

Image credit: Wikipedia

Despite a Pew Research study‘s finding last year that two-thirds of Facebook users rely on the site for news, the COO of the world’s largest social network insists that Facebook isn’t a media company.
“At our heart we’re a tech company… we don’t hire journalists,” Sheryl Sandberg told Axios. Although Sandberg admitted that her company made mistakes in allowing Russian organizations to buy ads to try to influence the 2016 U.S. election, her refusal to admit the much larger and more damaging role Facebook played by enabling the dissemination of fake news displays the kind of arrogance you only find in Silicon Valley. Since when does the people you hire define what you are?
According to Wikipedia’s definition of media as “the collective communication outlets or tools that are used to store and deliver information or data,” Facebook is as much a media company as NBC or The New York Times. The key word is “deliver.” Facebook is not only the world’s most powerful news delivery medium, but its algorithms are fine-tuned to give its members the information that interests them most. Isn’t that also what newspaper editors do?
Come to think of it, no. Newspaper editors attempt to present their readers with the information they think those readers need to know, regardless of whether they want to know it. Facebook feeds its members only stuff in which they’ve demonstrated an interest. The more defined your place on the political spectrum, the more Facebook will shovel material at you that conforms to your view of the world. News organizations seek to create an educated populace. Facebook creates echo chambers.
One solution might be to change those algorithms to give Facebook members a more balanced view of the world. But that isn’t in Facebook’s best interests. As long as it continues to deny its role in shaping public opinion, it can justify changing nothing. Because, you know, it’s a tech company.
This isn’t about algorithms; it’s about common sense. The social network now says it’s working on elegant technical solutions to flagging fake news, but a simpler solution last year would have been a banner at the top of every page saying, “Do not believe something just because you read it on Facebook.” Be skeptical, check facts and don’t share lies. And if you do, there will be consequences.
Curation existed long before the internet, but it was the Web that made it a legitimate form of media. Is Drudge Report not media because it lacks original content? The stories it chooses to curate, and the places it assigns them on the page, are a form of editorial because they help shape public opinion. The fact that Facebook uses code instead of human editors to make those decisions doesn’t change the outcome.

Comments Off on #FakeNews: Facebook Isn't a Media Company
By paulgillin | November 3, 2016 - 8:21 pm - Posted in Fake News

After a spate of closures and layoffs in the latter part of the last decade, the newspaper industry appeared to find its footing over the past few years. But now that oasis of stability may be drying up.

Hard times are hitting some of the most resilient titles, and the trend indicates that things are only get worse. The decline in print advertising revenue at The New York Times has accelerated from 9 percent in the first quarter of 2016 to nearly 19 percent in the most recent quarter, writes Mathew Ingram in a Fortune story ominously headlined “The New York Times Scrambles to Avoid Print Advertising Cliff.” In announcing its financial results, the paper said it expects the falloff to continue “at a rate similar to that seen in the third quarter,” or at least 19% per quarter.

The only good news in that statement is that sequential 20% declines take a smaller total dollar bite out of revenues with each iteration because the base number is smaller. But that’s the only good news. If the last three quarters are any indication, the Times advertising business is in free-fall. The paper has done a better job than anyone of growing its base of circulation revenue and increasing its digital advertising business, but both pale in comparison to the size – and profitability – of the print advertising business.

Almost in tandem with the Times’ disappointing financial results, The Wall Street Journal announced that it will consolidate sections and lay off staff as it seeks to stabilize its print business while it scrambles to grow its digital operations. Last week, the Journal laid off the staff of its “Greater New York” section and offered buyouts to 450 employees. Only 48 took the package, indicating that things could get ugly soon.

A new “Business & Finance” section will combine the Journal’s current “Business & Tech” and “Money & Investing” sections, Reuters reports. New York coverage will be reduced and moved into the main section of the newspaper.

The Journal has proved more resilient to the downturn than most print newspapers because of its pricey subscriptions and well-heeled readership. When the most optimistic statement management can make is that the paper is seeking to create a “print edition that can stand on a sound financial footing for the foreseeable future,” that doesn’t sound good.

Speaking of Reuters, the company completed this week’s morbid hat trick by announcing that it will lay off about 2,000 workers at a cost of $250 million as part of a “transformation” of its business. The silver lining – journalistically speaking – is that Reuters said none of the cuts will be in the newsroom. Instead, they will be focused in financial and technology operations that primarily serve financial services companies. Things have been tough in that business amid low interest rates and pressure from new-economy competitors. Reuters has the advantage of being a diversified company with a strong position in financial markets, but revenues are flat and there’s no indication of where additional business will come from.

Comments Off on Bad News on the Doorstep