Nieman Lab’s Predictions for Journalism 2023

Each year, Neiman Labs asks journalists and media executives what they think is coming in the next 12 months.  December 2022 produced a bumper crop of opinions, insights, wishful thinking, and warnings for 2023.  The full collection can be found on Neiman Labs site.

Below we highlight a list of several Neiman predictions which caught our attention when they envisioned one or another component of the soon-to-be-launched ReNews platform.  We believe ReNews will be the first time a comprehensive integrated solution has been proposed across this landscape.

    1.  The rot at the core of the news business – Christoph Mergerson – “Repairing the rot requires us to imagine a media system that isn’t centered nearly as much around profit motives — and then insist that our elected officials help to bring it about.”
    2. We’ll embrace policy remedies Jody Brannon“It’s time journalists, advertisers, technologists, regulators, lawmakers, and others convene to craft equitable standards of distribution and monetization of news content.” 
    3. The year journalism and capitalism finally divorce – Victor Pickard – “It is capitalism that incentivizes the degradation of our news media — disinvesting in local journalism, weaponizing social media to capture our attention and data, and devaluing media workers’ labor conditions.”
    4. Philanthropy stops investing in corporate mediaSimon Galperin – “It’s time for journalism philanthropy to ditch corporate media sellouts and double-down on supporting and expanding the non-commercial journalism sector.”
    5. More journalism funders will take more risksBarbara Raab – “Given that philanthropy is uniquely unaccountable for its performance, funders have great freedom to take risks and to experiment. Now is the time.”
    6. Democracies will get serious about saving journalismJulia Angwin – “If democracy is going to survive, we’re going to need to fund its watchdogs.”
    7. We’ll work together with our competitorsLarry Ryckman – “There’s a growing awareness that our readers are better served when we pool resources and tackle topics of public interest.”
    8. Local news will come to rely on AIBill Grueskin – “If we automate some commodity news, we can provide a lot more information to people who need it.”
    9. Local journalism steps up to the challenge of civic coverageJim Friedlich – “There is an urgent need to focus election coverage on the issues and the civic process — not the candidate horse race.”






Opinion: Journalists band together to fight Pegasus intimidation

Earlier this month, a group of journalists at the independent Central American news outlet El Faro joined forces with the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University to file a lawsuit in U.S. federal court.

The subject of the suit: the Israeli company NSO Group, whose Pegasus spyware is sold to governments around the world and, the complaint alleges, was used in violation of U.S. law to penetrate the journalists’ iPhones and monitor their activities.

“These spyware attacks were an attempt to silence our sources and deter us from doing journalism,” Carlos Dada, co-founder and director of El Faro, said in the announcement of the lawsuit. “We are filing this lawsuit to defend our right to investigate and report, and to protect journalists around the world in their pursuit of the truth.”

Journalists like those at El Faro, who are doing investigative work that holds power to account and exposes corruption, are no strangers to threats, intimidation, incarceration and even violence. These are realities that we’ve chronicled extensively at Frontline: people and governments target accountability journalists in order to kill their stories and keep sources from speaking out. In recent years, though, the threat environment for journalists has intensified to include new and sophisticated challenges, like the powerful hacking tool, Pegasus.

In fact, after the journalism nonprofit Forbidden Stories received a leak of thousands of phone numbers it suspected had been selected for potential Pegasus targeting, and convened a consortium of 17 news outlets including Frontline to investigate with the technical support of Amnesty International Security Lab, our collaborative Pegasus Project reporting found that among the numbers on the list were those of journalists whose work exposed government corruption.

Forbidden Stories is dedicated to continuing the work of jailed, threatened or assassinated journalists. (Their official motto: “Killing the journalist won’t kill the story.”) To Forbidden Stories’ founder Laurent Richard, the invasive ways in which Pegasus could be used to put journalists and their sources at risk, coupled with the largely unregulated nature of the spyware industry, signaled a new era of threats to journalism.

“Pegasus is like a person over your shoulder — a person who will see what you are seeing, a person who would watch what you are watching, your emails, your encrypted communication, everything. So once you are infected, you’re trapped,” he says in our upcoming January documentary series on the Pegasus spyware scandal.

NSO Group, which has disputed some of the Pegasus Project’s reporting, has publicly insisted that it “has no insight” into how the governments it sells to use Pegasus spyware but says it investigates credible claims of misuse. The company says it sells Pegasus to governments for “the sole purpose of preventing and investigating terror and serious crime.” Yet our collaborative Pegasus Project investigation found that NSO sold Pegasus to governments who used the spyware to track dissidents, journalists and activists.

I believe that, unfortunately, in the year to come, threats to journalists — and to journalism itself — will continue to grow and evolve in troubling, technologically advanced, and at times undetectable ways.

But I also believe that journalists will keep doing their jobs, and that they will band together in new ways to meet the moment and fight back against intimidation — as El Faro and the Knight Institute are doing in this lawsuit; as Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa is doing through coalition-building in the Philippines; and as Forbidden Stories and other news organizations are doing through the Pegasus Project.

Part of the fight back is to report unflinchingly on what happens when journalists come under attack — to seek and tell the unvarnished truth, in forensic detail. At Frontline, in the year ahead, that’s exactly what we’ll do. We’ve been filming with Dmitry Muratov, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning journalist in Russia who is in Moscow fighting authorities’ court cases against the independent newspaper he co-founded, Novaya Gazeta. We’re continuing to probe the assault on press freedom in the Philippines.

And next month, in our globe-spanning two-part docuseries with Forbidden Stories and Forbidden Films, we’ll chronicle how journalists uncovered the Pegasus spyware scandal, how they learned that other journalists had potentially been targeted, and how — in another example of journalism evolving to meet the moment — they fought tech with tech: joining forces with Amnesty International’s Security Lab, who performed forensic analysis on a number of phones to try to determine whether they had been targeted with and infected with Pegasus.

The threats journalism faces are profound and evolving. It’s a good thing that so, too, is our capacity to respond.

Raney Aronson-Rath is editor-in-chief and executive producer of Frontline.


Opinion: DEI efforts must consider reporters’ mental health and online abuse

The 2020 brutal murder of George Floyd by white police officers was an impetus for many newsrooms across the country to re-energize diversity efforts. These reckonings around racial justice and equity promised internal mentorship programs, diverse event programming, more open conversations about systemic racism, additional funding for the recruitment and retention of diverse news workers, and new positions focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) within the newsroom.

But in the rearview mirror, 2022 is a picture of slow progress. Many of the DEI promises have not been fully realized. Feedback from journalists is familiar and enduring — some change, not enough. And results fromNorthwestern’s 2021 survey show journalists of color are more likely to have concerns about the DEI efforts in their newsrooms.

In particular, journalists hired into roles that emphasize some kind of diversity and equity struggle to find consistent support.

As reported in an ongoing research project, a diversity and community editor who had been in the job for about a year said, “I’m tired, I’m always tired. This work is the work of change, work of equity change at a legacy organization is daunting, right? There’s no question about it. You know it’s going to take forever. Sometimes it feels like it’s never going to happen.”

Women journalists of color, plagued by slow DEI progress within organizations, also find themselves targets of abuse and harassment online. In a survey of women journalists in the U.S. conducted by the Committee to Protect Journalism in 2019, 90% of respondents cited online abuse as their most significant threat. Just a year later, in an international survey fielded by UNESCO and the International Center for Journalism, 73% of women journalists reported experiencing online violence because of their work. This threat is aggravated for women with multiple identities, with Black, Indigenous, Jewish, Arab, Asian, and LGBTQIA women, in particular, facing the most severe and highest rates of online violence, as well as reporters who write about race.

The consequences are profound for the profession, which is already struggling to recruit and retain diverse talent. A survey conducted by TrollBusters International Women’s Media Foundation found that 40% of women journalists reported changing their behavior as a result of online violence, and nearly a third of respondents considered quitting the profession entirely.

The threat of online violence and the cost of deferred DEI efforts have one thing in common: News workers of color bear the burden, and these costs take a mental and physical toll. Without efforts to promote the well-being and safety of journalists of color, DEI initiatives — particularly those focused on recruitment — can create more harm.

In 2022, and likely in 2023 and beyond, it is clear that, for journalists of color, the field of journalism is hazardous.

A reporter working in DEI said it best: “Racism doesn’t just kill us with a rope around our necks. It kills us little by little. The health disparities, and the trauma, and the mental fatigue, the emotional fatigue. So those are the risks for all of us. All of us in this world who are trying to tell some of these stories. We can’t separate ourselves from them.”

Despite the grim picture, 2023’s DEI goals can support the mental health of BIPOC newsworkers, including tangible measures to address online abuse. Resilience in the face of slow progress must be supported.

Danielle K. Brown is the Cowles Professor of Journalism, Diversity, and Equality at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Kathleen Searles is an associate professor of political communications at Louisiana State University.


Airline-like loyalty programs try to tie down news readers

An “executive platinum subscriber” to The New York Times? Or perhaps the title of “grand ambassador” to The Washington Post suits you better?

Loyalty programs — perhaps best known in the travel industry — are coming for news, as publishers’ marketing departments try to figure out how to make their subscriptions stickier and more exclusive. A lucrative program encourages potential subscribers to consider a publisher when they normally wouldn’t and, even more importantly, locks in existing subscribers so they can’t imagine switching to a competitor.

This isn’t the same as a referral link for a freebie or 10% off your next order, though. The best loyalty programs focus on tracking and incentivizing a user for the long term. Sound familiar? Lifetime value is something that most publishers are already thinking about calculating and tracking.

Before you tune out the idea of bringing the flying experience anywhere near news — I imagine news loyalty will look different than the massive complexity of travel loyalty. It has to start simple, just as airlines did in the 1980s after industry deregulation forced change.

That probably means discounts first, followed by perks. Instead of jacking up prices for long-time subscribers and praying they keep paying, publishers will have to contend with how to offer those users real value.

News obviously has a different business model than airlines or hotels. The key differences will come out in teasing out the primary metric — the “miles” of news, if you will. Is it attention minutes, à la Chartbeat? Is it the revenge of the pageview?

Most subscriptions are structured as an all-you-can-eat buffet now, so an incremental pageview isn’t the same as revenue-per-seat-mile on an airline. (All you micropayment enthusiasts can chime in here.) The data and tech for loyalty programs aren’t insignificant lifts either, even if publishers are already building their foundations anyway.

At the end of the day, loyalty programs are a game to most people. And gamification is partly why news loyalty hasn’t gained momentum in the internet era. News is serious, and gamification might be seen as cheapening the core product, or confusing users who already don’t love the subscription-discounting game. But as consumer budgets tighten and retention becomes harder, new tactics are on the table to keep user attention and dollars.

My alma mater, The Washington Post, had a program called PostPoints through at least 2019. A decidedly print-based and D.C.-local feature, PostPoints had the right idea but didn’t really transfer over to the modern era. Integrating local discounts and events may show one path toward new loyalty.

I said in last year’s prediction that the way publishers think about the bundle and brand is changing as a wider set of consumer services change. The creative pursuit of reader revenue will continue as we borrow from other industries — even industries we often love to hate.

Ryan Kellett is vice president of audience at Axios.


Journalists keep getting manipulated by internet culture

In October 2021, I made this TikTok:


When the response is out of proportion to the actual threat offered…this internet researcher says you may be in the middle of a moral panic. #MakeADogsDay #myfinALLYmoment #mediastudies #internetstudies #socialmedia #professor #professorsoftiktok #academia #research #researchtok #phd #tenuretrack

♬ that is a scarecrow – Mochadrift

Around that time, the conversations about “challenges” on TikTok were abundant. These are viral actions or dance moves made with the intention that others will participate and put their own spin on the content. At the time I made this TikTok, the challenges seemed to be out of control: “Slap a Teacher,” “Devious Licks,” “Hellmaxxing.”. The press, particularly local news organizations, ran wild with articles on these challenges.

I made that TikTok calling out the reactions to these challenges as moral panics because something seemed amiss. If you’re unfamiliar, a moral panic is when the response to something is out of all proportion to the actual threat. I’ve been an internet researcher for almost a decade, and I wasn’t finding any evidence that any of these challenges actually existed. There was plenty of evidence of people talking about the challenges, or showing their alleged aftermaths — but no evidence of the actual challenge.

Turns out, I was right.

This past March, The Washington Post learned that Facebook had hired a Republican consulting firm to orchestrate these fake challenges in a smear campaign against TikTok. Meta, Facebook’s parent company that also owns Instagram, has struggled to retain younger users. The strategy seemed to be that by smearing its competitor, Meta could brand TikTok as dangerous and get younger users off it, hopefully luring them back to Meta-owned apps.

The press got played. And it took barely six months before it happened again.

In September 2022, news reports across the United States reported on an allegedly new TikTok trend: people cooking chicken in the cold-and-flu medicine NyQuil. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a statement warning people not to do this, and press coverage exploded.

But there was never any conclusive evidence this trend was actually happening. The internet encyclopedia Know Your Meme dates the earliest mention of so-called “Sleepy Chicken” back to 2017, when it was first mentioned as a joke on the forum 4chan.

There’s a history here. Go back to the infamous Tide Pod debacle of 2018. An internet challenge of eating Tide Pod laundry detergent was allegedly spreading like wildfire. In reality, according to Consumer Reports, the bulk of calls to poison control centers were for children under five and elderly individuals with dementia. While isolated incidents did occur, there was very little evidence of widespread Tide Pod ingestion due to this challenge. Like “Slap a Teacher” and “Sleepy Chicken,” there were a plethora of videos talking about individuals doing it — but not a lot of video evidence.

The “Sleepy Chicken debacle” and Facebook’s TikTok smear campaign show us that, not only have media makers figured out how to manipulate the press on topics pertaining to internet culture, but the press keeps allowing itself to be manipulated. Many in the press and institutions like the FDA have done more harm than these supposed challenges do. Sleepy Chicken was an obscurity, relegated to the periphery of internet forums and culture. It was not even a “challenge,” just an obscure forum post meant to shock. It was only when the FDA issued its warning — and the press covered it in earnest — that the copycat nature of the “challenge” began and the harmful practice was given attention.

Online, attention is the most vital commodity we have to give. Content lives and dies by the number of people who engage with it. The press needs to stop giving attention away for free. While there are some internet reporters who do thorough and excellent coverage, many have a lot to learn to avoid being manipulated.

Social media platforms aren’t just spaces for interaction and content consumption. They are spaces where battles for power play out, whether that’s a platform trying to undermine their competitors (like Meta) or isolated individuals using shock tactics to build clout. Unless people in the press (and ancillary media systems, like the press offices of the FDA) retain internet experts, they’ll continue to do more harm than any internet challenge ever could.

Jessica Maddox is an assistant professor of digital media technology at the University of Alabama.


TikTok personality journalists continue to rise

Ask someone in their 50s (a non-journalist) to name a living journalist. They might say Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein. Ask someone in their 20s, though, and they might say Taylor Lorenz, Dave Jorgenson, or Jack Corbett — because they’ve seen them on TikTok.

Younger audiences aren’t opening up a physical newspaper or turning on the 7 p.m. news (sorry). They’re scrolling on Twitter, Instagram, or TikTok. And after seeing the success of The Washington Post and Planet Money‘s TikToks, other outlets are going to want in. But it won’t just be brand accounts posting these TikToks — it’ll be reporters using their own accounts to explain their reporting.

In 2018, TikTok was seemingly still just an app for cosplayers and children, but it’s become the world’s most popular app. It’s clear that TikTok is so much more than a dance app for kids. Gen Z is using TikTok as a search engine and it’s the most downloaded app for the 18-24 age group.

We’re going to see more journalists using personal (and brand) TikTok accounts to connect with young audiences in new ways. NPR and The Washington Post have proved that TikTok works for building connections with young audiences. The Washington Post has 1.5 million followers on TikTok, and Planet Money has more than 780,000.

What draws people to these accounts are the personalities behind them. We see the same people over and over again and develop relationships with them as individuals. It might not convert into pageviews, and it might not be a moneymaker at first, or maybe ever. But it has value.

We must meet audiences where they are and provide them with news in ways that are easy for them to understand — and today, that’s on TikTok. People are demanding (and receiving) more and more access and transparency to public figures, and that will extend to journalists too. Gen Z demands authenticity from their public figures, and journalists will be more ready to give it.

Jaden Amos is an audience editor at Axios.


Covering the right wrong

I’ve got good news and bad news.

The good news is 2023 will be the year that journalists finally learn how not to cover right-wing extremism in the United States. The bad news? They’ll learn by unwittingly bolstering its return to power in 2024.

This past year has produced countless examples to fuel my pessimism. In the face of a coordinated right-wing assault on the rights and lives of LGBTQ people, epitomized by Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s infamous “Don’t Say Gay” law, mainstream publications, most notably The New York Times, have repeatedly questioned the growing medical and psychological consensus regarding the just and equitable treatment of transgender children — helping the right by spreading and validating transphobic ideas among moderates and liberals.

These same publications, not to mention major television outlets like CNN and NBC, have largely championed DeSantis for his political savvy — practically begging the GOP to replace Trump with him as its standard bearer. In four short years, DeSantis has made Florida unlivable for many queer people, shamelessly used refugees and immigrants for political stunts, and gerrymandered Florida to undermine the rights and political representation of Black voters. These facts are glossed over, if engaged with at all, in the breathless horserace coverage of his brilliant campaign and media tactics. In NBC News’s live election night coverage, Chuck Todd called DeSantis the “hero of the night.”

Mainstream political reporters spent the second half of October, in the run-up to the midterm elections, amplifying right-wing predictions of an imminent “red wave” of Republican victories. This predicative narrative of a Democratic bloodbath at the polls had no material basis. Late-cycle polls showed a close race nationally, which is to be expected in an election cycle that historically breaks for the party that lost the prior one. When the wave failed to materialize, it launched dozens of think pieces explaining why the Democrats held the Senate and only narrowly lost the House.

This postmortem narrative, that Republicans “underperformed,” is itself based on a faulty and right-wing premise — that the Republican Party has a coherent governing philosophy with widespread popular appeal. As I’ve argued recently, this has rarely been the case. Furthermore, it’s clear to anyone paying attention that a Republican Party still steadfastly disputing the results of the 2020 presidential election advanced the “red wave” narrative as a hedge against losing. Doing so plays into right-wing concerns about election fraud based on outcomes differing from the expectations of political conventional wisdom. In anticipating a “red wave,” mainstream political reporters were complicit in undermining Republican confidence in the 2022 election results.

We should, and must, expect more thoughtful analysis and news judgment from a mainstream political press that claims to lament the ongoing erosion of democratic norms and institutions.

Instead, the weeks following the midterms have seen an absurd media obsession with every antisemitic utterance of rapper-turned-fashion-designer-turned-failed-social-media-mogul Kanye West. Following a disturbing (and exhaustively covered) appearance on Tucker Carlson’s primetime Fox News show in October, Ye has been goose-stepping across the right-wing media sphere — extolling Nazis and engaging in increasingly erratic behavior seemingly designed to keep political reporters transfixed.

Ye’s recent appearance on Alex Jones’ InfoWars, where he engaged in antisemitic puppetry and defended Hitler while wearing a ski mask and holding a bottle of Yoo-hoo, was covered widely by mainstream outlets ranging from local television news affiliates and newspapers to NPR to USA Today to The Atlantic. Jones, who seemed discomfited by Ye’s antics, clearly invited him on to attract attention and new followers to his bankrupt platform and to make Jones seem reasonable by comparison. Mainstream journalists across the country took the bait.

Last year, I called on journalists to stop covering the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). I faced pushback from journalists and colleagues who argue that CPAC is newsworthy, and that coverage is not tantamount to support.

But in our current political environment, characterized by a resurgent right-wing movement bolstered by its own extensive media apparatus, journalists can’t be so cavalier as to assume that “shedding light” on antisemitism, transphobia, homophobia, xenophobia, and racism is always either harmless or beneficial. Too many journalists seem to think that covering racism is the same thing as critiquing it. This is based on the false assumption that racists (homophobes, xenophobes, etc.) experience shame or feel somehow discredited when non-racists see them as racist.

But racists don’t feel shame. They want you to cover their racism to help them win adherents.

Similarly, mainstream journalists often cover and amplify the reporting of right-wing outlets (e.g., “red wave”), as if doing so doesn’t amplify those ideas beyond the boundaries of the right-wing media ecosystem. These journalists often presume that their readers are as high-information as they are. But they aren’t. Covering Ye on InfoWars, for example, introduces Alex Jones to audiences who may have never heard of him before. and who may now be inclined to seek him out. That’s a problem.

Don’t take my word for it. My guidance here is consistent with the findings of Whitney Phillips, whose 2018 Data & Society report “The Oxygen of Amplification” should be required reading for every practicing journalist in the United States right now. In it, she offers reporters tips for “establishing newsworthiness,” for “reporting on objectively false information,” for “reporting on specific harassment campaigns or other coordinated manipulation attacks,” and for “reporting on specific manipulators, bigots, and abusers.”

I also highly recommend Kathleen Belew and Ramón Gutiérrez’s 2021 A Field Guide to White Supremacy, which includes an important revision to the AP Stylebook to help reporters adequately and accurately report on right-wing extremism without advancing its aims.

If every U.S. reporter covering the right read these two works and applied their lessons, my prediction above would not come to pass. But if not, prepare yourself for a bleak 2023 and a downright terrifying 2024.

A.J. Bauer is an assistant professor in the Department of Journalism and Creative Media at the University of Alabama.


Newsonomics: Two years after launching a local news company (in an Alden market), here’s what I’ve learned

By Ken Doctor

Elections have consequences.

How many times have we heard that old saw resurface in the past several years? But that saying applies to the business of local news revival, too.

We knew that our local fall elections offered a big test for Lookout Santa Cruz. We’d launched just after the 2020 November election, and this election, following a June test run, offered us the ability to show our fundamental essentiality to the wider community. Our coverage — voluminous, analytical, informational, and multimedia — showed our community what a digitally centered news operation can do for local democracy.

“In my years in Santa Cruz, I’ve never seen the scope of coverage you did,” the new mayor, a veteran politico, told us. In total, there were probably almost 100 content pieces, including those on usually neglected school and water boards, but we also wanted to extend into the community itself. We hosted three in-person candidate forums that we Zoomed, and then posted, in short segments, on our site for views to watch later on. We used texting, with help from an American Press Institute grant to solicit reader election questions — and got hundreds of them.

As Lookout Santa Cruz enters its third year, it’s become a primary local news medium for lots of locals. After two years of publishing — through the early news and information demands of Covid and recent, divisive local elections — we’re closing in on meeting the goal of our model: Powering a large, strong, fair, nonpartisan, and trustworthy new news brand on recurring revenue. It’s a model that can work beyond the territory of any single market.

Our advertising business is growing and diversifying. Our membership business has moved beyond a one-size-fits-all paywall, into a nuanced revenue line that aims to maximize both revenue and access for those unable to pay directly. Our student engagement programs help bring emerging adults into civic life and provide a steady stream of recurring revenue as well. Targeted philanthropy helps us build more quickly.

We’re on track to meet our goal of sustainable recurring revenue by next summer. We’re not declaring success yet, but we’re tangibly close, even as we ready ourselves for expansion into other communities. The work is tough and painstaking. We’ve made mistakes; fixing them costs us time and money — the two pressure points for all new ventures. We’ll undoubtedly make more.

In a world of surprises — Twitter self-immolation, Metaexiting news, midterm shocks — all that seems likely is recession. As a fellow local publisher remarked to me last week, “Given what’s already going on with the dailies, recession could be an extinction event.”

Hyperbole? Maybe. All I know is that we have to be thinking “replacement” for the dailies when we see stories like this one in The Washington Post: “They were some of the last journalists at their papers. Then came the layoffs.” As Kristi Garabradt told the Post of her layoff from the “Daily Jeff,” in Missouri’s capital city: “When you’re the paper’s only reporter, you don’t consider yourself nonessential.”

Recession will make remaking local news tougher. Money will be harder to get; timelines may lengthen. The world is unpredictable, but I continue to believe that the need for trusted, fact-based local news will never disappear. How it gets paid for and delivered is all in flux, but people want and value local news and information.

I’ve shared early lessons about our work building Lookout Local in two previous columns here at Nieman Lab, and am offering new takeaways below. My Newsonomics readers will note consistent themes through my 10 years (one million words!) of writing for the Lab. Over the last decade, we’ve seen financial players profit from the death spiral of the local newspaper industry, squeezing the last dollars out of a business dependent on the habits of senior readers. Many readers and journalists have already reached the end timess. Recently, Gannett — which controls 25% of U.S. daily newspaper circulation — forecast an operating loss of $60 to $70 million this year, even before the toll of recession.

The urgency of those who seek to rebuild local news — some advocating billions of dollars in funding — is only intensifying. Will we be ready, as the intersection of democracy and the cratering of the local press become more apparent? The clock is ticking.

On hiatus from my analyst work covering the digital transition of national publishers and the demise of the local press, I now fit everything through the local lens: The lived experience of one local news company serving a county of 276,000.

Taking the longest view I can at the moment of that experience, I’m gobsmacked by the convergence between our mission and our business model.

Lookout Santa Cruz aims to help make Santa Cruz County a better place for all who live here. That mission isn’t a news one, per se, but news is a primary vehicle to achieve it.

Lookout is a public benefit company, and we saw mission and model as complementary from the start. The more we invest in community coverage and community engagement, the faster our business grows. The more that small- and medium-sized businesses, as well as larger nonprofits, buy advertising and memberships, the more we’re able to invest. It’s a virtuous circle that serves as a guidepost for Lookout — and, I think, for all of us intent on building pro-democracy local news organizations now.

The local credit union or beloved local grocer buys into Lookout because they like what we bring to the community. With their ad spend, we better our product and expand reach for them at the same time. They believe us when we say we’re built to last — and can compare that to local print, which looks more fragile and fatigued every month. (“We no longer buy print” is the increasing refrain.)

Authenticity is fundamental. But what differentiates our model from many others is size. Despite much advice to the contrary, I believed that we had to offer a big enough product to succeed in our goal to replace the local Alden daily, which is down to less than a handful in its newsroom. (If you missed the latest Alden takedown, check out Hasan Minhaj’s latest Netflix special, starting 12:36 from the end.) Start too small, and it’s too hard to propel the revenue generation forward.

Lookout Local has never been about money itself, but money to the end of the mission — money that can prove out the proposition that a robust replacement for suicidal dailies can, indeed, be built. That’s especially important in the age of Gannett’s trainwreck, Axios Local’s skimming, and the misguided Journalism Competition and Preservation act currently before Congress.

We raised a couple million dollars from the likes of the Knight Foundation, the Google News Innovation Challenge, The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, and local and regional philanthropists. “That’s a lot of money for a place the size of Santa Cruz,” some told me. But it’s not. Replacement takes investment.

We now have a real local news company growing well in all the vital benchmarks — audience, revenue, community regard, and credibility — with 15 full-tume people working in Santa Cruz Count. We have a newsroom of 10 and a business staff of five. We’re old-fashioned, working in a real office, with face-to-face communication throughout the week.

Without print costs, 80% of our expenses are in people — a terrific advantage going forward. Our staff, paid above local newspaper standards, drives our success and the pace of it. We know we are doing something both contrarian and absolutely vital.

We have to create a set of products — mobile site, desktop site, email newsletters, text alerts, social media posts, reels, events — that are good and newsy enough to merit regular check-ins and reading. We’re big enough to earn the audience, ad effectiveness, and membership value these kinds of operations require — in Santa Cruz and, we believe, more widely.

That means accountability journalism, and an increasing amount of it. This fall, we focused on pesticides near schools, overcrowded jails, teenagers’ fentanyl use, homelessness, and county fair upheaval.

As much as accountability is core to our mission, though, it will never pay the bills — or bring in sufficient readers to engage real thought and change in the communities we intend to serve. So we also offer entertainment calendars, puzzles, obituaries, a job board, and a Community Voices opinion section that in its first six months broadened political and cultural conversation — and served as a vital part of our election 2022 coverage, when we offered endorsements for the first time.

As central as political and civic coverage is, a wider variety of content pushes people from being in-and-out visitors to readers. Food is foremost. Arts, education, coastal life, public health, and culture also serve to satisfy readers.

As we become a primary news medium for an increasing number of people, we’re confronted with fundamental questions of expectation: How do we cover courts, crime, business, traffic, smaller government meetings, and more? As a fellow publisher put it to me recently, “We started offering news of choice. Now, we are expected to be the news of record.”

Here are 11 takeaways as we enter our third year.

Be patient — and aggressive. Acceptance follows on the heels of awareness, but it may take five or six brand touches for someone to really take notice. Before we launched, I’d tell people about what we were planning and receive mainly quizzical looks. I’d say to good news readers, “you know, a through-the-day changing news product on your phone, like The New York Times.” They’d smile and say, “You mean a blog.” They couldn’t imagine a product that didn’t exist: a local, mobile-first news service that changed through the day. Surveying readers about whether they wanted it would have been pointless, and I’m glad we didn’t.

Two years in, though, we hear, “I read Morning Lookout every morning, and know that when something happens you’re going to send me an alert.” We’re now hitting about 250,000 pageviews a month, growing at about 17% year over year. We love direct traffic and benchmark above average on it. We roll with Google and Facebook and also find Apple News to be an ascending brand builder for us.

Keep diversifying revenue streams. That should be a big duh to anyone trying to fund any venture, but I’m still amazed by how many organizations are focused almost exclusively on reader revenue as the ramp forward. We believe deeply in it, but it’s only one support. Here’s our percentage mix, still in flux, of course: 50% advertising; 35% membership, and 15% targeted philanthropy for key growth positions.

Act like a real marketing partner. How many (smart) people in the news revival movement are still allergic to advertising, or buy the line that Google and Facebook have “taken” the local market? Advertising makes up half of our revenue and has doubled over the past year. We call these “marketing partnerships” because that’s what they are — a deeply relationship-building form of community-driven commercial and nonprofit organization development. We call our business side Commerce and Community. We started with branded content (clearly demarcated and untouched by the newsroom) and have now added a range of innovative digital display products, a job board, obituaries, Instagram reels, and event sponsorships. We run no programmatic ads. Our ads reflect the local small business and nonprofit communities back to our whole community of readers. That means they not only bring in dollars, they reaffirm the community itself. It’s a twofer.

Move flexibly into Membership 2.0. It’s time to make the paywall/no paywall argument obsolete. We started with a tight paywall and a high price ($187 a year, or $17 per month). We’re glad we did. We gained real supporters, and we’ve kept them.

Now, though, as we’ve shifted access providers, we’re taking a more nuanced approach to membership. We want to provide access to Lookout to as close to 100% of the communities we serve as possible. That means lots of different kinds of memberships. Memberships now total more than 7,000, and we have 10,000 in our sights by early next year. All are paid for, in a range of ways. We have individual, enterprise, student, educator, and group memberships.

Paywalls should never have become a religious argument in the new news trade. In our work balancing access and revenue, we are building a model that I hope moves that discussion forward. Access control is fundamental; we are finally moving into an era of deploying it more imaginatively.

Show up. Be active, go to events, talk to anyone and everyone — not just the company’s leadership, but the full staff. Events — sponsoring and co-sponsoring them — are key, but it doesn’t stop there. There’s nothing like face-to-face gatherings. Fifteen people on the ground is a community force, multiplying the power and reach of the journalism.

Bring students directly into local news. Our paid access for students is supported by media literacy and civic-minded individual donors, and by the Google News Initiative. This isn’t the old daily Newspapers in Education program that often just dumped newspapers (the better to count for circulation) at schools. We’re doing more than providing access — we’re creating a local news-based curriculum and now see it being incorporated at the high school and college levels. We’re adding student voices into the fabric of Lookout. The societal value is a no-brainer, but we also see how this program can generate recurring revenue going forward — and serve as a model for getting local news to others who can’t, or are unlikely to, pay.

Planning is great, but it’s a lot of improv. The best models only offer a blueprint. From there, it’s relentless problem-solving — something that newsrooms have done daily for decades, and that is essential for building the sustainable business model in each community. Instagram is as much art as science. Some school programs fail to catch on, while educators quickly adapt other stuff our newsroom is producing every day.

Team-building takes time. We’re now fully staffed, with our most recent hires coming from places like the Globe and Mail and Monterey County Weekly. The team matches up pretty well with the across-the-generations readership profile our analytics display. After too much turnover in our first year, we’ve settled in well, though our culture is still forming. We’ve found nothing beats an in-office environment to build both culture and product. It’s as old-fashioned as you can imagine: 10 people sitting around a conference room table talking local stories.

Democracy is local. Santa Cruz has its share of polarization. It looks different here than it does in the red/blue patterns that swamp CNN every two years, but it’s the same phenomenon. For us, the work of building a stronger democracy starts with news and information, fair and deeply reported analysis, and rumor- and fact-checking. It extends to a wide-ranging opinion section and in-person community forums that are then given long life on the site. The more work we do, the more people accept us as a player, and both praise and criticism grow. It’s long-term work, and difficult, but we’ve got to be in the fray as an honest broker.

The tech stack is still unnecessarily hard. We’re not a technology business, though we are wholly digital. But we are a technology-based business. That’s an essential understanding as the dailies gasp for breath and newspapers abandon print. The advantages we have are real and long-term, but they’re still not properly rationalized. From CMSes to access controls to analytics to search optimization, we see a motley assortment of tech with too little integration among the moving parts. There’s real movement toward higher-performance standardization, optimization, and networking, but dealing with partial solutions continues to retard the fundamental work of remaking local news.

Make good friends and lean on them. Workshops, webinars, trainings, and the like are good. But there’s nothing like having friends in the business, enduring the same workloads, confronting the same issues, and understanding that innovation, rather than invention, is largely the name of the game. Six months ago, I wrote about the “3 a.m. Club,” made up of the leaders of the Daily Memphian, Colorado Sun, Baltimore Banner, Long Beach Post, and Block Club Chicago. As we approach 2023, our support for each other is evolving into possible networked solutions, tech and otherwise, that maximize our precious resources. We must all find our friends and stay close to them.

As we finish this year and look ahead, we’re about where we hoped to be, though the journey’s been unpredictable. We’ve built a model that’s working in Santa Cruz County. We believe many parts of it are widely applicable across the country. How do we apply what we’ve learned so far? How could the model, or parts of it, be applied to the world of dailies and large weeklies?

As a publisher and as an analyst, I balance those and numerous similar questions within the bounds of time. The brutal combination of local press destruction and assaults on the democratic process itself pose an unprecedented challenge for our time and place. It’s one we have to get right.


Text-to-image AI is a powerful, easy technology for making art — and fakes

Type “teddy bears working on new AI research on the moon in the 1980s” into any of the recently released text-to-image artificial intelligence image generators, and after just a few seconds the sophisticated software will produce an eerily pertinent image.

This image was generated from the text prompt ‘Teddy bears working on new AI research on the moon in the 1980s.”

Seemingly bound by only your imagination, this latest trend in synthetic media has delighted many, inspired others, and struck fear in some.

new companies will appear that use AI to aggregate and summarize journalism

Google, research firm OpenAI, and AI vendor Stability AI have each developed a text-to-image image generator powerful enough that some observers are questioning whether in the future people will be able to trust the photographic record.

As a computer scientist who specializes in image forensics, I’ve been thinking a lot about this technology: what it’s capable of, how each of the tools have been rolled out to the public, and what lessons can be learned as this technology continues its ballistic trajectory.

Although their digital precursor dates back to 1997, the first synthetic images splashed onto the scene just five years ago. In their original incarnation, so-called generative adversarial networks (GANs) were the most common technique for synthesizing images of people, cats, landscapes, and anything else.

A GAN consists of two main parts: generator and discriminator. Each is a type of large neural network, which is a set of interconnected processors roughly analogous to neurons.

Tasked with synthesizing an image of a person, the generator starts with a random assortment of pixels and passes this image to the discriminator, which determines if it can distinguish the generated image from real faces. If it can, the discriminator provides feedback to the generator, which modifies some pixels and tries again. These two systems are pitted against each other in an adversarial loop. Eventually the discriminator is incapable of distinguishing the generated image from real images.

Just as people were starting to grapple with the consequences of GAN-generated deepfakes — including videos that show someone doing or saying something they didn’t — a new player emerged on the scene: text-to-image deepfakes.

In this latest incarnation, a model is trained on a massive set of images, each captioned with a short text description. The model progressively corrupts each image until only visual noise remains, and then trains a neural network to reverse this corruption. Repeating this process hundreds of millions of times, the model learns how to convert pure noise into a coherent image from any caption.

This photolike image was generated using Stable Diffusion with the prompt “cat wearing VR goggles.”

While GANs are only capable of creating an image of a general category, text-to-image synthesis engines are more powerful. They are capable of creating nearly any image, including images that include an interplay between people and objects with specific and complex interactions, for instance “The president of the United States burning classified documents while sitting around a bonfire on the beach during sunset.”

OpenAI’s text-to-image image generator, DALL-E, took the internet by storm when it was unveiled on January 5, 2021. A beta version of the tool was made available to 1 million users on July 20, 2022. Users around the world have found seemingly endless ways to prompt DALL-E, yielding delightful, bizarre and fantastical imagery.

A wide range of people, from computer scientists to legal scholars and regulators, however, have pondered the potential misuses of the technology. Deep fakes have already been used to create nonconsensual pornography, commit small- and large-scale fraud, and fuel disinformation campaigns. These even more powerful image generators could add jet fuel to these misuses.

Aware of the potential abuses, Google declined to release its text-to-image technology. OpenAI took a more open, and yet still cautious, approach when it initially released its technology to only a few thousand users. It also placed guardrails on allowable text prompts, including no nudity, hate, violence, or identifiable persons. Over time, OpenAI has expanded access, lowered some guardrail, and added more features, including the ability to semantically modify and edit real photographs.

Stability AI took yet a different approach, opting for a full release of their Stable Diffusion with no guardrails on what can be synthesized. In response to concerns of potential abuse, the company’s founder, Emad Mostaque, said, “Ultimately, it’s people’s responsibility as to whether they are ethical, moral and legal in how they operate this technology.”

Nevertheless, the second version of Stable Diffusion removed the ability to render images of NSFW content and children because some users had created child abuse images. In responding to calls of censorship, Mostaque pointed out that because Stable Diffusion is open source, users are free to add these features back at their discretion.

Regardless of what you think of Google’s or OpenAI’s approach, Stability AI made their decisions largely irrelevant. Shortly after Stability AI’s open-source announcement, OpenAI lowered its guardrails on generating images of recognizable people. When it comes to this type of shared technology, society is at the mercy of the lowest common denominator — in this case, Stability AI.

Stability AI boasts that its open approach wrestles powerful AI technology away from the few, placing it in the hands of the many. I suspect that few would be so quick to celebrate an infectious disease researcher publishing the formula for a deadly airborne virus created from kitchen ingredients, while arguing that this information should be widely available. Image synthesis does not, of course, pose the same direct threat, but the continued erosion of trust has serious consequences ranging from people’s confidence in election outcomes to how society responds to a global pandemic and climate change.

Moving forward, I believe that technologists will need to consider both the upsides and downsides of their technologies and build mitigation strategies before predictable harms occur. I and other researchers will have to continue to develop forensic techniques to distinguish real images from fakes. Regulators are going to have to start taking more seriously how these technologies are being weaponized against individuals, societies and democracies.

And everyone is going to have to learn how to become more discerning and critical about how they consume information online.

This article has been updated to correct the name of the company Stability AI, which was misidentified.

Hany Farid is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

Feature photo: A synthetic image generated by mimicking real faces, left, and a synthetic face generated from the text prompt “a photo of a 50-year man with short black hair,” right. Hany Farid using StyleGAN2 (left) and DALL-E (right), CC BY-ND.


"We all we got": How Black Twitter steered the spotlight to Shanquella Robinson's death

“We all we got”: How Black Twitter steered the spotlight to Shanquella Robinson’s death

This article was originally published by The 19th.  Candice Norwood is a breaking news reporter at The 19th and Rebekah Barber is an editorial fellow at The 19th, where this story was originally published.  Photo illustration by Rena Li for The 19th.

Shanquella Robinson’s death could have easily fallen through the cracks. In the first two weeks after the 25-year-old from North Carolina was pronounced dead during a group vacation to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, her story was limited to a few local news reports. It appeared that her death would be treated like those of many other Black women and girls — with cursory, if any, attention from the news media. But then, video of a woman being beaten emerged, and the news of her death went viral.

One tweet by North Carolina blogger Mina Lo with the words, “Rest in Power Shanquella Robinson” has garnered more than 50,000 likes and nearly 17,000 retweets. National news organizations, including CNN and the New York Times, have since picked up Robinson’s story, highlighting the power and potential of Black media platforms. From the killing of Lauren Smith-Fields last year to Robinson last month, Black people online have been a driving force behind elevating stories about missing and murdered Black women and girls in the absence of mainstream media.

Black women and girls face high rates of intimate partner violence, sexual assault, and homicide. However, their cases are rarely treated with urgency. Robinson’s case stands out for the level of attention it received due to not only her family’s advocacy, but also the Black-owned blogs and social media accounts that recirculated the video and emerging details, pushing it into the view of a wider audience.

“We’ve relied on the connections that we have in Black communities to spread the word of issues that are of importance to us for centuries,” said Dr. Meredith Clark, an associate professor of journalism and communication studies at Northeastern University who researches Black Twitter and Black resistance online. “It reaffirms something that we say a lot — ‘We all we got’ — and this, to me, is an example of what that looks like in a news media context.”

From Ida B. Wells’ investigations of lynchings in the South to the Black press’s role in unearthing the truth about the killing of Emmett Till, Black media outlets have historically been vital sources of information about violence against Black people, particularly when mainstream media have disregarded their stories through systemic bias and racism.

“That’s where we could go and send out our messages,” said Nicole Carr, a journalist at ProPublica and professor at Morehouse College who teaches a social justice journalism course.

More recently, especially over the past decade, social media has become a popular tool for gathering and sharing information related to social and racial justice. It is where the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was born in 2013 and where activists, scholars and others have strategically used hashtags and other messages to quickly disseminate information to the general public.

“In matters of social justice, particularly when they relate to our community, we provide through those platforms the leads that are necessary to make mainstream outlets pay attention,” Carr said. She added that for journalists, in particular, social media can provide a jumping-off point for their coverage. Journalists might see a claim on social media and decide to follow up with a public records request to see if there is any validity to it.

“I’m not comparing Twitter users to the Black press as a whole. I’m just saying we have always found spaces to amplify important messages and get the word out, even when we’re unable to do that in so-called mainstream spaces,” Carr said.

Specific elements of Robinson’s case also stood out, adding to public shock and awareness.

The video and the contradictory accounts of her death drew wider attention to her case. The publicized details have also left many social media users wondering how someone could travel with people who appeared to be her friends and die violently less than 24 hours later.

The people who traveled with Robinson returned to the United States and told her parents that she died of alcohol poisoning. However, their stories were inconsistent with the information on her death certificate published online on November 16. The autopsy report lists Robinson’s cause of death as a severed spinal cord and trauma to the neck. It made no mention of alcohol poisoning.

That same day, Twitter users quickly began circulating a video showing a naked woman being viciously attacked by another woman. In multiple media reports, Robinson’s mother has confirmed the naked woman is her daughter. In the background of the video, a man can be heard saying, “Quella, can you at least fight back?”

After the video was released, Mexican authorities announced that they were investigating Robinson’s death as a femicide — the gender-based murder of a woman. On November 18, the FBI confirmed its involvement in the case.

An arrest warrant has been issued in Mexico for one person in relation to Robinson’s death.

“Black Twitter was responsible for amplifying the clear evidence of foul play,” Carr said.

Media and criminal legal researchers told The 19th that Robinson’s story might have gone unnoticed in a sea of other developing news around the country without circulation of the video.

“People tend to enter stories through the predominant visual. Usually it’s a photograph but videos as well. So that video of her being attacked caught a lot of attention as a very, very clear indication that something was wrong,” said Dr. Danielle Slakoff, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Sacramento State University who studies media portrayals of women crime victims.

Through the years, video has been “one of the critical tools to helping people understand a crisis as it unfolds,” in cases where Black people experience harm, Clark said, citing the nearly nine-minute video of George Floyd’s killing in May 2020 as one example.

In addition to the video, there is a relatability factor, she said. Many people have experienced going on a group vacation or a girls’ trip. The violence leading to Robinson’s death is a shocking turn of events.

Robinson’s mother told NBC News that she credits Black social media with the attention her daughter’s case has received. Such widespread coverage is rare for women of color, particularly Black women and girls, who are often overlooked, research shows.

Slakoff and her research team analyzed news coverage of white and Black missing women and girls in 11 U.S. newspapers over a four-year period. Missing Black girls and women accounted for about 20% of the stories they looked at, though they represent an estimated 34% of missing people, Slakoff said.

In a separate study, Slakoff also found a difference in the media portrayals of white and Black women crime victims. White women are depicted as more sympathetic while Black women are portrayed as complicit in the violence against them by highlighting details like their intoxication level or clothing at the time.

Both the number of news stories and the way those stories are told can make a difference for these criminal cases, Slakoff said. “There is a very long history of white women and girls being viewed as the ideal victim,” she said. “They are viewed to be in need of protection. So in essence, they are seen as worthy of our attention, but they’re also worthy of our resources.”

The disproportionate attention white women receive from the news media, public, and police has come to be referred to as “Missing White Woman Syndrome.” Over the last year, the national fixation on the disappearance of 22-year-old Gabby Petito, a white woman, in addition to the HBO documentary “Black and Missing” have reignited conversations about these inequities.

In light of the skewed interest from news media and law enforcement, Black Twitter has been critical in raising awareness and questions around Black women’s deaths beyond Robinson’s case.

Following the 2020 police shooting of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old EMT, initial reports labeled her a potential suspect, while many news outlets did not report on her death at all. Hannah Drake, a Louisville-based writer and activist, helped call attention to Taylor’s death on social media, which shifted the media narrative about the circumstances of Taylor’s death.

In May of that year, The 19th’s editor-at-large, Errin Haines, reported on Taylor’s death, prompting other mainstream news outlets to follow, making it a national story. After repeated demands for accountability, the officers involved in Taylor’s death were ultimately charged.

In another case, Black social media users on TikTok amplified the story of Lauren Smith-Fields, a 23-year-old Black woman who was found dead in December 2021 after spending the night with an older white man she had met on the dating app Bumble.

Fields’ autopsy results indicated her cause of death was a result of fentanyl, promethazine, hydroxyzine and alcohol, but her friends and family said she was not a drug user and called for the police to do more. Following criticism from Black TikTok users about disparate treatment between white and Black victims, more mainstream news outlets began to cover her death. Her case remains open.

Despite more national conversations about bias against Black women victims, researchers told The 19th they believe Black social media will continue to bear the responsibility of sharing these stories.

All of this is also happening at a time when digital communities made up of historically marginalized groups, such as Black Twitter, face questions about their future following billionaire Elon Musk’s chaotic acquisition of the platform.

Questions about Twitter’s future are tied to how Black people will advocate for missing and murdered Black women and girls moving forward, Clark said. “It’s integral to thinking about how marginalized communities share information and get traction around stories that otherwise would not get attention.”

Candice Norwood is a breaking news reporter at The 19th and Rebekah Barber is an editorial fellow at The 19th, where this story was originally published.

Photo illustration by Rena Li for The 19th.