By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Category: Local News Page 1 of 54

Reuters exposes NewsBreak’s Chinese ties and AI-based local news hallucinations

Image (cc) 2019 by Journolink

You would have thought that misusing artificial intelligence to make up a murder that never took place and to amplify a false story about yet another murder would have been enough to stop NewsBreak. But the media outlet, which has rushed in to fill the gap caused by the decline of legitimate local news, has continued along its hallucinatory way — until now.

Last week, Reuters published an investigative report into NewsBreak exposing the company’s Chinese ties and its use of AI to write fiction. Reporter James Pearson begins with the fake murder last Christmas Eve from Bridgeton, New Jersey, which I wrote about in January. Here’s Pearson’s lead:

Last Christmas Eve, NewsBreak, opens new tab, a free app with roots in China that is the most downloaded news app in the United States, published an alarming piece about a small town shooting. It was headlined “Christmas Day Tragedy Strikes Bridgeton, New Jersey Amid Rising Gun Violence in Small Towns.”

The problem was, no such shooting took place. The Bridgeton, New Jersey police department posted a statement on Facebook on December 27 dismissing the article — produced using AI technology — as “entirely false.”

“Nothing even similar to this story occurred on or around Christmas, or even in recent memory for the area they described,” the post said. “It seems this ‘news’ outlet’s AI writes fiction they have no problem publishing to readers.”

Pearson fails to mention that the fake story was first exposed by Eric Conklin of Nor does he report that, just a few weeks earlier, NewsBreak used AI to amplify yet another fake-murder story that was produced by actual humans at the Mid Hudson News in New York, a monumental error revealed by Lana Bellamy and Phillip Pantuso of the Times Union, based in Albany.

Despite the lack of credit to local news outlets, the Reuters investigation represents the deepest dive yet into NewsBreak, and could result in action. As Pearson notes, NewsBreak, despite its sleazy tactics, has content-sharing arrangements with news outlets such as The Associated Press, CNN, Fox and, well, Reuters. As far back as 2022, Norman Pearlstine, a longtime top news executive who was working as a consultant for NewsBreak, warned his client: “I cannot think of a faster way to destroy the NewsBreak brand.”

NewsBreak remains a popular destination for people looking for local news. According to SimilarWeb, it was visited nearly 57 million times between March 24 and May 24. But maybe NewsBreak’s reign of error is coming to an end. In a follow-up story, members of Congress voiced concern, with Sen. Mark Warner, chair of the Intelligence Committee, saying, “The only thing more terrifying than a company that deals in unchecked, artificially generated news, is one with deep ties to an adversarial foreign government.”

To be fair, the company says those ties were severed several years ago. Still, NewsBreak’s irresponsibly sloppy use of AI to generate fake local news needs to be called out and shamed.

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Mississippi Today fights a judge’s order to turn over internal documents

Former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant. Photo (cc) 2016 by Tammy Anthony Baker.

The nonprofit news organization Mississippi Today has filed an appeal with that state’s Supreme Court rather than turn over internal documents sought by former Gov. Phil Bryant, who’s suing Today over its Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into a state welfare scandal.

It’s a high-stakes gamble: Mississippi recognizes only a very limited reporter’s privilege protecting journalists and news organizations from being ordered to identify anonymous sources and from producing documents. A lower court went along with Bryant, who argues that he is seeking evidence he needs in his attempt to prove that he was libeled by Today and its publisher, Mary Margaret White, a past guest on our “What Works” podcast. Today’s editor-in-chief, Adam Ganucheau, writes:

The Supreme Court could guarantee these critical rights for the first time in our state’s history, or it could establish a dangerous precedent for Mississippi journalists and the public at large by tossing aside an essential First Amendment protection.

As readers of Media Nation know, the U.S. Supreme Court, in its 1972 Branzburg v. Hayes decision, ruled that the First Amendment does not provide for a reporter’s privilege. Nevertheless, 49 states offer some form of privilege either through a law or a ruling by state courts. The sole exceptions are Wyoming and the federal government itself. (The latest efforts to create a federal shield law are currently stalled in the Senate.)

The reporter’s privilege in Mississippi, though, is extremely limited — so much so that Ganucheau doesn’t regard his state as having any privilege at all. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press lumps Mississippi in with a group of states that have the lowest level of protection for journalism, including Idaho, Utah, Iowa, Missouri, Virginia and, sadly for us New Englanders, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

In RCFP’s guide to the reporter’s privilege, Mississippi lawyer Hale Gregory writes that “there are no reported decisions from Mississippi’s appellate courts regarding the reporters’ privilege, qualified or otherwise,” but that several court orders by the state’s trial courts have recognized “a qualified privilege.”

Mississippi Today has emerged as a vital source of accountability journalism in our poorest state. Currently it’s partnering with The New York Times on an investigation into a county sheriff’s department that has already led to prison sentences for six deputies who tortured two Black men in their custody, and that could lead to a federal civil-rights lawsuit.

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Want to succeed in for-profit local news? Go local — and take charge of your own data.

Gordon Borrell may not be a name who’s familiar to you, but he’s a big deal in the world of local news: he’s the CEO of Borrell Associates, based in Williamsburg, Virginia, whose business is “tracking, analyzing, and forecasting 100% of what local businesses in the U.S. spend on all forms of advertising and marketing, right down to the county level for all markets.”

Over the weekend, he appeared on “E&P Reports,” the vodcast hosted by Mike Blinder, publisher of the trade magazine and website Editor & Publisher. Blinder was excited enough to contact me and make sure I gave it a listen. I did, and if you’re interested in the future of advertising for local news outlets, you’ll want to check it out.

Essentially, Borrell offered some basic wisdom about what community journalism organizations need to do if they want to compete successfully for advertising. They need to offer quality local content. And they need to be able to provide prospective advertisers with “first-party data.” That means information about their audience that they collect themselves rather than relying on distribution via third-party platforms. In other words: newsletters, yes; Facebook, no, at least not as a primary means of distribution.

Because Borrell is placing renewed emphasis on local content, he’s moving his annual conference from Miami to the Walter Cronkite journalism school at Arizona State University.

Pretty wonky stuff, but it validates a lot of what Ellen Clegg and I have written about successful local news outlets in our book, “What Works in Community News.” They have to make themselves essential to their communities, and the way to do that is to be present in people’s lives. Irrelevant content from distant locales, the strategy that corporate-owned newspaper chains are pursuing, appeals neither to readers nor to advertisers.

Moreover, at a time when nonprofit has proven to be the path forward for many local media organizations, Borrell holds out the hope that for-profit news can succeed as well. That said, Borrell is pessimistic enough that he told Blinder he thinks we’ve entered the “final phase” of local news. The goal is to be one of the survivors.

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Johanna Dunaway tells us about her plans to create a local news database

Johanna Dunaway

On the new “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Johanna Dunaway, a professor of political science at Syracuse University. She is also research director of the university’s Institute for Democracy, Journalism and Citizenship in Washington D.C.

I got to know Johanna when we were both Joan Shorenstein Fellows at the Harvard Kennedy School in 2016. I wrote part of my book about a new breed of wealthy newspaper owners, “The Return of the Moguls.” Johanna wrote a paper that examined how mobile technology was actually contributing to the digital divide between rich and poor.

Dunaway recently received a $200,000 grant from the Carnegie Fellows Program to further her work on local news. Among other things, she plans on building out an expansive database that lists local news outlets throughout the United States. She also plans to examine whether the nationalizing of news contributes to the toxic quality of public discourse.

I’ve got a Quick Take on what has been a bad year so far for public broadcasting operations, with cuts being imposed from Washington, D.C., to Denver and elsewhere. In Boston, where “What Works” is based, GBH News, the local news arm of the public media powerhouse GBH, has imposed some devastating cuts. But they’ve also brought in new leadership that could lead to a brighter future.

Ellen looks at a new use of print by the all-digital Texas Tribune, the nonprofit news outlet based in Austin.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

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Despite cuts, GBH leaves executive salaries intact

While GBH was laying off 31 people, the high salaries of 16 top execs were left untouched. Top-paid host Jim Braude, who makes $345,000, tells Aidan Ryan of The Boston Globe: “We all would have been willing to take pay cuts to save costs if we had been asked.” So why weren’t they asked?

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Suggestions welcome for our new spreadsheet tracking public access and local news

Public domain photo taken in 2015

I’ve taken a first cut at a new tab on our Mass. Indy News spreadsheet listing public access television outlets in Massachusetts that cover local news. It’s linked here and is in the upper right-hand corner of Media Nation and What Works,

A lot of these come down to judgment calls. Virtually every access organization offers live and archived video of city council, school committee, select board and other public meetings. Few people, though, are going to sit down and watch a two-hour video of local officials doing their thing. One of the purposes of community journalism is to sift through such meetings, boil them down and make sense of them in a fair and impartial manner.

The ideal offering would be a weekly or daily newscast, and there are a few listed here. But not many outlets have such a newscast, and I’ve tried to be generous. For instance, I’ve included “SouthCoast Matters,” a talk show in Taunton, Berkley and other communities, because the program often features conversations with elected officials and other newsmakers. (Besides, they’ve had me on a few times, ha ha.)

Other programs I checked out, though, haven’t posted anything new for months. Those didn’t make the cut.

Why a separate tab? Public access is funded through a fee assessed to cable television providers such as Comcast and Verizon, but rather than going directly to the access organizations, it’s administered by local officials. These operations are vitally important part of any city or town’s media ecosystem, but they’re not entirely independent.

If you’re knowledgeable about public access in Massachusetts, I invite you to look this over and get in touch with me about additions or corrections. Just use this form. And share this post widely!

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Jeff Bezos is reinventing The Washington Post — again. And this time he’s on his own.

Jeff Bezos. Painting (cc) 2017 by thierry ehrmann.

Having tracked the rise of The Washington Post under owner Jeff Bezos, executive editor Marty Baron and chief technologist Shailesh Prakash in my 2018 book “The Return of the Moguls,” I’ve watched its dispiriting decline with sadness. On Sunday, that decline was underscored by Sally Buzbee’s departure as executive editor. CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy has the story.

Lest we forget, Bezos did not choose Baron and Prakash; rather, he inherited them from Graham family ownership after he bought the paper in 2013 for $250 million. And though Bezos had the good sense to keep them and give them the resources they needed, it was their vision that created a great digital, nationally focused news organization that was positioned perfectly for the rise of Trump. Maybe an early warning sign was that when Bezos did get to make a big hire, he chose Ronald Reagan apparatchik Fred Ryan as publisher. As Baron makes clear in his book “Collision of Power,” Ryan did not prove to be an inspired choice.

Since Donald Trump left office, it’s been nothing but a downhill slide for the Post, which, according to the new publisher, Will Lewis, lost $77 million last year and about half its audience since 2020. Was that entirely the fault of Buzbee, a former Associated Press executive editor who took the Post’s helm after Baron retired in early 2021? Of course not. But it all happened on her watch, so it’s not a surprise that she’s leaving.

As Poynter media reporter Tom Jones points out, it’s not 100% clear that Buzbee was fired. It’s possible that she decided she wanted nothing to do with Lewis’ recently articulated vision, which includes having “AI everywhere in our newsroom,” according to Semafor media reporter Max Tani. Ugh.

The new executive team sets off some alarm bells. Lewis is a former publisher of Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal who reportedly was involved in helping Murdoch clean up his tabloids’ phone-hacking scandal in the U.K. a dozen years ago, according to David Folkenflik of NPR. Buzbee will be replaced on a temporary basis by Matt Murray, a former editor-in-chief of the Journal. After the 2024 election, Murray will slide over to a newly created position creating service and social media journalism while the main news product will be under the direction of Robert Winnett, currently deputy editor of The Telegraph Media Group, a right-wing news organization. Media critic Dan Gillmor wrote on Mastodon:

The Washington Post is about to lurch sharply to the right politically as former Murdoch apparatchik solidifies his grip on the organization. Current editor Buzbee is out, and he’s bringing in people from Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal and the Telegraph (right-wing UK news org).

I’m willing to wait and see, in part because The Wall Street Journal remains a great newspaper notwithstanding its editorial page, whose right-wing orientation precedes Murdoch’s ownership. I’m deeply concerned about what Lewis has in mind with his artificial intelligence initiative, though.

For the second time since he bought it in 2013, Jeff Bezos is faced with the challenge of reinventing The Washington Post. He succeeded spectacularly the first time, with years of growth, profitability and influence. This time, though, he’s doing it with people he chose himself — and there are caution signs all over the place.

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Illinois nears enactment of tax credits and other measures to boost local news

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker. Photo (cc) 2018 by SecretName101.

The state of Illinois has taken a major step forward in trying to ease the local news crisis, with the legislature approving tax credits for publishers to hire and retain journalists; creating a 120-day cooling-off period to slow the sale of independent local news outlets to out-of-state chains; and funding scholarships for students who work at an Illinois news organization for at least two years after graduation.

Mark Caro reports for Northwestern University’s Local News Initiative that the tax credits amount to a modest $25 million over five years, but he quotes state Sen. Steve Stadelman as saying that the measure nevertheless represents a good start. “It was a tight budget year for Illinois, which always makes it difficult to pass legislation,” Stadelman, a Democrat, told Caro. “Was it as much as I wanted? No. But it showed that there’s a commitment by the state of Illinois to local journalism, and that’s significant.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker is expected to sign the bill.

A couple of points I want to raise.

• The legislation grew out of the state’s Local Journalism Task Force, which was created by Gov. Pritzker in August 2021. Stadelman chaired that bipartisan group. Illinois was the second state to create a commission to study the local news crisis and make some recommendations. The first, you may recall, was Massachusetts; I had a hand in drafting the legislation that created it and would have been a member. But the Massachusetts commission, signed into law by then-Gov. Charlie Baker in January 2021, never got off the ground. There are some favorable rumblings coming out of Beacon Hill, though, and I hope to have better news to report at some point later this year.

• The Illinois tax credits avoid some pitfalls that developed almost immediately after New York State approved $90 million over three years. The New York credits are currently being implemented through an administrative process, and Gothamist reported recently that it’s not clear whether nonprofits and digital-only media outlets would be included, even though some prominent proponents understood that that they would be. The language is also contradictory as to whether out-of-state chains would be able to take advantage of the credits.

By contrast, the language of the Illinois legislation makes it clear that nonprofits and digital-only projects are included and that out-of-state chains are excluded.

The Illinois bill represents just part of a comprehensive package that was unveiled last February. As Caro reports, the Stadelman bill originally called for state agencies to spend half or more of their ad budget on local news outlets, but that provision was dropped.

In addition, a separate bill that would have required Google and Facebook to pay for the news that they repurpose has been put on hold depending on how things go with a similar measure in California. Forcing Big Tech to hand over some of their profits sounds appealing, but it hasn’t been working out very well elsewhere, as Facebook is getting rid of much of its news content and Google is threatening to walk away from the modest assistance it provides to journalism, such as the Google News Initiative.

Any form of government assistance for journalism has to be evaluated for whether it compromises the independence that news outlets need in order to hold public officials to account. Still, the modest action being taken in Illinois seems worth trying, at least on an experimental basis.

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At Houston Landing, the firings will continue until morale improves

Houston Landing, a high-profile nonprofit digital startup that has been beset by turmoil for much of 2024, is at it again. John Tedesco, a top editor at the Landing, was fired Wednesday, according to the Houston Landing NewsGuild, which, on Twitter/X, called it “another senseless decision that comes after nearly two months of disorganization.”

It was two months ago that a new editor-in-chief, Manny García, and a new managing editor, Angel Rodriguez, arrived. But according to the union, the new executive team has been virtually silent, adding, “We haven’t been given any clear direction.” As for Tedesco, the union has this to say: “Tedesco wasn’t an eligible union member, but he embodies everything we fight for: empathy, kindness, and firmness. We wouldn’t be here without him. Houston Landing wouldn’t be here without him.”

What a mess. In January, editor-in-chief Mizanur Rahman and top investigative reporter Alex Stuckey were fired by CEO Peter Bhatia, who — according to a memorable Washington Post article (free link) — responded with a classic “Do you know who I am?” when he was challenged on his plan to have the business and editorial operations work together more closely. (In fairness, Bhatia is a legendary journalist in his own right. But also in fairness, there’s a reason that keeping editorial and business apart is sometimes referred to as “the separation of church and state.”)

At the time that Rahman and Stuckey were fired, Tedesco said on Twitter that he told Bhatia he disagreed with the decision. Bhatia, in turn, pledged to keep Tedesco, and perhaps move him to a different position if the new editor didn’t want him as his deputy.

That different position turned out to be out the door.

As Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton tweeted: “They’ll teach a case study about @Hou_Landing management someday, and it will not be a positive case.”

Houston Landing, founded in 2023, received $20 million in grants from the likes of the Knight Foundation and the American Journalism Project, as well as wealthy locals. As smaller news startups express frustration over being snubbed by Big Philanthropy, the Landing stands out as a large, well-funded site whose good work is being undermined and overshadowed by some mighty strange management moves at the top.

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Will Josh Kraft run for mayor? CommonWealth Beacon asked him in December.

Josh Kraft in 2021. Photo by the Mass. Governor’s press archives via CommonWealth Beacon.

For the past week, The Boston Globe has been filled with speculation over the possibility that philanthropist Josh Kraft will challenge Boston Mayor Michelle Wu next year. It started with a May 22 story by Globe reporter Niki Griswold, who reported that the 57-year-old son of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who until recently did not actually live in Boston, had purchased a condo in the North End. Ever since, it seems like there are one or two pieces in the Globe every day about a possible Kraft candidacy, including columns today by Adrian Walker and Shirley Leung.

So this morning I want to point out that CommonWealth Beacon, a nonprofit news organization that covers politics and public policy in Massachusetts, had the story back in December, including a noncommittal quote from Kraft and the news that he’d bought a North End condo. CommonWealth’s Dec. 1 story, a four-byline round-up, begins:

Boston’s political rumor mill has churned for months about whether Josh Kraft, son of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and head of the organization’s philanthropic arm, is eyeing a campaign for mayor of Boston.

Such a move would put him on a collision course with Michelle Wu, who has all but formally announced a run for a second four-year term.

Kraft said he had been approached about running for mayor, though he did not name names. “People have talked to me about a lot of things,” he said while leaving a recent State House event. “That being one of them.”

CommonWealth also published a follow-up by reporter Gin Dumcius on Dec. 15 about a joint appearance by Wu and Kraft.

CommonWealth Beacon, as readers of this blog probably know, grew out of CommonWealth Magazine, which began life in 1996 as a quarterly print publication and later ditched print in favor of digital-only. Last fall, CommonWealth rebranded and announced an expansion. I’m a member of its volunteer editorial advisory board, so please consider this item and the next two in light of my involvement.

Fried or broiled?

If you are lamenting the end of GBH-TV’s Friday night television program “Talking Politics,” let me suggest that you check out CommonWealth Beacon’s weekly podcast, “The Codcast,” a half-hour deep dive into goings-on at the Statehouse, in health care, energy policy, transportation and other topics, hosted by a rotating cast of CommonWealth reporters.

Of course, “The Codcast” is not the only place you can go for intelligent discussion of such matters; there are various options the city’s two news-focused public radio stations, GBH and WBUR, as well as on commercial television. But this would be a good time to check out what they’re doing at CommonWealth Beacon as well.

By the way, back when “Talking Politics” first went on the air, GBH also offered it as a podcast. According to my Apple Podcasts queue, though, that stopped two years ago. Since GBH says it’s committed to bringing back the three local television shows it canceled last week as digital programs (the other two are “Greater Boston” and “Basic Black”), why not start by revving up the “Talking Politics” podcast once again? What about it, Dan Lothian?

CommonWealth seeks editor

As I noted recently, CommonWealth Beacon’s well-respected editor, Bruce Mohl, is retiring soon. Here is a detailed job posting. As you’ll see, the position is well-paid, and in my opinion it stands out as one of the most attractive jobs in the country for experienced mid-career journalists with a deep interest in state policy.

Naturally, speculation will center around local candidates, but I could also see this appealing to top people at, say, The Texas Tribune or The Colorado Sun. Note: I have no formal role in the job search other than providing some thoughts and advice.

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