Media Nation

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

An insightful Times report on Jeff Bezos, Will Lewis and The Washington Post

Portrait of Jeff Bezos (cc) 2017 by thierry ehrmann

Some worthwhile insights in this New York Times story (free link) on Jeff Bezos and The Washington Post. According to Times reporters Benjamin Mullin and Katie Robertson, interim publisher Patty Stonesifer last fall did a thorough scrub of Will Lewis’ involvement in the Murdoch phone-hacking scandal and, according to an anonymous source, “came away satisfied with his explanation and confident that he was the right executive to run The Post.”

Lewis’ miserable attempts to manage the fallout from that scandal, which include reports that he tried to intimidate then-executive editor Sally Buzbee from reporting on it in the Post and that he told NPR media reporter David Folkenflik he could have an interview if he’d agree not to write about it, were apparently not enough to overcome Bezos’ belief that Lewis could be an effective publisher.

Bezos seems especially intrigued by Lewis’ proposal to create a “third newsroom” to include social media and new products, and the Times reports that Bezos pressed Buzbee to accept Lewis’ offer of running that shop. Buzbee declined and left the paper.

I’m intrigued by the third newsroom as well, since the Post desperately needs to find a strategy that involves more than being just like the Times only not as comprehensive. I still wonder if Lewis can overcome his self-inflicted wounds, but he has reportedly adopted a more contrite attitude in dealings with his employees. So we’ll see.

Earlier coverage.

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The Huntington News reports on the aftermath of April’s Northeastern encampment

Centennial Common at Northeastern University. Photo (cc) 2008 by Piotrus.

The pro-Palestinian encampment at Northeastern University’s Centennial Common may have been broken up nearly as soon as it appeared, but the events of those 48 hours in late April still reverberate. Now The Huntington News, our outstanding independent student newspaper, has published a massive overview that focuses on the police response.

Reported by ,  and

The reporting speaks for itself, but I do want to highlight this:

Police ordered all individuals, including press, medics and legal observers, to leave Centennial.

Several Huntington News reporters were told to leave the barricaded area under threat of their “student status.”

Boston police ordered at least five legal observers, who had monitored the encampment since it was established, to move outside of the barricade.

How the press was treated when the encampment was broken up and arrests began on the morning of Saturday, April 27, has been a matter of controversy. Police officers have an obligation to move observers out of the way so that they’re not a hindrance and are not in danger of getting hurt. On the other hand, those observers should not be moved so far from the scene that they don’t have a clear view of how the police are doing their jobs. Journalism’s obligation is to bear witness at such moments.

Urszula Masny-Latos, executive director of the National Lawyers Guild of Massachusetts, told the News that the police moved observers “as far from the scene as possible so [the police] would not be easily visible.” She also said that Boston police overruled campus officers “and forced NLG legal observers off the grounds where the arrests happened.”

The Boston Police Department reportedly did not respond to the News about their actions.

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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 NJ.com. 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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The Washington Post looks to local as a way of reviving its sagging fortunes

Photo (cc) 2016 by Dan Kennedy

I was intrigued to learn that embattled Washington Post publisher Will Lewis is thinking about expanding the Post’s local coverage as he seeks a way to turn around the paper’s declining fortunes. It’s an idea I’ve suggested a couple of times (here and here), so I’m heartened to see that the Post might actually move in that direction.

In Axios D.C., Cuneyt Dil reports that the product would be known as Local Plus and would be aimed at readers who are willing to pay a premium for newsletters and “exclusive experiences,” whatever that’s supposed to mean. If Lewis decides to head down that route, he’d be embracing the Post’s roots, harking back to a time when it had the highest penetration rate in the country and had more in common with large regional papers like The Boston Globe and The Philadelphia Inquirer than with The New York Times.

Of course, Lewis doesn’t have to choose since digital distribution means that the Post can continue with the national and international mission that owner Jeff Bezos set for it a decade ago.

In my 2018 book “The Return of the Moguls,” I tracked the Bezos led-transformation. Under the Graham family, from whom Bezos bought the paper in 2013, the Post was barely profitable and was accomplishing that mainly through cuts. The Grahams’ final play was to double down on local, unveiling the slogan “Of Washington, For Washington.”

Even in the early Bezos years, Post executives understood the value of local. For several years they offered two different digital products — a colorful, low-cost magazine-like app that contained no local news and that was aimed at a national audience, and a more traditional app that cost more and included all of the Post’s journalism, including local and regional coverage.

The Post’s major Bezos-era challenge has come since Donald Trump left the White House and a post-Trump-bump malaise hit multiple news outlets. The New York Times has been a notable exception, zooming to more than 10 million paid subscribers on the strength of its lifestyle offerings, including recipes, consumer advice and games. The Post, meanwhile, slid from 3 million to 2.5 million paid subscribers as of a year ago, and may have slipped more since then.

If the Post is going to start growing again, it has to find areas where it’s not competing head-to-head with the Times. I assume that’s what Lewis’ “third newsroom” comprising social media and lifestyle journalism comes in, although he hasn’t even begun to define what that will look like.

Local news, too, would be a smart move, and charging a premium for it makes a lot of sense.

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Margaret Sullivan’s advice for The Washington Post

Former Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan has written a sensible though surprisingly restrained column for The Guardian on how the Post can recover from its self-inflicted wounds: publisher Will Lewis promises to behave; owner Jeff Bezos makes it clear that he’s still committed to the Post and its mission of holding the powerful accountable; and a public editor is brought in “to provide transparency and accountability to readers.” Sullivan, who’s also a former public editor for The New York Times, says she’s not interested in the job herself.

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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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Appeals court rules that school officials had a right to ban anti-trans T-shirts

Liam Morrison. Handout photo via Nemasket Week.

Not surprisingly, a federal appeals court has ruled against a Middleborough student who sued the school system after he was banned from wearing two T-shirts with anti-transgender messages.

According to an article by Sawyer Smook-Pollitt in Nemasket Week, Chief Judge David Barron, writing for the First Circuit Court of Appeals, ruled that school officials did not act “unreasonably in concluding that the shirt would be understood … in this middle school setting … to demean the identity of transgender and gender nonconforming students.” John R. Ellement covered the story for The Boston Globe as well.

Earlier, Morrison lost in U.S. District Court. At this point, his only recourse would be an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Given the high court’s lurch to the right, maybe his high-profile backers at the Massachusetts Family Institute, a religious-right organization, will give it a try.

As I’ve written previously, Liam Morrison, then a seventh-grader, was sent home from the Nichols Middle School twice in the spring of 2023 — the first time for wearing a T-shirt that read “There Are Only Two Genders” and, the second time, for amending that to “There Are (Censored) Genders.”

This was not an easy call. At root, the First Amendment exists to protect unpopular speech, and Morrison’s T-shirts were surely unpopular among his LGBTQ classmates and their allies. On balance, though, I think school officials and the courts have gotten it right.

As Judge Barron observes, the T-shirts’ message was demeaning to trans students and dismissive of their very identity. By contrast, if a student wore a pro-transgender T-shirt, that would not represent any sort of threat or insult to non-trans students. In addition, the courts have ruled repeatedly that public school students’ First Amendment rights are limited when they are on school property. The school handbook in Middleborough bans clothing that targets “groups based on race, ethnicity, gender identity, religious affiliation or any other classification.”

For all these reasons, I’ve refrained from giving a New England Muzzle Award to Middleborough school officials, even though Morrison and his family no doubt believe they’ve been muzzled.

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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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