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

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Apple News Plus: Promising, or just another example of promises, promises?

Photo (cc) 2019 by Lisa Main Johnson

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when news organizations were all-in on social media as a way to distribute their journalism. But that was then. In recent years, Facebook has fiddled with its algorithm repeatedly in order to play down the amount of news that will show up in users’ feeds. Actual partnerships with the likes of The Washington Post are a thing of the past. Google is unreliable. And let’s not get started with what has happened to Twitter/X, the other main source of click-throughs to news stories.

To compensate, media outlets doubled down on newsletters, which don’t drive as much traffic as social but which do have the advantage of being under their control. Of course, all this is playing out at a time when many if not most newspapers and magazines have put their journalism behind paywalls, which further degrades the value of relying on social. A click from Twitter doesn’t mean much if the clicker can’t read the story they’re interested in or — more to the point — see the ads.

Now we’re experiencing a bit of excitement over a newish platform: Apple News Plus. The free version comes preinstalled on everyone’s iPhones and Macs. For $12.99 a month, you get a whole lot more (though not The New York Times, which is skeptical).

Apple News Plus got a big boost earlier this week when Semafor media reporter Max Tani wrote a mostly favorable story. He begins with quite an anecdote about The Daily Beast, which had been on the ropes as its reliance on Facebook and Google was resulting in a dwindling number of clicks. Thanks to its partnership with Apple News Plus, though, the Beast is on track to earn between $3 million and $4 million this year, more than its own in-house subscription program.

Better yet, you don’t have to click through. Stories load instantly and in many cases are more attractive than the publications’ own websites. Tani writes:

The Beast is hardly alone in its increased reliance on the iOS [and Mac] news aggregator. The free version of Apple News has been a source of audience attention for news publishers since it launched in 2015. But while many publishers have come to the conclusion that traffic has less business value than they once thought, they’re still desperate for revenue. Executives at companies including Condé Nast, Penske Media, Vox, Hearst, and Time all told Semafor that Apple News+ has come to represent a substantial stream of direct revenue.

Which raises a question: Haven’t we been down this road before? Indeed, Facebook and Google both experimented with partnering with news organizations and republishing their content on its own platforms, but those arrangements ultimately came to a bad end. Needless to say, Apple News Plus also privileges national publications over local media outlets. Tani mentions partnerships with large regional newspapers such as The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but it’s hard to imagine that they’ll get down to the level of hyperlocals that cover small communities and neighborhoods.

Chris Krewson, the executive director of LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers put it this way on Twitter: “Every time I watch this movie the ending is the same.”

Let me point out another problem. A few large newspapers, both national (principally the Times and The Wall Street Journal) and regional (including The Boston Globe and the Star Tribune of Minneapolis), have achieved profitability on the strength of digital subscriptions. Key to that is that they get all the revenue. The Globe’s non-discounted digital subscription rate of $30 a month is more than double what you’d pay Apple, and that money is being split among all of the media partners that are taking part, as well as with Apple itself.

Journalism is expensive, and news organizations with large reporting staffs need as much subscription revenue as they can get. What Apple is offering, essentially, is iTunes for news, an idea that the late David Carr was promoting 15 years ago. There are good reasons it’s never caught on — until now, maybe.

Long-term, no tech company is going to be a reliable partner for news organizations. Apple is attractive in ways that Facebook and Twitter never were: it’s not a social network, and charging subscriptions for users provides a more solid underpinning than anything the platforms offered. And of course journalism should take advantage of what Apple is offering. At this late date, I think every news executive knows the rug could be pulled out from under them at any moment. But they ought to take the money while it’s there.

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Look out, Oregon: Ken Doctor is planning a new media outlet to challenge Gannett

Eugene, Oregon. Photo (cc) 2012 by Visitor7.

The pixels were barely dry on my post about the Pulitzer Prize awarded to Lookout Santa Cruz when I learned about plans by founder Ken Doctor to launch a second Lookout Local site in Oregon’s Eugene area. The Oregonian reported last month that Lookout Eugene-Springfield will launch in late 2024 or early 2025 with a newsroom of 20, of whom 15 will be journalists. That’s more firepower than Gannett’s Eugene Register-Guard can muster. Indeed, The Oregonian published a pretty depressing report on that paper a year ago that began:

The Eugene Register-Guard, once one of the best newspapers in the region, today has no local editor, no publisher, no physical newsroom and little love from a dismayed citizenry. The news staff that once exceeded 80 now stands at six.

As was the case in Santa Cruz, California, Doctor’s reputation in the news business is standing him in good stead. He said he has already raised $2.5 million for his Oregon project and plans to scrounge up another $1.5 million. Doctor is a graduate of the University of Oregon’s journalism school, so this is something of a homecoming for him.

Doctor also has a long post up at Nieman Lab about efforts in California to bolster local news. Like longtime media analyst Jeff Jarvis, Doctor opposes efforts to extract money from Google and Facebook, noting that Meta, Facebook’s parent company, has made it clear that it doesn’t need news, and that going after Google would harm the uneasy balance between the good and bad that the company has done for (and to) journalism.

Instead, Doctor is looking to New York State, which recently created tax credits for news publishers who create and retain jobs. The key, he writes, is to ensure that those credits go to California-based publishers rather than to out-of-state conglomerates. And though he doesn’t name names, he’s presumably referring to the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, with whom he competes in Santa Cruz, and Gannett.

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A lawsuit aims to let Facebook users turn off the News Feed

Mark Zuckerberg, defender of the algorithm. Photo (cc) 2016 by Alessio Jacona.

Imagine that you could log onto Facebook and not be exposed to that infernal, endlessly scrolling News Feed. Imagine, instead, that you could visit your friends and groups as you wished, without any algorithms to determine what you get exposed to. That’s what Facebook was like in the early days — and it’s what it could be like again if a lawsuit filed by longtime internet activist and researcher Ethan Zuckerman succeeds.

Zuckerman has developed a tool called Unfollow Everything 2.0, which would allow users to unfollow their friends, groups and pages. This wouldn’t change who you’re friends with, which means that you’d have no problem checking in with them manually; you can, of course, do that now as well. No longer, though, would everything be served up to you automatically, non-chronologically and bogged down with a ton of crap you didn’t ask for.

So why is Zuckerman suing? Because, several years ago, a Brit named Louis Barclay developed the original Unfollow Everything. Mark Zuckerberg and company threatened to sue him if he didn’t take it down and permanently threw him off Facebook and Instagram. Barclay wrote about his experience on Slate:

I still remember the feeling of unfollowing everything for the first time. It was near-miraculous. I had lost nothing, since I could still see my favorite friends and groups by going to them directly. But I had gained a staggering amount of control. I was no longer tempted to scroll down an infinite feed of content. The time I spent on Facebook decreased dramatically. Overnight, my Facebook addiction became manageable.

Zuckerman is claiming that Section 230, a federal law that’s normally used to protect internet publishers like Meta from legal liability with regard to the content their users post, also protects developers of third-party tools such as Unfollow Everything.

“I’m suing Facebook to make it better,” Zuckerman, an associate professor at UMass Amherst, said in a press release. “The major social media companies have too much control over what content their users see and don’t see. We’re bringing this lawsuit to give people more control over their social media experience and data and to expand knowledge about how platforms shape public discourse.”

Zuckerman is being represented by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.

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‘Catch and kill’ isn’t new; plus, Facebook spurns news, and why the WSJ will miss Rupe

Three media tidbits for your Tuesday morning:

• Catch and kill. The National Enquirer’s practice of paying for stories and of deep-sixing articles in order to gain power and influence over someone — known as “catch and kill” — didn’t start with former Enquirer owner David Pecker. Nor was Donald Trump the first alleged beneficiary. I recommend “Scandalous,” a 2019 documentary about the Enquirer that is revealing and highly entertaining. Both Bob Hope and Bill Cosby were caught dead to rights in tawdry sexual affairs, and the Enquirer killed stories about those affairs in order to force them to cooperative in cheery feature stories. Pecker’s innovation was to politicize the practice.

• Facebook and news. Back when I was reporting my 2018 book, “The Return of the Moguls,” news organizations desperately sought to use Facebook as a way of distributing their journalism. News publishers liked to talk about “the barbell,” by which they would attract readers on Facebook (one end of the barbell) and try to get them to migrate to their own digital products (the other end of the barbell), where, it was hoped, they would become paying subscribers.

In the years since, Meta executives have decided news just isn’t worth it and have throttled journalism on Facebook and other products, including Threads and Instagram. How bad is it? The Washington Post has conducted a data analysis (free link) showing that “the 25 most-cited news organizations in the United States lost 75 percent of their total user engagement on Facebook” between the first quarter of 2022 and the first quarter of 2024. It’s further evidence that news organizations’ business models shouldn’t be dependent on giant corporations with their own agendas.

• The WSJ will miss Murdoch. Axel Springer, the right-wing German media conglomerate that took over Politico in 2021, has its sights set on The Wall Street Journal, according to Ben Smith of Semafor. Rupert Murdoch, through his control of the Fox News Channel and other outlets on three continents, may be the most malignant media magnate on the planet. But he’s been a surprisingly good steward of the Journal, which after 17 years of his ownership remains one of our great newspapers. At 93, he won’t be in charge too much longer. And here’s a quote from Axel Springer CEO Mathias Döpfner that you might enjoy: “I’m all for climate change. We shouldn’t fight climate change but adjust to it.”

I’ll grant you that’s something you might see on the Journal’s editorial page even  now. Murdoch, though, has been better about not letting that bleed into the news pages than Axel Springer might be.

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Local news round-up: Disturbing revelations in NH, plus pink slime and Google’s thuggish tactics

New Hampshire Statehouse in Concord. Photo (cc) 2012 by AlexiusHoratius

The Boston Globe published a story Friday about a New Hampshire state representative named Jonathan Stone, an ex-police officer who — according to recently released records that he tried to keep secret — “spoke of killing police and raping the chief’s wife and children.”

As the Globe notes, the story was broken on April 5 by Damien Fisher of InDepthNH, a nonprofit news organization that covers politics and public policy in the Granite State. Fisher’s story begins:

Republican Rep. Jon Stone’s New Hampshire law enforcement career ended when he threatened to kill fellow police officers in a shooting spree, and murder his chief after raping the chief’s wife and children, all while he was already under scrutiny for his inappropriate relationship with a teen girl, according to the internal investigation reports finally released this week.

Yikes. Fisher writes that he first filed a right-to-know request in 2020, and that the records were ordered released last month by New Hampshire’s Supreme Court. InDepthNH executive editor and founder Nancy West was a guest on our “What Works” podcast in November 2022.

In Ohio, DIY pink slime

Jack Brewster of NewsGuard, a project that tracks the rise of pink slime news sites, has written an essay for The Wall Street Journal (free link) that is at turns harrowing and hilarious. Spending just $105, he put together a website powered by artificial intelligence that’s designed to look like a local news outlet. Per his specifications, the site, which he called the Buckeye State Press, was designed with a right-wing bias, favoring Republican Senate candidate Bernie Moreno over the Democratic incumbent, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown.

Brewster used an Israeli-based service called Fiverr.com to build the site, which in turn was programmed by a Pakistani freelancer named Huzafa Nawaz. Brewster writes:

From there, all I had to do was answer a few questions about what kind of site I was looking for and the topics I wanted the site’s articles to cover. The domain and site hosting added an extra $25 to the total. The entire AI content farm cost me just $105, and I literally have to do nothing to operate it. It runs itself, auto-publishing dozens of articles a day based on the instructions that I gave to it.

I’ve been following developments in pink slime off and on for the past decade, and what I’ve found is that they are pretty inept. That proved to be the case with Brewster’s experiment as well — at one point his site hallucinated Brown’s attendance at a local fig festival. At some point, though, these projects are going to evolve into effective sources of political propaganda, which we all need to be concerned about.

Google plays hardball in California

As I’ve said repeatedly, I’m skeptical of legislative attempts to force Google and Facebook to pay news organizations for the journalism that they repurpose. If anything, the notion has become more nonsensical over time, as Facebook’s parent company, Meta, has made it clear that it would just as soon eliminate news content on platforms like Facebook and Threads.

Google is a different matter, but no less complicated. News publishers want money from Google, but at the same time exactly none of them add the necessary code to their sites which would make them invisible to Google, because they’re dependent on traffic from the giant search engine, too.

Still, it’s hard not to be outraged by Google’s latest tactic. According to Jeremy B. White of Politico, Google is blocking access to some local news content in parts of California as it fights against state legislation that would force them to pay news organizations. White writes:

“We have long said that this is the wrong approach to supporting journalism,” Google’s vice president for global news partnerships, Jaffer Zaidi, said in a Friday blog post. Zaidi warned the bill could “result in significant changes to the services we can offer Californians and the traffic we can provide to California publishers.”

Well, I guess so. These are the tactics of a thug, and yet another sign that the tech giants have amassed way too much power.

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The real problem with Facebook; or, taking a stroll down Indian Dick Road

Facebook now allows you to post a link to a story in the Kansas Reflector that was critical of Facebook. I tested it a little while ago. As I wrote the other day, I assumed it was initially blocked not because of the actual content of the story. I offered one data point — a Johnny Cash lyric I posted a few years ago that got me in trouble, apparently because it makes reference to guns and murder. Here are two more.

First, the Reflector story that got blocked is about a climate-mitigation program called Hot Times in the Heartland. Whoa! Sounds like some kinky stuff going on in the wheat fields.

Second, one of the worst stories about Facebook censorship I’ve heard involved The Mendocino Voice. I wrote about it in our book, “What Works in Community News.” It seems that the Voice had used Facebook to pass along an important announcement from the sheriff’s office about a wildfire evacuation route. It got taken down, though it was quickly restored when the Voice howled. No explanation was ever offered, but Adrian Fernandez Baumann, the Voice’s co-founder, observed that the post included a reference to Indian Dick Road.

The real problem with Facebook — and other Meta products, like Instagram and Threads — is that Mark Zuckerberg and company refuse to invest a single penny beyond what is absolutely necessary to create a better product. Everything is automated, robo-censors control our lives, and complaining is only occasionally successful.

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A nonprofit news outlet gets blocked by Facebook after publishing a critical story

The Kansas Reflector, which has done some great work in exposing the illegal police raid on the Marion County Record in rural Kansas, got blocked by Facebook for what it reports was seven hours earlier today. Indeed, I got a notice from Facebook that something I’d linked to in the Reflector last August was being taken down.

Folks at the Reflector, a nonprofit that’s part of the States Newsroom network, are wondering if a story they published that was critical of Facebook had anything to do with it. Probably not. I’ve been kicking the hell out of Facebook for years without any problem. The only time I can remember ending up in Facebook purgatory was when I answered a question about the greatest single line in a song. My offending answer: “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” Guns, death, algorithms!

The Reflector quotes a Twitter post from Meta spokesman Andy Stone, who said, “This was an error that had nothing to do with the Reflector’s recent criticism of Meta. It has since been reversed and we apologize to the Reflector and its readers for the mistake.” As of this writing, though, you still can’t share a link to the story that criticized Facebook. I tried just to see what would happen and got the following message: “Posts that look like spam according to our Community Guidelines are blocked on Facebook and can’t be edited.”

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An odd omission

An editorial in The Boston Globe about hospitals, internet cookies and online privacy notes that several non-hospital businesses have gotten tangled up in lawsuits — among them The Philadelphia Inquirer, which “faces a federal lawsuit filed by two subscribers to its website for its use of Meta Pixel tracking software.” Yet no mention is made of a lawsuit against The Boston Globe, which in 2023 reached a $5 million settlement for sending user video data to Facebook. As far as I can tell, the two cases are identical, or close to it. (The Globe denied any wrongdoing.)

Many of us Globe subscribers received small checks earlier this year as a result of the settlement. Globe editorial page editor James Dao declined to comment on the omission when I contacted him today. This is hardly a big deal, and the Inquirer angle wasn’t especially relevant to the editorial’s larger point, which involves state law. But it strikes me that if the Globe was going to mention the Inquirer then it should have mentioned its own situation as well.

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Illinois seeks to bolster community journalism. Plus, a local news round-up.

The Illinois Statehouse. Photo (cc) 2023 by Warren LeMay.

Illinois lawmakers this week unveiled a massive package aimed at bolstering local news. According to Mark Caro of the Local News Initiative, based at Northwestern University in Chicago, the package comprises two separate bills:

The Journalism Preservation Act would require Big Tech companies such as Google and Facebook to compensate news organizations for the content that they share, display or link to on their platforms. The Strengthening Community Media Act offers a broad array of incentives, tax breaks and scholarships intended to repopulate local newsrooms. Included in that bill is a provision that calls for 120 days’ written notice before a local news organization may be sold to an out-of-state company.

As I’ve said before, I’m less than enthusiastic about going after the tech platforms, which presupposes that they are somehow stealing journalistic content without paying for it. Facebook executives have made it clear that they can live quite nicely without news. With respect to Google, media outlets find themselves in the awkward situation of demanding compensation while at the same time depending on the search giant to drive traffic to their websites. Indeed, any one of them could insert a simple line of code in their sites that would make them invisible to Google. None of them does. I would like to see Google and Facebook do more for local news, and maybe it ought to be mandated. But this bill seems like too much of a blunt instrument, as does similar legislation being pushed by Sen. Amy Klobuchar at the federal level.

The second Illinois bill includes a number of different ideas. I particularly like the proposed requirement for a 120-day notification period. As Steven Waldman, the president of Rebuild Local News, said recently on the podcast “E&P Reports,” a mandatory delay can give communities time to rally and prevent their local newspaper from falling into the hands of chain ownership.

Other provisions of the Strengthening Community Media Act would mandate that state agencies advertise with local news outlets, provide tax credits to publishers for hiring and retaining journalists, enact additional tax credits for small businesses that advertise with local outlets, and create scholarships for students who agree to work at a local Illinois news organization for two years or more.

It’s good to see action taking place at the state level given that several federal proposals in recent years have gone nowhere despite bipartisan support. It’s also notable that the proposals were drafted by Illinois’ Local Journalism Task Force, which was created in August 2021. Here in Massachusetts, legislation was signed by then-Gov. Charlie Baker way back in January 2021 to create a commission that would study local news. I had a hand in drafting that legislation and would be one of its members, but the commission has yet to get off the ground.

There are several other developments in local news that are worth taking note of.

• Gannett is making a $2 million investment in its Indianapolis Star aimed at bolstering the newsroom and the advertising sales staff. Two top Gannett executives recently appeared on “E&P Reports” about Gannett’s plans to reinvest in its properties. Unfortunately, Holly V. Hayes of the Indy Star writes, “This is the only site in the USA TODAY Network, which includes more than 200 local publications across the country, where such an investment is being made.” My hope is that if the investment leads to a boost in circulation and revenues, then it will serve as a model for what Gannett might do elsewhere.

• A new hyperlocal news project has made its debut in Boston. The Seaport Journal, a digital news outlet, covers the city’s newest neighborhood. Meanwhile, the Marblehead Beacon, one of three independent projects covering that town, has announced that it’s ending regular coverage but will continue to “pursue periodic and unique pieces, and shift away from daily, weekly, or otherwise regular articles.” A reminder: We track independent local news organizations in Massachusetts, and you can find a link to our list in the upper right corner of this website. Just look for “Mass. Indy News.”

• Local access cable television plays an important role in community journalism by carrying public meetings, providing a platform for residents to make their own media, and, in some cases, by covering the news directly. Unfortunately, cord-cutting has placed access television at risk since stations’ income is based on a fee assessed to cable providers for each subscriber. In CommonWealth Beacon, Caleb Tobin, a production technician at Holbrook Community Access and media and a junior at Stonehill College, argues in favor of Massachusetts legislation that would impose a 5% fee on streaming services. “While often viewed as a relic of the past,” Tobin writes, “the services that cable access stations provide are more important now than they’ve ever been.”

• Many thanks to Tara Henley, host of the Canadian podcast “Lean Out,” who interviewed Ellen Clegg and me about our book, “What Works in Community News.” You can listen here.

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Wondering about that Globe settlement money? It’s legit.

If you received an email in the past day or so telling you that you are owed money resulting from a legal settlement with The Boston Globe, I’m here to tell you that it’s legit.

The email, from the “Ambrose v Boston Globe Settlement Administrator,” pertains to a $5 million settlement that the Globe reached last May for grabbing the identifying information of users who watch videos on its website and sending it to Facebook. Adam Gaffin of Universal Hub and I both wrote about it at the time (here and here), but I could barely remember it when I got my notice on Friday.

Subscribers are receiving anywhere from a week’s extension to, in my case, $158.03, which is also the amount reported by several other people I’ve been in contact with. I don’t know how they arrived at that exact figure, but I’ll take it.

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