Outing an anonymous commenter leads to a libel suit against Nieman Lab

Is it acceptable for a website operator to make use of registration data not known to anyone else in order to expose the identity of an offensive commenter? That’s one of the main issues in a libel suit against Nieman Journalism Lab founder Joshua Benton. Bill Grueskin explains the case in detail at the Columbia Journalism Review. (Disclosure: I know and like Benton, and wrote for him from time to time when he was the Lab’s editor; he is still a staff writer. I continue to contribute to the Lab occasionally.)

Way back in 2008, when the internet was still powered by coal, The Eagle-Tribune of North Andover did something similar. I wrote about it at the time. A Haverhill city councilor was caught posting to the newspaper’s website under 38 different screen names. The Eagle-Tribune outed him using information no one else could have known, arguing:

The average citizen does not take an oath to serve the public. An elected official does. An attempt to deceive the public is clearly not serving it, and a public official who does so is not only undeserving of the protection of confidentiality, but deserves public criticism.

Two differences between the cases. First, the person suing Benton, former Temple University journalism professor Francesca Viola, is not a public official. Second, Viola claims that in addition to exposing her for comments she made at Nieman Lab, Benton also attributed to her anti-Muslim comments made on another site — and she contends she did not make those comments.

As Grueskin notes, these problems can easily be avoided by requiring commenters to register and post under their real names. But, he adds, “an administrator can’t have it both ways, promising anonymity and then using special access to expose someone’s identity.” I agree — and I remain troubled by the choice that The Eagle-Tribune made nearly 13 years ago as well.

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Can independent local news succeed? It already is. And we’re going to tell that story.

Photo (cc) 2015 by Dave Wilson

A big announcement from Ellen Clegg and me: We are working on a book about successful community journalism projects across the country. The tentative title: “What Works: The Future of Local News.” Today we outline our plans for the Nieman Journalism Lab.

This hasn’t been a secret. We actually started our reporting more than a year ago but had to hit pause when the pandemic came. Now we’re starting up again. And I’m really excited to be working with a pro like Ellen. Much, much more to come.

The book is scheduled to be published by Beacon Press in the second half of 2023.

Everything you know is wrong (Facebook edition)

Like many observers, I have often cited Facebook, along with Fox News, as one of the most dangerous forces promoting disinformation and polarization. Its algorithms feed you what keeps you engaged, and what keeps you engaged is what makes you angry and upset.

But what if most Facebook users don’t even see news? Nieman Lab editor Laura Hazard Owen conducted a real-world experiment. And what she found ought to give us pause:

Even using a very generous definition of news (“Guy rollerblades with 75-pound dog on his back”), the majority of people in our survey (54%) saw no news within the first 10 posts in their feeds at all.

Moreover, the top three most frequently seen news sources weren’t the likes of Newsmax, Breitbart and Infowars — they were CNN, The New York Times and NBC News, which epitomize the mainstream.

I asked Owen to clarify whether her definition of news popping up in people’s feeds was restricted to content that came directly from news organizations or whether it included news stories shared by friends. “It was ALL news,” she replied, “whether shared by a news organization or a friend.”

Is it possible that we all misunderstand the effect that Facebook is having (or not having) on our democracy?

Comments are open. Please include your full name, first and last, and speak with a civil tongue.

Margaret Sullivan has written a useful guide to the horrifying decline of local news

What’s happened to local news in our medium-size city north of Boston is a story that could be told in hundreds of communities across the country.

Read the rest at Nieman Lab. And talk about this post on Facebook.

Can hopes for local news co-ops ever turn into reality? A conversation with Tom Stites

After nearly a decade of attempting to raise money and spark interest in the idea of a cooperatively owned community news site, a group of volunteers in Haverhill, Mass., announced this month that they were shutting down.

The site, which would have been known as Haverhill Matters, was to be a pilot for the Banyan Project, the work of veteran journalist Tom Stites, who hoped to seed co-ops in news deserts across the country.

A former top editor at The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, as well as the founder of several print and online publications, Stites hasn’t yet given up on his idea. But he admits that he’s frustrated by the lack of interest from prospective funders.

“I’ve been heartbroken every time I’ve seen a journalistically robust digital site go out of business,” he says, “knowing that it might have easily made the conversion to co-op if Banyan had had the funding to support them.”

I followed the Banyan Project’s efforts to launch Haverhill Matters from the beginning, writing about it in my 2013 book on new forms of online community journalism, The Wired City, and over the years for Nieman Lab and for my blog, Media Nation. (Click here for a complete index of my Banyan coverage.)

I reached out to Stites with the idea of having a conversation that would mark the end of a long journey — except it might not be over yet. News co-ops remain an interesting idea that could help fill some of the gaps created by the failures of legacy media. A few communities here and there are trying the concept out, from Mendocino, California, to Boston and Cambridge, to rural Maine.

Here’s a lightly edited version of our interview over email.

Read the rest at the Nieman Journalism Lab. And talk about this post on Facebook.

The 016, a social network for Worcester, seeks to become a ‘delivery boy’ for local media

Previously published at the Nieman Lab.

Mark Henderson was getting ready to throw in the towel on his dreams of becoming a successful media entrepreneur. He had suspended his two-year-old online community news project, the Worcester Sun, after a brief, failed experiment with a weekend print edition. So in February 2018, he started pulling his resume together and getting ready to look for a job.

First, though, he had one more idea he wanted to try. Since 2012, when he was still a top executive with the Massachusetts city’s daily newspaper, the Telegram & Gazette, he’d been thinking about building a local version of a social network. Back then, the timing wasn’t right. But maybe things had changed. He remembers sitting down one day in the early afternoon and starting to code a prototype.

“By midnight that night, I got a heartbeat,” he says. “And I said, ‘Okay, we’re off to the races. I can do this.’”

“This” turned out to be The 016, a website for Worcester and surrounding communities that seeks to connect people, organizations, businesses, and — not least — media outlets. The project, which takes its name from the first three digits of the city’s zip code, launched in November. According to Henderson, it now has more than 4,000 members, up from 2,500 just two months earlier, and is attracting more than 300,000 pageviews per month. (Disclosure: I’m a member of Henderson’s unpaid advisory board.)

Although The 016 bears more than a little resemblance to Facebook, the way it works is quite different. The content of Facebook’s News Feed is determined by algorithms, though the exact formula is secret. “Liking” a news organization will send only a small fraction of its Facebook posts to your feed. This so-called organic reach has dropped to as low as 2 percent, according to some estimates. If you’re a publisher and you want more, you have to pay.

By contrast, users of The 016 customize their news feeds to their own preferences, choosing among categories ranging from local news and obituaries to dining out and “weird news.” There are no algorithms. All users see everything they’ve asked for, and members can repost the same content as often as they like. If that sounds like a prescription for abuse, Henderson notes that users can delete bad actors from their feeds.

For news organizations, The 016 offers what Henderson says is a solution to the dilemma of publishing journalism on the internet that few people ever see — a factor, he says, in the Worcester Sun’s demise. He recalls publishing a story on infant mortality in the print and online editions of the Sun. “It laid an egg,” he says. “Here we are doing this great thing for the community, and crickets. And it was still the most important story I think the Sun has ever done.”

Content appears on The 016 not just in the news feed but also in a list of hand-selected “Highlights” and “Top Posts” at the top of the site. Henderson taps into sources ranging from the Telegram & Gazette and local television stations to police departments and colleges. He’s also formed partnerships with about a half-dozen media organizations, which are given pages at The 016 that they can manage as they see fit.

One of those partners is Unity Radio, a low-power FM community station operated by a nonprofit called Pride Productions that was founded by local activist Ernest Floyd. The station features eclectic programming — shows run by high school students, programs that highlight nonprofits, local sports, the chamber of commerce and a music show hosted by Floyd called “Smooth Grooves.”

“It has a little bit of everything,” says Floyd. He sees The 016 as another way to get the word out. “The station is still building its identity,” he says. “This is a vehicle we can use to promote the station and market our programs.”

Henderson is hoping to form many more partnerships, invoking the cliché “win-win” to describe The 016’s business model. Unlike the old Huffington Post approach to aggregation, The 016 takes just a snippet of content in linking to, say, a Telegram & Gazette story. Those who want to know more will have to click through, where they will see ads on the T&G’s own site or run into its paywall — thus helping the paper to sell digital subscriptions, at least in theory.

The 016 makes money from advertising in the form of sponsored content, starting at $20 a month. My research partner Ellen Clegg and I pressed Henderson on how he expected to have a cooperative relationship with local media outlets if he is competing with them for advertising dollars. He replied that he would offer his partners the chance to sell ads for The 016 on a revenue-sharing basis.

“My answer to a rather large publisher in this area is you’re not going after the $20-a-month guys,” he says. “And if you want me to deal you in, you guys can sell it and keep the rep share.” Henderson is convinced that ad salespeople for other news organizations can add The 016 to what they’re already selling, including Facebook ads, and that he can also make the case that The 016 is a better deal than Facebook because of rising prices and shrinking organic reach.

Henderson’s business partner, Kevin Meagher, puts it this way: “We’re delivery boy and booster. And no one should be afraid of us.”

To a certain extent, The 016’s mission is at odds with Henderson’s original vision for the Sun. When the site was launched, Henderson told me he hoped to fill some of the void created by the shrinking of the Telegram & Gazette under the ownership of the GateHouse Media chain. Now he’s providing a distribution platform to other media outlets, including the T&G.

Henderson makes no apologies, though. “You can create the best journalism,” he says, “but if you can’t get it to an audience, this is a problem.” He adds that he might revive the Sun at some point for occasional big projects that other news organizations might shy away from — something that would now be worth doing since he’d have The 016 as a distribution vehicle. But it’s unlikely that the Sun would seek to cover the city comprehensively since that would put it in competition with The 016’s media partners.

The 016 may prove to be something of a template. Henderson hopes he can roll out similar sites in about eight cities in the Northeast by the end of the year. Among them: Providence, Rhode Island; Portland, Maine; Burlington, Vermont; and New Haven, Connecticut. He would also like to reach out to members of LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers.

Matt DeRienzo is vice president of news and digital content at Hearst’s Connecticut newspapers and websites, including the New Haven Register, and until recently, he was the executive director of LION. He says that The 016 faces a daunting challenge in attracting regular users if it depends on luring them away from Facebook. But he adds that Facebook itself is moving away from the News Feed and toward groups, many of them locally based — which suggests there’s a demand for the kind of service Henderson is offering.

“If Mark’s intent is to build a community that brings together people who are engaged in discussing their mutual opportunities and problems, and there’s a real human element in keeping out misinformation and trolls and things like that, that would be remarkable,” DeRienzo says. “And seemingly not impossible.”

As for Henderson’s advertising strategy, DeRienzo adds: “I actually think there is enough money to go around for everybody, especially if you’re saying the Facebook emperor has no clothes. I think publishers are smart to engage and be part of an ecosystem instead of viewing the ecosystem as competition.”

There’s an X factor in all of this: the plummeting reputation of Facebook. It’s not just Henderson’s contention that it’s a bad deal for advertisers — it’s that we increasingly understand that Facebook can be a toxic environment. Those all-powerful algorithms are designed to maximize user engagement — and the way Mark Zuckerberg & Co. keep people on the site is to make sure they’re stirred up and angry by feeding them fake news and politically charged memes.

Among the first people Henderson says he showed The 016 to was Joel Abrams, manager of media outreach for The Conversation, a nonprofit that serves as a platform for academic research. Abrams is a former colleague of Henderson’s, as he was a product manager for social media at The Boston Globe when both the Globe and the Telegram & Gazette were owned by The New York Times Company.

“In this age where people are feeling queasy about Facebook,” Abrams said in an email, “that provides a motivation for people to give some of their mindshare and browsing time to The 016.”

Henderson himself credits none other than President Trump for some of The 016’s early success, explaining that he believes the hyperpolarization that has turned Facebook into such a nasty place is leading people to look for alternatives.

“We are Trump-free,” he says. “And that’s not a bug — it’s a feature.”

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At The Boston Globe, the editorial pages are looking for new ways to engage readers

Photo (cc) 2017 by Domenico Bettinelli.

For the past two years, The Boston Globe’s opinion pages have published new year’s resolutions in the first Sunday edition of January. This year’s, headlined “We Resolve: What Readers Can Expect from the Globe’s Editorial Pages in 2018,” outlines an eclectic agenda, from keeping a close eye on Google and Facebook, to pushing for transportation improvements, to addressing racism “in all its forms.”

The editorial struck me as of a piece with other innovative moves by the Globe’s opinion section — including an interactive editorial on gun violence, a parody front page of what a Donald Trump presidency would look like, and expanded digital content.  I asked the Globe’s editorial-page editor, Ellen Clegg, where the idea for editorial-page new year’s resolutions came from and what she hopes it will accomplish. Our lightly edited email exchange appears at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

Read my interview with Clegg at the Nieman Lab. And talk about this post on Facebook.

Changes to Facebook’s news feed is one more blow the news business doesn’t need

Mark Zuckerberg. Photo (cc) 2012 by JD Lasica.

News publishers have been railing against Facebook ever since the gigantic platform began scooping up — along with Google — the lion’s share of digital advertising. But though people in the media business have long feared that they can’t live with Facebook, many of them have also concluded that they can’t live without it.

That second proposition is now being put to a serious test. Last week Facebook announced that it was changing its news feed to give priority to content posted by family and friends, thus downgrading journalism. As The New York Times put it, “Prioritizing what your friends and family share is part of an effort by Facebook to help people spend time on the site in what it thinks is a more meaningful way.”

Like many journalists, I have long relied on Facebook (and Twitter) to promote my work and to engage with my audience. It’s not exactly clear — at least not yet — what this will mean to individuals who post links to news content as opposed to, say, pictures of their cat. But the implications for publishers are clear enough. And at a time when the news business is besieged on multiple fronts, Mark Zuckerberg’s latest brainstorm is one more thing to worry about.

“For publishers who have come to rely on traffic from Facebook — which for some still drives the majority of their traffic; for many others, 30 or 40 percent — this is awful news,” wrote Joshua Benton at the Nieman Journalism Lab. Benton added that digital-only news sites that rely on free content, massive audiences and online advertising will be hurt the most. Newspapers that have had some success in getting readers to sign up for digital subscriptions won’t be hurt as badly, he added, although they will suffer from a loss of traffic, too.

At the Columbia Journalism Review, Mathew Ingram predicted that some publishers may go out of business as the result of the change:

Moving from an advertising-focused model to one that relies on reader subscriptions may be the prudent move, but getting from point A to point B could be difficult, and some companies may not be able to make the transition. For them, Facebook’s latest algorithm could be what Mother Jones Senior Editor Ben Dreyfuss called “an extinction-level event.”

There’s no question that a decreased emphasis on news may make life easier for Zuckerberg and company. Facebook’s fecklessness in the “fake news” wars has damaged the company’s reputation, and eschewing journalism, fake or otherwise, in favor of heartwarming family updates is, as Benton noted, more in keeping with Zuckerberg’s original vision.

Yet I can’t help but be concerned that this is one more blow that the news business doesn’t need. Maybe the solution is to develop a news product for legitimate publishers that would be separate from the news feed. That would require Facebook to hire journalists and make editorial judgments. But it could also be a contribution to democracy — an idea that Zuckerberg often pays lip service to with very little in the way of action to back it up.

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The Worcester Sun gets ready to take its next step: A weekend print edition

Fred Hurlbrink Jr., left, and Mark Henderson. Photo (cc) 2015 by Dan Kennedy.

New England’s second-largest city is about to get a new print newspaper. A little more than two years ago, the Worcester Sun debuted as a for-profit, online-only news organization. Founded by two GateHouse Media refugees, the site has been behind a hard paywall from the beginning, with subscribers paying $2 a week.

Now Mark Henderson and his business partner (and cousin), Fred Hurlbrink Jr., are ready to take the next step: repurposing their journalism in a Saturday print edition that will be mailed free to paid digital subscribers who live in the Worcester area. If you’re not a subscriber, you’ll be able to buy a copy for $2 at various locations in Central Massachusetts.

Print has been part of Henderson and Hurlbrink’s thinking right from the start. Just after the Sun went live, I wrote about the project for the Nieman Journalism Lab. Though the Sun is clearly a digital-first operation, its founders wanted to capture the value that still exists in print advertising as a way of developing a second revenue stream.

“If you’re going to start something new, monetizing digital is tough,” Henderson told me at the time. “And you can’t look at print as a medium without understanding that there is a ton of money still to be made there.”

(Disclosure: Some months after I interviewed Henderson and Hurlbrink, they asked me to serve on an unpaid board of advisers. The Lab’s Laura Hazard Owen wrote a follow-up on the Sun’s progress several months ago.)

Worcester’s daily paper, the Telegram & Gazette, has shrunk dramatically in recent years. Sold by Boston Globe owner John Henry to a Florida-based chain under disputed circumstances, it later ended up in the hands of GateHouse, of Pittsford, New York, which owns more than 100 daily and weekly papers in Eastern Massachusetts. Henderson is the T&G’s former online director; Hurlbrink worked as a copy editor and in production for GateHouse’s MetroWest Daily News of Framingham and for a design facility in Framingham that later closed, with the jobs being outsourced to Austin, Texas.

Henderson and Hurlbrink have a tough road ahead of them. But they’re still here after two years, and they have the advantage of being local owners who are part of their community. The best-case scenario is that the Sun will be a success and that GateHouse will respond by bolstering the ranks of the T&G. Best of luck to Mark and Fred.

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How Jeff Bezos is transforming the Washington Post

Bezos-Effect-featured-image

I’m excited to let you see what I worked on during the spring semester at the Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics and Public Policy: a paper on the reinvention of the Washington Post under Jeff Bezos titled “The Bezos Effect.” It’s long, but I also wrote a summary version for my friends at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

My time as a Joan Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School was incredibly rewarding. An expanded version of my paper will appear in my book-in-progress, which has a working title of The Return of the Moguls and which will be published by ForeEdge, the trade imprint of University Press of New England, in 2017.