‘TL;DR’: a new column from CJR and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism

The news cycle likes to bury long reads and technical research, and, let’s face it, you just don’t have time to read everything.

In a new column for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, which I’m calling “TL;DR,” but which could also be called “ICYMI” (or, occasionally, “wtf”), I plan to rescue the underappreciated research and reported stories that will give you an edge in understanding (and reporting on) the complexities of the digital world.

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Here’s what I hope you’ll agree is worth your time, or at least the time it takes to read this.

  • The Department of Defense has a division called the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) that issues white papers every now and then, and while they tend to focus on weapons technology, a great deal of its latest study, about Chinese influence on American startups, also applies to journalism. According to DIUx, between 10 to 16 percent of all venture capital deals between 2015 and 2017 can claim Chinese investment.These companies will be funding everything on the cutting edge of journalism, from “‘big data’ analytics [and] artificial intelligence,” to augmented and virtual reality. Whatever business decisions they make will certainly trickle down to new forms of journalism, and the ad technology that supports it. DIUx names SPACES, an AR and VR firm already working with American media companies including NBCUniversal, among many others. Of course, it’s worth being skeptical about the Department of Defense’s suggestion that Chinese investment threatens Americans. But DIUx sees the investment strategy as a natural outgrowth of hacking campaigns that include the notorious Office of Personnel Management breach—malevolent or not, money and stolen data can both mean dominance.
  • Has your news organization’s identity been stolen? Michael Tiffany, CEO of security firm WhiteOps, calls attention to an elegant way to thwart would-be ad thieves on his company’s blog. The post is a week or two old but hasn’t caught the attention it deserves: Tiffany recommends simply dropping a text file into your news organization’s homepage folder, listing the companies authorized to sell your business’s ads, as quick way to crack down on ad fraud. This will prevent shady publishers from misrepresenting themselves as authorized sellers of ads on, say, The New York Times, and Tiffany says anybody with a high-profile domain ought to give it a try. Tiffany links to the Times’s; here’s The Guardian‘s and The Washington Post‘s.Most major news sites already list verified ad sellers, but some of the newer sites haven’t gotten there yet—The Outline appears to be one. This means that a scam site claiming to be The Outline could fool you into buying a nonexistent ad. This is called “domain spoofing”—tricking customers into buying ads by pretending to represent a legitimate website and then running those ads on a “banner farm.” Why should you care? For one thing, the damage to the bottom line wreaked by ad fraud is huge: The Association of National Advertisers estimates fraudsters bilked legitimate publishers out of $6.5 billion last year. Then there’s the question of where, exactly, the money is going: A Kremlin cyberwar operation funded its operations with scam ads on Yahoo for erectile dysfunction pills for two years, starting in 2014.
  • Philosopher Jason Stanley has written his précis for his influential 2015 book How Propaganda Works in the journal Philosophy and Phenomenological Research; the book is very good, if quite dense, and the journal article is a canapé-sized version of the 376-page entrée. The 2015 book, which came out in paperback just in time for the wave of interest in “fake news” after the 2016 election, deals in part with “legitimation myths”—deep beliefs held about the rightness of established systems by people who benefit from them. For instance, Stanley identifies the idea of “meritocracy”—that society is basically just and, on the whole, people have either earned their place or failed to earn it—as a legitimation myth. Stanley finds these myths interesting and confounding: He spends an outsized portion of the book “trying to make sense out of why some who are economically marginalized may still adopt the ideology of meritocracy, thereby blaming themselves at least in part for their negative social position.”
  • Matt Carlson criticizes “measurable journalism,” which is to say analytics and metrics, in the academic journal Digital Journalism. The problem with measurability, Carlson says to MediaShift, is that it privileges that which is easy to measure over that which is hard to measure. If they’re not careful, journalists can end up passively trying to optimize for something they either can’t affect or won’t do them any good. “A concern I have with measurable journalism,” he tells MediaShift, “is when what can be measured takes precedence over what should be measured.”

ICYMI: A visit to LA Weekly, the most turbulent newsroom in America


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Other notable stories:

  • NPR announcer Carl Kassel has died at 84. The deep-voiced host of Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, among many others, died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease, according to NPR. 
  • FBI whistleblower Terry Albury has pled guilty to two counts under the Espionage Act, a seldom-used law that the Obama administration used more than all previous administrations combined; the Trump administration appears to be following his lead in using the law to punish leaks to the press. Trevor Timm has the exclusive on Albury’s guilty plea for CJR.
  • Noted misinformer Alex Jones has been sued for defamation by three parents of two 6-year-olds murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, The New York Times reports. Houston lawyer Mark D. Bankston represents the parents, who say they came under vicious attack by conspiracy theorists in the wake of Jones peddling the falsehood that their children had not really been killed. Bankston represents the parents of children killed in the Parkland murders who seek similar claims against Jones.
  • Jerry Falwell Jr.’s many, many pro-Trump quotes to the conservative media, especially disreputable enterprises like far-right site Breitbart, have gotten him in hot water with conservative Christian trustees where his allegedly usurious practices at Liberty University Online—meticulously investigated by ProPublica’s Alec MacGillis—have not. Deep in MacGillis’s long profile is a compelling reason for Falwell to bear-hug Trump in the popular press, beyond mere ideology: His controversial education secretary, Betsy DeVos, is rolling back student protections from online degree-providers, of which Liberty Online is the second-largest in the country.

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Sam Thielman is the former Tow editor at the Columbia Journalism Review, and a reporter and critic based in New York. He is the creator, with film critic Alissa Wilkinson, of Young Adult Movie Ministry, a podcast about Christianity and movies, and his writing has been featured in The Guardian, Talking Points Memo, and Variety, among others.