Tow Center COVID-19 Newsletter

The Tow Center COVID-19 Newsletter

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Welcome to the weekly newsletter from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, a research and teaching center based at Columbia Journalism School. In the coming weeks and months, we will be redirecting our research to track how the spread of the coronavirus affects journalism and news, rounding up the best of our work and that of others in this newsletter.

You can also follow our published journalism and research through our collaboration with Columbia Journalism Review here. We will be focusing on the effects of the pandemic on newsroom practices, on technology platforms’ practices, on business models, and on the health of the information ecosystem.

From the director

Local news is the N95 mask for democracy: a basic piece of equipment, relatively cheap to produce, and yet in desperate shortage at the time of greatest need. We are already hearing from our researchers who track local news in the US that the advertising situation is dire, and that while traffic is three or four times its normal level, advertising revenues are often below 50 percent of the normal take.

This trend holds internationally. As the pandemic sweeps through country after country, small-scale, advertising-supported news media is being hit hardest. In New Zealand this weekend, local community newspapers have been ruled non-essential by the government and thus forced to stop publishing for the duration of the lockdown, and, given the economic problems endemic to the shutdown, perhaps beyond. In the Atlantic provinces of Canada,  the Saltwire Network, one of the region’s largest news publishers, temporarily laid off 40 percent of its staff. In the UK, JPI Media cut its free newspapers, leaving a number of towns without a local news outlet. In the US, the closure of print editions, the shuttering of alt-weeklies, and layoffs among reporters is a daily occurrence from New Orleans to Michigan. This is an advertising problem as much as a local problem: those already struggling with the shift of advertising revenues to the platforms are heading for a deeper crisis. BuzzFeed, one of the newsrooms that most consistently reported on problems of misinformation since the 2016 election, has announced salary cuts across the board.

The daily cost is painful and irreparable, and the question for journalism is what the radically reshaped business will look like on the other side of the crisis.

It is clear that third-party control of the news media will only accelerate. As part of our ongoing research into the relationship between platforms and publishers, we have already been tracking the reshaping of journalism through relationships with third-party platforms. Platforms are increasing their financial aid to newsrooms, with both Google and Facebook announcing new initiatives to distribute more cash to local news this week. We also anticipate a rapid scaling up of curation and news teams within platforms.

Facebook has around 50 people worldwide currently servicing its new News Tab, which is currently only available to a small number of US users as the platform actively considers how to ramp up the roll-out and staffing of the service. Internal arguments about being seen as ‘too active’ in editing have melted away, according to those within the company, and we are seeing tighter content curation, fewer promoted sources, and more direct aid to the news industry.

As more printed products disappear, we will see a rise in the use of remote reporting technologies and AI in the newsroom to create “coverage,”accompanied by a renewed focus on producing better subscription options. The division of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ in journalism will widen. A hope, however, has to be that the collapse of the current news system will yield a more urgent intervention in the industry, which will help create deeper roots for community-level reporting, and a shared understanding that our next cycle of innovation in news needs to look beyond the market at long term civic sustainability.

—Emily Bell, director, The Tow Center for Digital Journalism

How are platforms and publishers reacting to the COVID-19 pandemic? 

BuzzFeed’s Craig Silverman has called the pandemic a “media extinction event.” With the first rounds of layoffs and salary cuts already well underway, many local newspapers and alt weeklies have already suspended their print editions altogether. Doyle Murphy, the editor-in-chief for the Riverfront Times in St. Louis, described in blunt terms the difficult decision many local news publishers are being forced to make: “We laid off nearly our entire staff this morning with the hope that if we act now, we can rebuild and bring them back later. It’s horrible and unfair, and it’s bad for St. Louis.”

At Neiman Lab, Ken Doctor summarizes the irony of the current moment: “The amount of time Americans spend with journalists’ work and their willingness to pay for it have both spiked, higher than at any point since Election 2016, maybe before. But the business that has supported these journalists—shakily, on wobbly wheels—now finds the near future almost impossible to navigate.”

Tow’s own Nushin Rashidian recently spoke to Evan Smith, the CEO of the Texas Tribune, about how his newsroom has been handling the last few weeks. Here is an excerpt from their conversation, edited and condensed for clarity.

How is this affecting your newsroom right now? 

You know, one of the things I’ve said out loud over the last couple of days is “thank God for Slack.” You can fill in another distance-working platform; people have pointed out to me that Microsoft Teams is also really great. We’ve managed to work, I would argue, as well as or even better as a team than we’ve ever worked before. We’re effectively all down the world’s longest existential hallway; we don’t need to be in the same physical space.

I would have expected more dislocation or disruption to the way that we’ve done business. But it’s actually worked out fine—organizing your Slack channels and understanding the places where the majority of the work gets done, questions you need to have answered quickly, ways to set those locations. There really is an art as well as a science to the use of these platforms. I think everybody feels [telework] is a democratizing thing. Everybody feels like they have access to information at the same time in real time. Everybody is empowered to act.

Do you think there are things going on in the newsroom that were basically a reaction to the current situation, that will end up lasting and shape the newsroom for good, or at least for the near future?

The degree to which we have pulled together as a team—there may not be a substantive journalistic change, but I would say culturally, we’ve figured out new and different ways to work together. And I also would say this: we all see at moments like this the strength in people that we did not have an opportunity to recognize at other times. The people who step up in moments like this and who lead, who lead when they’re asked to and who lead when they are not asked to, that has to affect an organization like ours, because you don’t forget that.

You see in people capabilities that you didn’t know existed before. And I think that we come out of this crisis with a better sense of our strengths as an organization, and who we have on our team to put in the field.

As publishers struggle to adapt to this new reality, social media platforms have been quick to announce products, grants, initiatives, and partnerships to curb misinformation related to COVID-19 and support newsrooms covering the pandemic.

Last week Facebook announced a series of $5,000 grants to 50 local newsrooms in North America to help with the increased costs of covering the pandemic and “fulfill needs such as increasing frequency of publishing, combating misinformation and serving vulnerable and at-risk groups.” Facebook also partnered with Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) to launch a $1 million grant program supporting fact-checkers working on combating misinformation related to the pandemic. Just this morning, the company announced it was investing an additional $100 million in journalism—“$25 million in emergency grant funding for local news through the Facebook Journalism Project, and $75 million in additional marketing spend to move money over to news organizations around the world.” A full list of Facebook’s COVID-19 response efforts can be found here.

Google announced an updated “Search experience” for COVID-19, “providing easy access to authoritative information from health authorities alongside new data and visualizations.” While Google, like Facebook, is offering support to small businesses, health organizations, and governments affected by the pandemic, it has not announced any new journalism-specific efforts at this time.

Twitter donated $1 million equally between the Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Women’s Media Foundation to help with their work relating to COVID-19 coverage around the world.

Despite increased efforts from platforms to combat misinformation and harmful content relating to the pandemic, false stories and statistics about COVID-19 continue to proliferate. BuzzFeed’s Jane Lytvynenko is maintaining a list of COVID-related hoaxes and rumors that have been circulating on social media since the beginning of the outbreak here.

Stories you may have missed:

  • The Chinese propaganda machine is perhaps the most effective system in the world for obscuring the truth of the average Chinese citizen’s daily experience of a cataclysm like the coronavirus pandemic. For ProPublica, former Tow fellow Mia Shuang Li tracked fake and hijacked Twitter accounts spreading disinformation about Hong Kong, which reoriented to praise the Chinese Communist Party’s response to the massive coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. Li tracked the accounts to a marketing firm called OneSight: “OneSight, records show, held a contract to boost the Twitter following of China News Service, the country’s second-largest state-owned news agency. The news service operates under the United Front Work Department, an arm of the Chinese Communist Party long responsible for influence operations in foreign countries.”
  • Platforms have been skittish about removing material posted by right-wing digital media outlet The Federalist, but the publication finally found its limit last week when it published an article by a retired internist recommending “controlled infection parties.” Twitter locked The Federalist’s account; after the publisher removed the tweet, the account was restored and the story remained on the website, but it was not reposted to Twitter and the original Tweet link goes to a page saying it violated the Twitter rules.
  • Cybercriminals are hijacking routers to redirect their owners to sites with information-stealing malware disguised as coronavirus information apps, according to information security news site Threatpost. The malware, called Oski, caught the eye of cybercrime researchers in December; it began in North America but spread to China, Threatpost reported in an earlier story, and it focuses its attention on passwords, primarily Google account credentials.
  • With the sudden necessity of work-from-home journalism for almost every facet of the profession, a new platform vital to the work of reporters has emerged: Zoom. And, almost immediately, security problems have been discovered by enterprising journalists. On March 26, Motherboard’s Joseph Cox wrote that the newly in-demand product sends detailed data to Facebook—whether or not the user has an account. “The Zoom app notifies Facebook when the user opens the app, details on the user’s device such as the model, the time zone and city they are connecting from, which phone carrier they are using, and a unique advertiser identifier created by the user’s device which companies can use to target a user with advertisements,” Cox wrote. The next day, Zoom updated its software to remove the lines of code that sent information to the social network.
  • Columbia Journalism School’s Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma is hosting a series of webinars with “authoritative experts, news innovators and journalistic colleagues navigating the crisis at the local, regional and global level.” You can find them here.

Upcoming events:

  • Reporting and Covid-19: A Webinar Series for Journalists Join Columbia Journalism School’s Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma for a series of online conversations about the challenges of reporting amid the coronavirus pandemic. Led by Bruce Shapiro, we’ll take quick, deep dives with authoritative experts, news innovators and journalistic colleagues navigating the crisis at the local, regional and global level – sharing lessons learned, common struggles and innovative approaches. Co-sponsored by Columbia Journalism Review.
George Civeris, Emily Bell, Nushin Rashidian, and Sam Thielman work at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, a research and teaching center based at Columbia Journalism School.