Jonathan Dotan on deep fakes, blockchain technology and the promise of Web3

Jonathan Dotan

Jonathan Dotan is founding director of The Starling Lab for Data Integrity at Stanford University. The lab focuses on tools to help historians, legal experts and journalists protect images, text and other data from bad actors who want to manipulate that data to create deep fakes or expunge it altogether.

He has founded and led a number of digital startups, he worked at the Motion Picture Association of America, and he was a writer and producer for the HBO series “Silicon Valley.”  While he was working on “Silicon Valley,” a character invented a new technology that got him thinking: What if everyday users could keep hold of their own data without having to store it in a cloud, where it is open to hackers or the government or other bad actors? That, at least in part, is what blockchain technology is all about, and it’s a subject about which Dotan has become a leading expert.

Dotan also shares a link to a valuable resource for anyone who wants to gain a deeper understanding of Web3.

Dan has a rare rave for Gannett, which is rethinking the way its papers cover police and public safety. And Ellen unpacks a recent survey about violent attacks against broadcast reporters.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

Gannett rethinks the public safety beat. Good. But keep an eye on the bottom line.

Photo (cc) 2017 by Raymond Wambsgans

By Dan Kennedy

Whenever I write about Gannett, our largest newspaper chain, it’s usually because they’re cuttings staff and closing papers. At the same time, though, the company has been a leader in rethinking how we cover law enforcement, which has emerged as a vitally important issue in the Black Lives Matter era. We know what the problems are:

  • Until recently, it was routine practice at many news outlets, especially smaller ones, simply to run stuff from the police log and from press releases issued by law enforcement without doing any actual reporting. The idea was that it’s a public record, so let’s get it out there.
  • A lack of follow-up: If charges were dropped or a suspect was acquitted, that often didn’t get reported.
  • Now that everything is digital, it’s very easy to Google someone applying for a job or whatever and find that they’d been arrested for something. Given that Black men, in particular, are disproportionately charged with crimes, it had the racist effect of denying opportunities to people of color.

So what is Gannett doing? As part of the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative, the chain has come up with a Public Safety Mission Statement that tries to get at some of these issues. Four Gannett journalists recently wrote up what they’ve been doing in an essay for the American Press Association’s Better News website. Here are some of the ideas they offered:

  • Gannett newspapers have stopped running mug shots, including mug-shot galleries, “recognizing instead that law enforcement pick and choose the crimes they announce and the mug shots they release, capturing people on their worst days in their worst moments, often in situations that may not reflect the full story.”
  • At the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle in upstate New York, reporters stopped rewriting routine police press releases and are trying to include community voices in public safety stories.
  • At The News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware, the staff is producing deeper stories on crime and policing that have led to more readers and new subscriptions. Examples of such stories include reporting on how a community was affected by a police standoff and how secrecy on the part of law enforcement prevents news outlets from reporting on allegations of excessive force.

These are all positive steps, and they follow earlier Gannett initiatives, such as making it possible for people to request that negative stories about them be removed from Google search. A number of other news outlets, including The Boston Globe, followed with similar programs.

This being Gannett, though, we should regard these initiatives with at least some degree of skepticism. Given the ongoing shrinkage of staff, it’s become increasingly difficult for the chain’s newspapers and websites to keep up with goings-on in muncipal government, public schools and public safety. Moving away from day-to-day police coverage and weighing in with an occasional piece that takes a look at broader issues may be good journalism — but it might be a money-saver as well. I say that not just theoretically but as the reader of a Gannett weekly (soon to be merged with another weekly) whose only full-time reporter is being moved to a regional beat.

So kudos to Gannett. But let’s keep an eye on what this looks like moving forward.

Poynter’s local media watcher, Kristen Hare, talks about where we’ve been and where we’re headed

Kristen Hare

Kristen Hare is a journalist, media watcher and faculty member at the Poynter Institute in Florida. Kristen not only documents trends in our beleaguered industry, but she also teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to cover their communities effectively. Before joining Poynter’s faculty, she spent eight years covering local news for Poynter’s website. In addition to all of this, she also spent two years with the Peace Corps in Guyana, in South America.

At Poynter, she writes a weekly newsletter about local news called Local Edition. She’s also got experience in a number of local newsrooms. She has reported for the St. Louis Beacon and the St. Joseph News-Press in Missouri, and she still keeps her hand in by writing feature obituaries for the Tampa Bay Times, which is owned by Poynter in a for-profit/nonprofit partnership.

Dan has a Quick Take on a tax credit for news subscribers in Canada, which apparently isn’t working all that well. Maybe it’s something in the permafrost. Ellen looks at a fight for control at the Chicago Reader, a 50-year-old alternative paper.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

A network of community news franchises: Mike Shapiro on what makes TAPinto click

 

Mike Shapiro

Mike Shapiro is the founder and CEO of TAPinto, a network of more than 90 online local news sites, most of them in New Jersey and with a few in New York and Florida. Shapiro launched TAPInto in 2008. Back then it was called TheAlternativePress.com and the goal was to build a network of hyperlocal news sites covering New Jersey towns.

His core idea is relatively simple. Would-be editors and publishers are actually franchisees. They pay a fee to buy into a turnkey operation that gives them access to technology and marketing resources. Shapiro’s team provides training and maintains the infrastructure, but these publishers are responsible for maintaining and growing their readership. Some have journalism backgrounds, but some join because they love their communities and want to become small business owners. The name was changed as the network grew: Shapiro no longer sees it as an alternative to just one newspaper, but as a way to “TAPinto” any community.

Dan has a Quick Take on a new survey by the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University that finds that news consumers in Chicago aren’t willing to pay for local content, and Ellen nerds out on a recent NiemanLab report on the importance of local coverage of science.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

Ed Miller of the startup Provincetown Independent talks about how print and digital can work together

Provincetown Independent co-founders Ed Miller, the editor, and Teresa Parker, the publisher. Photo by Sophie Ruehr; used with permission.

Ed Miller is co-founder and editor of The Provincetown Independent. Founded in October 2019, the weekly competes with Gannett’s Provincetown Banner. The Independent covers Provincetown, Truro, Wellfleet and Eastham, and Miller explains why he believes that a print-centric strategy is essential on the tip of the Cape.

The Independent is a hybrid organization — a for-profit public benefit corporation that works in tandem with a nonprofit that Ed and co-founder and publisher Teresa Parker have also created. Up until now, the nonprofit, the Local Journalism Project, has operated under the fiscal sponsorship of the Center for the Study of Public Policy. But they have now created their own independent nonprofit and applied for 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status. (Disclosure: Dan is an unpaid adviser to the Independent.)

As we learned from Ed in planning this podcast, the first meeting of the new LJP board was happening the very day the episode was taped.

Ellen has a Quick Take on the abysmal results for the News Leaders Association newsroom diversity survey.

Dan reports on a startup newspaper in Queen Creek, Arizona, that will be called the Queen Creek Tribune and will make its debut on Sunday, April 24. It will be a total-market penetration print paper with a 20,000 press run.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

No guest this week as Ellen and Dan kick it around on the podcast

No guest this week as co-hosts Ellen Clegg and Dan Kennedy run down a number of news stories, including a major deal in New Jersey: the nonprofit Corporation for New Jersey Local Media (CNJLM) acquired 14 weekly newspapers serving some 50 municipalities. The papers were owned by the New Jersey Hills Media Group.

The deal is similar to one announced last year when Colorado Community Media sold its 24 weekly and monthly newspapers in a complex deal involving several nonprofit organizations. The difference is that management of the Colorado papers was turned over to The Colorado Sun, a digital start-up that was awarded an ownership share and could eventually become the majority owner. In New Jersey, the sellers, Liz and Steve Parker, will remain in charge.

Ellen unpacks the story behind a glaring omission in the award-winning documentary film, “Storm Lake,” and Dan and Ellen both try to grapple with the blockchain and how Web3 might affect local newsrooms.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

A nonprofit campaign saves 14 weekly newspapers in suburban New Jersey

Photo (cc) 2009 by Wally Gobetz. Hills Media is headquartered in Whippany, N.J., home to the Whippany Railway Museum.

By Dan Kennedy

Big news out of New Jersey: The nonprofit Corporation for New Jersey Local Media (CNJLM) has acquired 14 weekly newspapers serving some 50 municipalities. The papers are owned by the New Jersey Hills Media Group.

The deal is similar to one announced last year when Colorado Community Media sold its 24 weekly and monthly newspapers in a complex deal involving several nonprofit organizations. The difference is that management of the Colorado papers was turned over to The Colorado Sun, a digital start-up that was awarded an ownership share and could eventually become the majority owner. In New Jersey, the sellers, Liz and Steve Parker, will remain in charge.

As with the Colorado deal, terms of the Hills Media transaction were not disclosed. According to an announcement on the CNJLM website, the organization sought to raise $500,000 to purchase the Hills papers, though it’s not clear whether that covered all or just part of the cost.

According to an email announcement by Amanda Richardson, executive director of CJNLM, the Hills Media papers will be reorganized as a “societal benefits corporation.” A New Jersey guide to benefit corporations explains it this way: “While traditional corporations have the single duty to maximize profit, benefit corporations have the increased purpose of considering society and the environment in addition to seeking a profit.”

Public benefit corporations are increasingly being set up as the ownership vehicle of choice for news outlets since they do not operate under some of the restrictions that traditional nonprofits must contend with, such as a prohibition against endorsing political candidates or specific pieces of legislation on their editorial pages. The Sun, The Philadelphia Inquirer and, closer to home, The Provincetown Independent are all public benefit corporations. All three also have nonprofit affiliations that allow them to raise tax-exempt money for in-depth reporting projects.

Confusingly, Hills Media’s own story claims that the company will become a nonprofit and incorrectly describes the Inquirer, Colorado Community Media and the Tampa Bay Times as nonprofits. The Inquirer and the Times are for-profit newspapers owned by nonprofit organizations.

The Corporation for New Jersey Local Media, part of the Community Foundation of New Jersey, is “dedicated to preserving and expanding the quality and accessibility of professional journalism that is vital to informed civic engagement and the practice of democracy.”

Hills Media serves Morris, Somerset, Essex and Hunterdon counties, which are directly east of Newark.

Correction: I must have read Hills Media’s story too quickly. In fact, it does state that the newspapers will be reorganized as a societal benefits corporation.

From Northeastern to the North Country: Em Cassel’s entrepreneurial journey

Em Cassel

Em Cassel is editor and co-owner of Racket, a reader-funded website covering politics, music, arts and culture in Minneapolis and Saint Paul. (She was also a student in Dan’s digital journalism course at Northeastern University.)

Em made a name for herself as food editor, managing editor and editor-in-chief of City Pages in the Twin Cities. She was the first woman editor in the 41-year history of that publication. City Pages, which was bought by the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2015, was shut down in late 2020. The company said it wasn’t economically viable, citing the pandemic. Em provides some inside scoop about that, and talks about the founding of Racket, which proudly claims on its website that it has “no bosses, some biases.”

Dan has a Quick Take on the Montclair Local, a nonprofit weekly newspaper launched several years ago in New Jersey. The Local is well-funded and supported by a number of New York media types who live in Montclair. But what about less affluent areas?

Ellen reports on an effort to shut down an entire town that was uncovered by the Tennessee Lookout, part of the rapidly expanding nonprofit network called States Newsroom. The Lookout’s scoop was highlighted in the newsletter of The Emancipator, a re-imagined update on the nation’s first abolitionist newspaper for the digital age that is being launched soon.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

Mass. law governing legal ads needs to be updated to include digital-only outlets

By Dan Kennedy

Legal advertising has been a mainstay of the press since Colonial times. Official announcements of bids for government work, auctions and the like bring in a lot of revenue, and there were papers that were literally founded in order to be paid for publishing public notices.

But the future of legal ads in Massachusetts has come into question. State law requires that they be published in the print edition of a newspaper that circulates in the relevant city, town or county — and Gannett next month will be closing at least 19 local print weeklies after shutting down at least a half-dozen in 2021. Where will you publish legal ads?

I know that this has long been a thorn in the side of The Bedford Citizen, a nonprofit digital news outlet that would like to get its share of legals. Instead, those ads are published in Gannett’s Bedford Minuteman, whose paid circulation is less than 500, according to the Alliance for Audited Media. By contrast, the Citizen’s daily newsletter has more than 2,000 subscribers, and its website recorded some 133,000 users during the first half of 2021.

And now the Minuteman is closing. The assumption is that the legal ads will be run in The Sun of Lowell, a daily with virtually no presence in Bedford.

The current, confusingly worded law allows for the online publication of legal ads, but they must also be published in a print edition. State Rep. Ken Gordon, a Bedford Democrat, responded to my inquiry on Twitter by saying that he’s working with Rep. Alice Hanlon Peisch, D-Wellesley, to change that and allow for legals in digital-only publications.

Gannett also publishes the weekly Wellesley Townsman, which is not among the print weeklies that the chain will be closing. But who knows what the next round of cuts will bring? Moreover, Wellesley is home to the independent, online-only Swellesley Report, which would surely like a share of those legals. No doubt that’s part of what has piqued Rep. Peisch’s interest.

All of this comes at a time when the idea of publishing legal ads in news outlets is under assault. Why should the government subsidize journalism through advertising when it can publish legals for free on its own websites?

Florida is going through this right now. It was only recently that the state passed a law allowing government officials to advertise on news websites instead of in print newspapers if they so chose. But as Gretchen A. Peck recently reported in the trade publication Editor & Publisher, a proposal is being pushed through the state legislature that would allow for free publication on government websites instead.

The legislation has all the appearances of being part of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ war against the press. “This is just yet another of his red meat, hateful, harmful, hurtful pieces of legislation that he has been pushing this legislative session,” Democratic state Sen. Gary Farmer told E&P.

But to get back to the question of why: The Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, which maintains a database of legal ads published throughout the state, offers four reasons for publishing ads in news outlets rather than on government websites:

  • “They must be published in a forum independent of the government.
  • “The published notice must be preserved and secure in a tangible record that is archived.
  • “The notice must be conveniently accessible by all segments of society.
  • “The notice’s publication must be verifiable (by way of an affidavit of publication).”

In other words, the news-outlet requirement is an anti-corruption measure. If government is allowed to publish its own legal notices, who’s to say that some of them won’t be buried for some nefarious purpose? Who’s to say the wording won’t be changed?

The involvement of news organizations in legal ads is essential not just as a revenue stream but for ensuring that the government can’t engage in self-dealing. That said, the law needs to be updated. The print requirement has been an anachronism for years, and it’s only getting worse.

Jody Brannon of the Center for Journalism & Liberty on the digital future and the danger of monopoly

Jody Brannon, director of the Center for Journalism & Liberty at the Open Markets Institute, started her career in print in her native Seattle. Never one to shy from a challenge (she’s an avid skiier and beamed in from the snowy mountains of Idaho), she transitioned to digital relatively early on in the revolution. She has had leadership or consulting roles at washingtonpost.comusatoday.commsn.com, as well as the tech universe.

She served on the board of the Online News Association for 10 years and holds a PhD in mass communication from the University of Maryland. The Center for Journalism & Liberty is part of the Open Markets Institute, which has a pretty bold mission statement: To shine a light on monopoly power and its dangers to democracy. The center also works to engage in grassroots coalitions, such as Freedom from Facebook and 4Competition. 

Dan’s Quick Take is on an arcane subject—the future of legal ads. Those notices from city and county government may seem pretty dull, but newspapers have depended on them as a vital source of revenue since the invention of the printing press. Now they’re under attack in Florida.

Ellen weighs in on a mass exodus at the venerable Texas Observer magazine, once a progressive voice to be reckoned with and home to the late great columnist Molly Ivins.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.