Zombie Journalism

Dispatches from the living amongst journalism's walking dead

I came here to learn about management, but I ended up learning about myself

When I first applied to the JSK Journalism Fellowship, “becoming a better person” wasn’t one of my goals. I saw the fellowship as a gift of time to focus on improving my professional skills, making new contacts in the industry and getting away from the news to figure out what comes next. I also looked forward to my research on what the news industry can learn from consumers of disinformation.

So far, the fellowship has been all of that, but it’s also been difficult in ways I didn’t even want to admit to all of my friends still toiling away in their day jobs.

Being at Stanford these past few months has been humbling in so many ways — being surrounded by young geniuses will do that — but nothing has hit me harder than realizing I didn’t know myself.

In the first week of my Transformative Design class, I was asked to write my own eulogy. This eulogy reflected everything I’d like for someone to say about me after I die, a sort of glimpse into how I see myself and what I value. In doing so, I realized I wasn’t on track to have that sort of legacy as a friend, as a mentor, or as a partner. I’d lost my way. I’ve spent the weeks since then figuring out how to get back.

Everyone I met going into this program — including the formidable alumni network — told me my classes were most likely going to be the least rewarding part of the experience. That couldn’t be further from the truth in my case.

I’ve been amazed by Stanford’s built-in focus on empathy across its academic offerings. The business school, especially, is far more focused on emotional connection than I would have ever imagined from the outside. I’ve spent more time than I ever thought possible learning how to communicate and be present, to let go of ego and be as open as I always imagined myself to be. It’s from these classes — and the people I’ve met in them — that I’ve already learned some truths I plan to carry into my post-JSK life.

  1. Reasons are Bullshit

One of my d.school professors, the venerable Bernie Roth, told us this in one of our first classes and I have really taken it to heart. “Reasons” are often excuses dressed up as something more noble. If we are being honest with ourselves and those around us, we should be able to leave reasons at the door.

We make excuses for our actions and behaviors to others — when we should be willing to take ownership of them (and apologize if necessary). Worst of all are the “reasons” we give to ourselves. When I started to peel back the “why” behind some of my own actions, I realized I had more control over my life than I thought.

For instance, I have been telling myself for YEARS that I fill my schedule with work, activities and favors because that’s what the people in my life demand of me. That may be partially true, but in actuality, I do that because it makes me feel useful. I chose that life — and knowing that now, I can now choose a (slightly saner) one. It’s liberating to let go of reasons.

2. Grant permission to be creative

I’m taking a leadership class from improv master Dan Klein that is focused on leading creative teams. Most of our first few classes were spent playing improv games, with the aim of turning off our egos and reacting without fear of judgment. It’s giving ourselves permission to be a bit wild — and doing the same for others around us.

We could all stand to embrace this idea to be better colleagues, collaborators and managers. How many newsroom “brainstorming sessions” have we all been in that largely resulted in more of the same (if anything)? To inspire creativity in others, we have to give permission to be wild. That means not shooting ideas down, not homing in on the easiest or most conventional idea and celebrating truly “out there” leaps. It also means giving everyone a platform to participate — and not just letting the loudest voices take over.

3. Find strength in vulnerability

Like many women who have risen to a management level, somewhere along the way, I got the idea that I had to be more like the men around me.

For years, I had been training myself to hide any signs of vulnerability. I saw my persistent sensitivity and empathy as an anchor preventing me from becoming a better leader. Stanford’s management classes have taught me that we should embrace our empathy and hone our vulnerability as a tool. In business and in life, people are far more willing to give us benefit of a doubt if we don’t present ourselves as infallible.

4. Know your values, and call on them often

When I was younger, I had no trouble stirring the pot if something went against my values (just ask my bosses from back then). In my more recent years, I’d gotten tired of being the squeaky wheel. I was tired. I’d have these managerial out-of-body experiences where I’d see myself espouse some company line I didn’t even believe in and say to myself, “Who ARE you?”

In holding fast to our values in our work, it creates a semblance of control (something I know I crave). We can’t always control what happens, nor can we control the behavior of the people around us, but we can control how we react to them. Speaking of that…

5. Create a culture worth fighting for

In my management classes, we speak often about our role as leaders in setting the tone and culture of the groups we move in and oversee. I’ve been a part of some great cultures over the course of my career, but also some incredibly toxic environments.

I find myself now thinking back to the occasions I could have stopped a bad culture in its tracks — or promoted a better one — by being willing to be the roadblock. Being that roadblock may have meant lower productivity, harder conversations, hurt feelings, potentially less money coming in…but it would have been worth it in the long run.

As Irv Grousbeck, a truly inspiring business professor, said in our management class, “Communicate your values and live the example openly. Work hard, be nice, say yes.”

Luckily, it’s easy to say yes when you are part of a group like JSK.

So even aside from the hands-on training I’m receiving in innovation, problem-solving, management and business strategy — I’m also learning how to be a better leader, a better journalist and a better person. I’m rediscovering what I value in myself and in others, and focusing on what I really want to do with the rest of my life. Try fitting that into a brochure.

Note: This is a repost from the JSK Class of 2019 Medium Site

Improving journalism by taking cues from experts in disinformation

As journalists and media professionals, we don’t like to think someone is better at our job than we are, especially those who seek to undermine our work with misleading or outright made up narratives.  So when I ask journalists, “What does disinformation do better than journalism?” I expect a few raised eyebrows.

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to present my forthcoming research project to a selected group of professionals in journalism, technology, education and philanthropy at the Newsgeist unconference, organized annually by Google and the Knight Foundation at Arizona State’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism in Phoenix.

Newsgeist WhiteboardOn Saturday morning, An Xiao Mina, Director of Product for Meedan and strategy lead for the Credibility Coalition, and I led a conversation with attendees examining the strengths of journalism and disinformation and what we in media should seek to learn from those strengths. We cheekily called it “Defense Against the Dark Arts,” inspired by none other than the first-year wizardry class in the Harry Potter universe, where students learn about dark magic and how to handle it.

We split the group into four small groups and challenged them to come up with examples of unique strengths of high quality journalism and the countering strengths of effective disinformation. Here is a sampling of what the group came up with.

 

Strengths of High Quality Journalism*:

  • Institutional trust
  • Experience and professional training
  • Many steps, voices and layers involved before publishing
  • Rules of ethics, code of conduct
  • Legal liability for what is published
  • Brand recognition
  • Adherence to industry norms of objectivity and fairness
  • A shared mission to inform and tell the truth
  • Transparency
  • Support and checks by editors and copyeditors
  • Audience participation
  • Empathy through a community connection
  • Complicity in community action
  • Complexity in explaining big data, trends and human stories

* We are well aware these are strengths exhibited in only the best of newsrooms. Not all publishers are created equal in this regard (but it would be cool if they were).

 

Strengths of Effective Disinformation:

  • Speed of publishing
  • Novelty and excitement of new information
  • Responsiveness to news events and reactions
  • Cooperative amplification between competitors
  • Simplification of difficult subject matter
  • Trust through a lack of affiliation and complicity with institutions
  • Liberated from legal and ethical norms
  • Playing to emotions, fears, biases and reactions
  • Recognition of altruism as a motive for publishing (i.e. shedding a light on unknown/hidden information)
  • Audience participation (i.e. share this to help spread the word)
  • Tapping into a community’s passions and beliefs
  • Allowing the audience to feel as if they are part of an investigation or exposure of truths
  • Engaging visuals
  • Drives a desire to share
  • Successful business model driven by attention economics
  • Great at targeting on Facebook and other social networks
  • Offering related content on the same topics
  • Identity validation of the reader

The bolded strengths above were those we as a group felt are aspirational to be adapted into (or improved) in legitimate journalism practice. Obviously we do not want to incorporate unethical or illegal behavior into our practice, nor do we want to engage in any of the extremes of disinformation. “Simplification of difficult subject matter” in a disinformation context might be oversimplification, and “Drives a desire to share” might be “Manipulations emotions to compel sharing.” It’s important that journalists working in good faith get the balance right.

But many of these strengths are worth of being aspirational. Some of them — like “engaging visuals” and “drives a desire to share” — are skills we are always seeking to improve to compete on a level playing field with more social media-savvy outlets. Others — like “tapping into a community’s passions and beliefs” — are strengths we used to have as news practitioners, but maybe have lost our way in some markets.

These conversations also brought about questions for further reflection in our newsrooms and communities about how we as journalists might improve and what affect those changes might have. These questions also inform my own questions as I embark on my JSK fellowship research.

How is best for news outlets to show information contextually? What effect, if any, does that have on its trustworthiness?

What is the effect of decontexualization of information on the audience?

How much does the brand of the news outlets matter (if at all)?

Does personalization of the news affect its trustworthiness to skeptical audiences?

What is the role of psychological self-preservation in building “echo chambers” for our news consumption?

 

So what do you think?

Do you agree or disagree with anything in the above strengths lists? What else would you want journalism to learn from disinformation and those who participate in it?

Feel free to comment below or start yelling at me and everyone else on the social network of your choice.

An Xiao Mina contributed to this post. Read more about this year’s Newsgeist from Mathew Ingram

Photo via Flickr/kevharb

Want to understand disinformation? Ask the people formerly known as your audience

I’ve spent the better part of my career focused on people who live in the internet. Some of them were everyday eyewitnesses who happened to share newsworthy photos or videos. Others were not so everyday – they were trolls, bots or, worse, architects and foot soldiers of disinformation campaigns.

There are many, many studies out there focused on disinformation – its creation, its proliferation via mainstream media, the psychology of online crowds pushing these narratives, the role of social networks, etc. Most study of disinformation is typically focused on the overall system.

I want to do something different in my fellowship year at Stanford. My research question for this year is:

How might news organizations fight misinformation by learning from the people who believe it and share it?

While I still care very much about disinformation,  I’m not particularly interested in giving its perpetrators more of my time. Instead, I want to better understand those at the receiving end of these campaigns – the regular people who happen to get caught up in spreading false stories – and what we in media can learn from their experiences.

I came to Stanford because of an interest in design thinking and using that approach to help solve problems within the information system. If you aren’t familiar with the design thinking approach, it is best illustrated as follows:

The design thinking process

For the next five months, I intend to focus on the first two aspects of this process, empathizing and defining.

In this study approach, I will be meeting consumers of disinformation where they are – in their homes and communities – to better understand their media habits, their motivations and the struggles they face in trying to find out what is going on in the world. My end goal is to identify common pain points and useful insights from these case studies that can be shared with local newsrooms around the country, in hopes we can work together to find paths to improve audience reach and engagement.

I have discussed this research project with many journalists. About half of those – mostly newsroom executive types – said “I already know why” and proceeded to tell me about the assumed political affiliations, intelligence level and nefarious intentions of this audience.

One newsroom executive at a large news company that covers middle America told me, “I’ll save you the time, it is because they don’t care about the truth.”

That reaction is precisely why I feel this study is important. Journalists, especially news executives, think they have all of the answers as to why a huge swath of their former audience has turned away from the news. If they actually had any of these insights, or made an effort to critically evaluate this group and ask them questions, they might find they actually didn’t know the problem in the first place (let alone the solutions). Assuming we already know all we need to know about the audience and THEY are the problem is pretty much why the journalism industry is in such dire straits.

But on to the next steps:

Right now, I am identifying six to eight broad user types (in design thinking parlance, they are called “extreme users”) within the US to help focus my study. Most people who share false news stories are not activists, trolls, politics junkies or meme creators, but those sort of users in the disinformation ecosystem are well placed to help us identify the needs of a wider population. These users will not be representative of any one group or demographic, but rather, they are case studies focused on the individual and their worldview.Photo via Flickr/kevharb

Exactly how I’ll identify my “test subjects” is still in the works, but will largely involve finding individuals who have followed particular sharing patterns on Facebook associated with one of the user types. From there, it’s on me to convince them to participate in the study. This winter, I will go into the field to meet my case study subjects face-to-face, ideally at their homes, to observe their environments and empathetically interview them to better uncover their tension points, media habits and more.

Right now, I’m learning in my d.school classes a bit more about this stage of the process. I’ve found that while I’ve spent my career in journalism, interviewing people from a design thinking approach is very different from doing so as a journalist. We have to keep questions open and without judgement, to observe more than just hear responses and to lean into discomfort and tension instead of away. We have to leave our humanity at the door, to some extent, to record real insights.

The plan right now is for me to have these interviews done by early spring so I can transcribe them, pull out insights, note surprises and identify problem areas for the users, with the hope there will be some commonality between user types. I will then compile those findings into a very basic report, along with case studies on the (not identified) users, to share with newsrooms, who are best placed to take this work into the next stages of ideation, prototyping and testing with their own audiences.  Fingers crossed I can get everything done in time.

So what do I need?

For one, I’d love to find partners and collaborators in this endeavor. If you have ideas or feedback for my potential extreme users, identifying text subjects and or best practices in the field research – let me know.

Also, I’ll eventually need some funding. I will be traveling in person to conduct this study in six to eight different locations around the US, which will involve flights, rental cars and likely a few nights in various shady roadside motels. I’ll also want to prove a small payment to my test subjects for their time, as they would expect in any other research study.

If you have feedback, questions, ideas or money you want to toss my way for this project, let me know. This is my first time ever really conducting a research study, so I have a lot to learn, and I’d love for all of you to join me for the ride.

Ending one era, and starting another

Today is a bittersweet one, as it is my last day at Storyful before I go off to start a new chapter of my career.

I joined Storyful early enough to be hired on by the founders, but late enough to get health insurance. I leave it now, nearly four years later, as a bigger, better and much more grown up company.

My first day at Storyful back in July of 2014

My first day at Storyful back in July of 2014

While I’d been a part of media startups before, I never got to see one through its adolescence until I got here. The experience has been what it must be like to be a stepparent – you weren’t there at the beginning, but after surviving some critical developmental milestones together, you do your best to leave a lasting and positive impression.

In one of my interviews to join the company back in 2014, I said I would work to grow Storyful’s reputation in the media industry beyond that of a UGC video service, but rather to be seen as a respected, social-centric newsroom known for bringing real stories to the surface. I think we did that – and a lot more – with more to come as Storyful continues to grow its portfolio in the analysis of online communities and disinformation.

In the past few years, the media, technology and business spheres have taken an increased interest in the power of social movements, and thus, in the work of Storyful. We were seeking the stories behind the stories on social media long before “fake news” ever became a watchword.

It’s been an exciting (and exhausting) era in social journalism. I started at Storyful the day after MH-17 went down over Ukraine. In the years since then, we’ve covered the war in Syria, the 2016 campaign trail, the rise of nationalist movements in the US and Europe and too many terrorist attacks, school shootings and natural disasters to list. The stories have become more socially driven, the truth less easy to find, the work more important than ever.

In preparing to leave, I spent time looking through my files and rediscovered just how far we’d come in a fairly short time. I found strategies and product concepts that never got off the ground – and many more that did. I also unearthed org charts going back to 2013, scrolling through them to see 20 name boxes jump to 30, 50 and 60 in number. Hiring and developing the careers of roughly 40 social journalists has been the most valuable experience in my time at Storyful. I’ve seen kids fresh out of university become disinformation experts, traditional journalists rediscover their passion in a new medium and newbies become mentors, editors and managers.

Much like the current generation of leading social journalists working in the industry, I wholeheartedly believe the next generation of social journalists will also be powered by Storyful. I’m so lucky to have been able to be a part of it.

It wouldn’t be an obligatory farewell blog post without some words of thanks.

  • To David Clinch, for introducing me to Storyful, first as a fellow social journalist, then later as a client and recruit – and for his constant support every step of the way.
  • To Mark Little and Aine Kerr for bringing me into this team and providing the inspiration for why we do what we do.
  • To Rahul Chopra for showing me how to grow and giving me room to do so.
  • To Toby Bochan for sharing every win, burden and milestone as we grew this team together.
  • To Mike Hess for continually making me look smarter than I actually am.
  • To Aifric Iremonger Mooney for keeping me from losing my mind (and keeping the proverbial trains running on time).
  • To the Storyful journalists – past and present – for everything they have taught me.
  • And to Dublin for giving me a second home that will never be far from my thoughts.

 

Alex Capaldi/DKS

On heading back to school and back to basics

I was ecstatic when I found out I was selected to join the 2018-19 fellowship class of the John S. Knight program at Stanford. It’s going to be a big change for me – of jobs and coasts – but I’m as ready as I can be.

I am pretty sure I first heard about the JSK fellowship back in 2007 and the idea of leaving a good job to go to school seemed so odd to me at that part of my career. My youthful ambition told me if I wanted to “make it”, I would never be able to take time off – nor would I want to.

But over the course of many years since then, I have met many Knight fellows and all of them, to a person, have told me how the experience changed their lives. I’ve known for years now that it was something I would want to do when the time was right. When I saw one of the themes for this year’s program was disinformation, it felt like it was meant to be.

It may seem odd to depart Storyful just a few months after being elevated to Editor in Chief, but then again, there’s never a good time to separate yourself from a job that is your whole life.

My past [nearly] four years at Storyful have been so rewarding – and a nonstop sprint. I have rarely gotten a chance to spend time digging in on the initiatives and stories that most interest me. As the newsroom has expanded its scope to include investigation into social media movements and disinformation – I haven’t had much of a chance to really get into the hands-on work the way I wish I could. Now is my chance.

In addition to my research, I plan to spend the next year or so focusing on answering some important questions for myself: What am I doing? Why does it matter? Where do I fit into the journalism industry today? What do I really want to do with the rest of my career?

You know, the easy ones.

I look forward to a year on pause. I want to read more, get outside and hike on the weekends, and just generally spend more time being present and less time juggling the emails, all-hours meetings and constant notifications that dominate my life these days.

Alex Capaldi/DKS

This is an example of how it went the last time I was in college.

I’d love to be able to revert to my college-aged self, but without the incredible angst and “working four jobs just to pay rent” part. I want to rediscover the open-mindedness I had about myself and the industry back then. Revisiting my college wardrobe would also be great (I hope cargo pants are still around!).

Best of all, as part of my agreement to join the JSK program, I agreed to publicly share my progress against my research question (more to come on that). That means this site will go back to being an active blog again, not just an occasional dumping ground for errant thoughts (though it will also be that). This should be good news for those spammers who constantly keep asking if I want a website redesign (the answer is still no).

I have a couple of weeks left at Storyful before I head out for this next chapter, but in the meantime, watch this space.

Who Determines What’s News on Facebook?

Mark Zuckerberg announced last week yet another change to the Facebook newsfeed. Following a contentious year that embroiled the platform in controversy, Facebook intends to give preferential treatment to news sites based on users’ feedback as to which providers are most trusted.

From Zuckerberg’s post,

The hard question we’ve struggled with is how to decide what news sources are broadly trusted in a world with so much division. We could try to make that decision ourselves, but that’s not something we’re comfortable with. We considered asking outside experts, which would take the decision out of our hands but would likely not solve the objectivity problem. Or we could ask you — the community — and have your feedback determine the ranking.”

Who those users are, how they are selected and exactly how “trust” is measured remains to be revealed. News and media professionals don’t appear to have a voice in determining the authority and credibility of news sites.

That’s problematic. In the past, Facebook demonstrated clear vulnerabilities when relying on its community. In mid-2016, when Facebook fired the editors curating its Trending module to instead rely on its algorithm and user engagement around stories, the community proved itself to not be the most reliable arbiter of legitimate news. False stories from dubious sources, such as a false report indicating Megyn Kelly had been fired from Fox News for endorsing Hillary Clinton for president, immediately rose to the top. Facebook later changed Trending again to try to tackle those issues.

So far, Facebook’s attempts to police its own platform have had little impact on the mitigation of disinformation and “fake news.” The platform itself reported that over 126 million Americans saw Russian disinformation leading up to 2016 election emanating from the community. Furthermore, independent fact-checkers brought in by Facebook to flag fake stories have said efforts to stem the tide of disinformation are falling short.

Outside of Facebook’s walls, trust is a contract between the audience, who gives an investment of time and the publishers’ ability to match that with quality journalism. Handing all of that power to the “community” creates dangerous opportunities for propagandists and purveyors of fake news to exploit the platform to further their own agendas.  During the French elections, special interests organized on platforms like Discord to orchestrate social media events on Facebook and Twitter. More recently, following a November 2017 mass shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, a false story spread across Facebook saying Antifa terrorists were the perpetrators.

At Storyful, we spent the last two years mapping and understanding the pathways that “fake news” travels. Our work makes it clear that Facebook is a well trod avenue for disseminating dubious information from private or semi-private platforms and communities to the masses. Following the tragic events in Las Vegas last year, we detailed false claims made by questionable entities on Facebook. In the UK, we highlighted the efforts of a special interest group to affect elections and advance an agenda.  And, on our podcast, we discussed the impact of social media and disinformation in India.

What happens in the following weeks and months may have very serious implications for the news industry and the world. Upcoming elections in Eastern Europe, Brazil, Pakistan, Cambodia and the United States (among others) are prime opportunities for those who seek to spread disinformation via an increasingly siloed social media population who are most likely to trust sources they agree with.

Users the world over flock to Facebook to discuss happenings big and small, local and global, factual and fictional. Left alone, these would be the very same users that would assess the value and reach of stories generated by newsrooms that endeavor every day to report facts and vital information.

We at Storyful will watch for any further developments on these changes and hope industry experts will have a seat at the table to influence the fate of news on Facebook.

[This post was originally published on Storyful’s blog]

 

Steve accepts the Rich Jaroslovsky Founder Award at the Online News Association conference in September 2016.

Remembering Steve Buttry, the Man Who Would Always Take the Meeting

Steve Buttry, a journalist for more than 45 years, died February 19 at age 62 of pancreatic cancer.

I knew it was coming, but I still wasn’t really prepared for the news that Steve Buttry was really gone. The man who seemingly bounced back from everything – be it layoffs, professional disappointments, cancer (twice) – wasn’t bouncing back this time.

Steve had so many friends in the journalism world, each with their own treasured memories of and debts owed to a man who had a bottomless capacity to give. I’m no different. I owe Steve for nearly everything I have.

If it weren’t for him, I’d probably be working in PR or marketing in Ohio after being laid off from my last job as a journalist several years ago. Even aside from the obvious affect on my career trajectory, I also think I’d be a fundamentally different person if it weren’t for Steve (and not for the better).

Steve accepts the Rich Jaroslovsky Founder Award at the Online News Association conference in September 2016.

Steve accepts the Rich Jaroslovsky Founder Award at the Online News Association conference in September of 2016. Click to see his speech.

I first met Steve the same way a lot of people did – via Twitter. After a long career as a reporter and editor, Steve had reinvented himself as a social media trainer and digital journalism thought leader. I had started following him because of his blog. I was social media editor at the Cincinnati Enquirer at the time, and mostly figuring out what that role was and the impact I could have if I only had a voice. He was a life raft for my flagging enthusiasm about journalism. We had struck up a correspondence over our shared challenges in teaching social media to unwilling newsrooms.

When I heard he was hired on at an emerging new media startup I had been closely following in DC, I sent him a direct message to ask him to keep me in mind when he got there. And he did.

Just today I read over our DM correspondence from those few months – and even then, he gave more than he ever had to. He gave me tips on how to apply, ideas of how to best pitch the job I wanted, and above all he gave me an interview. I must have applied for 100 social media and journalism jobs in the “big cities” and had never once got as much as a reply before. That was all Steve.

In the spring of 2010, Steve hired me on as social media producer at what would eventually become TBD in Washington, DC. That job, the people I worked with, the move to the coast from Ohio – all of it was the beginning of a new life for me. It put me on a map I didn’t even know existed. More than every awesome perk that came out of that job, the best (though it took me years to realize it) was learning how to live a good life from Steve.

The TBD engagement team, summer of 2010

The TBD engagement team, summer of 2010: (L-R) Me, Jeff Sonderman, Dan Victor, Nathasha Lim, Lisa Rowan and Steve Buttry.

When I first moved to DC, I felt so much less experienced, ambitious and worldly than everyone around me. But not Steve. He lived for his time with his family and friends – and I noticed early on that he spent so much of his time doing favors for others – inside and outside our company. He had mastered the art of the network, with friends in seemingly every city, with lives he touched everywhere on his travels. I can’t adequately explain how good it was for me back then to have a fellow Midwesterner showing me every day that it was possible to excel in that world of the “coastal elite” and not lose touch with your personal values.

As a newsroom leader in that environment, he seemed to savor capturing lightning in a bottle. At our brainstorming meetings for the community engagement team, he’d encourage us on even the most far-flung of ideas. He was always the one best at teasing out something tangible from the flights of fancy.

A few years later, Steve provided me with more life-changing chances. One was inviting me to co-teach a social journalism class with him at Georgetown University – which I would go on to do for four terms (and which piqued my interest in finishing my career in academia – like Steve). He hooked me up with my first few gigs training other journalists in using digital and social tools – which became something of a second career for me. He also was instrumental in hiring me on at Digital First Media – giving me a way out of the social media world and into my first job as a manager.

In six years, Steve granted me more favors than any one person deserves. And the most amazing part is that all of what he did for me, to him, probably wasn’t even that big of a deal because he did it all of the time. How many times in his long career did Steve Buttry do someone a favor? Be it speaking to a class, giving a recommendation, passing on a job opportunity, making a introduction, judging for awards, teaching newsrooms, giving rides, sticking up for an employee or coworker…he did it all of the time. Literally every day – right up to the end of his life.

There’s no easy way to repay a debt that large, save for continuing the work.

Last month, I sent him the following in a message exchange that would end up being our last:

I want you to know this: It is because of your influence that I never leave a tweet, Facebook message, voicemail or email from a stranger unanswered. I’ll never say no to a young (or not-so-young) journalist who reaches out to me for advice, help, ideas or feedback. I never refuse a journalism professor who asks me to speak to their class. I always take the meeting, even at the most stressful of times, because you did it for me and it made all of the difference.

The least I can do, that any of us can do, is to live the best kind of life possible – the way Steve did. We take the meeting. We get on the flights (and tweet about the delays). We teach. We give favors big and small. We are there for others – when the time comes, they are there for us.

Thanks for the lessons, Steve – and thanks to Mimi and the rest of the family for sharing him with an entire grateful industry for so many years.

Flickr/notoriousjen

Truth, Lies and Likes: The Reader’s Role in the Battle Against Fake News

There’s been much ado in media circles this past week about the prevalence of “fake” news  on social networks and what, if any, effect that had on the outcome of the U.S. election. Stories from big players like InfoWars and The Blaze as well as cookie-cutter outlets like Occupy Democrats, WorldNetDaily, The Other 98% and US Uncut have taken off on social media, largely because they hit the right buttons with their target audiences.

The formula is simple, but brilliant. They start with an incredible headline intended to upset or delight a particular type of reader. That reader skims the story, is set off by particular triggers, then immediately shares it to their network of like-minded friends. The story spreads like a virus across the network, with little attention paid to whether or not the information is real or where it really originated. It’s classic social media strategy, greatly amplified.

Though some of the news on sites that have been called into question is undoubtedly made up whole cloth, there are many more stories that may have started with a sliver of truth, but these stories are so dubiously sourced and creatively written that they barely resemble the truth by the time they start their travels around the social web. And, sadly, a Buzzfeed investigation has found that such stories performed better on Facebook during the election cycle than stories from the leading news sources.

Many have been quick to point fingers at the social networks, Facebook in particular, for allowing fake news sites to thrive in their environments. But those who are most guilty here are the creators of these sites, their success aided by the lack of media literacy among social network users. In the past few days, Google and Facebook have announced plans to try to stop the spread of manufactured news. This is welcome, but the real work needs to be done by the users, and that includes all of us.

Since Storyful’s specialty lies in verifying and debunking content found on social media,  we hope we can help.

Granted, we are most known for working with user-created content (what is often the raw material for news) and not news generated by “professional” outfits, but the same principles we use for verifying eyewitness content can be used by anyone who consumes news.

The first thing any reader, brand, researcher or journalist should do is maintain constant vigilance.

This means to approach every story or account you read online with skepticism. That’s what we do at Storyful, and it usually serves us well in identifying a fake.

How to Find Out if the News Is Real

Note where the key information comes from

Are direct quotes attributed to someone with good reason to be familiar with a certain situation, or to know what they claim to know, such as an expert or someone with provable experience in the field? Or is the piece quoting someone of dubious “expert” credentials, or with little apparent ties to the situation being discussed?

Follow the links

Does the story reference a business/government report or cite another story on another website? If the story is based entirely on a different story, click through and read that source (if there is no link, simply Google the purported source). Keep doing that in every subsequent story until you find the original report and original sources.

You may find that the shadiest sites will reference stories on similar sites that reference stories on similar sites until you’ve made it full circle without finding an original source. I call this “aggregation inception.” Or maybe, even worse, you’ll hit a total dead end looking for that original source. This should be a major red flag.   

Who is the author?

If all of the notable information seems plucked from thin air or from the writer’s opinion, look into that writer. How do they know what they claim to know? Maybe he or she is an expert in that field, and that’s great. Or maybe they are a crackpot conspiracy theorist, or an ill-informed teen in his parents’ basement, or someone using a fake identity.

Look for a second source

What is standard good practice for the journalist should also now be for the reader. If nobody else is reporting the news, there’s a good chance it isn’t real. Sometimes this is because the site in question has a huge scoop and if that’s the case, great! You were among the first to know (though the window of exclusivity is very short nowadays). But there’s also a chance that this was made up, and that is why you aren’t finding it on any other known, legitimate site.

A few more tips on spotting fake news sites:

  • Look closely at the URL. From the appearance of the shared item on social, it may look like it is from a known source like ABC News or CNN. When you click through, the site may even look like the familiar source, but look at the URL. It may have an additional domain after the “.com” – which indicates it is likely not a real site.
  • Be wary of websites that have odd domain names and particularly non-standard domain extensions (i.e. not .com, .edu, .net, .gov, etc.). It’s much easier and cheaper for fact-factory sites to spin up a new site using domain names from other countries.
  • Look on the site’s “About Us” page for any information you can find: Who runs the site? Who owns it? You might also find this information at the bottom of the site’s pages. All legitimate news sites will have this information.
  • Check the name of the site in Wikipedia, Google and Snopes.com to see if they are known for fake stories.
  • If you spot a lot of misspellings, use of all capital letters or generally odd use of language, be suspicious that the site may not be a legitimate news source.
  • The same goes for web design. If the design is difficult to navigate, doesn’t open properly or seems to be on an amateurish site, proceed with caution. It may be a legitimate self-starting journalist or expert, or it may be a total fake.
  • Take note of the author. If the post or story doesn’t have an author’s name or any information about the author they may not be a legitimate news source.  

And this doesn’t just apply to sites with weird names or political pop-ups, but all forms of media. Most of the newspapers, TV news sites, magazines and online news brands out there do good work but sometimes they don’t. Maintain constant vigilance.

Finally one of the best ways to combat misinformation and the bias of your own filter bubbles in navigating the news is to simply ensure you are reading a range of sources, especially on the stories you find yourself saying are too good, too terrible, too amazing to be true (because they probably are). This sort of varied media diet is not only useful to identify any bias from one outlet or another, but, ideally, to give yourself a fuller picture. Different reporters are able to talk to different sources and you can get a more complete story by seeing a variety of perspectives.

In an age where news is easy to manufacture but difficult to get right, we all must demand better of our news sources and ourselves as the audience.

 

(This was originally published on Storyful’s blog)

Remembering David Carr As The Misfit Amid the Elites

When first read Hunter S. Thompson’s “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” in high school, I knew I wanted to be a journalist. Thompson’s distinctive voice and writing style leapt off the page no matter what the subject matter – there was simply no mistaking you were reading one of his stories. His personal story — of a boy from Kentucky making it into some of the best publications in the world — spoke to me too. His success was based on ability and scrappiness alone.

When Thompson committed suicide in 2005, it was the first time I ever cried over the death of someone I’d never met. Yesterday was the second.

David Carr, in my opinion the greatest writer working in the business, died on Feb. 12 after collapsing in the newsroom of the New York Times.

David Carr portrait from Wendy Macnaughton

David Carr portrait from Wendy Macnaughton, shared on Twitter via @wendymac

Like Thompson, Carr had an incredibly distinctive style — in writing and speaking — that set his work above anyone’s on the media beat or elsewhere. There was no mistaking that Carr voice. I remember one time I was reading an in-flight magazine, some one-page Q&A with a celebrity, and three paragraphs in I said to myself, “Is David Carr writing this? Surely not…” It was. Of course it was.

In watching the documentary “Page One: Inside the New York Times”, I was enamored with Carr’s personality, which I had never seen on video before. That drove me to read his memoir, “The Night of the Gun“, which I think should be required reading for any aspiring journalist.

Carr wasn’t polished, he didn’t have a prestigious background and, like me, he was from “flyover country” (in his case, Minnesota). Throughout his early professional life, he had been his own worst enemy, struggling for years with drug addiction. He overcame himself, outran his past and ended up writing some amazing stories and generating a thousand quotable quotes.

That someone as imperfect as Carr could, based on the power of his talent alone, end up working — and thriving — in the newsroom of the New York Times is proof that success is possible for any of us.

It wasn’t easy for him – he didn’t get there by going to the right school or having the right unpaid internship or his impeccable branding via social media. He did it by being a talented writer and by continuing to pull himself out of his darkest places to let that talent shine. And once he got there, he didn’t rest on his laurels. He didn’t let the Times change him – but he let the times change him. He embraced social media, he threw himself into learning about the digital changes going on in the industry. He wasn’t shy about turning a critical eye or acerbic comment to the latest media endeavors coming along every day, but he wasn’t closed-minded, either.

If Thompson was the driver for me to get into this industry and the fire behind my early years, Carr was the inspiration for the journalist I wanted to grow into. He was crazy-smart and could be very cutting, but he was witty and funny and kind in all the right ways and all the right times. We’d all love to be remembered that way.

I didn’t know him. I always hoped someday I would. Lots of journalists have shared great stories about how he touched their lives in meaningful ways. I didn’t ever meet him in person, but he certainly touched mine, too, merely by being the best example of what is possible for misfits.

At the end of his book, Carr said:

“I now inhabit a life I don’t deserve, but we all walk this earth feeling we are frauds. The trick is to be grateful and hope the caper doesn’t end any time soon.”

I’m grateful the New York Times took a chance on journalist who was flawed and amazing and oh-so-worth-it. I’m grateful to still be a part of an industry where survivors are all holding on for dear life. I’m grateful for the daily miracle of news.

I’m grateful for David Carr.

nathanborror/Flickr

Lessons learned from a (briefly) disconnected life

For three weeks in September, I lived without a cell phone of any kind. When I was away from home or work, I was an island.

nathanborror/Flickr

nathanborror/Flickr

This wasn’t some grand experiment staged so that I could write a blog post about it and wow you all with my insights into Disconnected Life – it just happened. My iPhone died a sudden death at Kolkata airport in the middle of a two-week trip in India. One minute it was there, the next, the screen faded to black, as if it had suffered a digital embolism. I was tethered to a constrictive U.S. cell contract and two weeks away from receiving the latest advancement in Apple technology. I decided to wait it out.

Going from a connected life – a very connected life, I’ll admit – to one of total, sudden disconnection, was in some ways like losing one of my senses.

I have had a cell phone of some sort since I was 19 years old. Before that, I’d had a pager issued by my parents – which probably gives you a pretty good clue about my age. Somehow, I made it through high school and one year of college without a cell phone. I was pretty active on social media in 2008, when I got my first smartphone. At the time, that act was something like giving a self-functioning meth lab to a cough syrup addict. I never would be alone again – with my thoughts, with someone else, without a clue as to what’s happening, for better and for worse.

Until now.

At first, it wasn’t so bad, as I was already on limited use, traveling on international data limits through my phone plan. I rarely use my phone for actual voice calls – I bet I take less than five total a week – so that wasn’t a huge loss at first, either.

But after a few hours of being alone in a foreign country – and really alone without access to the world beyond – the enormity set in. I was off the grid. If I got lost in India, nobody would even know. Not even me.

Without a phone, I felt so alone in the world, which was at once freeing and terrifying. On one hand, I didn’t have the burden of always being connected and, thus, always being one email or text away from a problem at work or home. On the other, I was adrift and unfindable. I had no way to tell anyone where I was. If I didn’t know where I was, I had no maps app to consult, I had to ask for directions like some sort of tourist (which, in New York City, is akin to telling someone you have leprosy).

It manifested itself in many small ways, too. If I couldn’t find a cab (which happens in Queens), I couldn’t just bring up my Uber app to have a car come save me. I didn’t know when trains were due to arrive, so I was often late. I couldn’t text my husband to tell him to pick up kitty litter. I couldn’t check my work email between meetings. I couldn’t take conference calls on the way to the office anymore. I couldn’t multitask. I couldn’t check sports scores or see what was happening in the world outside my immediate space. And the most odd experience: I was often the only person at a restaurant, on a subway car, in a meeting or airline terminal that was actually looking at other people, which made me feel like a creep.

It was a lot of “first world problems”, to be sure, but three weeks without a digital tie to the rest of my world forced me to become a bit more resourceful. I had to change some habits and, in doing so, had to confront some uncomfortable truths about the life I was living.

A few lessons learned from the Great Disconnection

1. It isn’t a good idea to be overly reliant on maps apps. Once upon a time, I was a Girl Scout. I could read maps and had a decent sense of direction. As an adult, I run out the door never even bothering to check addresses or to learn the basics of navigating the city where I live. At the very least, I know I should be aware of the address I’m going to and have enough working knowledge of the city grid to get close without getting lost.

2. Leave early to be on time. I am bad about timeliness all of the time, but it was especially bad without calendar reminders, directions and train schedules. I need to leave earlier – I know this. We all know this. We should be better.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask for information. I realized I often use my phone in circumstances where it would have been easier to just talk to a human in real life for information. When did I become so anti-social?

4. Stop checking in, because it is dumb. I’ve been a habitual user of Foursquare since its inception. Between the introduction of Swarm and this phone drought, I’m finally over it. It turns out, it really isn’t much of a value add to my or anyone else’s life to know where I am.

5. Push alerts are not actually necessary, in most cases. Facebook messages about friends spamming me with events in faraway cities, headlines of news in other places, “your friends are talking about X on Twitter” alerts… I don’t actually need to know that stuff when I’m not on the phone. Unless that headline is “Giant fireball headed for New York”, chances are, it isn’t so bad to not know immediately.

6. Get over yourself. It turns out, in my weeks without updating Facebook, Twitter and Instagram so often, nobody seemed to miss me and my witty outlook on the world. Most of my friends will be surprised to learn I was ever gone.

7. Pay more attention to others when they are actually there, in person, with you. I know, I shouldn’t have had to learn this lesson, but when all of your friends (and your spouse) are always-connected journalists, it is easy to forget a time when we weren’t all keeping one eye on the phone. It is never more obvious when you have no phone in a room full of people – or even just the one you’re trying to spend time with – who aren’t looking up. Look up.

Storyful

My next adventure: Joining Storyful’s Open Newsroom

Looking for a job is, in a lot of ways, a lot like dating*. You meet a lot of people and you talk – a lot – about yourself, about them, about your expectations for a future together. You re-examine what worked and what didn’t about past relationships, and try to find a partner that embodies the best of those memories. It’s all about looking for a good fit. After a lot of looking and a few false starts, I think I’ve found it.

I started earlier this week as Open Newsroom Editor for Storyful – and I couldn’t be more excited about it. Storyful

If you aren’t familiar with Storyful, it is a 24/7 social media news agency that discovers, verifies and delivers user-created content to newsrooms, brands and storytellers of all sorts. Storyful built its initial business providing verified UGC and information to partners via subscription service. The Open Newsroom is a consumer-facing companion piece, operating as a public space for crowdsourced verification and publication through the likes of Google and Facebook. I’ll be continuing to grow that outward-facing aspect of Storyful and its relationships with platforms, partners and stories.

It’s a good fit, to be sure. Collaborative journalism and social media has been the bedrock of my journalism career. I been talking about crowdsourcing, social media/UGC ethics, verification and UGC best practices for several years – and I’ve done a lot of training for journalists in those fields. For me, joining Storyful is like being asked to join the Avengers- they know this stuff better than anyone.

Storyful has been one of the most prominent voices in the industry as it pertains to social media verification and ethics in using user-generated content (which, it just so happens, happen to be pet issues of mine as well). Its best practices and breaking news case studies have been part of my classroom curriculum for years. Now, I get to be more than an admirer – I get to be on the team.

I can’t wait to get started on this new bright future.

Casablanca Quote   Eds Note:  The past few months, since Thunderdome was shut down,  have been an especially tough stretch for me, both personally and professionally. Big thank-yous are in order for many people, but especially Robyn Tomlin, Jim Brady and Jennifer Preston – who have helped me out by listening to my whining, giving advice, making introductions and buying drinks as needed.  And I wouldn’t have come out the other side without my husband/crisis counselor, Ben, who has patiently dealt with my many phases of layoff grief.

 

* Or so I hear, I haven’t dated in a long time.

Technology is a solution, not a problem, for women in newsrooms

So maybe you’ve noticed – there’s a lot of talk about women in journalism these days in the wake of Jill Abramson’s unplanned exit from the New York Times. Aside from being a woman and a journalist, I haven’t generally felt that I have much expertise to add to this conversation as it has played out. Until today.

In a column on the Washington Post’s new PostEverything site today, Nikki Usher added a new facet to the discussion:

Technology has made it harder for women to survive, and thrive, in journalism. … Sophisticated infographics, interactive storytelling, and data-crunching have become essential to online journalism. It’s part of a critical mission to keep web news profitable. And unlike many other parts of traditional newsrooms, these teams are still hiring. But they’re hiring programmers and techies, most of whom are male. Women hold just 27 percent of all computer science jobs. According to Forbes, that number isn’t growing.

She’s right when she notes that the rising profile of digital skills in newsrooms hasn’t resulted in a growing number of women hired, but it isn’t fair to “blame the techies”, as the column’s deck suggests, for the diminished role for women in newsrooms. On the contrary, technology has largely been the answer to getting more women into newsrooms because it is getting more people with different skill sets than those valued in the past into newsrooms.

The rising importance of digital skills in newsrooms has made it possible for me to work my way up in this industry.  If those technology and social media skills weren’t valuable and someone at the top wasn’t pushing for their inclusion in new hires, I wouldn’t have been able to work at any of the great places I’ve been. If “techies” hadn’t been put in charge somewhere along the way, I’d never have gotten the opportunity to grow my skills, never gotten into a leadership role, never in turn been able to hire more women to those sort of roles.  Technology was my only leg up. But that’s just me.

Is it a problem that more women aren’t working in the highly prized journogrammer wings of elite newsrooms? Yes, absolutely. But it’s a far bigger problem that more women aren’t moving up the ranks across newsroom teams, a pre-existing culture problem which trickles down to those building these new tech teams.

There are lots of factors we can blame for women’s diminished role in newsroom leadership: Promotion culture focused on longevity over innovation, poor succession planning, closed social networks, legacy experience valued over digital experience, unfair expectations for female candidates, a lack of a farm system for qualified women, lack of flexible work options, fewer networking opportunities, etc.

Why do these things happen? How can we fix these issues? If I had all of the answers off the top of my head, I probably wouldn’t be unemployed.

Digital journalism and the people behind it aren’t what’s holding women back from newsroom leadership roles, but they are likely in the best position to solve that problem from within. These teams are already trying to change their cultures. They have increasing power and are generally recognized as the future of the industry – so what can we do to help them?

 

 

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