Spoofs. Deep fakes. Disinformation. Manipulated audio and video. We’re in for a hell of a near-future when it comes to sifting out what’s real and what’s not— and journalists are likely woefully underprepared for the personal costs when the hurricane hits.
Early buffeting from these emerging online mis-info storms rattled longtime Colorado journalist Marianne Goodland recently when someone or something created a fake Twitter account that looked remarkably similar to the one the ColoradoPolitics reporter uses for work. Same photos, same bio. The fake account then started following people who follow Goodland’s real account— lawmakers, other journalists, people she covers and knows personally. And some of them started following the phony Twitter troll. Goodland began alerting people it wasn’t really her, but the mock account still racked up the follows.
The account @mariannegoodla1 is a fake account. It's been reported to Twitter. Don't follow it.
— Marianne Goodland (@MGoodland) January 5, 2020
The account never tweeted anything— it did send a hello-how-are-you DM to her employer— but Goodland was nonetheless disturbed. She hollered at Twitter immediately, and eventually, because she’s not verified with a blue checkmark, had to send the company a copy of her driver’s license.
The spoof account impersonating her continued to follow others close to her and gain local followers itself. When Goodland noticed, she took time away from her reporting to proactively deal with targets of the faker and let them know it wasn’t real. It took more than a week and required the help of her editor, Linda Shapley, and others reaching out to Twitter before the account was suspended. The issue was important to clear up quickly, Shapley says, because a journalist’s credibility is key. Online or IRL.
Goodland doesn’t know who might have been behind the imposter but acknowledges she often writes stories that people don’t always like. “I don’t know whether this was an automated bot of some kind or if it was somebody who was deliberately out there trying to create trouble,” Goodland told me about the experience that left her feeling the social media company acted too slowly and realizing how vulnerable an unverified local reporter’s credibility can be online in these weird times. “People in this business … need to keep an eye out,” she says. “It was a frustrating experience and I really did not need it the first week of the session,” she said, noting how the distraction kept her ever watchful of the account and its behavior. “If they started sending tweets out with my name on it, who knows what they would say.”
“And so it begins,” replied one elections official who follows Goodland on Twitter and saw the saga play out in real time. Indeed. Others should take note, and think about how you might deal with something similar. If it happens again to someone else soon, “I would not be surprised,” Goodland warns, “especially in the political environment in which we live.”
‘Writers on the Range’ lives on, just not at HCN
Last March, this newsletter broke the unfortunate news that after nearly 20 years, the once-robust Writers on the Range section of the influential nonprofit Colorado-based High Country News had quietly gone away. I’ve been surprised since then that a digital news outlet hasn’t picked it up given the column’s built-in audience and stable of known writers. Nearly a year later, though, it looks like Writers on the Range will be back in business, albeit as a standalone entity.
“We’re now lining up writers and outlets throughout the West and plan to launch this spring,” says Betsy Marston who was editor of the column since 2002. “We are already a nonprofit and our structure is definitely sweat equity: Our money bankrolls everything, we pay writers up to $300 but more likely $150 or $200 for an op-ed, and we don’t charge newspapers and magazines that take our weekly service, which will start out as one op-ed a week.”
More from Marston, who wrote me via email, and says she’ll be working on the column with her son Dave:
We think Writers on the Range will help hard-pressed publications engage readers on serious questions facing the West, ranging from public lands management and wildlife to energy transitions and rural communities, and also help circulation. Opinion is easy to read, it provokes responses and conversation, and it can only help if Westerners talk to each other about what’s happening in the region.
My son grew up in Paonia but moved to New York City, where he now lives, and became a real estate investor after working on Wall Street. Lately, he’s been writing op-eds for the Denver Post, Grand Junction Daily Sentinel and the Delta County Independent about broadband, oil and gas drilling, and the decline of coal mining. The third partner is Steve Mandell, marketer, who lives in Chicago and part time in Montrose. Steve helped Paul Larmer launch Writers on the Range before I took over in 2002.
Of course we will be looking for foundation support but our first goal is getting going. I still write a column for HCN but this venture is a new and exciting undertaking. I hadn’t realized how much I missed working with writers who knew what they were talking about and who sometimes made me laugh out loud. I’m glad their voices will be heard again.
Writers on the Range started in Montana nearly two decades ago, Marston says, and moved over to High Country News where it remained a staple with a stable of writers known and unknown.
The point of the column was westerners talking to westerners about something local that concerned them. “They weren’t supposed to be professional writers,” Marston told me last year, “but they were filled with passion about something— which meant it needed a lot of editing at times— but they knew what they were talking about.” The magazine would place the columns in more than 50 newspapers in the West, from The Denver Post and the Salt-Lake Tribune to The Aspen Times and papers in between. In its heyday, Marston says, it might have had as many as 70 clients.
Anyone interested in writing or publishing a Writers on the Range column of about 750 words can reach out to Marston at betsym[at]hcn.org for now.
Bots helping write news for a Denver TV site now?
In the fall, this column about Colorado media reported how robots are helping write sports news at The Denver Post, a development that earned side eyes from the Denver Newspaper Guild and some journalists in the newsroom.
Now, could robots be helping write the news for KUSA 9News in Denver? The TEGNA-owned TV station is using the services of a company called Hoodline that creates “thousands of automated local stories across the U.S. each month.” Here’s how Harvard’s NiemanLab described it:
Hoodline’s major offering is an automated news wire service focused on the local stories that can be found by mining large data sets, whether from city governments or from private companies like Yelp and Zumper. It handles the raw data and data analysis side of things: collecting available public data sets, forming partnerships with private companies to use their data, and narrowing trends and other local news topics that might be worth pursuing as stories down to the neighborhood level. Then it generates articles from this cleaned-up data using automation software (with help from Automated Insights, also used by the Associated Press), which are then available to news organizations interested in data-backed stories helpfully localized for the communities they cover.
Also, let’s be honest: Using the service generates lots of content, which means more eyeballs, which means more clicks, which means more money from advertisers. This disclosure also appears on the 9News site in items generated by Hoodline:
Links included in this article may earn Hoodline and its partners, including this website, a commission on clicks and transactions.
So how does the coverage actually look? Here are some recent headlines: “The cheapest apartments for rent in Denver’s Highland neighborhood,” “Your guide to the 4 most popular spots in Denver’s Ruby Hill neighborhood,” and “Where to celebrate National Cupcake Day in Denver on Sunday.”
Bot-generated news that’s subscribed to by 9News. How unfortunate. It’s also pretty crappy. Notice the auto-generated phrases about pets that are meant to sound human…until they’re repeated several times. And intended to generate clicks for pay. https://t.co/GECQzylhpm
— Jon Murray (@JonMurray) January 7, 2020
That’s a Denver Post reporter who later noted his paper’s own arrangement with automated content. “If it’s written, humans should write it,” he wrote.
So are bots actually writing this stuff? Demetrios Karoutsos, a spokesperson for TEGNA, which owns 9News, says the company is always exploring “new ways to create and deliver interesting and useful content to our online audience,” and that it has a partnership with Hoodline to publish a “small amount of content” to a few of its stations’ websites. “While there is some automation involved,” Karoutsos told me, “the final product is reviewed by our stations before publishing.”
The small Mountain Ear newspaper is for sale
If you’ve ever thought about owning “your very own established and historical newspaper” in Colorado, The Mountain Ear, based in Nederland, is for sale. The paper, which has been around since 1977, has a motivated seller.
From the listing:
Great staff and advertisers. Archives date back to the beginning. All staff work off site. Long time employees happy to stay on with new owners.
The weekly full-color print newspaper covers the “Peak to Peak” region, meaning from Allespark to Idaho Springs. No real estate is involved in the sale, and the current owner is apparently willing to cover a large portion of the price for a local buyer just to keep it alive.
FWIW, the Mountain-Ear has been up for sale for years. That listing is a house ad they run in just about every issue, if I recall…
— Matt Sebastian (@mattsebastian) January 16, 2020
The best part of the classified advertisement for the newspaper is this: “Ideal buyer would be a graphic design or journalism student.”
Speaking of journalism students, the kids are all right
If you saw a slew of bylines you didn’t recognize in the statewide Colorado Independent and Pueblo-based PULP newsmagazine recently on some in-depth reporting and explanatory coverage, they were likely Colorado College journalism students who understand the importance of local news.
In recent weeks, as part of a reporting class I taught, and a practicum, student journalists tackled a 10-part series on cannabis in southern Colorado, an affordable housing debate in Colorado Springs, and a long-form explainer on an upcoming question for voters about whether they should re-introduce wolves to Colorado. Look out for another quirky feature to drop in another outlet sometime soon. And keep your eye on these emerging writers. “They wowed me with their dedication and their diligence,” said an editor who worked with them.
What you missed on the Sunday front pages across Colorado
The Summit Daily News reported on a legal battle over a six-acre open space preserve. The Steamboat Pilot covered a local retired officer being honored for his volunteer service. The Loveland Reporter-Herald put puppy yoga on the front page. The Longmont Times-Call examined how the city could vote this week on a resolution declaring its support for refugees to resettle there. The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel looked at how Republicans in the minority at the legislature want to pass some education reforms. The Coloradoan in Fort Collins profiled CSU’s former football coach. The Cortez Journal and Durango Herald looked at the future of San Juan County’s coal plant. The Denver Post produced a long political process story about the Democratic presidential primary. The Gazette in Colorado Springs profiled the head of Court Appointed Special Advocates.
Judy Woodruff of PBS is The Denver Press Club’s Damon Runyon award winner
The Press Club announced this week that the PBS NewsHour anchor will accept the nation’s longest-standing press club’s 26th annual award on April 11 during a banquet at the Denver Athletic Club.
“Judy Woodruff has been a pioneer in broadcasting and an ardent supporter of women in journalism and media,” Denver Press Club President Dan Petty said in a statement. “Her work delivering a steady, no-frills, highly informative nightly newscast stands as a beacon amid the chaotic Washington news cycle. We couldn’t be more pleased to present to her this honor.”
The Runyon Award banquet, for the uninitiated, is the Press Club’s largest fundraiser of the year. “Proceeds go toward the club’s historic preservation and five scholarships for $1,500 and one — the John C. Ensslin Memorial Scholarship — for $3,000,” according to a Press Club statement. “The scholarships are reserved for six college journalists from universities in Colorado.”
Interested attendees can already purchase tickets here. Shoot any questions you might have to the organizing committee at runyon[at]denverpressclub.org.
You can learn more about Woodruff and her view of TV journalism below:
The Denverfication of the local news
There might be plenty of ways for cities to become Denverfied if they so choose. Brewery booms, food halls, West-Elm-looking pot shops. Magic mushrooms. But here’s another: The local newspaper gutted like a freshly caught trout on the banks of the South Platte. That’s what might be in store for cities where Tribune Publishing owns a newspaper now that The Nothing, the hedge-fund that controls The Denver Post, owns a majority stake in the company.
From The Chicago Sun-Times:
Tribune Publishing on Monday offered employee buyouts, citing a need to prepare for “industry-wide revenue challenges.” In an email to employees, Tribune Publishing CEO and President Tim Knight wrote the company will offer buyouts to employees with eight or more years of experience. “While it is our desire to retain all of our talented employees, we must confront and plan for the significant financial hurdles ahead,” Knight wrote. The buyouts come just months after New York hedge fund Alden Global Capital became the largest shareholder in Tribune Publishing. The hedge fund’s 32% ownership stake has worried some Tribune staffers because of Alden’s reputation for cost-cutting.
“It feels like it’s just more of the same: new owner, but the same short-term thinking, same lack of appetite for investment in news-gathering,” Charlie J. Johnson, vice president of the Tribune/RedEye unit of the Chicago Tribune Guild, told the Sun-Times while The Chicago Daily Herald reported the move was a “likely precursor to layoffs.” Writing about the news for Harvard’s NiemanLab, news analyst Ken Doctor predicted “the new decade’s big story in the news business looks a lot like the old one’s: Local journalism is spiraling downward — and picking up speed.” And that’s a terrible thing. Because when we lose the local news we. know. bad. things. happen.
In Denver, journalists and observers have already seen this movie. So. Dear second-tier cities who might be thinking about ways to Denverify your downtown: In this regard, just #PleaseDontDenver.
A nonprofit news guru is coming to DU
When media observers talk about local nonprofit news success stories, they often mention The Texas Tribune. Viewed as a kind of North Star for anyone trying to find success in the post-newspaper-primacy landscape of local fragmented digital media, the Texas Tribune and its founder Evan Smith are more than willing to impart what they know to others.
And that’s what Smith will do on Jan. 23 as part of a trip to Denver where he’ll consult with The Colorado Sun. But he’ll also give an open-to-the-public lecture at the University of Denver.
What: Morton L. Margolin Distinguished Lecture, featuring Evan Smith
When: Thursday, January 23, 2020
Where: The Cable Center Theater 2000 Buchtel Blvd. South Denver, CO 80210
Time: 2:00 – 4:00 p.m.
Register and RSVP for the event here as space is limited.
Speaking of nonprofit news…
A recent PEN America report made the case that “philanthropic funding must expand dramatically to make a dent at the local level.” A more recent report, co-authored by a Colorado journalism professor, led him and his co-author to ask in Columbia Journalism Review: “As foundations grow more powerful within the world of journalism, how might they influence journalistic practice?”
Patrick Ferrucci, a journalism professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, and his collaborator, Jacob Nelson, a professor at Arizona State University’s J-school, “drew on 40 interviews with journalists at digital-native nonprofit news organizations and employees from foundations that fund nonprofit journalism within the US to understand how each side perceives the influence of foundation finances on journalistic practice.”
From the CJR piece, headlined, “‘When money is offered, we listen’: foundation funding and nonprofit journalism”:
We found that the impact of foundations on journalism parallels that of advertisers throughout the 20th century, with one important distinction: funding from foundations is often premised on editorial influence, complicating efforts by journalists to maintain the firewall between news revenue and production. …
We found that foundation funding did not push journalists to pursue or avoid specific topics with their reporting—perhaps the most obvious form of editorial influence. Instead, foundation funding was tied with the methods that journalists utilized for their reporting. …
The most common theme to emerge from our data concerned foundation funding that came with an expectation that journalists use specific new technologies. …
The problem, interviewees told us, is that these new technologies are only new for a short period of time. Journalists described feeling compelled to continuously chase the latest tech trends to remain competitive for foundation funding. …
[Editor’s note: Somewhere in a dark cabinet in a nonprofit newsroom, a dusty quadrocopter drone turns to a virtual reality headset in need of new batteries and says, “Wha’d I tell ya, huh?”]
Here’s another line from the CJR piece:
A majority of the journalists interviewed, and all of the foundation employees, also said that foundations currently prioritize “audience engagement” when it comes to the initiatives they fund.
To which I’ll add a relevant portion from the actual study in which a journalist and funder spoke prettttttty candidly to the researchers about such a scenario:
The problem with this logic is that journalists believe that these specific technologies typically do not make their stories better. In fact, the participants suggested that the implementation of these technologies are typically done just for public relations purposes. “We get to say, ‘Oh, hey, we do this,”’ said one journalist. She added, “Who cares that we do this thing? Does it actually make our work better? No. It’s basically public relations for the newsroom.” Speaking about an audience engagement platform that has grown popular in newsrooms, one person from a foundation that helps nonprofits pay for it, said, “Hell, I have no idea if it works. We hope so.”
The American Press Institute has written about ways newsrooms can optimize their reporting workflows for listening and engagement, and Angilee Shah more recently wrote how “it isn’t audiences that need to be more engaged; it’s newsrooms.”
Between 2009 and mid-2016, “foundations gave $1.1 billion to journalism projects within the United States,” the researchers found. Read the CJR piece here, and go deeper by reading the full study here. Follow CU’s Ferrucci on Twitter here.
Colorado’s new secretary of state plans to take on disinformation
Jena Griswold, who ran in 2018 on a platform that would make the Common Cause crowd swoon, beat the GOP incumbent in a blue-wave year and is now at work implementing her agenda. The former anti-corruption attorney campaigned on ridding secret spending in elections and shining a light on dark money. In office for her second legislative session, she’s moving to take on disinformation.
“Hostile entities are using social media to undermine our democracy,” her office said in a recent statement about new laws Griswold plans to promote this year at the Capitol. “Secretary Griswold will propose legislation to fight against election-related messages from foreign sources, ‘Deep Fake’ videos designed to manipulate voters, and foreign government’s use of social media as a tool to mislead.”
How that looks in more detail, and the debates over free speech it is likely to spark, should be something to watch.
*This column appears a little differently as a published version of a weekly e-mailed newsletter about Colorado local news and media. If you’d like to add your e-mail address for the unabridged versions, please subscribe HERE. Image by Kilworth Simmonds for Creative Commons on Flickr.