Sunday, October 13, 2019

Vargas Llosa says democracy is the best defense against propaganda and nationalism

His latest historical novel tells of CIA misinformation campaign

Mario Vargas Llosa, a Nobel laureate in literature, has just published a historical novel, Tough Times ("Tiempos recios"), whose plot is based on the 1954 overthrow of the democratically elected government in Guatemala that was engineered by the CIA. 

Vargas Llosa,  Photo by llegim.ara.cat
For the novelist, that conspiracy has many echoes today in the status of news media organizations and the abundance of information and disinformation available to the general public.

During a publicity tour in Spain, Vargas Llosa gave an interview to El Pais, arguably the country's most prestigious daily. He said that the 1954 coup in Guatemala was masterminded for the CIA by a public relations expert named Edward L. Bernays, whose nickname was "the clever puppetmaster". Bernays's philosophy of communication could be boiled down to a phrase: propaganda will prevail over the truth.

In fact, the media campaign described in the novel was based on what really happened. A propaganda campaign persuaded the elite of Boston "that the interests of the United Fruit Company are the same as the United States, and that the recently inaugurated democracy of Guatemala puts them in jeopardy because of their dependence on the Kremlin". In fact, Soviet influence was exaggerated or non-existent; the government's land policies threatened United Fruit's business interests.

Versión en español

Friday, October 11, 2019

Letters to a newspaper publisher III: A shameful scandal right under your nose

How should a media executive manage the business during a time of disruptive technological change? Alfonso Nieto attempted to answer that question in his book "Letters to a newspaper publisher," written in 1987 when newsrooms in Spain were moving from typewriters to computers. His comments have acute relevance today.  

Alfonso Nieto, photo University of Navarra
In this letter to a fictitious newspaper publisher, titled "A Shameful Scandal", Alfonso Nieto criticizes media executives who are focused only on the bottom line without paying attention to the quality of the content in their own publications. (The scandal is a defamation lawsuit against a reporter.)

Nieto also emphasizes the importance of hiring journalists with high ethical standards. "This profession is so prominent that it should exclude those of mediocre character who are untrustworthy, resentful, or selfish" (p. 58).

The top executives of the media organization have the responsibility to communicate clearly the editorial standards of the organization, Nieto says. Without that, there is disorder in the newsroom. In the absence of clear direction, each section editor creates their own fiefdom, and "this disorder is the key that opens the door to misinformation and mistakes" (pp. 59-60).

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Experts explain 'How to make meetings less terrible'

The title of this blog post is taken from a Freakonomics Radio podcast by Steven J. Dubner, and I recommend listening to all 42 minutes of it. But if you can't find the time, here are some of the key points.

How terrible are meetings?
Steven Rogelberg, an organizational psychologist, says research has shown that around 70 percent of senior managers view meetings as unproductive. And these are typically the people calling the meetings.

The higher up the chain of command they go, executives attend more meetings. Rogelberg estimates most professionals in the U.S. attend 15 meetings a week."But what we know from the research is that left to just the standard protocols of people talking, that a decision better than what would have just been produced by the best individual in the room only occurs 20 percent of the time." He has written a book on the subject, The Surprising Science of Meetings.

Why are meetings so terrible?

Most meetings are done on a schedule, out of habit, and have no purpose, says Helen Schwartzman, an anthropologist at Northwestern University who wrote the book The Meeting: Gatherings in Organizations and Communities. "I would say that meetings are the organization. Which is to say that instead of having the meeting as a place to solve problems, we need to have problems and crises and decisions to produce meetings." If there are no problems to be solved, there is no reason to meet.

Letters to a publisher II: Treat your readers with respect

How should a media executive manage the business during a time of disruptive technological change? Alfonso Nieto attempted to answer that question in his book "Letters to a newspaper publisher," written in 1987 when newsrooms in Spain were moving from typewriters to computers. His comments have acute relevance today.


Alfonso Nieto, University of Navarra portrait
In this letter to a fictitious newspaper publisher, which he titled "The dwarf and the giant", Alfonso Nieto criticized media owners, managers, and journalists for failing to take into account the problems and the needs of their readers. Nieto saw the media industry as arrogant, looking down on the public and their viewpoints.

Beyond that, the media viewed their audiences as merely market segments to be lumped into groups based on age, gender, income, occupation, or other attributes that they could monetize. 

The arrogance

The media used a language, he believed, that emphasized their superior education and social position rather than trying to create a more intimate connection with their readers. This could very well describe the traditional media today, which have been losing readers and TV viewers because they focus much of their attention on the conflicts among political parties rather than finding solutions.

Letters to a newspaper publisher: it's not just the bottom line

How should a media executive manage the business during a time of disruptive technological change? Alfonso Nieto attempted to answer that question in his book "Letters to a newspaper publisher," written in 1987 when newsrooms in Spain were moving from typewriters to computers. Nieto was one of the pioneers in the discipline of media economics, and his writings have acute relevance today, when the media world has been disrupted again by digital technology. He was rector of the University of Navarra 1979-1991, where I now teach. 

Alfonso Nieto, University of Navarra Photo
Alfonso Nieto worked as a consultant to media executives in addition to teaching, and in this book he wanted to go public with his advice without violating any confidential information. So he created a fictitious news executive to whom he wrote a series of letters with some down-home advice. He wanted publishers to think not just of their business results and their investors but also of their publication's impact on employees, the audience, and democratic society as a whole. 

(It is interesting to note that the Business Roundtable, an organization of business leaders in the U.S., recently advocated a major change in management philosophy in line with Nieto: take into account all stakeholders--employees, customers, suppliers, and community--not just the shareholders.)

Friday, September 27, 2019

Is six hours a day on my phone too much?

This is the third year I have done an unscientific survey of my students in Media Economics about how they use their smartphones.

"WhatsApp Redesign" by Ayoub Elred is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0
The point of the exercise is for them to do their own assessment and make observations. In previous years they simply counted how many notifications or alerts they received on their phones in one hour or a class session. An alert is any ping, buzz, vibration, or lock-screen flash that tells them they have a message or news update from their various applications.

The distraction industry is getting ever more sophisticated in finding ways to get us to pay attention to their messages, because time, or attention, is money. Specifically, it allows tech platforms and news services to deliver targeted ads and make money from our attention.

An alert a minute

This year, 27 students counted notifications received in a 60-minute period. The average was 58, almost an alert a minute. The median --with half registering more, half less-- was 36. (The total alerts received was slightly more than last year and roughly three times the year before, although the unscientific methodology was slightly different each time.)

Friday, September 20, 2019

When it comes to reputation, news media brands have been missing the boat

Cees van Riel is an internationally known scholar and consultant who has spent much of his career studying how to measure the reputation of organizations and use the data for better decision-making.

Cees van Riel. Photo from Reputation Institute
During a recent chat with faculty at the University of Navarra, he talked about how a growing body of research links the financial performance of a company with its reputation as corporate citizen and community leader.

Leaders must speak up
Companies whose leaders and employees specifically say what they stand for, and back that up with their behavior, emerge as leaders in their industry by all sorts of tangible indicators, including but not limited to financial performance.

"You have to say yourself what you stand for," Cees said. "If you don't, no one will believe you."

Cees's observations made me realize that news media have done a terrible job at informing the public about the importance of what they do, namely investigating deeply to discover the truth and informing the public in a democratic society.

News media organizations should be taking this insight to heart, but often they view it as unseemly self-promotion. They assume everyone views them as an authority, as the purveyors of truth and guardians of the public interest. And, of course, they're wrong. Almost everywhere in the world, news media have low credibility. (Trust explored in more depth here.)

Plagiarism: Someone is publishing my blogs under their byline

Someone named Chris Lynn at the blog Worldwide News has taken dozens of my blog posts and put his own byline on top of them.

Evidently the sole purpose of the blog Worldwide News has been to kill the online version of an investigative report about official corruption published by the Mail & Guardian newspaper in South Africa.
Both of these blog posts were published by me. Chris Lynn's byline is on them now. Click to enlarge image
It's a clever scheme in which this Chris Lynn (whoever that is) copy-pasted the Mail & Guardian article onto his own blog, then claimed to have been plagiarized by the original publisher and got the Mail & Guardian's internet hosting site to remove the supposedly plagiarized original article.

The original investigation, which describes the activities of a man in Africa posing as a U.S. Congressman, appears among dozens of other articles on the Worldwide News blog, most of which are my blog posts. Evidently the thinking was -- and this is a humbling thought -- that search engines would see a blog with mostly academic content by an obscure American professor and not call attention to an article about scandal hidden in the academic weeds.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Manage your operation with the language of numbers

IJNet has recently launched its Media Entrepreneurship Toolkit to help journalists make their own projects financially sustainable.

My contribution was an introduction to some of the basics of accounting and budgeting.

Some of the key points to keep in mind:

  • There are some free online budgeting and accounting software packages that can organize your financial information for you.
  • If you are just starting out, make a list of all the monthly expenses you think you might incur.
  • Consider the possibility that you might use inexpensive or free digital tools at the beginning to keep costs down. 
  • Make sure you know how much you are spending each month. This is called the burn rate. If you don't bring in any more money, how many months do you have before you run out of cash?
  • Digital advertising is unlikely to produce much revenue for a small startup. Consider sponsorships, native advertising, donations, and other sources. 

There's nothing to be afraid of. Even English majors can learn how to do the basics.

Versión en español

Other articles in the Toolkit are by Jeremy Caplan, Director of Teaching and Learning at CUNY's Newmark Graduate School of Journalism in New York City:

What to do if your startup fails
5 ways journalism startups can engage an audience
7 challenges to overcome in launching a startup
Qualities of successful entrepreneurs





Friday, August 23, 2019

How to be more credible, from an investigative reporter

Tina Kaiser. Photo by Gisela Gürtler
News organizations have been losing credibility for years, and the reasons are many. Too often, we journalists have been arrogant and said, in effect, Trust us, we know what we're doing. But today, journalism is under attack, and we have to explain why people should trust us.
 
 There are many things publishers can do to improve credibility, said Tina Kaiser, an investigative reporter for Die Welt in Germany, during a talk with a group of journalists and communicators from the College of Europe.

In her talk, at Die Welt's Berlin headquarters, Kaiser described the publication's policies and mentioned how they were applied in specific stories, such as a series about Arab gangs in Germany.

1. Transparent corrections. Admit your mistakes quickly and fully, and be transparent about how they were made. If an organization simply says, "this information was incorrect", the public is left with doubts about why a correction was determined to be necessary. Was it an honest mistake, a careless breach of journalistic standards, or inaccurate information provided by a source? Without some explanation, readers might assume that a correction was made because of undue pressure and influence from some interested party.

2. "The making of" stories. For any kind of long-term investigative or enterprise stories, a news organization ought to also publish an explanation of how information was obtained, who the sources were, where journalists traveled to interview people and do research, how the information was double-checked and verified, and other information that demonstrates the care and professional standards used.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Is quality journalism sustainable? Here are 20 media organizations that are solving this problem

This post is part of a study that identifies 20 media organizations from 16 countries and four regions  --Eastern and Central Europe, Western Europe, Latin America, and the United States-- that have developed sustainable business models for high-quality journalism. This list is by no means exclusive. The examples were chosen to present a variety of solutions to this challenge. We welcome comments on other media we could have included.

-- James Breiner


Click graphic to enlarge, or view the graphic in its original form at this link.
*Results from SimilarWeb.com, six-month average of desktop, mobile, April 2019                                 
**Engagement/participation score is the total of the following eight options for participation offered to users: donate, subscribe (paid subscription), comment and interact with other users, respond to surveys, report errors, email specific staff members, contribute content, and offer news tips (crowdsourcing), after Harlow and Salaverria (2016).   
    
           

Monday, June 24, 2019

Frustrated fact-checkers: the lies keep being told

Lies have a life of their own, and people want to believe them, especially when they are about people they don't like, "the other". Facts don't sway people.

As Laura Hazard Owen recently reported in Nieman Lab, three leading fact-checking organizations have said their work needs to go beyond simply calling out the lies of prominent people. This work is valuable, but the fact-checkers don't have big enough audiences to reach everyone who is receiving the false or misleading information. "Fact checkers are outspent by [political] campaigns 100 to 1 or more at election times," say the fact-checkers. 

So the fact-checkers have issued a call to action in which they don't just clarify or disprove the misleading information. They "publish and act". "We seek corrections on the record, pressure people not to make the same mistake again, complain where possible to a standards body. In other words, we use whatever forms of moral, public, or where appropriate regulatory pressure are available to stop the spread of specific bits of misinformation."

See also: Nieman Lab's list of news credibility projects 

Less than half of people in 38 countries trust "most news most of the time". And they have very little trust in the news they find in social media. From Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2019, p. 21.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Investigative journalism: great return on investment

Between fines and recovered funds, journalists get results

Lately a couple of us here at the University of Navarra have been looking for models of high-quality journalism that are sustainable. As it turns out, many of the best news organizations that are thriving are doing investigative journalism.

Readers like this type of journalism, which holds the powerful accountable for their actions, makes them responsible for serving the public rather than themselves.

In a 2016 article, two leaders of global investigative journalism organizations made the case that investigative journalism actually has a great return on investment, ROI.

Versión en español

"Over the years [Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP)] has accepted $5 million in funding from the U.S. and other governments. The return on that funding? With $2.8 billion recovered in fines and seized assets by various governments, the payoff is over 56,000 percent (or a 560-fold return)".
The authors of that article were  David E. Kaplan, executive director of the Global Investigative Journalism Network, and Drew Sullivan, one of the founders of OCCRP.

Monday, May 20, 2019

In Eastern Europe, a media battle for hearts and minds

Atlantic Magazine features the clash of ideas in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban vs. philanthropist George Soros.
Many of the right-wing or nationalist leaders of Eastern and Central Europe have been winning votes by attacking the political correctness of the European Union and its allies.

And they have chosen as their whipping boy George Soros, the billionaire and philanthropist whose Open Society Foundations have been funding programs that promote Western democratic values like freedom of expression, human rights, equality, and social justice.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is part of the reason. He has never gotten over the humiliation of the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Even worse was seeing three former member republics --Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia-- join the European Union in 2004, along with four former Eastern bloc members, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. He is using media to try to get them back.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

People are more important than the product

Reflections on several decades of managing news publications

A student in a media management course had to interview a media professional for his final research project. I agreed to be his subject, and in the course of an hour, he got me to talk about my philosophy of management in the digital era.

Reading over the transcript of that interview, I realized how my thinking had changed over the years. The main lesson I learned was to put people first. Growing up in the old newspaper model of the news factory, I developed skill in the processes of production, meeting deadlines, getting the product out the door. That was the priority: produce a sufficent quantity of content at a level of professional quality consistent with the limitations of time, money, and space (the news pages) available.

The paradox

Over time, I discovered an interesting paradox: Putting people first generates more profit. If you think first about developing your people and helping them achieve their personal and professional goals, the profit will follow. When you create an organization where people feel they are growing and learning and participating in a mission bigger than themselves, they become tremendously creative and productive.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Smart money is betting on local, trustworthy news

This blog post started out as an explanation to my friends and family in Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio, why their local newspapers had become shadows of their former selves. Why their newspapers were so thin. Why news coverage was so shallow. Why they felt like they weren't getting their money's worth.

From trust to distrust in one decade. Pew.
And we will get there in a minute, but first, some good news. It was heartening to see the Knight Foundation's recent announcement that it was committing $300 million over five years to strengthen journalism, from the ground up, by focusing on local news and on encouraging collaboration.

 “We’re not funding one-offs. We’re helping to rebuild a local news ecosystem, reliable and sustainable, and we’re doing it in a way that anyone who cares can participate,” said Alberto Ibargüen, Knight Foundation president.

Gradually, civic minded individuals and organizations have realized that the loss of local news coverage threatens democracy and citizen participation. Citizens don't know what's going on, which leaves elected officials unaccountable for how they provide services and spend the public's money. “Reliable news and information are essential for people to make democracy work,” said Jennifer Preston, Knight Foundation vice president for journalism.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Time machine: the year broadband arrived

Digging through some old files recently, I came across a column I wrote for the Baltimore Business Journal 22 years ago. It described how our cable TV and internet provider had installed fiber-optic cable in the neighborhood.

This new distribution channel transformed a clunky dialup internet service into a lightning fast information source. The hyperbole and enthusiasm expressed in the column are slightly embarrassing for someone who prides himself on skepticism. But some of it was right on target.

From PeakOptical.com
Versión en español

It began, "Public libraries could be in danger." I described how I used this new service to research an advertising client before going to a meeting with the CEO. I was the publisher of the newspaper and thus ultimately responsible for sales. The column went on to contrast the internet with a library:

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

When government fails, 'business has to step up'

Businesses like to devote part of their marketing and public relations budget to promote how they are  giving back to society. We are not just about profits, they try to say. And the message is arguably true, not just propaganda, as far as it goes.

Fink, from BlackRock.com
But we are starting to hear a different kind of message from business people, and it goes like this:
"Around the world, frustration with years of stagnant wages, the effect of technology on jobs, and uncertainty about the future have fueled popular anger, nationalism, and xenophobia. In response, some of the world’s leading democracies have descended into wrenching political dysfunction, which has exacerbated, rather than quelled, this public frustration. Trust in multilateralism and official institutions is crumbling." -- Larry Fink,
(emphasis mine)
Business people will have to fill the gap left by polarized and paralyzed national governments: this is the message of Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, the world's largest mutual fund company. Businesses have to show that they have a higher purpose than just making money. And, by the way, it's in your own interest to do so, he says. BlackRock has used its position as a major shareholder of some companies to push for more socially conscious policies.

(More coverage of Fink's letter was in Bloomberg, Forbes, and Reuters, among others.)

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

What money can't buy in media

Money talks. Put your money where your mouth is. Show me the money.

We have lots of expressions that equate money with crebility and trust. How people get and spend their money is often the most credible expression of what they value and who they are.

We attribute so much value to money and to the way it expresses our true beliefs that historian Yuval Noah Harari declared in his bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind:

 "Money is accordingly a system of mutual trust, and not just any system of mutual trust: money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised."

By extension, this belief in money as the best measure of value of everything in modern society -- the loss of a loved one (insurance payouts), the salary of a teacher or a CEO, a barrel of oil -- has led us to trust markets too much.

In fact, many studies have shown that the media marketplace puts great value in misinformation, disinformation, sensationalism, gossip, and entertainment (Pew, Reuters Institute, Science Advances), as measured by revenue and profits generated from advertising. This is how social networks like Facebook and Instagram make their money.

Versión en español

In putting so much faith in the Invisible Hand of markets, we have devalued the importance of ethics, credibility, trust, and community. (Among my other holiday reading on the topic were a recent column by David Brooks, Jeffrey D. Sachs's The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity and Joseph E. Stiglitz's The Euro: How a Common Currency Threatens the Future of Europe.)