(Please read this post on the ASU News Co/Lab site first, for context.)

I can’t remember exactly when I met Craig Newmark, but I distinctly remember what happened when I discovered craigslist. It was in the late 1990s, and I was a columnist at Silicon Valley’s daily newspaper, the San Jose Mercury News, where I focused on technology and its impact. The minute I used craigslist in a transaction, I knew that this supremely functional website, and services like it, would be enormously consequential.

In those days classified ads were by far the most profitable revenue stream for local papers, a function of newspapers having created near-monopolies on print advertising in their markets. I showed craigslist to the Mercury News’ classified ad folks and said something like, “I think we’re screwed,” because craigslist was obviously better for advertisers than what we were selling: There was no limit on space; advertisers could include photos of what they were selling; and the service was vastly cheaper, i.e. free, than what we charged for our inferior, pricey product. The response from my fellow Mercury News employee was something like, “Don’t worry, we’ll be fine.”

Craig Newmark photoCraig Newmark, who later became a friend, did not set out to undermine daily newspapers’ business model, and while craigslist (and the many other classified-like sites, especially eBay) played a role in what has happened, it was one among a collection of events and shifts that coalesced into what we have today. Secular market changes, like the rise of ad-supported broadcasting and, much later, the demise of department stores that had been major display advertisers, played an enormous role. So did the 2008 economic meltdown, Wall Street’s (more recently, private equity’s) greed, and the rise of the now all-powerful Google-Facebook advertising duopoly. But it’s fair to say in key ways, the monopoly undermined itself, because the monopolists couldn’t figure out how to adjust once advertisers — who paid bulk of the bills to run news organizations — had reasonable options.

Craig is an exceedingly smart person and happily calls himself a nerd, but he didn’t have a master-of-the-Internet plan to become an information mogul. He started a simple mail list to provide a service, first for his friends and later, when it moved to the web, for anyone who wanted to use it. He was careful not to extract maximum cash from the service that he and his small, talented team nurtured from its beginnings into what it became. Most listings remained free, with charges in only a couple of categories. And as craigslist became the place to start when you were looking for something to buy or sell (or make connections of other kinds) online, he ended up making lots of money anyway. From the beginning, he gave back to his community, in meaningful but not self-aggrandizing ways. From my perspective he is a gentle soul and has true humility. He is the antithesis of many (though thankfully not all) Silicon Valley founders I’ve met over the years.

Craig has become a celebrity in some ways. He’s definitely well known today in the news world, which is a change. In the middle of the last decade, after craigslist had become the default classifieds site in most big cities and a bunch of smaller ones, I gave a talk to some of America’s top editors at their annual national trade-group meeting in Washington. I put a photo of Craig on the big screen and asked, “How many of you recognize this person?” Only a few hands went up. I then asked, “How many of you recognize the name Craig Newmark?” Closer to half of the hands went up.

In the time I’ve known him, Craig has consistently cared about quality information, and by extension journalism. He made it his business to learn about the craft. For several years more than a decade ago, I taught a “new media” course at UC-Berkeley’s graduate journalism school, and he always dropped by to speak with the students. In recent years, as he greatly boosted his philanthropy with a focus on improving our information ecosystem, he’s made it part of his business to help journalists do the best possible job they can. When he calls journalism “the immune system of democracy,” he’s not just coining a clever phrase. He plainly means it.

One of Craig’s interests has been fact-checking. Recently, we at the ASU News Co/Lab showed him a project we were planning: to greatly enhance the use and value of journalistic corrections — by far the most common form of post-publication fact-checking, when you think about it. In short order, his philanthropic arm donated launch funding for the project. I’m immensely grateful, and determined to make this project something in which we can all take pride.

(I’ve updated this post to reflect a broader context of changes in the media industry, notably that the erosion of newspapers’ dominance in the news and advertising industries began with the rise of broadcasting, and the most recent shift of ad dollars toward Google and Facebook.)

(Note: This is adapted from a Thanksgiving Day editorial I wrote many years ago at the Detroit Free Press and later updated in my San Jose Mercury News column.)

Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday, invites us to pause and remember our blessings. It’s also an annual reminder that, as a friend once reminded me, the world needs more pilgrims and fewer turkeys.

The pilgrims I admire take risks. They embark on journeys to new, unfamiliar, and often unfriendly places, with vision transcending fear. But that isn’t all. Their staying power and moral convictions take them far beyond the self-obsessed hunger for wealth and power–and willingness to poison our public discourse–that infects our nation at the highest levels and threatens to bring down the republic.

Because people are complicated, we can be turkeys one moment and pilgrims the next. History tells us that America’s colonial pilgrims weren’t uniformly admirable (to put it mildly) in their deeds or motives. And human nature hasn’t changed.

So as the more fortunate among us give thanks for our bounty this week — as Thanksgiving Day’s culinary surplus gives way to the holiday season’s commercial excess — let’s honor our own good fortune by reminding ourselves of the best in others.

I revere my small town’s teachers and librarians, who spread knowledge through the community. They believe in the power of words, of learning, of discovery. They are pilgrims.

I am humbled by the people who work for relatively low pay, and sometimes at great personal risk, to bring the truth to their communities via a craft–journalism–that we have never needed more. They, too, are pilgrims.

I admire the activists who see a better America, and work every day to create it, than the cruel nation so many of our leaders have fostered over the years. They are guiding us on a national pilgrimage toward real justice.

A friend who died several decades ago built a successful business and then went into public service. Early in his political career he pretty much insisted that if you were poor it was your own fault, period. Holding power helped him understand otherwise. A conservative Republican–back before “conservative” had been twisted into its current status of right-wing extremist–he never stopped trusting that the free market would erase poverty in the long term. But he realized that the rest of us, as volunteers and through our government, had to help in the meantime. He was a pilgrim.

In the Bay Area, where I live, the behavior of some famous technology people might lead you to believe that the tech world has vastly more turkeys than pilgrims. No question, the field has attracted more than its share of both — reflecting its intense, creative style. Silicon Valley does everything in excess, so why not this? But our tech companies’ worst behavior is now intertwined with our national turmoil, and their leaders have barely begun to recognize their culpability. Some of them are in desperate need of pilgrimages of their own.

At times I fear that America, awash in anger, pettiness, greed, smugness, and deceit, has all but lost its sense of exploration, wonder, and justice. But I always come back to the pilgrims who refuse to accept the way things are, who reject pure grasping and complacence, and who are leading us to better places.

My table will overflow with bounty this Thursday. I’m grateful beyond words for my life of relative comfort, for my opportunity to constantly explore and learn.

I hope to sustain this pilgrimage for life, for justice. And as America celebrates Thanksgiving Day, 2018, I wish the same for you.

Yesterday we launched our new initiative at ASU’s Cronkite School, the News Co/Lab. In a post then I explained its genesis, initial funder, and first on-the-ground project, working with the McClatchy news group and three of the communities it serves.

Today I’m thrilled to say that the News Integrity Initiative (NII) at City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism has awarded us a $300,000 grant to help build out News Co/Lab and support that pilot project.

Like the launch funding, this has emerged in part from the “News Literacy Working Group” meeting last March in Phoenix. Over the past few months, we’ve had long and detailed conversations with NII’s Jeff Jarvis and Molly DeAguiar about what we intend to do and how we plan to make it happen. Their questions sharpened our thinking and will make our projects better, and I thank them for that.

Please note the remarkably diverse grantees and projects NII is funding (they will be doing much more in coming months and beyond). I know many of the people involved in those efforts, and share their commitment — like NII’s — to a better information ecosystem. As I said yesterday, none of us, individually, has the answer or answers. Together, collectively, we will make a difference.

Pixabay

Some news: Arizona State University’s Cronkite School has launched News Co/Lab, a collaborative lab aimed at creating, testing, and promoting innovations that will help make the news ecosystem more robust and valuable for all participants.

Before I tell you more about what we’ll be doing, and who are initial partners will be, some background:</span>Last March, I asked this question: Could we find ways to make media/news literacy universal?

The question, which sounded simple, contained a universe of complexity. But the issues that sparked it went to the heart of what it means to be a Digital Age participant in civic, economic, and cultural life.

By the end of 2016 it became clear to anyone paying attention that misinformation, a perpetual problem in our media ecosystem, had become a crisis. The rise of social media and its split-second posting/sharing culture had given malicious actors their most powerful platform in history. With a few notable exceptions, traditional  journalism was eroding. Fierce competition, especially from online platforms boasting enormous scale and efficiency, was undermining the business model. The journalism craft’s longstanding flaws (including, far too often, institutional arrogance) had undermined the public’s trust. Ambitious and already powerful people around the world were doing their best to poison the public even more against journalism and the whole idea of truth; their power and ambitions were best served through spreading confusion or outright lies, no matter what damage that did to our ability to make decisions based on reality.

No one disagrees that a key response to this barrage of badness must be to improve our information supply. But in recent times, in my view, we’ve paid too little attention to the demand side of the equation.

Supply and demand were never entirely separate before the Internet arrived. Now, given the ubiquity of creative tools and access to information–combined with “Big Data,” algorithmic targeting, AI, filter bubbles, and sharing–they are more deeply intertwined.

In this environment, even as we upgrade our information sources, we have to upgrade ourselves–as users of media who consume, create, share, and collaborate in our endlessly complex ecosystem. And we have to find ways to do this at scale–reaching as many people as possible to help them, above all, to be critical thinkers who would use media with integrity.

In that context last March, Facebook and Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication convened a News Literacy Working Group.” Over a long weekend, we gathered an amazing group from around the world — experts in news/media literacy, journalists, technologists, researchers, funders, and more. My challenge to them was to think of ways we could make news literacy scale, and I suggested that we needed, in particular, a commitment to do this from educators, journalists, and technology platforms. One participant, my friend Jeff Jarvis from City University of New York, thought we should frame the issue in a much wider way than viewing it through the lens of that subset of media literacy we call news literacy. Others had their own ideas on a) what was wrong; and b) how we might address it. We thrashed through some of the issues and came up with a long list of ideas. It was an amazing three days.

Since then, the emergency hasn’t abated. On some levels, it’s vastly worse. But a lot is happening in the media world to at least begin to understand what’s happening, what’s at stake, and how we can collectively work to counteract the worst effects of the misinformation poison.

We’ve been doing what we can at ASU, with courses, training, and more. With News Co/Lab (we’re pronouncing it “collab”), we hope to go much deeper, but in targeted ways. I’ll be shifting my time to focus on the lab as its founding director. Facebook is our initial sponsor; more on that below.

We’ll be working mostly in and around the place where supply meets demand. We want to collaborate with anyone–teachers, journalists, librarians, technologists, civic leaders, among others–who shares our goals and wants to work on this. We have no intention of duplicating what others are already doing well. We want to help them do more of it.

To that end, our collaborative lab will start off with a scan of the emerging best practices from the many organizations already doing great work in the areas where we’ll focus. One thing we’re certain to learn: There’s much more work ahead. The nation’s (and the world’s) struggles with literacies of all kinds–civic, digital, media, news, and more–are well documented.

Our first on-the-ground project goes to the foundation of journalism: local news and information. We’ll be working with newsrooms and the communities they serve, to collaborate on experiments that increase transparency, engagement, mutual understanding, and respect.

Our media industry launch partner for that project is McClatchy. This makes me happy for several reasons. While McClatchy has suffered as much as any company in the local news business as it tries to make the wrenching transition from print to digital, its leadership and its journalists haven’t lost sight of the service component of what they do. The first McClatchy community where we’ll work will be Kansas City, where I worked for the Kansas City Star* early in my journalism career.

We also have an in-house partner, of course: Cronkite News. It’s the news arm of Arizona Public Broadcasting, and is part of the Cronkite School. It produces news for a variety of platforms, including a superb evening newscast for Arizona residents, and has bureaus in Washington and California. The students and faculty of Cronkite News are constantly experimenting, and we’ll be working with them to broaden their (and our) horizons even more, again aimed at creating deeper connections with the community.

There’s more coming from the lab, and we’ll be telling you about it in the days and weeks ahead. We’re beyond jazzed to be getting this initiative off the ground.

Which brings me back to our launch sponsor: Facebook. The News Co/Lab emerged from that March weekend and the subsequent conversations with people at the company and elsewhere. Facebook faces challenges for all kinds of reasons, but I’m convinced that the people I’ve worked with there are sincere in their wish to help solve the hugely difficult information-ecosystem problems we face individually, in our communities, in our companies and other institutions, and in nations around the world.

A special word of thanks to Áine Kerr, whose unbounded energy, commitment, and goodwill made her a joy to work with over these months. I wish her the absolute best as she heads back to her home in Dublin to co-found a news startup called Neva Labs. She’s earned the goodwill of news people, who will miss her in the post she’s so ably filled at Facebook. She has been part of a collaborative team there. I’m confident that her Facebook Journalism Project colleagues intend to push these kinds of projects forward, and more than hopeful that the people they work for share that commitment.

I also need to say, and this seems like the right place, that my relationship with Facebook over the years has been…complicated. As I said in March, I have longstanding and deep misgivings about Facebook’s (and Google’s and other giant platforms) overwhelming dominance in the media world–not to mention the troubling issues that stem from centralization in general. I don’t plan to stop talking about that, nor offering advice to journalists and Internet users in general on how to navigate toward a future where they, not the people running highly centralized technology platforms, control their own destinies. I’ll keep pushing the platforms to use their reach to help “upgrade us.”

But for all the disagreements, we agree on some vital goals. And to achieve those, I’m glad to collaborate. My participation may not sit well with some people, and I respect that. But I’m comfortable with this decision.

Finally, none of this would be happening were it not for my ASU colleagues. Eric Newton, the Cronkite School’s head of innovation, is the lab’s co-founder; we’ve collaborated on putting it together, and he’ll be working with me, staff, and partners as we proceed. The behind-the-scenes folks at the school, in development, legal, and other areas, routinely handle things that are out of my depth. And Dean Chris Callahan has been, as always, consistently strong and helpful along the way.

So much is happening now in the news ecosystem. Our lab will be among a host of new and existing efforts to make things better. None of us, individually, has the answer or answers. But we have ideas and energy, and an abiding belief in the value of reliable information in a world that so desperately needs it.

Individually, we will make some dents in the problem. Together, we will make a difference.

*I worked for the Kansas City Times, which was the Star‘s sister paper and was later folded into the Star.)

(Photo: Pixabay)

Continue reading

I’m happy to say I’ve signed a contract with MIT Press for my next book, tentatively entitled Permission Taken: Recapturing Control of Our Own Technology and Communication. This has been bubbling up in my mind, though not enough from my word processor, for a long time. Now it’s on, and there’s a deadline. It’ll be part of a series edited by my longtime friend and colleague David Weinberger.

I’m especially glad that the book will be done in an open-access format, meaning that it will be available much more widely than traditional publishing normally permits. More details on that to come…

News Literacy Working Group — Initial Thoughts

Can we make it un-cool to spread other people’s lies on social media? Should Facebook, Google, SnapChat, and Twitter embed tools of truth in their users’ feeds? Should journalists be vastly more transparent about how they operate? Should every public school be required to help kids learn how to be critical thinkers, and use media with integrity?

I’d answer Yes to all of those questions. And I suspect the same would be true for many if not most of the people who came to a remarkable meeting last weekend in Phoenix.

The occasion was a “News Literacy Working Group” at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The meeting, co-convened by Facebook and ASU, brought together about 50 people from education, technology, philanthropy, and journalism. Our goal, as the group’s name suggests, was to look hard at media/news literacy’s role in the digital age — and come up with serious ideas on how to deal with an emergency situation.

What’s the emergency? It stems from the realities of democratized media and communications. As media consumers and creators, we’re blessed with a staggering array of information sources. We can know more about things we care about than ever before. But some of what we see, and what too many of us share, is bogus — often deliberately so by people whose motives are profits or ideology, or both. And we’ve seen in recent months the poisonous effect the deceitful minority are having on public discourse and knowledge.

How can we respond? One way, in the fabled marketplace of ideas, is to upgrade our supply of journalism — a never-ending need.

But this is, in my mind, at least as much a demand problem: upgrading ourselves as active users of media, not just passive consumers. While supply and demand were both on our weekend agenda — and are intertwined in an age of social media — we were there to focus primarily on the latter.

I’m somewhat constrained by “Chatham House Rules” in what I can say here. These rules, which are widely used at meetings, basically prohibit me from saying who was there (without specific permission) or attributing what they said (also unless I have specific permission). But I can give you a flavor of what happened, and some details.

For me, the linchpin was to get people from the different sectors (e.g. education, tech, journalism, etc.) into the same room. This extended to some of the breakout groups, and it gave people an opportunity to look beyond their own specialties for cross-disciplinary approaches.

All kinds of ideas and recommendations emerged. We sorted them out in several overlapping categories, including a) educational needs; b) journalists’ role; c) technology’s role; d) what research needs to be done; and e) how to put this more firmly in the policy agenda and public consciousness.

I won’t go into detail on each of those, though I plan to expand on key thoughts in subsequent posts. Rather, after comparing notes with my colleague Eric Newton, here’s a short list of ideas that struck me as most immediately intriguing (again, among many others, and not in any particular order):

  • Get state legislatures to require media/news literacy in school curricula. (One suggestion was for the tech platforms to use a small part of their already-massive lobbying budgets to push for this.)
  • Come up with tools that help media users instantly get a much better idea of the context of what they’re looking at: metadata and more to be clearer on whether this or that piece of content deserves trust. A lot is already going on in this arena, but I heard several fascinating new approaches that I’ll talk more about later on.
  • Get the platforms to embed information about how things work. An example was auto-complete, which is a mystery to most people. The platform companies shouldn’t do this entirely on their own, several people said (and I agree); it should be a collaboration to give it more credibility.
  • Find ways to help media organizations embed media/news literacy into their own work. I’m still baffled, and beyond disappointed, that the journalism industry has abjectly failed to do this despite the obvious evidence that being leaders in media/news literacy would have engendered more trust from their audiences. One approach to begin to repair the damage, which I strongly favor, is to be much more transparent about what, how, and why they do their work.
  • Take a page from the anti-smoking campaign that has led to major improvement in public health, at least related to tobacco-caused illnesses, and create a campaign to make it un-cool to spread BS. We have tons of data from that campaign on what works, and what doesn’t. If we can enlist Hollywood, hip-hop stars, and other notables in this, we can do it.
  • Do much more research. We need to know better how deceit starts and spreads in all kinds of media, especially online; how what works and what doesn’t work in news literacy; how people actually use media (as opposed to how they say they do); and much more. A recurring theme, especially among researchers and journalists, was leaning on the platforms — especially Facebook — to open up their all-important data sets to researchers. (This will be a major challenge, to put it mildly, because for the big tech companies the data sets are pretty much the keys to the kingdoms. Without their help, however, research will be at best incomplete.)
  • Embed news literacy tools and training directly into the platforms. As I’ve said before, this is the one I think could have the greatest impact since we need scale. But it’s also a significant product change, more than a tweak, and I doubt it’ll happen soon in any major way.
  • Launch a “moonshot” that aims to give everyone kids and adults — the tools and skills they need to navigate our increasingly complex information ecosystem. This would be great, but only if there are serious resources involved.
  • We don’t only need to come up with new ideas. We should help the people who’ve been in the trenches in the media/news literacy fields to do more of it, and learn from their experiences.
  • Look outside the U.S., because this is a global problem. (The tech companies may know this better than anyone.)
  • In general, collaborate like crazy. I think we did some last weekend, and we can do way, way more.

Mea culpa regarding important one element of the gathering: We didn’t have remotely enough cultural and political diversity among the attendees. If and when we do something like this again (I trust we will), fixing that will be at the top of my to-do list.

As to outcomes, that’s TBD. We had people in the room whose organizations can write big checks, or do things with their products that could make a difference in a hurry, or both. (One of the philanthropies that sent a representative — Josh Stearns, a friend and great ally in all this — was the Democracy Fund. Craig Newmark, another friend who has started putting serious money into supporting quality information, was also there.)

None of this would have happened without the support of Facebook’s Áine Kerr and her colleagues. Their professionalism, hard work, and commitment to the ideas made this collaboration a pleasure. As I said in a pre-gathering post, I continue to have strong differences with the company on some issues. But on this — the need to help users of media be vastly more savvy about what they’re consuming and creating, and to understand the importance of doing things ethically — we are allies.

“Grateful” is too small a word to describe my thanks to the invited participants. They were the working group. They worked effectively and collaboratively. They taught me all kinds of things I didn’t know, which for me is the best kind of meeting. And they made me even more eager to move forward.

My overwhelming takeaway from the meeting: Our society (and others) could be the verge of getting much more serious about media/news literacy as an essential element of creating a sustainable and honorable information ecosystem. That’s good news indeed.

I don’t know anyone who assumes that our society’s bogus-information problem will be easily or quickly solved. But I do think everyone who came to the Cronkite School for this meeting agreed that we’re in something of an emergency situation — and that the time to move on it is right now.

(Cross-posted at Medium.)

A few days after the 2016 national election, viewing what I believe was (and remains) an emergency situation, I urged the major technology companies to make media and news literacy part of their missions. We’d just emerged from the most rancid campaign in my memory, marked in part by an avalanche of misinformation.

Social media platforms, especially Facebook, were getting a lot of heat—some of it deserved—for their role in making it easy for completely fabricated “news” reports to spread like a fast-moving pandemic. There were calls for the tech companies to remove the malicious hoaxes—what people called “fake news”—from their sites. (One appropriate response was to make it more difficult for hoaxers to profit from their deceit.)

I don’t want Facebook, or Google, or Twitter or any of these huge companies being arbiters of truth, as I wrote in November. The dangers in that struck me as obvious, given their enormous sway over public conversation and information search.

But they could help the public in big ways, I thought, if they’d help us—the audience for and users of information—to upgrade ourselves. Not long after, Facebook’s Áine Kerr, manager of journalism partnerships, asked my colleagues and me for some ideas what the company could do, and had some suggestions of her own. One result of those conversations, I’m glad to report, is a “News Literacy Working Group” this weekend at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

We’ve assembled a superb, cross-disciplinary group of people from around the U.S. and several other countries. They understand the emergency, and they’re coming to Phoenix to go deep on this question: How can we make media/news literacy, which now seems so vital, a core part of everyday life?

What we’re doing isn’t a “summit,” though the people joining us are some of the best we know in a number of fields—media literacy and its critically important subset, news literacy; journalism, technology, academia, NGOs, philanthropies, and more. Rather, it’s a working group of folks who all understand that this problem  demands not just a redoubling the valuable work already being done, but also a batch of fresh, ambitious ideas on how to make news literacy scale.

This chart doesn’t start at zero; media and news literacy advocates have been working to help people for years. But in a world awash in misinformation and outright deception, we need to grow this field dramatically.

When people in technology talk about “scale” they mean using modern tools and techniques to extend the reach of a product or service with exponential growth. You’ve seen charts that look like a hockey stick, where the initial growth is modest but turns up in a dramatic way, almost becoming a vertical line over time. That’s what scale means, and one of my goals is to make media/news literacy do that—via schools, libraries and other community institutions; via media; and tech platforms themselves.

In recent weeks, the Cronkite School has been working closely with Facebook to put this meeting together. A key colleague in this has been Eric Newton, now head of innovation at the school, who helped kick-start many of the nation’s pioneering news literacy initiatives when he was head of the journalism program at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which has pumped countless millions of dollars into improving public knowledge.

Facebook’s sponsorship of our meeting falls under its recently announced “Facebook Journalism Project,” a three-pronged initiative that includes “Training & Tools for Everyone,” specifically including a wish to promote news literacy. Áine Kerr and her Facebook colleagues have much of the heavy lifting to make this working group happen. Their professionalism has been evident at every step, and it’s been gratifying to work with them.

To answer a question that several people who know about the ASU-Facebook collaboration have already asked me: My longstanding and deep misgivings about Facebook’s overwhelming dominance in the media world have not changed at all. I don’t plan to stop talking about that, nor offering advice to journalists on how to navigate toward a future where they, not the people running highly centralized technology platforms, control their own destinies.

But I gladly work with people with whom I disagree on some matters when we have common interests in other ways. I’m convinced that Facebook is serious about promoting media and news literacy—helping all of us upgrade ourselves to be active users of media and not just passive consumers.

We—all people who understand the need to make civics and critical thinking universal—have a lot of work ahead. I hope that this weekend will be one step in a long and vital journey.