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.

medialitSome news: We’re launching a MOOC — a massive open online course — on news and media literacy. The course (here’s the registration page) will be based on an online course I currently teach at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and will be open to all who are interested, at no charge.

The  MOOC, which has received funding from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, will be hosted at edX, one of the major–and rapidly growing–course platforms. ASU has become a member of the edX university consortium, and this is the first offering from the school. The course launches July 6, and registration is open now.

(Note: The media-literacy MOOC is not part of the ASU/edX Global Freshman Academy, which will be offering a battery of for-credit courses.)

We’re well aware that the jury is out, to put it mildly, on the ultimate value of MOOCs. Clearly they’ve been oversold in some ways. To think that courselogothey’ll take over education is absurd. Equally clearly, they have enormous potential. This course is experimental by definition, but we have two major goals: to make it a super-useful learning experience, and to learn from what happens in order to improve the next time.

One of the best parts of this project is the people involved. In the past several months we’ve recorded conversations with some of the smartest folks I know in the news and media-literacy communities. They include Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales; New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan; CNN’s Brian Stelter; media-literacy guru Renee Hobbs; and many others. We’ll be featuring these conversations in the course.

This is a team effort in every possible way. I’m incredibly fortunate to be working with the ASU Online folks, who’ve been helping me sweat the details and who know lots of things I don’t. A team of students at the Cronkite School’s Public Relations Lab has put together some great marketing ideas. PhD candidate Kristy Roschke, whose focus is media literacy, is playing a key role in the course development and will be the lead teaching assistant when the course goes live.

MOOCs are open in ways that most university courses are not. Openness is core to my work–my Mediactive book, on which the course is largely based, is free to read online and/or download, and is available under a Creative Commons copyright license (“Some Rights Reserved”). I want to apply the principle of openness, as much as possible, to the new project. So I’ll be blogging regularly about how we’re doing this between now and the July 6 launch.

You may find this interesting to watch. If so, and if you think we can improve on what we’re doing, let me know. I’m looking for the best ideas, not just my own.

Most of the smartest people don’t work in journalism.

There’s an enormous amount of R&D going on in digital media. Most of it isn’t happening inside the news industry.

As Clay Shirky and others have pointed out, the low barrier to entry is fueling an enormous amount of experimentation. Most projects fail, but that’s a good thing, because when so many are being tried the small percentage that work will be a relatively big number.

Where is all this happening? Everywhere: universities, corporate labs, open-source repositories, startups, basements. The experiments are taking place inside and outside of companies, inside and outside the news industry (mostly outside), in Silicon Valley and out in the larger world. Many if not most of the valuable ideas, technologies and techniques are coming from projects whose creators have no journalistic intent — but whose work could and should be used in the journalism ecosystem.

Connecting dots

There’s a need for a new kind of initiative to help sort things out. It’s not a traditional Center or Institute.

Imagine the inverse of a big corporate R&D center, which tries to pick winners and makes relatively “safe” bets. Imagine, instead, a small team of, for lack of a better word, “connectors.” They identify interesting ideas, technologies and techniques — business models as well as editorial innovations — inside and outside the journalism sphere, but mostly outside. Then they connect these projects with people who can help make them part of tomorrow’s journalistic ecosystem.

Who are the connectors?

They understand technology at a reasonably deep level. It’s not necessary to be a programmer. But it’s vital to know how to a) ask the right questions of the right people; b) recognize innovative technology and business models when they see them; and c) have a sound sense of the difference between cool and useful.

They appreciate journalism’s essential role in society, and how the craft is changing.

They have a broad array of contacts in the technology, business, education, philanthropic, investor and other sectors; the ability to have an intelligent conversation with any of them; and the desire to follow the dots to wherever they lead.

They’re capable of being evangelists, selling all these people not just on the need to combine great ideas with journalism, but also to take risks in new areas.

Some principles of operation

  • An open process. Honor requests for NDAs prior to product launches, but the bias should be toward making everything available to anyone who’s interested. This would run contrary in many ways to the news industry’s traditional approach, but the tide is turning in a lot of shops where openness is correctly seen as an advantage.
  • Meet anyone, anywhere. Hold small news-focused workshops or mini-conferences to encourage more independent cross-fertilization. Might not be necessary given the explosion of startup camps, incubators, etc.
  • Measurement: Get the data, publish it and explore it as you go, and work with academics who are (at long last) turning to the real world for a lot of their research.


Traditional news organizations could really use this. I’m not saying they should stop doing their own R&D, but this would provide some better leverage for those budgets, to the extent they still exist. Only a few major organizations have what it takes to do this in-house.

Who else could use this?

Investors outside the journalism business. Angel investors and venture capitalists think “entertainment” when they think about media. They may be willing to place some of their high-risk, high-reward bets on projects that meet community information needs if they can be persuaded that there are also serious business models.

Non-media enterprises. More and more corporations and nonprofits of all stripes are creating media. If they can help support innovations that also serve journalistic purposes, everyone wins. If they can be persuaded of the value of applying journalistic principles to what they produce, all the better. (If newspapers can sell advertorials, uh, native content, by the bushel, why can’t they — transparently — partner with some of these other entities?)

Individual (or small-team) media creators who can invest only their time. An essential part of the connectors’ role would be to identify open-source and other such projects that regular folks or small teams can put to good community-information use. (This includes communities of interest, not just geography, but if something useful for one it’ll almost certainly be useful to the other.)

The catalyzing opportunities here are fairly amazing. It is definitely worth the effort, because the payoff for journalism could easily dwarf the investment.

I recognize that those latter entities are competing with newspapers and traditional media. But my goal isn’t to see newspapers survive — much as I still love what they do when they do it well and hope they’ll survive in some form. It’s to see that whatever comes out of this messy period has value to communities, investors and everyone else in the emerging ecosystem.

I’ve launched a new blog for my next book/web/whatever project, called “Permission Taken” — helping you use the technology you buy the way you want to use it, and to be safe and secure in the process. We’re losing control to centralized entities from companies to governments, and losing our privacy and security in the process.