Sips from the Firehose
A blog that seeks to filter the internet into a refreshing, easily-gulped beverage


Dec 01

Solutions to Fake News 1: Deny Lie Merchants Access to Premium Ad Revenue

Posted: under adsense clickfraud, advertising, Digital Migration, journalism, new media, Politics & New Media.
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Is a market-based solution the best way to solve the fake news problem?

There’s been a sudden realization outside the cozy confines of digital business model nerds, that the open nature of the web has allowed an entire class of scammers to establish themselves, grow, and flourish.

journalist taking notes rather than creating fake news stories

Actual journalists take notes and try to verify information before publishing. Fake News sites just make stuff up.

The end result of this has been that a substantial percentage of the U.S. public can no longer distinguish fact from fantasy. And they then vote accordingly. This is generally seen as a Bad Thing. Not just because one particular political party lost the recent election – if anything, the GOP is as up in arms over this as the Democrats, because they see their voting base as unruly and detached from reality, due to their reliance on fake news stories. The end game of an entire voting population lost to fantasy is that the country, already borderline ungovernable, becomes so splintered that it starts making really idiotic decisions (“Let’s invade Guatemala! They’re sending us Snake People disguised as immigrants!”).

A lot of journalism pundits have started to pile on, as the stories about scammers (and let’s just coin this phrase right here and now: LIE MERCHANTS) surface, and their behavior becomes more and more brazen. The last few weeks have seen:

  1. Lie Merchants using “typo-squatting” to impersonate the USA Today or ABC news, in order to promulgate fantasies, such as protesters getting paid $3,500 apiece by George Soros to protest Trump’s election.
  2. Two nitwit brothers in Long Beach who gleefully seize on actual news events, and create elaborate, hateful conspiracy theories around them, which they then promote on Facebook, all to drive traffic to their LibertyWritersNews site, making up to $12,000 a week on ads.
  3. Unemployed Macedonian musicians exploiting the anti-Clinton hatred whipped up by Fox News and talk radio, fabricating “exposes” about child sex rings and devil worship so they can pay for amps and guitars.

A history of fake news reporting here on Sips

I’ve written about these kinds of scams here on Sips.

I even wrote an entire book about the tabloid industry back in the 90s, because I saw the entire news industry going off the rails, and pursuing lurid stories in their desperate efforts to satisfy the corporate profit imperatives.

Lately, I’ve been writing about the vast Clickfraud industry that steals an estimated 33% of online ad revenues from honest content producers.

All these trend lines have converged this year, and resulted in a toxic mess. We now have the worst of both worlds: the Lie Merchants are making coin hand over fist, because they spend nothing on reporting, research, fact-checking, interviews, verification, travel to personally witness events, or any of the other costs of an actual, functioning news organization.

Meanwhile, actual journalists are being fired in droves, because the public has become so addicted to these fantasies, that they now reject any hint that the disgusting lies they are fed via rabid AM-radio hosts, email chains, Facebook, Breitbart comment threads, etc. etc. — are not based in objective reality. From the BuzzFeed investigation:

Pages like Freedom Daily play to the biases of their audiences — and to those of Facebook’s News Feed algorithm — by sharing videos, photos, and links that demonize opposing points of view. They write explosive headlines and passages that urge people to click and share in order to show their support, or to express outrage. And in this tense and polarizing presidential election season, they continue to grow and gain influence.

There are a lot of solutions being bandied about, but today I will focus on one that to me, shows a lot of promise: cutting these Lie Merchants off from the advertising revenue that sustains their operations. This will necessitate some kind of human intervention; we are going to need to come up with a human-intermediated way of validating people who produce actual, factual, news.

The opening shot in this burgeoning war was fired by online ad-tech outfit DoubleVerify, with their DV Digital Impression Quality product, which purports to be able to block advertiser’s money flowing to fake news sites by blocking their ads from being displayed on Lie Merchant sites via the (broken, but that’s a different subject) ad exchanges.

Can a market-based solution to Lie Merchants work? Well, one of the biggest obstacles is going to be the public’s appetite for such ugly, idiotic brain fodder. But if we choke off the reason these fake news sites exist in the first place – that they are wildly profitable – then we are going to take an important step towards cleaning up the online news space.

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Feb 20

Should Local News Be Marketed as “Infrastructure”?

Posted: under Digital Migration, newspaper crisis, Newspaper Deathwatch, Newspapers.
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Ken Doctor at Neiman’s “Newsonomics” points out that the “self-asphyxiation” cycle is nearing endgame

I cross-posted a response to this on Facebook, so if you’ve already seen it there from me, my apologies.

pile of newspapers on fire

Fahrenheit 451 should not have been a documentary of what the future was going to be like.

But I’ve been watching the gradual descent of local news for most of the past 20 years, and the latest round-up by Doctor basically sums up everything that I’ve been fearing. A sampling:

While national/global news companies have cut their newsrooms, they have still maintained sufficient capacity to make their news brands valuable in the digital age. It’s not just the numbers of journalists: It’s a good mix of veteran experienced journalists who know their beats deeply and younger journalists, still early in their careers but natively more digitally inclined.

At the local press, it’s a different picture. As newsrooms have halved, older, experienced journalists have been disproportionately made to feel redundant, and then made sent off. The main reason: money. Older journalists earn more of it, and their cutting makes short-term financial sense.

The result: a disaster whose death spiral seems to be accelerating. When I’ve given talks, I’ve gotten a lot of nods from people in the industry when I show one single slide: A two-liter bottle of Coke selling for $1 next to a one-liter bottle priced at $2. That’s essentially what local publishers have done in product and pricing of print over the last five years, doubled the price and halved the product, a halving that, of course, carries through to their digital offerings.

Any company that disrespects its own products, and those who produce them, probably deserves its eventual fate.

(snip)

Yes, money matters, but it’s that beating heart of the business — creating news that local citizens need to run their governments and better their lives — that still has to be an antidote to the single-minded financial view of local news. (If “the market” won’t support local news, many have said to me, than maybe it isn’t needed. I ask them: If the same were true of education, the arts, or even roads, where would our struggling democracy be?) [Ed. note: emphasis mine.]

Where is the moral center of the local news industry — a moral center that long rested, if sometimes uncomfortably, alongside the demands of running a successful business?

While I agree with all the points Ken makes, there is one bit that jumped out: his equating of the news with schools, roads, bridges, etc. Yes, we all agree that we need a group societal effort to build & maintain these things, and that as a result, we all benefit from their existence. Thing is: the average citizen can SEE the roads/schools decaying, and is motivated to action. Lack of local news coverage only becomes a crisis when suddenly we wake up to lead in our water. The news industry, if it is going to transition from ad-supported to a more direct “charge the readers” model, is going to have to get on the stick and market itself better; make a case to the readers that they NEED local news coverage as a form of insurance policy.

Because meanwhile, over at the Shorenstein Center, we’ve got Walter V. Robinson talking about the “Spotlight” movie about the Catholic Church’s coverup of sex predator priests, and how the erosion of business models has particularly devastated investigative reporting. And yes, full disclosure, I started my career as an investigative journalist before going over to the digital zoo, so I have perhaps a skewed view of how important enterprise/watchdog/investigative journalism is to the health of a democracy. Still:

Unfortunately, investigative reporting is threatened in many cities, said Robinson. Although the Globe has partnered with Participant Media and other funders to offer a new investigative reporting fellowship, many local newspapers will no longer invest the time and resources required for stories that can take months of reporting, said Robinson.

“The prevailing view among editors is ‘investigative reporting is a luxury we can no longer afford’…The fact is, investigative reporting is a necessity that we cannot afford to do without.” Robinson said that in the face of declining revenue in the past decade, cutting investigative reporting was a “fundamental mistake.” Readers “almost always” rank investigative reporting highly in surveys, said Robinson.

“The amount of investigative reporting being done now in most cities is a small fraction of what it was in the year 2000,” he said. “In many communities even city hall doesn’t get covered. So the whistleblower who knows about official corruption in city hall has no one to go to…that’s a really serious problem for our democracy right now.”

So here’s my thought: what would be the best way for journalists and news organizations to start making a case for themselves? We’ve seen how well fear-mongering via news outlets works for moving the public to devote spectacular amounts of time, money and energy into heading off perceived threats. The Iraq war, Ebola, the wall at the border with Mexico, the gold standard, handgun seizures … all “crises” driven by media coverage that spurred Americans to either demand the government spend billions (trillion?) to kieep them safe, or got them to reach into their pockets, pull out their wallets, and spend a sizable percentage of their disposable income on something that would Keep Them Safe.

I don’t think we should get as crude and manipulative as many of these campaigns have been. But could there – should there – be a reminder in the middle of each news broadcast/article/infographic, making it explicit that this coverage just saved ordinary Americans from “X” and that to continue to do so, we need you the viewers/listeners/readers to support us in this manner.

And then lay out what might happen if the audience does not. Make it explicit, in the way that a collapsed bridge, or gradeschool on fire, or highway full of potholes does for the average, distracted American, who only has time to respond to direct threats to his/her existence.

Our audience is starved for time, and thousands (millions?) of new digital experiences are screaming for their attention (and money). News is too often marketed as “cod-liver oil” – it tastes like shit, but it’s good for you. I think we need to revisit that paradigm, and start figuring out better ways to make people appreciate what the news, and aggressive, honest local news coverage, does for them.

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Apr 08

What is “native advertising” anyway?

Posted: under advertising, Digital Migration.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

The IAB has published their view. I have my own opinion.

One of the biggest problems with “native advertising” is that it is such a new, made-up term of digital art, that it’s taken on an Alice in Wonderland-esque quality, in which the phrase means whatever the speaker thinks it means in that moment, while the listener pretty much has their own interpretation.

 “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

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