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Real News


I’m proud that we at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism and the Tow-Knight Center just announced the creation of the News Integrity Initiative, charged with finding ways to better inform the public conversation and funded thus far with $14 million by nine foundations and companies, all listed on the press release. Here I want to tell its story.

This began after the election when my good friend Craig Newmark — who has been generously supporting work on trust in news — challenged us to address the problem of mis- and disinformation. There is much good work being done in this arena — from the First Draft Coalition, the Trust Project, Dan Gillmor’s work at ASU bringing together news literacy efforts, and the list goes on. Is there room for more?

I saw these needs and opportunities:

  • First, much of the work to date is being done from a media perspective. I want to explore this issue from a public perspective — not just about getting the public to read our news but more about getting media to listen to the public. This is the philosophy behind the Social Journalism program Carrie Brown runs at CUNY, which is guided by Jay Rosen’s summary of James Carey: “The press does not ‘inform’ the public. It is ‘the public’ that ought to inform the press. The true subject matter of journalism is the conversation the public is having with itself.” We must begin with the public conversation and must better understand it.
  • Second, I saw that the fake news brouhaha was focusing mainly on media and especially on Facebook — as if they caused it and could fix it. I wanted to expand the conversation to include other affected and responsible parties: ad agencies, brands, ad networks, ad technology, PR, politics, civil society.
  • Third, I wanted to shift the focus of our deliberations from the negative to the positive. In this tempest, I see the potential for a flight to quality — by news users, advertisers, platforms, and news organizations. I want to see how we can exploit this moment.
  • Fourth, because there is so much good work — and there are so many good events (I spent about eight weeks of weekends attending emergency fake news conferences) — we at the Tow-Knight Center wanted to offer to convene the many groups attacking this problem so we could help everyone share information, avoid duplication, and collaborate. We don’t want to compete with any of them, only to help them. At Tow-Knight, under the leadership of GM Hal Straus, we have made the support of professional communities of practice — so far around product development, audience development and membership, commerce, and internationalization — key to our work; we want to bring those resources to the fake news fight.

My dean and partner in crime, Sarah Bartlett, and I formulated a proposal for Craig. He quickly and generously approved it with a four-year grant.

And then my phone rang. Or rather, I got a Facebook message from the ever-impressive Áine Kerr, who manages journalism partnerships there. Facebook had recently begun working with fact-checking agencies to flag suspect content; it started its Journalism Project; and it held a series of meetings with news organizations to share what it is doing to improve the lot of news on the platform.

Áine said Facebook was looking to do much more in collaboration with others and that led to a grant to fund research, projects, and convenings under the auspices of what Craig had begun.

Soon, more funders joined: John Borthwick of Betaworks has been a supporter of our work since we collaborated on a call to cooperate against fake news. Mozilla agreed to collaborate on projects. Darren Walker at the Ford Foundation generously offered his support, as did the two funders of the center I direct, the Knight and Tow foundations. Brian O’Kelley, founder of AppNexus, and the Democracy Fund joined as well. More than a dozen additional organizations — all listed in the release — said they would participate as well. We plan to work with many more organizations as advisers, funders, and grantees.


Now let me get right to the questions I know you’re ready to tweet my way, particularly about one funder: Have I sold out to Facebook? Well, in the end, you will be the judge of that. For a few years now, I have been working hard to try to build bridges between the publishers and the platforms and I’ve had the audacity to tell both Facebook and Google what I think they should do for journalism. So when Facebook knocks on the door and says they want to help journalism, who am I to say I won’t help them help us? When Google started its Digital News Initiative in Europe, I similarly embraced the effort and I have been impressed at the impact it has had on building a productive relationship between Google and publishers.

Sarah and I worked hard in negotiations to assure CUNY’s and our independence. Facebook — and the other funders and participants present and future — are collaborators in this effort. But we designed the governance to assure that neither Facebook nor any other funder would have direct control over grants and to make sure that we would not be put in a position of doing anything we did not want to do. Note also that I am personally receiving no funds from Facebook, just as I’ve never been paid by Google (though I have had travel expenses reimbursed). We hope to also work with multiple platforms in the future; discussions are ongoing. I will continue to criticize and defend them as deserved.

My greatest hope is that this Initiative will provide the opportunity to work with Facebook and other platforms on reimagining news, on supporting innovation, on sharing data to study the public conversation, and on supporting news literacy broadly defined.


The work has already begun. A week and a half ago, we convened a meeting of high-level journalists and representatives from platforms (both Facebook and Google), ad agencies, brands, ad networks, ad tech, PR, politics, researchers, and foundations for a Chatham-House-rule discussion about propaganda and fraud (née “fake news”). We looked at research that needs to be done and at public education that could help.

The meeting ended with a tangible plan. We will investigate gathering and sharing many sets of signals about both quality and suspicion that publishers, platforms, ad networks, ad agencies, and brands can use — according to their own formulae — to decide not just what sites to avoid but better yet what journalism to support. That’s the flight to quality I have been hoping to see. I would like us to support this work as a first task of our new Initiative.

We will fund research. I want to start by learning what we already know about the public conversation: what people share, what motivates them to share it, what can have an impact on informing the conversation, and so on. We will reach out to the many researchers working in this field — danah boyd (read her latest!) of Data & Society, Zeynep Tufekci of UNC, Claire Wardle of First Draft, Duncan Watts and David Rothschild of Microsoft Research, Kate Starbird (who just published an eye-opening paper on alternative narratives of news) of the University of Washington, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen of the Reuters Institute, Charlie Beckett of POLIS-LSE, and others. I would like us to examine what it means to be informed so we can judge the effectiveness of our — indeed, of journalism’s — work.

We will fund projects that bring journalism to the public and the conversation in new ways.

We will examine new ways to achieve news literacy, broadly defined, and investigate the roots of trust and mistrust in news.

And we will help convene meetings to look at solutions — no more whining about “fake news,” please.

We will work with organizations around the world; you can see a sampling of them in the release and we hope to work with many more: projects, universities, companies, and, of course, newsrooms everywhere.

We plan to be very focused on a few areas where we can have a measurable impact. That said, I hope we also pursue the high ambition to reinvent journalism for this new age.

But we’re not quite ready. This has all happened very quickly. We are about to start a search for a manager to run this effort with a small staff to help with information sharing and events. As soon as we begin to identify key areas, we will invite proposals. Watch this space.