Last year All Digitocracy published a piece about the lack of diversity at the invitation-only UNconference, Newsgeist. The annual event, hosted by Google and the Knight Foundation, brings together the top innovators in digital news media. This year the exclusive conference distinguished itself by being more inclusive than any other previous year. Organizers even invited Black Lives Matter activists — who came — a coup all by itself and a sign that Newsgeist organizers worked hard to be more diverse this year.
I too was invited, but can’t share direct quotes from Newsgeist participants because we were asked by organizers to abide by the Chatham House Rule, which allows attendees to freely use information from the meeting, but not to reveal the identities or affiliations of the speakers or participants. However, there is a list of some of the more prominent invitees floating around on Twitter. We were also told that Google’s new fast-loading page tool, AMP’d, came out of a previous Newsgeist. But this year I’m unsure whether any new tools or answers surfaced.
Anyway, as the saying goes, “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” But since Newsgeist took place in Phoenix, Ariz., here are a few things that I saw and heard at the private affair.
This year black and brown journalists were in the house (see above), and we talked extensively about diversity in news media, biased reporting and the ethics of Newsgeist itself. As expected, the presence of these journalists brought in whole new perspectives: When it comes to journalism being an institution of authority, we asked whose authority; when it came to questioning the goal of objectivity among journalists, journalists from foreign news outlets giggled at how we American news media types twist ourselves into knots trying to achieve the impossible. They know what many journalists of color know, when it comes to reporting, journalists almost always bring their own set of biases to bear on their work and that there is really no such thing as objectivity in journalism. Objective standards that we should apply to the process of doing our jobs, yes, but pure objectivity for objectivity’s sake doesn’t exist. Black, brown and international journalists questioned the manner in which U.S. media crafts narratives around communities and people they obviously do not know and have not spent time getting to know. And finally, we talked about recruiting journalists of color. Not just young journalists who white managers can mold in their own image, but middle managers and editors who may add depth and nuance to news coverage. For some these were eye-opening conversations. For others, not so much.
I led a session on crowdfunding, and the ethics we are now encountering when it comes to funding journalism in this way. For example, The Huffington Post doesn’t need the money, but it has now crowdfunded a second year of covering police and Ferguson, Missouri. Why isn’t it budgeting for such a beat? Texas Tribune too, another one that isn’t really hurting for cash, is crowdfunding coverage it would normally do anyway, including a series on immigration (also see here and here). So why do it? Simple, crowdfunding is fast becoming not THE revenue-stream, but yet another revenue stream for big media companies. At the same time, the Federal Trade Commission and other government agencies are now paying closer attention to crowdfunding campaigns, and rightly so. If companies get money from crowdsourcing, donors should be assured that the money is being used precisely as promised, and donors need to know that if they give money to for-profit media concerns, that these contributions likely will not qualify as tax deductions.
Which brings me to another important topic that came up during the conference: Are journalists who attend Newsgeist selling out to Google?
While I don’t believe Newsgeist has been bought off by Google (I don’t think that Google, or any of its competitors, necessarily want journalists or journalism for that matter as we are simply a means to an end), I do believe Google and other platforms that control the distribution of journalism content, including Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Snapchat, need to split a greater share of their revenues with journalists. I attended a session on “How Journalists Can Better Communicate With Silicon Valley” just for this reason.
The session, I thought, would be focused on how journalists can improve relationships with Facebook, Google, Twitter and other platforms. Instead, participants mostly discussed how Google might train journalists in coding and computer programming. For the record, Google and Twitter representatives aren’t interested in training journalists in how to write code. They instructed us to send them our software engineers instead (snickers). After listening to this conversation go on and on, I finally broached the subject that should have been on everyone’s minds: Revenue sharing. A Google representative touted the ways his company already shares revenue (Google Ads), but admitted that the tech giant (Google still insists that it is not a media company) can do better. One Twitter representative also wanted journalists in the room to know that they are working on new products, and new ways, to ensure certain content providers receive a fairer revenue share for their works. Certain content providers, not all (sorry small and independent news publishers). And hence, another huge part of the problem. Another challenge, among many, that we couldn’t, or didn’t, solve.
There’s always next year. I’ll let you know what happens, that’s if I am invited back.