Monday, February 27, 2023

Why Advertisers Aren’t to Blame for Mass Layoffs at NPR

More than 50 years on, it’s easy to wonder what went wrong with the
 Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, the legislation that created public media as we’ve come to know it in the United States. Despite the popular understanding that a healthy democracy requires a free press, the U.S. Congress remains reluctant to offer public subsidies for any journalism that doesn’t operate under the dictates of the commercial marketplace.

Nowhere is this more evident than in news from earlier this week that
 NPR plans to cut 10 percent of its staff to make up a budget shortfall of $30 million. The reason NPR’s chief executive gives for the layoffs is not the routine failure of Congress to fund public journalism at the level it needs, but a “sharp decline in our revenues from corporate sponsors.”

Say what?

“Despite being the wealthiest nation on the planet, the United States impoverishes its public media infrastructures,”
 writes Professor Victor Pickard, co-director of the Media, Inequality and Change Center at the University of Pennsylvania (and Free Press’ board chair). This has left nominally public-media outlets to fend for themselves in the marketplace. Outlets like NPR and PBS — as well as the many local stations affiliated with them — receive the “bulk of their funding in the form of private capital from individual contributors, foundations, and corporations,” he adds.

The net effect of this private-sector dependency is a public-media system that is by definition
 not noncommercial. And that affects not just the future of journalism in the United States but our democracy as well.

The Public Broadcasting Act is very clear on the matter: It amends a section of the 1934 Communications Act by inserting the word “noncommercial” to describe the type of radio and television outlets that would receive public funding from the newly created Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

It’s an insertion that underscores the Act’s goals: to set up a free and functional noncommercial media sector that could counterbalance the market-driven media that dominated the public sphere then as it dominates it now.

The poor antidote

The CPB was supposed to fund this antidote to profit-driven news and information. In the words of President Johnson, who signed the Public Broadcasting Act, this was about offering public support for media that serve “great and not the trivial purposes.”

But such greatness is hard to achieve with Congress’ paltry annual offering to the CPB:
 At $465 million in FY 2022, the public allocation boils down to a little more than $1.40 per person in the United States. By comparison, the United Kingdom spends more than $81 per person and France more than $75. Head further north and the numbers head north as well: Denmark’s per-person spending is more than $93, Finland’s more than $100 and Norway’s more than $110. And it isn’t just a European trend: Japan (+$53/capita) and South Korea (+$14) show their appreciation for publicly funded media at levels that put the U.S. outlay to shame.

This bleak math is all too familiar to those who follow public-media policy in the United States. Lawmakers here continue to believe that publicly funded media should remain subordinate to its corporate counterpart — and that the work of journalism is best suited to the private sector.

That doesn’t make sense. Commercial journalism
 has been in crisis for decades now, as popular news-consumption habits have changed and advertisers have had to find new ways to reach these consumers — including ways that don’t help fund the sorts of journalism that democracies need to stay healthy. Between 2008 and 2020, more than 1,000 U.S. newspapers ceased printing, and the number of newspaper newsroom employees shrank by more than half.

As the commercial model for news production falters, the last thing we should be doing is funding public-interest journalism at levels that force noncommercial outlets like NPR to mimic the for-profit news business. “Allowing our public media to become so dependent on advertising revenue (and other sources of private capital and ‘enhanced underwriting’) was always bad social policy,”
 Pickard wrote in response to my online comments about NPR’s current dilemma.

A 2021 study co-authored by Pickard and Professor Timothy Neff of the University of Leicester finds that more robust funding for public media strengthens a given country’s democracy — with increased public knowledge about civic affairs, more diverse media coverage and lower levels of extremist views.

Conversely, the loss of quality local journalism and investigative reporting has far-reaching societal harms. Josh Stearns of the Democracy Fund (and a former Free Press staff member) has cataloged the growing body of evidence showing that declines in local news and information lead to drops in civic engagement. “The faltering of newspapers, the consolidation of TV and radio, and the rising power of social media platforms are not just commercial issues driven by the market,”
 Stearns writes. “They are democratic issues with profound implications for our communities.”

Innovations in noncommercial media are poised to help fill the massive local news-and-information gap that the collapse of market-driven news models has created. But these innovative outlets require help via local, state and federal policies.

Global policies, local examples
As a start, Free Press Action has called for a quadrupling of public funds for noncommercial news and information. This kind of congressional commitment would recognize that depending on the private-sector and emulating commercial models isn’t a viable approach for the longevity of local news and information. To get there at the federal level, Free Press Action has proposed a new tax on digital advertising to fund the kinds of innovative news production that are now needed. A tax of 2 percent would generate more than $2 billion annually, enough to support new noncommercial-media models, and lessen any dependence on corporate underwriters for revenue.

Dramatically increasing public investment in locally engaged reporting would help support the wide array of new nonprofit outlets that are focused on meeting the information needs of communities that commercial media too often ignore. Many of these new models are profiled in
 The Roadmap for Local News, an actionable plan to ensure that every U.S. community has access to necessary public-interest news and information.

Co-authored by Elizabeth Green of Chalkbeat, Darryl Holliday of City Bureau and Mike Rispoli of Free Press,
 The Roadmap expands journalism’s forms into new and previously underserved communities while sharpening the definition of what it is for. It calls on lawmakers to cultivate and pass public policies that support the expansion of civic information while maintaining editorial independence.

In New Jersey, Free Press Action helped conceive and create the
 New Jersey Civic Information Consortium, an independent nonprofit funded by a state-budget appropriation. The consortium, whose board includes representatives from public colleges and universities across the state, supports inventive local-news projects like the Newark News & Story Collaborative and the Bloomfield Information Project, which train local residents to report the news from their own perspectives.

In California, Free Press Action supported state legislation that
 dedicated $25 million to fund local reporting in underserved and underrepresented communities statewide. The money will be distributed through a fellowship program housed at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. (Free Press’ Rispoli will serve on the program’s advisory board).

More than 50 years after the Public Broadcasting Act, Free Press is also looking 50 years into the future. Through the work of the
 Media 2070 project, Free Press envisions ways the media can serve as levers for racial justice. This includes engaging policymakers in the repair and reconciliation needed to redress centuries of harm news outlets have inflicted on Black communities.

As NPR struggles to find the revenue to keep its reporters on their beats, it shouldn’t see the problem as a failure to raise advertising revenue from corporate underwriters. It’s a failure to advocate for policies that would increase the public funding it and other noncommercial media outlets need to thrive.

If we’re serious about the future of journalism and civic information in the United States, we need to look locally for innovations in not-for-profit news, and abroad for examples of more robust ways to fund it.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Musk, Twitter and the Lessons not Learned

Research released Thursday by the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) offers the latest chapter in the rapid demise of Elon Musk’s Twitter: Major advertisers — including those featured during this weekend’s Super Bowl — are paying the social network millions of dollars to drag their brands through the platform’s toxic sludge.

The research features screen grabs of instances where Twitter has displayed ads from brands including Amazon, Apple TV, Merrill Lynch, the NFL and Prime Video next to tweets from self-proclaimed neo-Nazis and others known for publishing hateful content and dangerous conspiracy theories. It’s a rogues’ gallery that includes misogynist and suspected sex-trafficker Andrew Tate, white supremacist Andrew Anglin, disinformation website Gateway Pundit and COVID conspiracy theorist Rogan O’Handley (aka “DC Draino”).

Musk reinstated each of the 10 inflammatory accounts that CCDH surveyed after he took control of Twitter last fall — even though each had previously committed multiple gross violations of Twitter policies designed to protect users from the spread of hate and disinformation.

The Twitter exodus
Musk’s takeover of the platform met with a public outcry at the end of 2022 as he rolled back user protections, laid off (or chased out) nearly three-quarters of Twitter’s staff, and threatened to “name and shame” advertisers who joined the mass exodus.

More than
 500 advertisers have abandoned the platform, fearing that their brands wouldn’t be safe under Musk’s erratic leadership. Their departure resulted in a 70-percent drop in Twitter’s December revenue over the previous year, according to Standard Media Index.

Twitter and Musk were counting on
 Super Bowl-related ad buys to stop the hemorrhaging of dollars and help the company meet its interest obligation to the banks that financed Musk’s $44-billion purchase of the platform. But many of these brands are reluctant to return to Twitter without conditions.

According to
 Erin Woo at The Information, some Super Bowl advertisers have tucked language into their Twitter contracts that allows them to cancel their ad deals if Musk undermines preexisting Twitter policies “designed to protect advertisers from having their ads run against unsavory content.”

JLo, Chalamet and the ‘hellscape’
The CCDH research documents Musk’s failure to meet this condition: Amazon Prime Video ads appear next to sexist content; Peacock-TV ads appear adjacent to racial slurs; Apple TV ads run up against Russian propaganda; and an NFL Super Bowl promotion runs adjacent to some of the most misleading COVD disinformation.

 this is just the tip of the hellscape. CCDH surveyed only 10 of the thousands of bad actors that Musk has reportedly invited back to Twitter since he took the helm.

Researchers looked only at ads from eight companies.
 According to the analysis, continuing to place these ads next to the accounts of these 10 bad actors alone could generate up to $19 million in annual advertising revenue for Twitter. In other words: Major advertisers are giving Musk millions to place their brands adjacent to Twitter’s most toxic content.

In one example, an Amazon Prime ad promoting a film starring Jennifer Lopez appears next to a tweet from neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin in which he claims that the “only career that a woman is actually capable of on merit is prostitution.”

In another, an Apple ad featuring actor Timothée Chalamet is displayed next to a tweet in which conspiracy theorist Rogan O’Handley promotes the debunked claim that Ukraine was developing biological weapons with the assistance of the U.S. government.

When the #StopToxicTwitter campaign formed last year,
 we called on Twitter advertisers to pause advertising on the platform unless and until Musk enforces common-sense guardrails that will protect the health and safety of users.

Content moderation is good business
In failing to do this, Musk is ignoring a fundamental truth: to grow healthy and profitable online communities, you need effective content moderation.

If Twitter becomes insolvent — which seems more likely by the day — it’ll be because Musk lacks this basic business sense about social media, and refuses to learn from the
 years of mistakes and (occasional) fixes made by his predecessors at Twitter, Meta, YouTube and other platforms.

“It’s kind of a rite of passage for any new social media network,”
 writes Mike Masnick about the content-moderation learning curve. “They show up, insist that they’re the ‘platform for free speech’ without quite understanding what that actually means, and then they quickly discover a whole bunch of fairly fundamental ideas, institute a bunch of rapid (often sloppy) changes … and in the end, they basically all end up in the same general vicinity.”

“Brands shouldn’t let their money fuel Twitter’s toxicity,” Free Press Co-CEO Jessica Gonzalez said on Thursday. “They must act now by putting their money where their values are — and not in the hands of Elon Musk and his dangerous band of liars and extremists.”

In his desperation to turn things around at Twitter, Musk remains reluctant and unwilling to make the changes that would help gain more trust from the platform’s users and ensure the safety of its advertisers’ brands.

“Companies that continue to play his game are only hurting their own brand and bottom line,” said Nicole Gill, executive director of Accountable Tech. “It’s time for companies to stop funding Musk’s toxic Twitter. Full stop.”

Given the strong Super Bowl presence of Apple and the NFL, the #StopToxicTwitter coalition will focus increased public pressure on these two companies, urging them to join the exodus of advertisers.

These and other brands have an enormous influence on Musk.
 They must step up during the Super Bowl and after to teach him a lesson: Twitter’s business will live or die on the decisions he makes or doesn’t make about content moderation. Those few advertisers that remain are complicit in the extremism and lies that are taking over Musk’s Twitter.