Microsoft’s update on efforts to preserve, protect local newsrooms

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By Mary Snapp
Vice President, Strategic Initiatives, Microsoft

[This month] the Pulitzer Prizes recognized the 105th class of journalists winning awards for reporting on some of the most important issues of our time: the pandemic, racial inequity and the integrity of elections. Journalists were recognized from large and small newsrooms, from traditional and, for the first time, digital newsrooms. I am reminded both of how journalism has evolved with technology yet has stayed true to reporting on critical issues for our country. Still, it’s hard to think about this celebration of the best of journalism without also thinking about the continued challenges journalists and newsrooms are facing. Over the last decade, the number of newspaper reporters has more than halved, dropping from 71,000 in 2010 to more than 35,000 today. In the past year alone, 70 more local newsrooms closed. The distinguished Poynter Institute’s nonprofit newsroom tracks a list of newsroom closures, layoffs and furloughs, and says, “It’s getting hard to keep track of the bad news about news right now. But we have to.”

In October 2020, Microsoft launched our Journalism Initiative to help stem this bad news. It works to combat disinformation, expand news distribution and pilot a new community-based program that looks at ways to provide journalists and newsrooms new tools, technology and capacity in order to expand reach and efficiency for local news outlets. Over the past eight months, I have had the privilege of meeting with dedicated local publishers, editors and journalists, as well as community and national foundations, about how we can all do more to strengthen and support journalism. The grit, passion and dedication local journalists have for their communities shines through in the important stories they’re telling. While I recognize the challenges ahead, I’m inspired and even optimistic about the innovation, experimentation and hard work local newsrooms are investing in strengthening journalism.

I want to share some of the progress we and our partners have made over the past eight months and what we learned, and how our Journalism Initiative is growing. We’ve expanded our local journalism pilot to include Northeast Wisconsin. Reporters taking part in the pilots have participated in trainings spanning issues from data journalism to protecting themselves from cyberthreats. We’re also partnering with Report for America to support five U.S. newsrooms, a majority of which are in rural communities. The pro bono program providing legal support to journalists in smaller newsrooms is expanding with the help of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and continued support of Davis Wright Tremaine and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

We certainly don’t have all the answers, but we will continue to listen, learn and engage in ways we hope will be useful to others.

Supporting local newsrooms
In October 2020, we announced our local journalism pilots in: Fresno, California; Yakima, Washington; El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico; and Jackson, Mississippi; and we’ve expanded it to include Northeast Wisconsin. We’re working in partnership with local community foundations to support local newsrooms with the aim of helping them use the latest tools and technology to tell stories in new ways, experiment with new revenue streams and funding models, and work together with community organizations. We are bringing technical expertise to the pilot community newsrooms and partnering with other industry organizations and foundations to share expertise and experience that will further expand the reach and impact of the initiative. Our first eight months have been about progress, learning and making connections.

Local communities understand how important their local news is, that it reflects their identities and creates a common understanding of the issues most important in their regions. When we first started talking with our pilot communities, what stood out was how excited and open they were to learning, experimenting and innovating to help their local newsrooms strengthen and thrive. What was needed was a convener to bring them together, connect them with new technology and expertise, and provide funding to seed the pilot.

Community foundations, newsrooms and colleges that joined the local news pilots quickly started organizing and collaborating. Local newsrooms are enthusiastically working together to report and tell stories about their communities in new ways. For instance, the Yakima Herald and Mississippi Today are producing data-driven journalism, creating and including data visualizations in their reporting. These are among the skills covered in a training we hosted, enabling the use of new tools and technologies in their reporting.

We’re seeing newsrooms that once competed for stories now sharing content. In El Paso, the news collaborative undertook a two-week series of bilingual multimedia stories looking at how the pandemic impacted the Borderplex region. Bob Moore, a leader of the collaboration and founder of the digital native newsroom El Paso Matters summed it up well when he said, “Barriers are breaking down, which is an important goal of this collaboration. Lots of work ahead, but this is a good start.”

The news cooperatives have worked independently to deliver deeply reported, compelling stories on issues including affordable housing in Northeast Wisconsin, misinformation and fears of the Covid-19 vaccine among Hispanic and Latinx communities in California’s Central Valley, expanding Medicaid during the pandemic in Mississippi, difficulties in getting access to health care in the Yakima Valley here in the Pacific Northwest, the disparity in vaccine distribution on the U.S.-Mexico border, and more.

We’ve also convened a series of sessions with pilot participants from different regions so they can get together to share best practices and learn from and connect with each other. We’ve also hosted a series of technology trainings in data journalism, cross-group collaboration and audio production.

Some of the community foundations are using our investment as validation of their community news approach and leveraging it to secure additional investment. For instance, in Fresno, CalWellness has made a sizeable grant to support a local newsroom affiliated with the pilot. This investment to local organizations in a regional news pilot is what community-based journalism is about.

New partners
While local journalism is struggling across the country, rural America has been hit especially hard and the lack of local journalism can literally have life and death consequences. The Brookings Institution undertook an analysis of the counties that reported early coronavirus cases and found that two-thirds of them were in rural areas, yet more than half of those had no local daily newspaper. We’re seeing community leaders use op-eds with localized messaging in their local newspapers to encourage people to be vaccinated. But that’s not possible in communities without a local newspaper.

Helping to support and strengthen journalism in rural communities is one of our priorities. We are working with Report for America, a national service program and an initiative of the GroundTruth project, which places emerging journalists into local newsrooms across the country to report on under-covered issues. Together, we’re working to build capacity, provide technology and training in five local newsrooms: The Wichita Eagle in Wichita, Kansas; KOSU Radio in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Nogales International in Nogales, Arizona; the California News Desert & Trust Initiative in Visalia, California; and the Mountain State Spotlight in Charleston, West Virginia. Our investment in Report for America will support a journalist’s salary in each one of these newsrooms for a year, as well as program costs such as training, mentorship, editing support and operations for the cohort.

Earlier this year, Microsoft Philanthropies granted $1 million to The Seattle Times, a cornerstone in the community where our Washington state employees live and work. This grant will create three new local reporting positions: one covering city, regional and state politics; another covering the post-Covid economic recovery; and a graphics reporter focused on presenting news in engaging visual formats. In the coming weeks, we’ll share some exciting details about a new collaboration with the American Journalism Project, with whom we share a commitment to rebuilding local journalism.

Legal assistance for journalists
Whether it’s the Pentagon Papers, reporting on water quality in Flint, Michigan, or police reform in Vallejo, California, lawyers have long supported journalists’ rights to access public information and publish investigative reporting. Unfortunately, newsrooms increasingly can’t afford the legal support needed to sort through difficult legal processes and public records to undertake investigative reporting, thus chilling transparency and accountability. To help address this need, in partnership with Davis Wright Tremaine, last year we piloted the Protecting Journalists Pro Bono Program to work with reporters and small news organizations to help them defend their legal rights and deliver quality journalism. This year, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is joining the partnership. And today we’re excited to announce that we’re expanding the program with a $245,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The Protecting Journalists Pro Bono Program uses a pool of more than 80 volunteers from Davis Wright Tremaine and Microsoft who provide reporters with free legal support for pre-publication review, access to public records and subpoena defense – regardless of the point of view of the reporter. The program receives pro bono client referrals from the Reporters Committee and the First Amendment Coalition, as well as from other sources. Additionally, it works directly with a select group of digital newsrooms, providing free legal support in these same areas of the law.

One of the things our volunteers have been struck by is that nearly every small newsroom and journalist we’ve engaged with has said that access to legal support is one of their biggest needs. For instance, the pro bono program has helped Open Vallejo, an independent, nonprofit newsroom in Vallejo that focuses on public interest investigations. Their executive editor says, “Nearly every article Open Vallejo publishes requires legal review, and every subject we have covered thus far has proved litigious, at least in spirit; to date, no one has challenged a single fact we have published.”

Security and safety
Journalists are increasingly targeted and threatened, both physically and in cyberspace. It has become such an acute problem that, late last year, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, spoke out on the issue. She said, “When journalists are targeted in the context of protests and criticism, these attacks are intended to silence all of civil society and this is of deep concern.” Just as journalists wear protective gear such as helmets and vests when covering a combat zone, they must also protect their computers and phones from theft, damage and hacking. One of the focus areas of our journalism initiative is to use our technology and expertise to help address the security and safety of journalists.

In addition to the expansion of AccountGuard, which we announced in October to help protect journalists from cyberattacks, we have also trained more than 150 reporters from our five pilot locations on best practices, including how to protect themselves from cyberthreats. The training includes topics such as threat landscape, web security and protecting oneself from phishing, social engineering malware and more. We have also provided training on hybrid threats – when malicious actors use disinformation campaigns and cybersecurity threats to achieve their goal. This training was developed specifically for journalists in collaboration with PolitiFact and the Poynter Institute to address how hybrid threats impact journalism and the actions journalists can take to mitigate them.

Trust and integrity
Synthetic or artificially produced and manipulated media, like deepfake videos, present a major risk to journalism and democracy. It is hard for people to know their community, let alone vote, when they do not agree on a common set of facts. Earlier this year, we joined forces with the BBC, Adobe, Arm, Intel, Twitter and Truepic to create the Coalition for Content Provenance and Authenticity, C2PA.org, which will develop standards on content provenance and authentication. This represents a coalition working to re-establish trust in digital content via methods that authenticate the sources and trace the evolution of the information that we consume. Additionally, our Defending Democracy team expanded our partnership with NewsGuard, which empowers voters by providing them with high-quality information about the integrity and transparency of online news sites.

We’re just getting started
In our first eight months, we’re increasingly encouraged and determined to help and strengthen journalism. We recognize that no one company or organization can do it alone. We are committed to continuing to use our technology, tools, expertise and partnerships to help ensure journalism’s vitality for years to come. We’ll continue to share what has worked, the challenges that have arisen and what we learned from them in hope they help others. Strengthening journalism and, as a result, strengthening democracy will take systemic change and the commitment of organizations around the world. We have the determination to help drive this change, and we’re just getting started.