Submitted on Tue, June 26, 2012
Seven years after founding NewsTrust, a pioneering effort to advance quality journalism, Ashoka Fellow Fabrice Florin is handing the reins over to the Poynter Institute. Florin, formally a founding member of Apple’s Multimedia Lab, created NewsTrust to help citizens separate fact from fiction in the information they consume. NewsTrust offers a daily feed of articles that citizens have reviewed for fairness, sourcing, and context. But Florin couldn’t financially sustain and grow the nonprofit. Here, in his own words, is what he’s learned from the journey.
News literacy needs a 500-year plan*
News consumers suffer from two major issues: confirmation bias—seeking news that reinforces your viewpoints—and blind faith—believing information that is confirmed by your preexisting viewpoints. Humans have made little progress in finding solutions to address these fundamental flaws in human nature and, during today’s rise of journalism of assertion rather than verification, the issues are only going to grow. A news literate society can only be the product of behavioral and cultural shifts that occur over generations. I often scare potential funders by telling them that because of this, a 500 year plan is needed. At NewsTrust, we attack through the lens of journalism, but it’s a much deeper problem. It has to do with finding the right trade offs between beliefs and the ability to reason. We need our beliefs to function in society but they can cloud our judgments, so finding the right balance between the two is fundamental to the development of civilization and society.
(*Kidding. Sort of.)
We still need a new journalism ecosystem
With the rise of citizen publishers, there will be more and more information that’s questionable and that has to be well vetted. Citizens have a duty to be more involved in the active consumption of information. Evaluation of information accuracy and neutrality shouldn’t be done only by technology or professionals, but also by amateur readers who then provide quality feedback on the information producer’s work. In turn, amateur authors need to accept and act on the feedback. A partnership between the active reader and well-intentioned publisher will create strides in achieving quality news.
Ideally, the work of amateurs should have professional oversight. In cases where you can’t have professionals working with individuals, then well thought-out and communicated editorial guidelines need to be in place so citizens can apply them. Wikipedia is an example of a nonprofit service that has evolved a set of policies to help ensure that the quality of articles can be checked. There are policies that support the citing of sources, provision of context, and reports from a neutral point of view. These policies help citizens build a reliable Encyclopedia without the intervention of professionals.
Nonprofits and scale don’t (easily) mix
A nonprofit must be managed like a business. You can’t assume that donors or charities will propel you. I started NewsTrust in 2005 when the country was more prosperous. When I initially wrote the business plan, I was looking at a $5 million investment to make it run efficiently, but we were only able to raise $1.5 to 2 million. I was under the impression that it would be possible to raise the funds without having a strong business model that would generate revenue independently. But it proved very difficult. Philanthropy is like herding cats. When groups do support you they only do so for a few years and then hope you’ll take off on your own. People in philanthropy have the best intentions but often do not have the skills or resources to help you set up a sustainable business. Without capital, we couldn’t make NewsTrust a consumer destination and we couldn’t expand it. We were also responsible for our technology platform. Because we’re a nonprofit, we were outspent by commercial competitors with much higher levels of funding. A warning: nonprofits may not be in the position to do technology development effectively. If you want to create a strong platform and be a consumer destination, you need more capital than philanthropy really has. I’ve since joined Wikimedia, because it’s a nonprofit that was able to build a viable business due to its large size and heavy traffic. Wikimedia’s effective business model allows me to focus on building great products. At NewsTrust, it was hard for me to bootstrap it the other way. With almost all my energy focused on NewsTrust fundraising, I didn’t see how I could grow the business. If I had created a business model earlier and had focused on one aspect, like making a terrific educational product, instead of implementing many programs and tools, perhaps the service could have been a consumer destination and it could have expanded on a much larger scale.
Changing behavior is (usually) harder than you think
Running NewsTrust was a reality check. I had hoped it would be easier for people to develop news literacy skills, but people are volatile, fickle, and complicated. Humans struggle with the difficult balance between faith and reason. We’re irrational creatures. I assumed that people would be rational and would want to make changes in their perspectives, but I found that many people were unable to make changes. A lot of older men stuck to their guns and wouldn’t change. There are people who are contributing to NewsTrust who haven’t learned a lot from the process. However, NewsTrust did hit a cord with the younger generation. We watched them develop internal “crap detectors” (as Hemingway has written) and create mental checklists to determine the quality of information. After seven years at NewsTrust, I’ve learned that it’s possible for people to become more news literate. But it requires effort on their part. You have to want to change. If you want do want to change, you can become better at separating fact from fiction. I haven’t lost faith in the news literacy of citizens, but I have a more realistic view of what it takes and how long it will take to do this on a wide scale. No one’s immune to prejudices. Identifying and exercising news quality is a lifelong practice.
By Leah Breen