Can trust be monetized?
That's just one of the intriguing questions around the mid-2018 launch of News Guard, being brought to audiences everywhere by that veteran New York media production team of Steve Brill and L. Gordon Crovitz.
The business partners foresaw the land rush toward daily newspaper paywalls even before the New York Times (NYT) launched its now-leading model, and cashed out of that Press Plus business twice. Now they see a new publisher need: trustworthiness. And they see a marketplace straining to counter the epidemic of fake news.
Clearly, their epidemiological approach to the topic that now feeds Congressional egos at high-profile platform-CEOs-in-the-dock hearings differs from many of the non-profit experiments addressing the same issue
News Guard is building towards a staff of 40-60 journalists, backed by as much as $6 million in funding.
These vetters will evaluate sites -- not stories or individual journalists -- and issue both simple-to-understand green-yellow-red signals and longer-form descriptions of the sources. Co-founders Crovitz, a former Wall Street Journal publisher and now serial digital business entrepreneur, and Brill, founder of American Lawyer, Court TV and Brill's Content, will work mostly full-time on the new business and lead it.
What's green, I asked them in a phone interview Sunday?
"That they strive to do accurate information, but there may be some caveats," says Brill. "For example, this is hypothetical because we haven't had our vetters do this, but let's say The Wall Street Journal. The Journal -- I'm guessing we haven't done this yet -- will get a green, but when you click through you'd be told that by its own definition the editorial page is really different from the news pages.
"Basically, we're going to be bold enough to say there's a difference between the Denver Post and the Denver Guardian. The Denver Guardian is the site that popped up one day before the election to announce that the Pope had endorsed Mr. Trump. And it turns out, obviously, the Denver Guardian doesn't exist, and you trace the site back to Macedonia or someplace. We'll do that."
Paint the Macedonian profiteers as red, but then who gets the yellows -- caution advised?
"RT [Russia Today] is yellow because RT acknowledges that it's government-funded propaganda," says Crovitz of one Russian disinformation source "Sputnik [which doesn't acknowledge its funding] is red," That's the gist."
Those kinds of interpretation -- and colorings -- are bound to open up robust debates.
While some credibility seems black and white, gray colors many other publishers. News Guard aims to rate 10,000 news sources in 2018, reckoning that those account for 90% of news consumption.
"If you search for fracking right now," says Brill, "you'll see one of the first sites that pops up is something called the Fracking Information Center or something like that. If you look at it carefully and dig down and follow the strings, you find out that it's financed by the American Petroleum Institute.
"If you down a couple of rungs, you see something by The Washington Post. But there is a difference between The Washington Post writing about fracking and the American Petroleum Institute.
Certainly, there is. Will News Guard parse the vagaries of American Petroleum Institute publishing?
"We are," said Brill. "And the American Enterprise Institute and Center for American Progress. Both likely will be green because they're serious people who do serious scholarship. But they'll get a megaphone, in addition to a green, and when you click through, you'll find out that the American Enterprise Institute, very good people doing serious work, but they have a particular point of view and a particular mission. And the Center for American Progress, same thing, but they have a different point of view.
"The high school kid who has to write a paper on global trade, will at least be able to assess the differences."
I asked them what would seem to be one of the litmus test questions for News Guard, given a news world in which facts and alternative facts now cohabitate.
When News Guard looks at Fox News, what color will it see?
"We're not going to comment on anything in particular," says Brill. "And there are two reasons. One, it would be stupid. The second is, it involves reading the actual foxnews.com site, which I haven't done that much of, and our vetters certainly haven't done that much of. I literally don't know as I'm sitting here talking to you. We're not going to get into what we're going do because it's just intellectually dishonest, because we haven't done it yet."
Importantly, News Guard would rate FoxNews.com, not the TV channel's content.
"If Sean Hannity'' website is in the top 90%, separately, we would rate that separately," adds Crovitz.
"Fake news" itself is a quickly compromised term
Think of all that's recently been conflated - fake ads, fake news, the liberal media conspiracy and more. Further, everyone who is in the ad-selling game is trying to monetize trust. Top national publishers promise, as part of their digital ad pitches, safe placement, reaching "premium audiences." Even the new blockchain, cryptocurrency content start-ups, from Civil to Hubii embed anti-fakery as a key principle of why their solution will rock the marketplace.
Of course, trust is integral to a credible press. That's nothing new, even as its under multiple assaults by politicians, state actors and even the "media" itself as Fox News, owned by Twenty-First Century Fox (FOXA) , Drudge, Breitbart and now Sinclair Broadcast Group (SBGI) smudge so many long-drawn lines of fair play.
What's changed is the intentional muddying of old-fashioned terms like fact and accuracy.
Against that blur, NewsGuard's traffic intersection signal model seems simple enough.
The big question: Who will see the lights?
The answer to that question will make or break NewsGuard.
"We've had a lot of conversations, and they're big companies so you don't want to read too much into early enthusiasm or receptivity, but we wouldn't be doing what we're doing if we didn't think there was a market for it," says Brill. "It's an essential part [of getting News Guard widely used and accepted as a standard], but it's not where you start .... We might start with one or more of them."
Brill, points to his early Court TV start-up experience as indicative. "You're talking to a guy who got the idea for a cable television network featuring cameras in the court when four of 50 states wouldn't let cameras in the courts and, by the time I sold it, 37 states did."
I asked Google's Vice-President of News Richard Gingras for comment on News Guard Monday afternoon, and he declined.
Further, News Guard will offer up its system in wide variety of ways. It will offer a plug-in for Google or Bing search, and then promote the wide availability of the product. "If you individually, or your news literacy group, or your university decides to provide it to you -- because we're going to provide to them for free -- you can [use it]." "
That makes double sense. Number one, a system has to be near-universal in its appearance to be accepted. Secondly, News Guard, as a for-profit business, wants to see its product become the standard across the web. That's SOP for all tech-based firms.
And, what about the other trust projects?
Crovitz spent the weekend at the Google-funded Newsgeist conference in Phoenix, where newsies and techies mix. Also in attendance: Craigslist's Craig Newmark, a funder of some of those trust projects and a now-key figure ["Newsonomics: Craig Newmark, journalism's new Six Million Dollar Man"] in the news integrity movement, participated in NewsGeist this year as well.
I asked him the key questions he has of the new business.
"How will they distinguish between trustworthy content vs other content?," he asks. "How will they work with organizations [already in place]?"
Non-profits - from the Santa Clara University-based Trust Project to the trust-building efforts funded early this year at CUNY - have talked about rebuilding trust, but have made little public headway. In fact, the list of those addressing the issue has mushroomed recently.
- Trust Project
- First Draft Coalition
- Tow Center at Columbia Journalism School
- News Integrity Initiative
- International Fact Checking Network (IFCN)
- Maynard Institute
- Open Brand Safety
Brill says News Guard will build on the vetting that some of these groups have done. Its spirit: cooperative. For their part, expect many people leading those projects to ask deeper questions:
- Will it be a signatory to Trust Project and other evolving codes or conduct?
- How will it handle organized media manipulation?
- How will it work with the Open Brand Safety effort?
The big question for them, and all who care about the issue: How well can News Guard ratings themselves be trusted?
No badges. No work
Brill says that News Guard is built on two basic principles.
"The first thing is, it's accountability versus black box," says Brill. "The second thing is, publishers don't have to do any work."
News Guard takes direct aim at algorithm angst.
As Brill says about the algo news world, "they're black boxed."
He decries their opacity: "'We can't tell you how we're doing what we're or why we're doing what we're doing. We can't even tell you whose doing it. And if we change our minds about something we can't even tell you we've changed our minds, if you can see the results.'"
By contrast, he says, "This is not a black box, this is human beings who will be totally, totally transparent about what we will post, why we've decided what we've decided, who made the decisions, who people can complain to. If they complain about a rating, that complaint will be listed."
How much News Guard gets inundated with complaints, sincere and otherwise, will be another thing to watch as it launches.
The founders' mid-2018 launch depends on closing its funding. They say they're close to halfway in funding the enterprise, news of which leaked to Axios on Friday. Saying that "publishers need to do nothing" would seem to solve an issue; publishers don't like "extra" work in general, or filling out forms, as some trust organizations have asked them to do, to justify their credibility.
Yet, the badge question is a curious one.
Clearly, News Guard would like to confer a digital news Good Housekeeping seal on news sites. Yet, sites won't sport "badges" of certification. That's part of the no-work, no-pay-for-certification model- "we're not like Moody's or Standard & Poors," says Brill - that News Guard builds.
I wonder, though, about the utility of such a badge. Clearly, yellow- or red-marked sites wouldn't display that ranking. Yet, lesser-known sites that do "earn" a green might want to display it.
News Guard then takes dead commercial aim at the fake news problem. The once-loved "algorithm" has assumed a more malign connotation in the blaming culture of the moment. Clearly, the Googles and Facebook might solve a big problem they face - one among many, we should note - if they adopted such a system. Yet, don't acceptance such adoption to be easy.
It's not tough to hear those building their own media businesses and political fortunes on demonizing real news media quickly pooh-poohing News Guard. Even with, or maybe especially because of, Crovitz's WSJ-conservative credentials, the Breitbarts of the world may likely challenge the signals and the ratings.
One thing News Guard will test: Can any new consensus of basic accuracy emerge in what some claim is our "post-truth world"?
As Crovitz and Brill scope out their latest venture, I asked whether dynamic digital duo anticipated in any changes in their latest partnership.
Offered Brill, whose outspokenness has occasionally landed him hot water, "The only difference is, I'm going to propose to Gordon that this time I be good cop, he be bad cop -- but we have to debate that still."