A new chapter: News Co/Lab

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(UPDATE: We want to thank the News Integrity Initiative at City University of New York Journalism School for its support of our initiative. More on that here.)

Some news: Arizona State University’s Cronkite School has launched News Co/Lab, a collaborative lab aimed at creating, testing, and promoting innovations that will help make the news ecosystem more robust and valuable for all participants.

Before I tell you more about what we’ll be doing, and who are initial partners will be, some background:

Last March, I asked this question: Could we find ways to make media/news literacy universal?

The question, which sounded simple, contained a universe of complexity. But the issues that sparked it went to the heart of what it means to be a Digital Age participant in civic, economic, and cultural life.

By the end of 2016 it became clear to anyone paying attention that misinformation, a perpetual problem in our media ecosystem, had become a crisis. The rise of social media and its split-second posting/sharing culture had given malicious actors their most powerful platform in history. With a few notable exceptions, traditional journalism was eroding. Fierce competition, especially from online platforms boasting enormous scale and efficiency, was undermining the business model. The journalism craft’s longstanding flaws (including, far too often, institutional arrogance) had undermined the public’s trust. Ambitious and already powerful people around the world were doing their best to poison the public even more against journalism and the whole idea of truth; their power and ambitions were best served through spreading confusion or outright lies, no matter what damage that did to our ability to make decisions based on reality.

No one disagrees that a key response to this barrage of badness must be to improve our information supply. But in recent times, in my view, we’ve paid too little attention to the demand side of the equation.

Supply and demand were never entirely separate before the Internet arrived. Now, given the ubiquity of creative tools and access to information — combined with “Big Data,” algorithmic targeting, AI, filter bubbles, and sharing — they are more deeply intertwined.

In this environment, even as we upgrade our information sources, we have to upgrade ourselves — as users of media who consume, create, share, and collaborate in our endlessly complex ecosystem. And we have to find ways to do this at scale — reaching as many people as possible to help them, above all, to be critical thinkers who would use media with integrity.

In that context last March, Facebook and Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication convened a “News Literacy Working Group.” Over a long weekend, we gathered an amazing group from around the world — experts in news/media literacy, journalists, technologists, researchers, funders, and more. My challenge to them was to think of ways we could make news literacy scale, and I suggested that we needed, in particular, a commitment to do this from educators, journalists, and technology platforms. One participant, my friend Jeff Jarvis from City University of New York, thought we should frame the issue in a much wider way than viewing it through the lens of that subset of media literacy we call news literacy. Others had their own ideas on a) what was wrong; and b) how we might address it. We thrashed through some of the issues and came up with a long list of ideas. It was an amazing three days.

Since then, the emergency hasn’t abated. On some levels, it’s vastly worse. But a lot is happening in the media world to at least begin to understand what’s happening, what’s at stake, and how we can collectively work to counteract the worst effects of the misinformation poison.

We’ve been doing what we can at ASU, with courses, training, and more. With News Co/Lab (we’re pronouncing it “collab”), we hope to go much deeper, but in targeted ways. I’ll be shifting my time to focus on the lab as its founding director. Facebook is our initial sponsor; more on that below.

We’ll be working mostly in and around the place where supply meets demand. We want to collaborate with anyone — teachers, journalists, librarians, technologists, civic leaders, among others — who shares our goals and wants to work on this. We have no intention of duplicating what others are already doing well. We want to help them do more of it.

To that end, our collaborative lab will start off with a scan of the emerging best practices from the many organizations already doing great work in the areas where we’ll focus. One thing we’re certain to learn: There’s much more work ahead. The nation’s (and the world’s) struggles with literacies of all kinds — civic, digital, media, news, and more — are well documented.

Our first on-the-ground project goes to the foundation of journalism: local news and information. We’ll be working with newsrooms and the communities they serve, to collaborate on experiments that increase transparency, engagement, mutual understanding, and respect.

Our media industry launch partner for that project is McClatchy. This makes me happy for several reasons. While McClatchy has suffered as much as any company in the local news business as it tries to make the wrenching transition from print to digital, its leadership and its journalists haven’t lost sight of the service component of what they do. The first McClatchy community where we’ll work will be Kansas City, where I worked for the Kansas City Star* early in my journalism career.

We also have an in-house partner, of course: Cronkite News. It’s the news arm of Arizona Public Broadcasting, and is part of the Cronkite School. It produces news for a variety of platforms, including a superb evening newscast for Arizona residents, and has bureaus in Washington and California. The students and faculty of Cronkite News are constantly experimenting, and we’ll be working with them to broaden their (and our) horizons even more, again aimed at creating deeper connections with the community.

There’s more coming from the lab, and we’ll be telling you about it in the days and weeks ahead. We’re beyond jazzed to be getting this initiative off the ground.

Which brings me back to our launch sponsor: Facebook. The News Co/Lab emerged from that March weekend and the subsequent conversations with people at the company and elsewhere. Facebook faces challenges for all kinds of reasons, but I’m convinced that the people I’ve worked with there are sincere in their wish to help solve the hugely difficult information-ecosystem problems we face individually, in our communities, in our companies and other institutions, and in nations around the world.

A special word of thanks to Áine Kerr, whose unbounded energy, commitment, and goodwill made her a joy to work with over these months. I wish her the absolute best as she heads back to her home in Dublin to co-found a news startup called Neva Labs. She’s earned the goodwill of news people, who will miss her in the post she’s so ably filled at Facebook. She has been part of a collaborative team there. I’m confident that her Facebook Journalism Project colleagues intend to push these kinds of projects forward, and more than hopeful that the people they work for share that commitment.

I also need to say, and this seems like the right place, that my relationship with Facebook over the years has been…complicated. As I said in March, I have longstanding and deep misgivings about Facebook’s (and Google’s and other giant platforms) overwhelming dominance in the media world — not to mention the troubling issues that stem from centralization in general. I don’t plan to stop talking about that, nor offering advice to journalists and Internet users in general on how to navigate toward a future where they, not the people running highly centralized technology platforms, control their own destinies. I’ll keep pushing the platforms to use their reach to help “upgrade us.”

But for all the disagreements, we agree on some vital goals. And to achieve those, I’m glad to collaborate. My participation may not sit well with some people, and I respect that. But I’m comfortable with this decision.

Finally, none of this would be happening were it not for my ASU colleagues. Eric Newton, the Cronkite School’s head of innovation, is the lab’s co-founder; we’ve collaborated on putting it together, and he’ll be working with me, staff, and partners as we proceed. The behind-the-scenes folks at the school, in development, legal, and other areas, routinely handle things that are out of my depth. And Dean Chris Callahan has been, as always, consistently strong and helpful along the way.

So much is happening now in the news ecosystem. Our lab will be among a host of new and existing efforts to make things better. None of us, individually, has the answer or answers. But we have ideas and energy, and an abiding belief in the value of reliable information in a world that so desperately needs it.

Individually, we will make some dents in the problem. Together, we will make a difference.