Interview: Matt Lieber, Gimlet Media


Matt Lieber is the President of Gimlet Media, a podcast network he co-founded with Alex Blumberg (of This American Life, Planet Money fame) that has gathered significant buzz and investors. In this interview we speak about native advertising, the strengths and weaknesses of a podcast network, and the technology that will most impact podcasting’s future.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been sitting down with some of the biggest players in the podcasting industry and asking them all the same fundamental questions: what are the barriers to podcasting’s growth? Where is podcasting going? Who’s doing the most innovative work right now? The answers have varied — but the responses to that last question have almost invariably included one name: Gimlet Media.

The network behind StartUp and ReplyAll is intriguing to podcasters not just for its quality content but for its decision to dive headlong into the world of native advertising. Unlike pre-recorded ads (I’ll be writing more on the potential of these types of ads soon), native ads are developed by hosts in a way that feels “organic” — an interview with a representative from the sponsor, say, or a user testimonial. So far, the decision has paid off.  


Announcing our new Tow Fellows

Today is a very exciting day for us, as we’re announcing a new group of 31 Research Fellows.  The fellows are based around the world and will be researching a wide-range of projects at the cutting-edge of digital journalism.

The projects will be in four main research areas: Computation, Algorithms and Automated Journalism; Data, Impact and Metrics; Audiences and Engagement; and Experimental Journalism, Models and Practice.

We were recently awarded $3 million from Knight Foundation as part of a major initiative to expand innovation in newsrooms. This has allowed us to recruit for the first time a cohort of fellows who will undertake their research simultaneously. An open call in April resulted in a high number of quality research proposals, and now we’re excited about what this new cohort is going to produce as the fellows work alongside each other, either in the space we share with the Brown Institute for Media Innovation at the Columbia Journalism School, or virtually in our Slack channel.

The chosen fellows include working journalists, Ph.D. candidates, and professors in disciplines as diverse as communications and architecture, media studies and computer science. Some projects will last just two months, some up to 16 months. Eighteen of the fellows are based in New York, but the researchers will work all over the world, including Los Angeles, Singapore, London and Melbourne, Australia.

Marguerite Holloway, a professor at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism is working as part of a teamto devise and use novel sensor technology to travel across New York from the perspective of the City’s rat population. Andrea Wenzel and Daniela Gerson will conduct focus groups with diverse communities in Los Angeles to explore the impact of solutions-oriented local journalism. Meredith Broussard, an assistant professor at New York University, is one of the fellows who will research new ways to use artificial intelligence for investigative reporting.

In addition to the more in-depth projects, six projects will be published as shorter guides to new methods and trends in journalism, including Automated Journalism, Crowdsourcing, Chatapps, Design and Journalism, Newsroom Encryption, Podcasting Business Models.

Some of the fellows will present their work at Tow Center’s annual research conference on Nov. 12-13.  We’re also going to try something new. We have asked each fellow to “take over” the Tow Center Twitter account every week and publish updates about their work. So please follow us, so you can really get a sense of the full range of the research projects.

You can also read the full list of Tow Fellows and learn more about their research projects here.

Applications for the next round of fellowships beginning in both spring 2016 and fall 2016 are due Oct. 15, 2015. If you have any questions about the process, please get in touch with me.



2015 Fellows: Project Descriptions

This cohort of 20 projects falls into five categories. The first is a series of six shorter pieces of research which we’re calling our ‘Guide to…’ series. They are landscape reviews, explaining key terms and highlighting the most important case studies. The other 14 projects will be more traditional pieces of research, which fall into one of the following four areas: Computation, Algorithms and Automated Journalism; Data, Impact and Metrics; Audiences and Engagement; and Experimental Journalism, Models and Practice.

The Tow Center ‘Guide to….’ Series

Guide to Automated Journalism
Tow Fellow: Andreas Graefe

Graefe’s main research areas are forecasting and computational journalism. His work on the development and validation of forecasting methods is published in leading journals in various fields. At the Tow Center, Graefe will work on a “Guide to Automated Journalism” and he will study news consumers’ perceptions of computer-generated news coverage of 2016 US presidential election forecasts.

Guide to Crowdsourcing
Tow Fellows: Jeanne Pinder, Jan Schaffer, Mimi Onouha

The ability of news consumers to participate in acts of journalism has moved far beyond eyewitness accounts captured in photos and video. This project examines how crowdsourcing has developed since the term was first coined a decade ago, develop a robust taxonomy of uses, showcase important examples in case studies, and explore emerging best practices.

Guide to Journalism + Design
Tow Fellow: Heather Chaplin

There is a growing movement arguing for a closer relationship between design and journalism. This project will examine the following questions: What do the two disciplines have to do with one another? What do people even mean when they say “design?” Where are examples of design methodologies being used successfully to produce better journalism? What promise does the notion hold? What might be unintended consequences? This guide will provide a review of the current landscape and will highlight some of the most relevant case studies.

Guide to Messaging Apps for Distribution
Tow Fellows: Trushar Barot, Eytan Oren

Messaging apps are a big deal: Snapchat claims an active user base in the USA of 100 million people. They claim 200 million worldwide. In their blog announcing their content play, called ‘Discover’ they said “Social media companies tell us what to read based on what’s most recent or most popular. We see it differently. We count on editors and artists, not clicks and shares, to determine what’s important.” Something is going on here.

To drive the point further, as of March, Business Insider reports that there are more people using messaging apps than traditional social networks. WhatsApp leads that charge with 800 million monthly active users, and major organizations like BBC News are trailblazing experimental campaigns on the platform despite its complete lack of formal tools for businesses.

This white paper will provide an insider’s overview of the messaging app landscape, explore the most effective existing case studies from news organizations, and forecast likely industry developments over the next 12-24 months. Key topics include new storytelling tools, Snapchat’s attempt to re-invent video news distribution, and chatting with your news organization’s AI-powered chatbot.

Guide to Podcasts
Tow Fellow: Vanessa Quirk

With the recent success of “Serial,” and the subsequent proliferation of podcasts and podcasting networks in its wake, Quirk’s research will offer a bird’s eye view of the current podcasting media landscape, focus on existing business models, and provide recommendations for the podcasting industry for the future.

Guide to Secure Drop & Encryption Practices in Newsrooms
Tow Fellow: Charles Berret

This report will describe the range of digital security tools that American journalists are using today, from secure email and chat protocols to fully anonymized whistleblowing platforms. Berret is working on the assumption that digital security concerns were greatly magnified among journalists in the wake of the Snowden affair and that examining new forms of practice among the most technologically progressive journalists and newsrooms will tell us something about the shape of journalism to come. This is a moment of interpretive flexibility in journalistic practice as these encryption technologies have not only been recognized for their enormous promise, and are even treated as an imperative in some cases, but also require active consideration from users. This research will record, illustrate, and understand this moment.

Computation, Algorithms and Automated Journalism

Algorithmic Accountability Reporting
Tow Fellow: Nick Diakopoulos

The goal of the project is to advance the field of computational journalism by expanding the methods and practices of algorithmic accountability reporting, developing standards and new user experiences for algorithmic transparency, and exploring the use of algorithms, automation, and bots in the news media.

Artificial Intelligence, Watchdog Reporting, and Campaign Finance Data
Tow Fellow: Meredith Broussard

In recent years, artificial intelligence has become increasingly valuable to journalists. Automated writing has helped journalists to more efficiently cover routine stories in sports and business. Machine learning has helped journalists to understand large datasets, resulting in document analysis tools like the Overview Project or DocumentCloud. Now, a third dimension of artificial intelligence has shown promise in helping journalists to find stories in data: expert systems. This research suggests that this concept of an expert system can be successfully modified for public affairs reporting so that journalists can quickly and efficiently discover stories in large public datasets. The project will include the documentation and prototype demo of a software tool that will attempt to discover stories related to Campaign Finance.

Open Contractors
Tow Fellows: Alexandre Gonçalves and Allison McCartney

Modern reporting is increasingly reliant on using data as source of evidence. Fortunately, many government agencies release their data openly on the web, but unfortunately much of this data is presented in a frustrating and byzantine manner. Data about US government spending, for instance, is open but available as a clumsy CSV file with hundreds of columns and millions of lines. Gonçalves and his project partner Allison McCartney want to address this problem by creating, a Web dashboard that will allow journalists to analyze, visualize, and interact with contractor data from the Department of Defense. The final product will create a pipeline to take journalists from query to embeddable visualization in only a few clicks.

Programming Language for Journalists
Tow Fellows: Mark HansenLéopold Mebazaa, George King, Gabe Stein

This research team aims to build a programming language that teaches journalists core programming concepts while making it easier for beginners to work on data-driven stories. The project also hopes to expand the industry’s notion of what constitutes data journalism by helping journalists think of anything that can be represented by a computer as data, allowing them to find and tell better and more complete stories.

Data, Impact and Metrics

Impact Case Studies
Tow Fellows: Lindsay Green-Barber and Fergus Pitt

This research will produce crucial and timely qualitative research into how carefully selected journalistic organizations manage for impact. The research will include three tightly written briefs; the first will frame the current state of thinking into journalistic impact, the rest will be case studies of how individual and varied news organizations and projects are approaching the subject.

The research will be framed around these broad questions: 1) What is going on inside news organizations with respect to impact assessment? 
2) What are some management options? 
3) What are the challenges and opportunities when newsrooms apply impact thinking to journalistic practice? 
 4) What are the effects of including impact considerations in journalism practice and management?

The two organisations that will service as case studies are Buzzfeed and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).

Audiences and Engagement

Engaging Communities through Solutions Journalism
Tow Fellows: Andrea Wenzel, Daniela Gerson

Engaging communities through solutions journalism is a collaborative research project that will assess how audiences process local solutions-oriented stories, and their online and offline behavioral intentions. Adapting stories developed through a Metamorphosis research group project connecting South Los Angeles community organizations and local media, South LA residents will participate in focus groups exploring the impact of solutions-oriented community-based journalism. The project will make recommendations for a model for solutions journalism interventions that may be particularly useful for diverse communities.

Experimental Journalism, Models and Practice

Conflict Analysis Toolbox
Tow Fellow: Madeeha Merchant

The Conflict Analysis Toolbox aims to simplify satellite data collection and interpretation, allowing journalists, urbanists, humanitarian agencies and others to mine valuable information from satellite imagery during urban conflicts or natural disasters. Funded by the Knight Prototype Fund Grant in Jan 2015, CAT is being developed at the Spatial Information Design Lab. CAT operates within a journalist’s workflow, as an investigation driver rather than a data analyzer. CAT in Context will be user centered, focusing on testing these tools and frameworks through case studies and working alongside field practitioners and journalists. During this phase, we hope to educate users about the multiple applications of these tools and how they can incorporate the open source tools, into their existing workflows.

Constructive Technology Criticism
Tow Fellow: Sara Watson

Contemporary technology criticism is a product of the internet, characterized by oversimplified binary questions, clickbait headlines, and sensationalizing explorations of moral panics and progress narratives. Technology criticism has the potential to play an operative role in shaping the design, adoption, and policies around emerging technologies. Sara’s work explores how Constructive Technology Criticism can improve the broader cultural discourse about technology, not only commenting on the technologies we have, but also influencing and shaping the technologies we want.

The Templeton Project
Tow Fellows: Marguerite Holloway, Brian House, Jason Munshi-South

The Templeton Project will devise and use novel sensor technology to travel across interspecies boundaries to tell the story of several weeks in the life of New York City from the perspective of its least-loved resident: Rattus norvegicus. The team is intrigued by the possibility of up-ending people’s perceptions of rats by getting New Yorkers to identify with the creatures in unexpected ways and to discover the stories we share. The project aspires to gather new scientific insight into rat behavior, but, in addition, the team wants to provoke people to see rats in a different way, to connect with their rhythms and experiences and, ultimately, to feel the city as a rat does.

Economic News Networks in Social Media Journalism
Tow Fellow: Burcu Baykurt

This project will examine the expert networks of economic news on social media and explore the ways they are involved in the everyday routines of journalism.

Beyond 140 Characters:The Forces that Shape Journalists’ Strategic Twitter Engagement
Tow Fellow: Svenja Ottovordemgentschenfelde

This project project investigates the underlying dynamics of political journalists’ strategic Twitter engagement and how these shape their behavior on the platform. Svenja is particularly interested in questions of journalistic role performance and branding, varying degrees of skillfulness and investment into Twitter, the links between institutional logics, organizational strategies and individual behavior, as well as the changing conditions of different news climates and socio-political environments.

You Are Here:An experimental journalism-distribution network
Tow Fellows: Sarah Grant, Susan McGregor, Benjamen Walker, Dan Phiffer, Amelia Marzec

Thanks to high-speed satellite Internet service and the ubiquity of mobile devices, journalism audiences can now be reached anywhere, any time. The effect can be transporting – both for good and ill. When the Web is everywhere, what happens to the experience of being in a particular time and place? Even today, when so much of our lives takes place online, we still form communities based on geography as well as interest, yet our digital experiences rarely reflect those choices.

“You Are Here” is an experimental journalism-distribution network that leverages small, inexpensive, open-source wireless routers to deliver compelling, location-specific content to communities around New York. Starting with a series of high-quality audio pieces that reflect the unique culture and history of the people, politics and communities of the geographic area, the “You Are Here” servers can also act as a kind of digital town square where those nearby can exchange ideas, stories and information. The fact that these servers are not connected to the Internet allows them to accumulate a genuinely local character, in addition to serving as a safe, resilient means of exchanging digital information.

NewsLynx – Launching, Installing and Lynxing at SRCCON

Two weeks ago we did our first NewsLynx install party at the SRCCON conference in Minneapolis and it went great! We had about a half dozen folks get the Core API service up and running and we got some starting contributions on other install techniques using tools like Docker. We also brainstormed potential future ideas such as organizational level dashboards with week-on-week or month-on-month comparisons. Over-sized post-its were sketched upon and many sharpies used.

This week we are releasing our first stable, public build of the platform, which is awfully exciting. This version differs from our prototype in a few key ways:

  1. The dependencies are much-reduced — most notably eliminating Elastic Search in favor of running entirely in Postgres
  2. An extensible Sous Chef framework that will allow for custom modules for newsrooms to track any new service that might arise. We discuss this issue in the white paper as one of the main obstacles any analytics framework would need to address.
  3. A new Reports API for generating data-based html, Microsoft Word or PDF reports on a regular basis.
  4. More customizable interface vizualizations. Now you can customize what metrics you can view across articles.
  5. And last but not least, a desktop application so Merlynne can live in the Dock! A desktop application not only cuts down on the amount of software that needs to be installed and maintained (the desktop version is auto-updating), we also think it is a much easier paradigm for newsroom adoption.

Whereas our protoype was in closed-beta, going forward, our philosophy is to make us as non-necessary as possible to the ongoing success of the project. To that end, we have released API documentation as well as continuing to document architectural decisions so that those interested in using it will be empowered to update and configure it to their needs.

When we think about how our platform could be used to empower people, a Borges story entitled “The Witness” comes to mind. The story describes a man dying in a stable “within the shadow of the new stone church.” The man is unremarkable, a pauper, the reader is led to imagine — except for the fact that he carries with him something different.

This man, as a child, saw the face of Woden, the holy dread and exultation, the rude wooden idol weighed down with Roman coins and heavy vestments, the sacrifice of horses, dogs, and prisoners. Before dawn he will die, and in him will die, never to return, the last eye-witness of those pagan rites; the world will be a little poorer when this Saxon dies.

In the course of time there was a day that closed the last eyes to see Christ. The battle of Junin and the love of Helen each died with the death of some one man. What will die with me when I die, what pitiful or perishable form will the world lose? The voice of Macedonio Fernandez? The image of a roan horse on the vacant lot at Serrano and Charcas? A bar of sulpher in the drawer of a mahogany desk?

The story sticks with us because so many open source projects go this route. While we release a year’s worth of labor into the world, we are hopeful that others can now take the ball and configure it as they see fit (to slightly mix metaphors). And with that, Happy Lynxing!


Computer security tools for journalists lacking in a post-Snowden world

Edward Snowden’s leak of classified documents to journalists around the world about massive government surveillance programs and threats to personal privacy ultimately resulted in a Pulitzer Prize for public service.

Though Snowden had no intention of hiding his identity, the disclosures also raised new questions about how effectively news organizations can protect anonymous sources and sensitive information in an era of constant data collection and tracking.

A new study by University of Washington and Columbia University researchers that will be presented next month at the 24th USENIX Security Symposium probed the computer security habits of 15 journalists across two continents and found a number of security weaknesses in their technological tools and ad-hoc workarounds.

Those included computer security tools that go unused because they introduce roadblocks to information gathering, inadequate solutions for basic tasks like transcribing interviews and failing to consider potential risks from cloud computing and other common practices.

“The way people try to bridge gaps can introduce security issues,” said UW senior author Franziska Roesner, an assistant professor of computer science and engineering who focuses on computer security and privacy.

“If you use your iPhone to translate speech to text, for example, it sends that information to Apple. So if you record a sensitive conversation, you have to trust that Apple isn’t colluding with an adversary or that Apple’s security is good enough that your information is never going to be compromised.”

News organizations’ abilities to build trust with sources and gather sensitive information have been called into question by recent disclosures about surveillance: the U.S. Department of Justice’s admission that it secretly obtained phone records from the Associated Press, Microsoft’s admission that it read a blogger’s personal Hotmail account to find a source of an internal leak and criminal investigations that have used email traces to identify and prosecute anonymous sources.

“Addressing many of the security issues journalists face will require new technical solutions, while many existing secure tools are incompatible with the journalistic process in one way or another,” said lead author Susan McGregor, assistant professor at Columbia Journalism School and assistant director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism.

“At the same time, there are clearly opportunities to build tools that really support journalists’ workflow and build them in a secure way.”

The researchers interviewed 15 working journalists from the U.S. and France about how they communicate with sources, what strategies they use to organize notes and protect sensitive information, and their use of existing information security tools. They found some reporters took steps to lessen certain types of security risks, but not others.

One journalist who went to great pains to protect the identity of sources by only meeting in person, for instance, used an iPad to photograph sensitive documents. Although roughly one-third of the reporters used encryption services to communicate with sources or protect their notes, a majority also used popular cloud services like Google Drive or Dropbox to store and share information.

That may be fine for the average user — or even most journalists — but anyone working with sensitive material ought to consider how much they trust that those servers will never be hacked, Roesner said.

“The flip side is that it’s not just a matter of giving journalists information about the right tools to use — it’s that the tools are often not usable,” Roesner said. “They often fail because they’re not designed for journalists.”

For instance, the team found that reporters’ number one goal — obtaining information— was often impeded by existing security tools that introduce roadblocks to communication. The communication methods that reporters used were driven by the preferences of sources, who have widely different experiences with and access to technology.

One open-source product that sought to let whistle-blowers securely send documents to journalists was rarely used because it lacked the common mechanisms by which news organizations tend to authenticate a source’s identity. Encryption tools that garble the content of an email or message unless someone knows the secure key can still leave behind traces of “metadata,” which leak investigations or criminal prosecutions can use to prove a relationship between a reporter and a source existed.

One of the study’s goals was to identify opportunities for the computer security community to better serve journalists, Roesner said. That might include building security applications into a wider content management tool that accomplishes other tasks that reporters would find helpful, such as transcribing interviews and tagging or organizing notes.

Digital 8bit House

“Tools fail when the technical community has built the wrong thing,” said Roesner. “We’ve been missing a deeper understanding of how journalists work and what kinds of security tools will and won’t work for them.”

Co-authors include Polina Charters and Tobin Holliday, students in the UW Master of Human Computer Interaction and Design program.  For more information, contact Roesner at and McGregor at


Understanding Journalists’ Information Security Choices

In the roughly two years since the Snowden revelations, information security and source protection has become an ongoing focus of conferences, surveys, and how-to guides geared towards the journalism community. Yet despite chilling effects, targeted hacking, and the high-profile prosecution of sources, a Pew Research Center survey (conducted in association with the Tow Center) of investigative journalists released just a few months ago found that relatively few of them had changed their practices in light of these events.

On its surface, this seems counterintuitive. If journalists know that their communications and data may be under surveillance or the target of attack, why haven’t they adapted their practices to mitigate these risks? Surely both protecting and reassuring sources is crucial to building the kind of relationships on which essential journalism is based. Yet apart from select news organizations, strong information security is still seen as optional by many working journalists.

Eight months ago, my collaborators and I set out to explore why this might be, by learning more about how journalists collect, store and transmit information on a day-to-day basis. The full results of this study – based on in-depth interviews with institutional journalists at a range of news organizations on two continents – will be presented at USENIX Security in August, but the paper is already available for download here.

Many of our findings will not surprise industry professionals, yet present shared challenges faced by organizations and journalists across coverage areas and countries, suggesting opportunities for collaboration and additional development:


  • The infrastructure and overhead of many security-enhancing tools are incompatible with journalists’ and sources’ available technologies. Sources’ preferences tend to drive journalists’ use of a particular communication channel, and the most vulnerable sources may have limited or non-exclusive access to the accounts and devices required to use existing information security tools.  For example, some participants reported working with sources that owned only a feature phone or did not personally own a computer.
  • Journalists’ information security priorities are influenced by the resources and culture of their organization. Several of our study participants felt that they did not have anyone within their organization to ask about information security issues; of those that did, many referenced a colleague covering information security rather than a technical expert. Many study participants also lacked both the software to secure their communications and data (such as PGP), and the privileges to install such software on their work computers.
  • The risks, benefits and best applications of existing tools are poorly understood. Only one journalist in our study expressed concerns about the use of third-party communication and data storage tools, despite weak legal protections for the extensive data and metadata stored with them. Likewise, participants expressed skepticism about using anonymity-supporting platforms like SecureDrop, even though it can be used to conduct ongoing conversations between journalists and sources to verify submitted data.
  • Journalists have unaddressed information management needs. Many participants reported using third party and/or cloud based tools – often connected to personal accounts – to collect, organize and search story-related research, notes and other data. While these systems introduce vulnerabilities, they indicate an opportunity to create secure, journalism-oriented software solutions for note and data storage, organization, and retrieval.
  • Journalists tend to think of information security as an individual rather than a collective problem. Many of our participants said that they did not believe their work was likely to be the subject of either legal or technical targeting. Yet many participants also reported some sharing of resources with editors, proofreaders or collaborators, meaning an attack on a colleague could affect their work or vice versa.

While the results of this work suggest that there is still much to improve about journalists’ information security practices, it also highlights some distinct paths for future research, tool development and educational interventions, some of which are already in development. In addition, we are currently conducting research around the challenges to information security that journalistic outlets experience at an organizational level, and are actively seeking collaborators. If you are interested in learning how your organization can help with this work, please contact Susan McGregor at


Grant Awarded to Eyewitness Media Hub

Last May the Tow Center for Digital Journalism launched Amateur Footage: A Global Study of User-Generated Content. As a direct result of the research, co-authors Claire Wardle, Sam Dubberley and Pete Brown were given $60,000 by Storyful as seed money to create the Eyewitness Media Hub.

This month, Eyewitness Media Hub was awarded a 2-year grant to build and manage a destination website called First Draft. It will host a resource library with training materials dedicated to teaching journalists about the issues associated with UGC: verification, ethics, vicarious trauma, along with posts by a coalition of other UGC experts.

One of the experts working on this project is Tow Fellow Craig Silverman, due to his work on the platform, Emergent — a tool built as part of his Tow Center report, Lies, Damn Lies, and Viral Content: How News Websites Spread (and Debunk) Online Rumors, Unverified Claims and Misinformation.

Reuters Digital News Report: Why Research Matters

Four years ago, I watched Nic Newman present his latest research at a BBC social media conference I’d helped organise. (You can watch his session on YouTube here). He emphasised to the audience that search engines were no longer the primary source of news but were starting to be replaced by social discovery. Many of the social media early adopters in the room nodded in agreement, but this shift was still big news for those in the mainstream news industry.

This research – published in 2011 – led to the creation of the annual Digital News Report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University.  Yesterday marked the publication of the fourth Digital News Report. The results were based on an online survey, carried out in 12 countries.

The report is a humdinger.

With four years of data, and now with multiple years of data from five countries we can see some very key trends emerging. But what we can also see is that this stuff is complex. Once you dig down by country, age, gender and by social network, you see really interesting but very different trends taking place.

Here are three of my favourite visuals from the report. The first shows people’s main source of news by country.

Screen Shot 2015-06-14 at 18.03.18

In France, Germany and Japan, TV is still the main source of news by some margin. In Australia and Finland, the internet is the main source of news. In the US, 43% of people say online news is how they keep abreast of what’s going on in the world, but a striking 40% consider TV their primary source of news. TV News certainly isn’t dead.

This data gains complexity when we cross-reference it with the second graph, which looks at age. It’s very clear that older news consumers have very different patterns compared to their younger counterparts. If you’re a news executive working for an organization that has to keep both sets of audiences happy, you have your work cut out. These groups are in completely different places – literally.

Screen Shot 2015-06-14 at 18.03.54

The third nugget is the following one.  Most people are using two or three devices simultaneously to access the news. It’s not that smartphones are replacing desktop.


Screen Shot 2015-06-14 at 16.27.52

This piece of data acts as a reminder that whenever some self-proclaimed guru stands up and makes bold pronouncements about the state of the news industry, remind them (or at least remind the snarky backchannel that is Twitter at a conference) that they’re missing the necessary complexity. Just the other day at the World News Media Congress I heard another person passing on the false claim that desktop was dead. “It’s all about mobile.” Wrong. Desktop is still important for people, especially at work. But you also have to provide content for them that performs on their smartphone or tablet for their commute or late night swiping in bed.

I acknowledge that as I write this from my position as Research Director, I might be biased, but this report yet again emphasises the need for quality, rigorous audience research. Conference presentations are full of powerpoint presentations, often based on hunches based on personal experience of individual habits. Only by looking at research of this quality and scale are you reminded of the need to really understand what is going on in terms of the digital news landscape.

The whole report is long, but the executive summary should be read by everyone currently working in the news industry.

The key findings are outlined very clearly in the Executive Summary but I want to reflect on some of the most interesting aspects for me, and how it relates to the some of the research we are doing, or will be doing at the Tow Center in the near future.

Our Director, Emily Bell, has spoken and written extensively about this growing interdependence between the social networks and news publishers (and she has an essay in this report). The increasing reliance on social networks as a place to find news is underlined in this research.  As Newman argues “social media are not seen as a destination for accurate and reliable journalism but more as a way of getting access to it.”

And Facebook is the dominant player here. 41% of people surveyed stated they use the network to find, read, watch, share, or comment on the news each week (an increase of 6% from last year). However, the reason it’s so dominant is because it’s part of many people’s day to day habits, irrespective of their news habits. But as a result, when they’re on Facebook, they see news. They can’t help it. As Newman describes, people seek news out on Twitter but they bump into it on Facebook.

And look at YouTube – still a dominant force in terms of news. As someone who is mildly obsessed by the videos of breaking news uploaded to YouTube by eyewitnesses, I would love to know how much of this number is people watching traditional news bulletins on Youtube, and how much is actually people seeking out raw footage from news events once they hear about it.

The different attributes of the social networks are an important reminder that we use the catch-all phrase ‘social media’ at our peril when we’re trying to understand audience habits.

This report also highlights the changing ecosystem in terms of chatapps and news. As this graph highlights, 9% of people surveyed said they had found, read, watched, shared or discussed news on Whatsapp (just lower than Twitter at 11%).

Screen Shot 2015-06-14 at 18.25.55

And as Newman reminds us, Facebook’s dominance is even more significant considering its ownership of Whatsapp and Instagram, both increasingly important players in the new news ecosystem.  But he also outlines the importance of different networks, particularly chatapps in different parts of the world. The increasingly important role of chatapps in terms of newsgathering but also distribution will be a significant focus of our work at the Tow Center in the coming months, so watch this space.

In many ways, this research underlines the trends that many of us already have a sense about, either from observing habits on public transport, conversations with our teenagers or our parents. But this research is so important because it documents a moment in time, and through its rigorous methodology employed in twelve different countries, it’s an important reminder that change is happening at different speeds, in different ways in different locations. One size does certainly not fit all.

What the 2015 Digital News Report Says About The USA’s News Landscape

The 2015 Digital News Report gives readers a comprehensive and dependable picture of the news ecosystem in the USA; what’s happening now, the trends, and comparisons with key global markets.

The Tow Center for Digital Journalism is pleased to be the US partner for the Reuters Institute Digital News Report, a survey of more than 20,000 news consumers across 12 countries, including 2,295 people in the USA. This international, yearly research has produced a valuable resource as the industry continues to navigate a changing world.

We can see year on year data about the brands that audiences value, which devices they’re using, video uptake, social distribution, and – crucially – the behaviors and attitudes towards key revenue sources; subscriptions, display ads and native advertising.

The Reports’ analysts have pulled out their key insights, but interested researchers can also request the full data set, including demographic and regional breakdowns.

This year’s data shows a changing of the guard in the digital news companies’ audience reach, the big national broadcasters roughly holding steady, and a horrible period for local print and broadcast news.

This unique set of insights into audience behaviors and attitudes also exposes the strategic imperatives driving the news industry’s approach to native advertising.

Meanwhile, the social platforms have consolidated their position as global news gatekeepers, the implications of which are analyzed in detail by the Tow Center’s director Emily Bell. These services provide distinct opportunities to access traditionally hard-to-reach audiences.


The big story in digital reach is Yahoo News’ decline and Huffington Post’s rise. Yahoo News has lost almost a third of its reach in two years, according to this survey. By contrast, in just one year Huffington Post increased its reach by almost a third.


The survey showed a stark contrast between the fortunes of prestigious newspaper brands and local brands online. The national newspapers, the New York Times, and The Washington Post increased their digital reach. The local newspapers online plunged two thirds collectively, going from serious players to bit players.

The Papers Digital

BuzzFeed doubled its news reach reflecting aggressive hiring in hard news and investigations. A sizable audience said they used BBC online, specifically named for the first time in this year’s survey.

The Digital News Brands

Although it’s figures haven’t changed much year to year, GoogleNews remains a solid, relevant brand, reaching 14% of online news consumers.

These are the patterns of reach amongst the digital brands which interest The Tow Center, but there are plenty more in the full report, including the online operations of the TV and radio broadcasters.


This survey of US audiences shows why news organizations are risking their brands by publishing native advertising. There’s no easy growth left in subscriptions and payments, and audiences mostly dislike whatever ads they can’t block.

Previous years’ growth in digital subscriptions and payments has leveled off at only 11% of consumers. The vast majority of people say they’ll never pay for news. From those left over, news organizations might expect to get less than $9 per user per year – split over the whole industry.

What is the maximum price you would pay for a subscription to a digital-only news service – including full access to its website, apps and any digital replicas of the newspaper? (N=1942)
$0 (I won’t pay for any digital news service, whatever the price) 66.7%
$2.50 per month ($30 per year) 13.2%
$5 per month ($60 per year) 5.9%
$10 per month ($120 per year) 3.2%
$15 per month ($180 per year) 0.4%
$20 per month ($240 per year) 0.7%
$25 per month ($300 per year) 0.1%
$30 per month ($360 per year) 0.2%
More than $30 per month (more than $360 per year) 0.1%
Don’t know 9.5%
Mean Yearly $8.39

Meanwhile, almost half the audience uses some kind of ad-blocker, large numbers of people ignore ads, or avoid experiences where ads interfere with content.

Do you regularly use Ad Blocking software (software you have installed on your device specifically to remove advertisements from news or other websites)? Please select all that apply. (N=2,295)
Yes, on desktop/ laptop 41%
Yes, on mobile 11%
Yes, on tablet 7%
No 53%
Net: Yes 47%
Which of the following statements best sums up your view of traditional banner advertising on news websites? (N=2,295)
I find advertisements distracting and will actively avoid sites where they interfere with the content too much 29%
I find advertisements distracting but put up with them to get to the content I like 22%
I mainly ignore adverts, so they don’t distract me too much 30%
I don’t mind advertisements and sometimes find them useful 13%
Don’t Know 6%
Net: Distracting 51%
Net: Not distracting 43%

In this environment, we can understand why news organizations produce native advertising, despite these dangers, which are pronounced. More than a quarter of respondents said sponsored content reflects badly on the publisher’s brand, and almost half of the respondents said they’d felt disappointed or deceived having read one of those articles, only to find out they’ve been sponsored. As one focus group member said “I think it’s a dirty way of getting your attention. Which is by lying.” The glimmer of hope is that two thirds of respondents had neutral feelings.

This year’s project includes a special report on native advertising. You can read it here.

Local TV news collectively is still the source with the greatest reach, but the trend line is down. Collectively local or regional newspaper audiences dropped by a third.

In national TV, Fox News held reach above its competitors, CNN was the only brand to record an increase, CBS and ABC fluctuate, NBC/MSNBC is trending down.

The National TV Brands

The survey recorded offline reach jumping for New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, a counter-intuitive result those newspapers’ marketers may want to explore more deeply.

Newspapers' Offline Reach


Few observers will be surprised that smartphone news reach is up, significantly. It jumped a third this year. But at only 44%, there’s still a lot of growth potential, which equates to opportunity for newcomers and danger for incumbents.

For computers the trend line goes the other way; this year news-via-computer reach dropped an eighth to 64%, while tablets’ news growth has been barely perceptible; now at 21%.

Within this device data, however, is a worrying trend for the industry. It concerns the share of news attention on this platform. The vast majority of people using a computer consumed news. In smartphones (the main growth platform), the figure is lower and on tablets (also a growth platform overall) news’ share of attention has dropped a lot over the last three surveys.

So, as audiences spend more time on smartphones and tablets instead of computers, news’ reach reduces relative to other uses.

Device's News Use


The survey showed that news, for most US audiences, is a social experience. When combining news commenting, sharing, liking, uploading, voting and in-person discussion, almost three-quarters of respondents participate in news production or distribution in an average week.

More than a quarter of people comment on news stories: on social media or on the news site. Uploading video or pictures: 10% of people have uploaded something; only 3% have contributed directly to a news website.

There is a small trend away from sharing over email, but other than that these behaviors appear entrenched.


Facebook is the single most significant gatekeeper for digital news in the USA. 40% of the population use it for news, a rise from last year and the year before. That said, Brazilian audiences outstrip even the US. In that country, 70% of the respondents get news from Facebook.

Emily Bell’s essay notes that news reaches vastly different audiences on social platforms. Whereas direct visits to news websites, email signups and news alerts skew male, social news discovery skews female. Social services also get to lower income populations and casual users; populations that most mainstream news organizations have difficulty attracting.

News use within social platforms has developed distinct demographic contours; Facebook and YouTube skew much older than Instagram, Tumblr, and reddit, with Twitter sitting between.

You can download the full Reuters Institute Digital News Report directly.

Audiences of this report may also be interested in The Tow Center report
Post Industrial Journalism, by C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky.
The data about trends in video consumption are well-complemented by Professor Duy Linh Tu’s
Video Now report for the Tow Center on multimedia production in US newsrooms.

The Tow Center is a research and development group within the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. The Center helps the journalism industry navigate in this current era of continuous change, and prepares the next generation of journalists to enter the workforce with relevant and valuable digital skills.

Measuring impact with NewsLynx: The Impact Platform

On Thursday, June 4, 2015, we hosted Tow Fellows Michael Keller and Brian Abelson to present their Tow-Knight paper, NewsLynx: A Tool for Newsroom Impact Measurement.  The release of the paper coincides with the conclusion of nearly 2 years of work on behalf of Keller and Abelson in developing a platform for measuring the impact of journalistic pieces once they have been published.  The platform combines quantitative data collection and qualitative analysis.

Keller and Abelson presented their work in conceptualizing the project and developing the platform for implementation.  Following their presentation, they were joined by: Sarah Nir, a New York Times reporter whose recent exposé ‘The Price of Nice Nails’ prompted swift responses from city and state regulators; Lindsay Green-Barber, the Center For Investigative Reporting‘s Impact Analyst; and Blair Hickman, the Audience Editor at The Marshall Project, an organization aimed specifically at amplifying the national conversation about the criminal justice system.  The group’s discussion touched on how different organizations and individuals define impact, and the myriad ways in which impact may be defined related to the goal of a journalistic product and its audience.

birth set

The event was recorded and live-streamed; the video-recording of the event may be accessed at the Columbia Journalism School YouTube channel, here.


Digital 8bit House