Growing up in Newton, Kansas our local newspaper, The Kansan, was the lifeblood of our community. At 3:30 p.m. every afternoon it landed on porches and lawns across the town, and we saw our local culture reflected in its pages: updates about important local events, high school sports scores, who won the local debate competition, and the weather forecasts our farming community depended on for their livelihoods. Years later, as the lawyer for Microsoft’s news and information portal MSN and our news services, I gained an even greater appreciation for high-quality, fact-based journalism and the important role trusted news played in society.
We’ve been looking at ways Microsoft’s technology and resources can help address some of the challenges journalism faces, and today I want to share some of the initial work of our initiative. It includes a new community-based pilot program that looks at ways to provide journalists and newsrooms new tools, technology and capacity, and expand reach for local news outlets. It also includes a new pro bono program, also in pilot form, to provide legal support to journalists and smaller newsrooms, and an expansion of AccountGuard to help protect journalists from cyberattacks. We will build on top of work already under way by Microsoft Research and the Microsoft Defending Democracy team that’s designed to tackle issues such as disinformation.
We’re starting with a very targeted approach. We don’t have all the answers, but we are committed to listening and learning, and we hope our contributions and learnings will be useful to others. We’ll also look to add additional steps and programs to our initiative as we learn more and identify additional opportunities.
News and journalism face an accelerating crisis. Changes in digital advertising and in the way people receive their news – news aggregators, search engines and social media – have had a significant impact on journalism and its business model. Over the past 15 years, newsroom employment in the United States has dropped by half and 2,100 newspapers have closed. In recent months, the pandemic has put even more stress on newsrooms as advertisers pulled back. Since January, 11,000 newsroom jobs were cut in the U.S.
Digital technologies create opportunities for innovation and operational efficiencies, but they also create the risk that content can be manipulated and used to spread disinformation, undermining trust in all media. People’s digital literacy – the ability to find, analyze, evaluate and compose information – has not kept pace with technological innovation, making some people susceptible to manipulated content. Around the world, journalists themselves are also under attack, both physically and increasingly as targets for cyberattacks. According to survey conducted by Forrester Consulting, more than half of media and entertainment companies experienced three or more cyberattacks over a 12-month period.
We believe there are specific areas where our technology or our resources can help. Initially, our initiative is focused on three areas:
- Support local newsrooms: Provide tools, technology, expanded distribution and funding for pilot programs
- Integrity: Use technology to tackle tech-driven threats such as deepfakes and disinformation, and tools to improve media literacy
- Security & safety: Help to support and protect journalists from threats, including legal and cyberthreats
Our approach is targeted and, in most cases, focused on initial pilots with specific partners and communities. We learned from our TechSpark program the importance of working with a community to understand their priorities, being open about what we don’t know and making a commitment to learning. Like TechSpark, we hope that by working with others, and by innovating and testing, we can play a role in finding sustainable solutions to some of the challenges journalism faces.
Supporting local newsrooms
The first focus area of the initiative is to work in partnership with local community foundations to help support local newsrooms. We hope we can support these newsrooms and journalists as they 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 will bring technical expertise to the pilot community newsrooms and will partner with other industry organizations and foundations to share expertise and experience that will further expand the reach and impact of the initiative. Specifically, we will:
- Provide direct funding to the community foundations for operating costs, to bolster collaboration and attract matching funding and resources from foundations and other local or regional businesses
- Up-level technology through donations, deeply discounted software products and services from Microsoft and others
- Build capacity around technology transformation and technical support, business intelligence including customer-based analytics, and modern journalism skills such as data journalism, using AI and machine learning tools and technology built specifically for journalists, audio and video production, and modern storytelling.
- Expand news distribution to increase their reach and recognition, as well as generate new sources of revenue. Participating newsrooms that aren’t already a Microsoft News partner will have the opportunity to become one. As a partner, they may reach more than 500 million people in 180 countries every month across MSN, Bing, Microsoft Edge, Microsoft News apps and many mobile manufacturers and third-party distribution partners. Over 25 years, we’ve built a worldwide community of 1,200 publishers and 4,500 media brands and are proud to have shared over $1 billion in revenue with them since 2014.
- Convening experts on new sources of revenue and funding so pilot communities can learn and build on approaches that have worked elsewhere. For example, The Seattle Times will share with the pilot newsrooms its working model and experiences of community-funded journalism.
We are starting this work with pilots in Fresno, Calif.; the El Paso–Ciudad Juárez cross-border region; Jackson, Miss. and the Delta; and Yakima, Wash. These four communities were selected because of the serious challenges their local newsrooms face, the diversity of each community, the strong support of local news by the community, and referrals by third parties working on the future of news.
Addressing the challenges these local newsrooms face requires a new collaborative approach across pilot newsrooms, with community foundation leaders, local and regional academia, and non-profit organizations. We’ve spent the last few months engaged with each of these local communities to help define our approach and where we can be most helpful. These unique networks of local organizations are working together to identify the issues critical to their communities and where additional reporting, support and resources are needed. You can see the list of organizations involved in the pilots here.
The second focus area is to begin to restore trust in the news and information people receive. Our efforts in this area draws on work by Microsoft Research and Microsoft’s Defending Democracy team. Tom Burt and Eric Horvitz recently announced a number of new steps to combat disinformation including new technologies such as Microsoft Video Authenticator to help tackle deepfakes, and new Azure-based tools to help detect manipulated content. They also highlighted new partnerships with news organizations, and an expansion of our NewsGuard implementation. It’s clear that public education and media literacy are critical components, and Tom and Eric referenced our work with the University of Washington (UW) Center for an Informed Public, Sensity and USA Today on media literacy, as well as an interactive quiz for consumers.
Security and safety
The third focus area is about using our technology, expertise and partnerships to help with legal issues, safeguard journalists’ digital data and help spot threats. We’re starting with two initiatives:
Legal support: As watchdogs of political systems, government institutions and others in power, journalists rely on legal public records requests to get information for use in their reporting. Government agencies sometimes refuse to agree to these requests and media outlets are faced with filing an expensive and time-consuming lawsuit to have them honored. News outlets are also facing an increasing number of lawsuits by individuals or groups seeking to use the legal system to stop or impede stories they don’t want published.
To begin to address these challenges, in partnership with Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, we are piloting the Protecting Journalists Pro Bono Program in California and Washington. To start, volunteer attorneys from Microsoft and Davis Wright Tremaine will provide legal support to journalists and small news organizations that are not otherwise able to afford legal support across three workstreams: pre-publication review, access to public records and defending journalists against subpoenas for confidential information. We’re currently accepting requests for assistance only through referrals via three non-profit partners: Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, First Amendment Coalition and Washington Coalition for Open Government. We’re also working directly with several small news organizations that are focused on underserved communities. As we learn from the pilot, we hope to expand to other regions and add additional partners.
Cyberattacks: Newsrooms and journalists are particularly vulnerable as they deal with large amounts of data and sensitive information from and about sources. We are expanding our Microsoft AccountGuard threat notification service with a new offering AccountGuard for Journalists. AccountGuard is available at no cost to M365 customers to provide notification of nation-state cyberattacks, tracking threat activity on M365 emails and personal accounts, including Outlook.com and Hotmail, of its employees who opt-in. AccountGuard also includes access to cybersecurity training and early access to new security features. It currently protects more than 2 million accounts across 30 countries, and enrollees have received more than 1,500 notifications of nation-state attacks to date. AccountGuard for Journalists will initially be available at no cost to newsrooms participating in the local pilot program and existing Microsoft News publishing partners.
Beyond the work we are doing with others, we believe there are important public policy issues, too. We are committed to using our voice to advocate on issues that matter to news and journalism. We will work to help advance a national dialogue with a particular focus on protecting the safety of journalists, protecting free speech for journalists and others, and promoting the sustained health of local news.
Healthy democracies require healthy journalism, and we hope our initiative can play a role in helping to support quality journalism locally and nationally, as well as promote trust in news. Over the past 10 months we’ve met with people in newsrooms and across the communities of Fresno, El Paso-Juarez, Jackson and Yakima, and our optimism about local news is stronger than ever. Local newsrooms are the heart of their communities. They not only provide updates about the important local events and high school sports scores that I remember from my childhood but, then and now, provide in-depth local investigations with national importance. Integrity, security and safety are critical to journalists around the globe. We hope our tools will give journalists some ease from worrying about attacks and more time to focus on their essential work. With these global tools, partnerships and local pilot programs, we hope to play a role in supporting journalists, newsrooms and communities as they work to ensure they have healthy journalism for generations to come.