Publisher wonders if Elon Musk will be Loki or Tony Stark
Newsroom Initiative Newsletter Blog | 27 April 2022
When news broke this week that Elon Musk had won, at lightning speed, his US$44 billion bid for Twitter Inc, I put an all-points-bulletin to some publisher friends for their reaction.
Among the wittiest responses was from Sinead Boucher, owner and chief executive of New Zealand publisher Stuff. Sinead has long been a critic of the big social media platforms, especially Facebook, and she told me she wonders which side of Musk’s character we’ll see. Full disclosure, I worked for Sinead as a strategic adviser in 2020-21.
Musk has been seen, particularly by himself and his immense fan base, as a model for the Iron Man movie franchise character Tony Stark — a dashing billionaire who saves the world with bravery, elan, and fabulous machines of his own invention. Sinead reckons the real Musk may be a slightly darker character from the Marvel pantheon — Loki, the God of Mischief.
“I think that if Elon Musk was a Marvel character, he would be Loki,” Sinead told me in a note after the takeover was announced. “For all the words on protecting free speech, I think he very much enjoys all the drama and chaos that he is causing.”
Like others we reported on in the Newsroom Initiative blog this week over the Twitter takeover, Sinead questions Musk’s commitment to free speech or even his understanding of what it really means beyond the limits of a First Amendment philosophy that underpins his world view.
“I agree with him on the vital importance of free speech, which is being eroded in all sorts of ways, but I also believe the right to free speech should not be conflated with the right to be given a megaphone. The right to think and say what you want is different from a right to have that published on a for-profit platform,” she told me.
That’s a view you will hear from experts in misinformation and disinformation — that freedom of speech is not freedom of reach.
“If Musk wants to take Twitter in that direction, that is now up to him, but he would also need to be prepared for the consequences of that, like any other business,” Sinead said in reference to the likely reputational and regulatory implications of his purported free speech absolutism.
Sinead has been a loud critic at home and internationally of the proliferation of hate speech and misinformation on social media platforms, particularly during the pandemic. She even presided over Stuff’s withdrawal from publishing on Facebook in New Zealand. She’s also a leader locally in attempts to have platforms regulated and that they should pay for news from publishers.
People with Musk’s world view about the primacy of free speech often argue that good speech will drown out the bad. He has questioned Twitter’s moderation policies and argued that hateful-but-not-illegal information should be tolerated for the greater good — that the answer to bad speech is more speech in total, a view disinformation experts challenge readily.
Says Sinead: “What will happen to Twitter is probably predictable in the way that any platform that allows untrammelled free speech to be published. It will encourage some of the worst extremes to come out and the good things will eventually be drowned out.
“What will be more interesting is to see how different governments react to this move in terms of hastening or strengthening regulations governing or reining in the power of the platforms.”
One can already imagine the European Commission limbering up, let alone juridictions like Australia or New Zealand or the United Kingdom where there is no real absolute protection of free speech and where hate speech and threats can land publishers and platforms in trouble. Musk is about to find out how far Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act reaches beyond the United States — let alone the First Amendment that shields speech from govenrment interference, not from the business decisions of privately owned platforms.
Our mistakes: A second installment of mistakes we can learn from
I promised another installment of lessons from newsroom leaders. It’s a theme I intend to do regularly through the Newsroom Initiative when people are generous enough to admit where they got something wrong and learned from it.
David Walmsley, the editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail, was especially generous in the section of the initiative’s March master class devoted to newsroom culture. I asked him to come with an idea of his mistakes and he claimed he started with a card of 30 and cut from there.
“I would say it’s on the diversity side of things,” David told attendees in the master class. “I thought that as a manager or an editor that so long as you were carrying out the auspices of the job, you would be going in the right direction.
“But the reality was a number of the reporters, particularly, came to me and said, ‘We have to make the room more diverse. You’re a little blind to that.’ They were right, and we’ve done a lot of work and we’ve got really, really, strict criteria now in place to ensure that the hiring does change. That has been a real catch-up moment on my own side of things.”
David reckons the newsroom is all the better for it and that he learned from it.
Maribel Perez-Wadsworth, president of news at Gannett, told the same session she had learned an important lesson about the need for some journalists to focus or be specialised on one thing and not be the kind of all-singing, all-dancing, multi-media reporter we once thought was the journalist of the future.
“Where we are learning now is that specialisation and expertise truly, truly matter and make a difference,” Maribel told the master class. “Specialisation matters, expertise matters, and you can build that at scale. My mistake was to have too much comfort in the idea of multi-media journalists who could do all the things and that that was the way forward."
If you have an anecdote about a mistake you learned from, let me know: email@example.com.
Aligning newsroom goals to readers — a relatively easy formula
Goals and the importance of sharing them between different units in a publishing company have been a recurring theme of my conversations with newsroom leaders worldwide.
We all know the SMART goals idea — that objectives are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-based. That was a mantra when I worked at Microsoft, along with the famous Bill Gates line that: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”
Those principles apply equally in a well-run newsroom that is working to align with the overall business objectives of the company in ways that work for journalists, the bottom line, and, perhaps most importantly, for readers.
I thought about this in a conversation with INMA North America board member and former Tribune Publishing Co. audience and editorial operations leader Idalmy Carrera-Colucci. She’s moved to the Blue Engine Collaborative consultancy, where she’s helping implement some of the projects funded by Meta to promote growth and sustainability for news organisations.
She’s spent most of her career working in newsrooms on goals and performance.
“Part of it starts with making sure that we are all aligned around the same goal of serving our community. If that is what makes you come to work to do every day, the journalism we do every day needs to be in service to those readers,” she told me. “If you have that as the guiding star for everything we do, it really helps.”
Among the most useful tools or data points she’s found to convince journalists to engage with what might otherwise be “business metrics” is a view of stories that subscribers are spending the most time on. Then there’s a view of stories that were the last thing someone becoming a subscriber clicked on and hopefully read before choosing to subscribe.
“The first gives you alignment between the work that they want to do and the content that subscribers value. The last-clicked story and path to conversion — what did they read just before they got their credit card out? — is a really powerful signal of alignment,” she said.
In her time at Tribune, they focused on four metrics:
Local users (week over week, YoY and to goal).
Return users (week over week, YoY and to goal).
Paywall views (week over week, YoY and to goal).
Subscriber sessions (week over week, YoY and to goal).
Tell me your experience of useful metrics or views that help you align newsroom goals: firstname.lastname@example.org. This will be a recurring theme in the Newsroom Initiative.
Building a newsroom culture after the pandemic
Another issue newsroom leaders raise is mental health, fatigue, and how to effectively reintegrate staff into the newsroom after months of working from home or lockdowns.
One U.S. publisher told me 20% of their entire reporting and sales staff had joined the company in the past two years and, in most cases, had never worked in an office with their putative colleagues. That required a big investment in training to allow those relative newcomers to catch up and work on re-establishing an office culture.
We will explore this question of newsroom culture and what leaders have learned during the cabinet in future newsletters but also in the Newsroom Initiative session of the INMA World Media Congress on May 24. Anna Åberg, the managing editor of Dagens Nyheter, will talk about the lessons of the pandemic in newsroom collaboration and cohesion. She believes the Swedish newspaper has emerged stronger and that it’s helped the Ukraine coverage.
Recommended reads and listens
Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter Inc is inevitably generating more heat than light, especially around the issues of freedom of speech that he says at least in part motivated him to bid to take the social network private. If you listen to nothing else, I recommend these two podcast episodes from two very different perspectives:
- Benedict Evans, whose Twitter handle and newsletter I’ve mentioned before, talked about the Musk offer and how strangely small Twitter really is relative to its competitors on his regular Another Podcast with Toni Cowan-Brown. There’s quite a lot of swearing in it, but they make excellent points about what Twitter is and is not, and about some of the core principles of free speech and why the First Amendment doesn’t really apply to this.
- Kara Swisher from The New York Times and much else joins with marketing professor and tech industry commentator Scott Galloway to discuss the Musk bid for Twitter in their amusing and argumentative podcast Pivot. Everyone is bloviating, but they do it with knowledge, experience, and a great sense of what really lies behind the struggle for Twitter.
Also, we’ve talked and written at the Newsroom Initiative about the invasion of Ukraine, the courage of reporting in the field, the business responsibilities, and the impact on news appetites. In an INMA blog this week, Alexandra Beverfjord from Dagbladet in Norway explained how the newsroom had strengthened critical elements — especially news editing to get the most out of the fast-paced Ukraine story and serve readers.
For those tracking the Ukraine story on Twitter, you might find this list of Ukraine sources, which I have added to over the past few months, valuable.
Tell me what you want to read and what you like or don't like in this newsletter, please. Email: email@example.com.
About this newsletter
Today’s newsletter is written by Peter Bale, based in New Zealand and the U.K. and lead for the INMA Newsletter Initiative. Peter will share research, case studies, and thought leadership on the topic of global newsrooms.
This newsletter is a public face of the Newsroom Initiative by INMA, outlined here. E-mail Peter at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com with thoughts, suggestions, and questions.