The rise of the Internet was only the beginning of the disruption for the news business. The past ten years have been a wild ride, to say the least. Social media, nearly ubiquitous smartphone usage and the rise of “fake news” have dramatically changed how we share, consume and verify information.
Cory Bergman has been through it all. When he moved to Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood a decade ago, he and his wife Kate established the neighborhood news site My Ballard, which is still running to this day.
He went on to lead Breaking News, a startup operation established within NBC News. Since its closure, he has joined with former NBC News colleagues to co-found a startup called Factal that verifies and reports on breaking news to inform companies about events that could impact their locations or employees, like natural disasters or active shooters.
Bergman joined us for a podcast discussion about the future of news and community building in a new digital age, recorded in front of a live audience Wednesday evening Oct. 24 at the NeighborHub at Columbia Bank in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. He said news, writ large, faces some big challenges.
“Once people don’t agree on universal facts, that’s a problem,” he said. “Things go in cycles, I hope, and [this] will cycle back down a bit. But I do think that misinformation and disinformation is here to stay.”
And although platforms such as My Ballard and social media sites like Twitter and Facebook can bring communities together, keeping the spaces respectful and civil is also a huge challenge.
“The whole problem about moderating communities is very, very difficult,” he said, especially when people in communities have valid complaints to air. “How do you let people express those complaints and not try to again be the one that tells everybody just to be quiet?”
Listen to our full conversation in the player below, watch the archived live stream above, or subscribe to the show in your favorite podcast app, and keep reading for some of Bergman’s takeaways on the future of news.
The state of the news industry in 2018: It’s not good. You know, once people don’t agree on universal facts, that’s a problem. And it boils down to your framing. It boils down to your beliefs. It boils down to just what’s happening in a given time. And so for us, with Factal, we said: “Let’s just focus on something that you better know the facts for.” Because if something’s happening nearby that poses a risk to you — or your kids, or your family, or your employees, your customers — you better know the facts. And that point in time, you don’t care what the political leaning is from this information. You just want to make sure it’s true and you want to make sure it’s fast so you can make the right decisions from it.
On Twitter, Facebook and other social media: It’s a powerful tool for what we do. They’re a partner of ours, and that’s a terrific source of data … But the whole problem about moderating communities is very, very difficult … For us, we want to be a trusted source of real, verified information about things that happen and provided a service. So [verifying things is] good for our business. We certainly value them as partners and talk with them, but doing communities for so long, it’s a hard problem and you just don’t want them, determining what’s true and what’s not, but you also don’t want ethnic cleansing taking place because of really bad information that’s being shared.
On the changing tone and tenor of debates online: Things go in cycles, I hope, and [this] will cycle back down a bit. But I do think that misinformation and disinformation is here to stay. I think you’ve seen so many state actors realize that this is very effective and so this will just be a continual problem. As far as in-neighborhood, that’s hard. You have to invest and, truthfully, we don’t have a ton of money to be able to hire moderators to really do the work that needs to be done … But here in Ballard, there’s certainly a lot to talk about, and in many cases, I think a lot of complaints are valid. So how do you let people express those complaints and not try to again be the one that tells everybody just to be quiet?
On using technology to monitor breaking news: I’m a firm believer that, especially in real time, technology is not ready to be able to do that verification itself. But technology [is] assisting journalists that do this and have been there, and have done that … It sounds very morbid, but we’ve seen shootings that involve multiple victims from the very first tweets over a thousand times. And so, we’ve begun to know what types of hyperbole that eyewitnesses use and what types of things just don’t seem right about this story. And so we’re able to then get closer to the facts and have a better sensibility there.
Lessons he learned from running a community blog: If something is close to you, it is inherently more important to you. And it’s not just a line. It’s not just linear. It’s nonlinear. The closer something is to you, all of a sudden it’s super real. And if you’re semi-close, you might be rubbernecking on the road looking at that. But oh my goodness, [if] something’s happening right here: “I really need to take a pay attention to it.” So that traveled from My Ballard into Breaking News when we created something called proximity alerts … and then, now, into Factal where we’ve taken that methodology then and monetized it as an enterprise service for companies around the world.
Thanks to NeighborHub at Columbia Bank for sponsoring this GeekWire Podcast event.