Microsoft just announced an expansion of its remarkable initiative to preserve and protect journalism.
To learn why Microsoft’s doing this, I interviewed Mary Snapp, vice president of strategic initiatives.
Full disclosure: The Seattle Times is a big beneficiary. It owns the Yakima Herald-Republic, one of the first newspapers supported by Microsoft’s program.
Microsoft Philanthropies also gave The Times $1 million earlier this year to fund three local reporting positions. The reporting is completely independent from Microsoft and will be labeled for transparency.
So yes, I’m biased here. But newspapers are increasingly dependent on community support with even the largest, publicly funded papers pursuing grants to bolster newsrooms.
Recipients aside, Microsoft is an important player on my beat, covering the array of efforts to sustain the local, free press system.
Modeled on Microsoft’s TechSpark civic investment program, the journalism initiative provides funding for news outlets, free and discounted technology, training, and increased content distribution through Microsoft apps and services.
It began last October with pilot projects in Yakima; Fresno, California; Jackson, Mississippi, and the El Paso, Texas-Ciudad Juarez region. It since expanded to Appleton, Wisconsin, and is partnering with the nonprofit Report for America to support five newsrooms in Kansas, Oklahoma, Arizona, California and West Virginia.
In Yakima, Microsoft’s support helped sustain newsroom operations and in-depth reporting on murdered and missing Indigenous people, Herald-Republic Executive Editor Greg Halling told me.
“If it hadn’t been for Microsoft money we would have been forced to reduce the size of our reporting staff and we don’t have any room to give — it would have been devastating,” he said.
Microsoft is also helping combat misinformation and truly fake news, such as deepfake videos. It’s part of a coalition of tech and media companies developing standards to authenticate digital content. It’s also adding NewsGuard, a service rating the credibility of news sites, to its browser and search service.
Lastly, Microsoft and Seattle law firm Davis Wright Tremaine are testing a “Protecting Journalists Pro Bono Program” in Washington and California. It’s now expanding with a Knight Foundation grant and partnering with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
Here’s my edited conversation with Snapp.
Q: How are you going to measure success?
A: We haven’t really sat down and done key performance indicators because we’re still learning as we’re going. One measure of success in three to five years is if each of the outlets in each of these places is still going strong and if maybe another couple of outlets in that region have been added. Because we know that one of the biggest issues is financial viability.
Q: How did you choose communities? Appleton is Microsoft President Brad Smith’s hometown, right?
A: It is but Appleton also had going for it the fact that we already had a TechSpark location there, which you might say had something to do with Brad as well. One of the factors was whether there were other assets there that could be leveraged to help support the efforts. At the same time, we looked for places where the community was ready to support quality journalism. Fresno had already made a strong commitment, through their community foundation, to support journalism because they wanted Fresno to come together as a community and they viewed journalism and media as a really important way the community could get to know each other and maybe bridge some of the divides.
Q: What’s next? Are requests coming in?
A: We are getting a number of requests and being careful about it, it’s a pilot program. We want to make sure we’re learning from the pilots we’ve already started, and we really are. I would say our learning is that communities will support journalism — we’ve already attracted some funders in other locations to come in with us.
Q: What legal services are provided and will they be there if there’s a lawsuit?
A: The most important thing is that other people have gotten interested in it, which means to me that it’s got some real ability to get momentum and scale. We had 80 Microsoft lawyers and legal professionals show up for the first training so there was a tremendous amount of interest within our own legal team to do this kind of pro bono work. The work we’re doing is basic stuff — (prepublication) review, freedom of information requests, data requests. To be honest, the program is designed to avoid litigation and avoid an opportunity for someone to bring a frivolous lawsuit.
Q: What’s in it for Microsoft? Shareholders might ask why newspapers — aren’t they a horse-and-buggy market?
A: We actually think of newspapers as critical in our society and our ability as a company in a democratic society to do the job that we need to do for our customers. If we don’t have a healthy journalism sector in our society people won’t know what’s real and what’s not real. It’s so important for people to have a healthy democracy, where citizens are informed about what Microsoft is doing right and what Microsoft can do better, so that is just at a high, abstract level really important for us. The other thing is we need to know what’s happening on the ground. Yes we have all kinds of listening systems but there’s nothing like going to Yakima Valley and hearing people talk about the stories that are important to them.
Q: How does this translate in other countries?
A: Right now it’s U.S. based at least in terms of thinking about our pilot programs. The programs around trust and disinformation and security for journalists … that transcends borders and it’s important for journalism all over the world.
Q: This puts you on a high road. Does that help in your competition with Google, Amazon and Facebook, which are now big antitrust targets?
A: I would say we’ve learned a lot in the last 15 years. Look, we know we’re in an era where all of tech is in high scrutiny — in federal offices, state offices and around the world. We clearly are watching that. We want to be the best citizen that we can be. We also know — and I know this sounds abstract — but 95% of our revenue comes from strong democracies and that is because there is a rule of law, because things are predictable, and one of the ways to ensure that kind of a democracy is healthy journalism.