May 23, 2017 Last Updated 11:10 am

Fake news for fake readers, the trolls and bots among us; Digital newsstands aggressively sell to publishers, rarely to readers

Morning Brief: Digital media start-ups continue to attract VC funding, but unlike their colleagues from the ’90s, today’s start-ups are poor and frugal marketers

This has been a rough few months at Fox News. First the allegations of sexual harassment that led to both Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly leaving the cable channel, then the exiting of other on-air talent, followed by more lawsuits, and then the exiting of Bill Shine. None of this would likely faze Rupert Murdoch as much as recent ratings that show the channel in third place among cable news channels among the prime advertising demographic.

On top of all this, the news out of Washington DC has been counter to what the network would like: a seemingly endless parade of stories about the new president that the network can either report straight up, refute with its own reporting, or simply ignore. As cable news doesn’t actually involve much reporting, but instead is 24 hours of relaying reporting from elsewhere, followed by on-air personalities reacting to the outside reporting, Fox News cannot try and refute the stories coming from the NYT or WaPo with its own content. And so it has chosen to simply ignore the news, and create its own scandals.

This has led to some gross television with Sean Hannity and others trying desperately to push the conspiracy theory that DNC staffer Seth Rich was murdered by someone connected to Hillary Clinton for being the supposed act of leaking DNC emails to WikiLeaks.

What’s interesting this time, however, is the reaction to what Fox News is doing appears to be unanimous: revulsion.

Update: This afternoon (Tuesday), Fox News issued a statement essentially retracting their Seth Rich story:

On May 16, a story was posted on the Fox News website on the investigation into the 2016 murder of DNC Staffer Seth Rich. The article was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting. Upon appropriate review, the article was found not to meet those standards and has since been removed.

We will continue to investigate this story and will provide updates as warranted.

Will this also mean that Sean Hannity will stop running with this?

Foreign Policy, Max Boot:

The Seth Rich ‘Scandal’ Shows That Fox News Is Morally Bankrupt

It was just a coincidence, but a telling one, that Roger Ailes died on May 18 just as the television powerhouse that he created, the Fox News Channel, was propagating a conspiracy theory involving a Democratic National Committee staffer named Seth Rich, whose murder in Washington, D.C., last summer remains unsolved…

…Fox’s tasteless conspiracy-mongering has been denounced by the Rich family, which wants the far-right to stop exploiting their son’s tragic death, but it has found support in an unlikely quarter. Ever happy to play the troll, the Russian Embassy in London tweeted: “‪#WikiLeaks ‪informer Seth Rich murdered in US but MSM was so busy accusing Russian hackers to take notice.”

The Russians have tipped their hand — and Fox’s as well. Hannity, Gingrich, and Dobbs are in overdrive selling the phony Seth Rich scandal because they think it will distract attention from the real scandals of Donald Trump.

The Daily Beast, Matt Lewis:

Fox’s Fake News Mess

Networks need content, and the Seth Rich story certainly offered dramatic counter-programming. Think of it in terms of a campaign (which is the way Fox often views itself): If a Democrat is talking about crime, he’s probably losing. If a Republican is talking about health care, he’s probably losing. And if Fox News is talking about Comey’s memo… well, you get the point…

…The Russia scandal hinges on the notion that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia during the 2016 elections.

The Seth Rich story, despite no evidence at all to back it up — is being used to undermine this premise. Here’s former House Speaker Newt Gingrich on Fox & Friends: “[I]t wasn’t the Russians. It was this young guy who, I suspect, was disgusted by the corruption of the Democratic National Committee. He’s been killed, and apparently, nothing serious has been done to investigate his murder.”

And Limbaugh, using Rich to get to his pre-ordained bottom-line conclusion, said that “the only colluding and rigging here, folks, is the Democrats’ primary election.”

But who really is reading or viewing this counter news? For over a year I have been obsessed with this question. During the presidential campaign I saw that there seemed to be this reinforcing force being employed, designed to buck up support for the wildest conspiracy theories, to add support to the Trump campaign, and to amplify the stories about Clinton’s email server, Benghazi and the email leaks. But who are these people doing this work? That remains a mystery, one that can only be solved by the media companies making money by allowing this to go on.

Breitbart and InfoWars are often criticized as purveyors of fake news, but I see The Washington Post as a big player in this, as well. No, not its reporting, which has been first rate (it must be very exciting times there now), but in its comment threads. News organizations have many ways to help their readers understand who is commenting on their websites, but the Post has decided to moderate their threads with a light touch, and to not add features to their system that would help identify trolls and bots. The result is that their comment threads are often swamps of fake news rivaling only the far-right.

But Twitter, as we all know, is the worst. Journalists use Twitter as their default social media outlet because it allows them to monitor many sources quickly. But once a tweet is sent, the replies are often filled with trolls and bots. Who are these people, their profiles give no clue. Twitter users with less than two dozen followers seem particularly active in criticizing the media and supporting the president.

But it goes both ways. Yesterday I tweeted something snarky and immediately received notification of dozens of “likes” and “retweets” — but from whom? These Twitter users do not include links to Facebook or other websites, they provide no biographical information, no location, and certainly they don’t use their real names.

Sometimes it all feels phony, and maybe it is.

Venturebeat has a story today that says that Scribd has added newspapers to its service. But all attempts to actually confirm this have proved fruitless (it doesn’t help that they are located in San Francisco).

But it seems odd that a company would launch something new, and pretty much keep it a secret. Its app has not been updated (update – it was a day later), so there is nothing on this there, and no press release was published or distributed. Instead, it appears that the CEO reached out to a few outlets to spread the word. This is not good marketing, but then again marketing has proven to be the one thing the latest generation of digital media start-ups are particularly bad at.

I don’t wish digital media vendors bad luck, but there has to be a happy medium between the kind of reckless marketing spending the tech start-ups of the ’90s did, and the absolutely zero spending today’s start-ups advocate. With all the VC money floating out there I would think that a VC might be excited by one of these companies committing to actually competing for new customers. Oh well.

Note: This afternoon I was contacted by a PR firm which tells me that they posted a release to PR Newswire this morning.

Venturebeat, Paul Sawers:

Scribd adds newspapers to its subscription reading service, including the NYT, FT, and WSJ

Subscription reading service Scribd is adding another string to its bow today with the news that it’s now including “select” articles from a number of premium newspapers.

Founded out of San Francisco in 2007, Scribd offers subscribers unlimited cross-platform access to a selection of reading material, including ebooks, audiobooks, documents and, as of last November, magazines — all for $8.99 per month. The company has raised around $50 million in venture capital funding since its inception.

Scribd recently removed comics and graphic novels from its repertoire, while newspapers have long been a notable omission from its service — but as of today subscribers will be able to access a range of articles from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, and the Guardian.

Here is another newsstand start-up that has received funding recently.

Sweden-based Readly announced last week that it landed €13 million in new funding from Zouk Capital and Hermes GPE in order to aid in its expansion.

It is hard for me to think that what the world needs now is another digital newsstand. There is little barrier to entry, especially when so many of these digital newsstands work on a revenue-share basis. Also, most simnply offer PDF replicas (some with text versions of stories), and so readers eventually tire of working so hard to read the digital edition.

So what will Readly do with the new funding? Sell more publishers, of course.

“This new round of funding allows Readly to bring more titles to a wider audience in more countries and fulfil our aim of being at the cutting edge of the revolution in digital publishing. We have seen dramatic growth over the past twelve months, with 100% increase in paying subscribers in 2016 and these growth rates are continuing into 2017. We are delighted to have the support of our existing investors and to welcome new partners on board,” said Per Hellberg, CEO Readly.

OK, whatever. Wake me up when one of these digital newsstands start helping publishers sell their magazines by aggressively marketing their newsstands.

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