Fabrice Florin, a longtime innovator in the digital media world, uses online tools to promote critical thinking skills and deepen civic engagement.
The New Idea
Fabrice launched NewsTrust to inform, engage, and connect citizens through journalism. He uses an Internet platform to get people to think critically about the information they consume and deepen their engagement in civic life. NewsTrust.net is a social news website and information filter that aggregates quality news stories rated for journalistic quality by news consumers. In finding stories and contributing reviews, news consumers are encouraged to ask themselves “What is good journalism?” and “How does it relate to my life?” NewsTrust participants become part of a community that allows people of many different backgrounds to come together in online forums and conference calls to exchange ideas. By teaching people to find, share, and debate information in a community with shared values, Fabrice is strengthening the democratic fabric of society.
In an era of information overload, media companies are seeking ways to earn news consumers’ trust. Fabrice’s idea offers them a solution at exactly the right time. This explains his early success in forming partnerships with well-known media companies and online portals. Every week, for example, different media partners with audiences across the political spectrum participate in “News Hunts” for good journalism on particular topics, such as the presidential elections or renewable energy. Media partners drive traffic to NewsTrust.net. Fabrice is working towards making NewsTrust a seal of approval for good journalism, sought after by media companies. Along with a growing set of online activities, this has the potential to engage American citizens on a broad scale.
Rapid changes in the media landscape are making it increasingly difficult for citizens to get the information they need to make informed decisions about their lives and governments. New technologies have transformed the traditional economics of journalism, giving rise to increased commercialization of the media, newsroom cutbacks, and consolidation of media companies. At the same time, the barriers to entry for news providers have been dramatically lowered—today anyone can blog or put up a web site, leading to a rise in amateur journalism and opinion news. People are now overwhelmed with too much information—and much of it is either biased or of poor quality. As a result, the American public is losing trust in the news media. According to the Pew Research Center’s New Media Surveys (2005 to 2007), most Americans feel news providers care more about attracting audiences than keeping the public informed. More than seven in ten people say that the news media tend to favor one side, rather than treating all sides fairly.
At the same time, the way people connect with the media is shifting. The mass that once consumed mass media is fragmenting into ever more narrow audiences as individuals seek out only the information that interests them. More Americans are turning to partisan news outlets that reflect their own ideology and political beliefs. This trend is unhealthy for participatory democracy.
Understanding what makes good journalism requires critical thinking skills and basic knowledge of journalistic principles such as accuracy, fairness, sourcing, and context. But news literacy also implies an understanding and connection, as an individual, to what the news means to one’s life and society. In this way, news literacy is tied directly to civic engagement and democracy. Several programs exist to teach news literacy in the U.S., particularly to younger students, but there is still a need for solutions that can teach news literacy to a larger portion of the public—both in America and across the world.
NewsTrust acts as an information filter to gather and distribute news. Articles are ranked by a network of citizen reviewers, professional journalists, and editors. Reviewers rate articles posted on NewsTrust.net (about 100 per day), or submit articles they find elsewhere. Internet-based forms ask reviewers to rate news based on quality, rather than popularity (other well-known online news filters only measure content popularity, not the quality of information). NewsTrust reviewers are invited to evaluate fairness, evidence, sourcing and other core journalistic principles—and develop their news literacy skills in the process. Individual contributors are identified by their real names, a simple mechanism that has been shown to greatly increase user accountability and prevent abuse or fraud.
As they are pulled into the NewsTrust community by staff members who give them feedback and weigh their reviews, NewsTrust reviewers have more opportunities for engagement. Reviewers “move up the ladder” in the NewsTrust community by becoming more skillful at discerning good journalism: Visitors become members, who become reviewers, who are invited to become hosts, and so on. This is a teaching tool, but it is also an important mechanism for maintaining and increasing the engagement of NewsTrust participants—often a challenge in citizen journalism initiatives.
NewsTrust complements online activity with a growing set of in-person engagement tools. Less than two years after NewsTrust’s launch, three of the nine NewsTrust staff members are dedicated full-time to editorial guidance and community building. NewsTrust staffers host events, conference calls, and online forums to bring people together to discuss journalism on current issues. The most trusted reviewers can host topics they care about. At the highest level, the best NewsTrust hosts can become editors and host events and calls, and also assess new members’ reviews. In coming years, Fabrice envisions local NewsTrust communities coming together across the country for face-to-face conversation and interaction.
Fabrice employs a range of strategies to reach out to prospective citizen reviewers. Each week, he partners with different media companies to promote “News Hunts” for articles on different topics. For instance, NewsTrust partnered with Scientific American to find good journalism on the environment, joined forces with the Huffington Post during the election for a News Hunt on John McCain, and did a pilot project with Ashoka on the topic of education. Media partners add NewsTrust review buttons next to the stories on their sites and often add NewsTrust widgets, driving traffic to the NewsTrust site. At the same time, NewsTrust has partnered with different universities (including Stanford University and the University of Nevada), to have students participate actively as reviewers in News Hunts.
Fabrice has positioned NewsTrust to be a leading information filter on the Internet. Individual ratings are weighted based on each reviewer’s member level, calculated by sophisticated computer algorithms to surface the best news articles. Every day, NewsTrust distributes the top-rated stories through email, widgets, and other devices to partner sites all around the Internet. The information filter feature of NewsTrust is a critical leverage point for expanding the NewsTrust community, for it gives media partners and online portals (like Google) the opportunity to earn news consumers’ trust. This has given Fabrice a distinct opening in engaging well-known partners with broad audiences. By tapping into these partners’ audiences, he can reach many people.
In order to have large-scale impact, Fabrice knows he must reach as many demographic groups as possible. He is laying the groundwork to reach people of all socioeconomic levels. He makes an effort to partner with conservative media to balance NewsTrust’s early partnerships with liberal media. Fabrice plans several new devices to make the NewsTrust site appealing to younger audiences and the general public, including fun news games, abbreviated review forms, streamlined user interfaces, and mobile phone services. He also plans to launch news literacy programs in high schools and colleges. Ultimately, Fabrice recognizes that he is building a collective decision making system with potential applications far beyond news media.
NewsTrust has thousands of reviewers, and website visits are growing at a rate of 30 to 40 percent each month. In order to attract sponsors, NewsTrust must get millions of page views per month, which Fabrice expects will happen by the end of 2010. At that point, NewsTrust will have the financial sustainability not only to maintain current activity, but to develop new appealing website content and expand marketing and other programs. In the meantime, NewsTrust depends on foundation funding, with plans to launch paid premium subscriptions for additional revenue. Within five years, Fabrice expects to reach nine million unique visitors per month, be fully financially sustainable, and begin international expansion.
Fabrice was raised in Manhattan and Geneva, Switzerland; his parents worked for the United Nations and other international organizations. As a child, he was an avid reader with an early interest in journalism, and hosted his own radio show. He was also fascinated by computers at a young age, imagining them to be oracles of the future. Fabrice attended an academically rigorous high school in France and set off to travel shortly after graduation.
Fabrice eventually settled in San Francisco, where he founded a television production company. There he created a new style of journalism: News combined with music videos for the Rock Generation. He got interested in computer technology and was hired by Apple as a founding member of their new multimedia lab. At Apple, Fabrice continued to innovate, leading research and design teams that created new user interfaces for interactive television, educational CD-ROM series, and other pioneering applications. Later, he launched an award-winning software and game development company, developed a new Internet entertainment center for Macromedia which he grew to 15 million members and $8M in yearly revenue, and founded another company providing comics to mobile phone users.
Midway through a successful career, Fabrice’s father encouraged him to apply his entrepreneurial skills to bettering American society. When his father died, that advice gained particular resonance with Fabrice, who began seeking out possible projects where he might have social impact. At the time, he was volunteering and registering voters during a presidential election. He realized that, more than rallying citizens to join one party or another, American democracy was in desperate need of new ways for citizens to engage in thoughtful debate based on factual information, not just opinions and partisan politics. Fabrice created NewsTrust to answer that need.