Never cover up Mistakes

INTERVIEW PUBLISHED IN LUXEMBOURGER WORT – 23 MAY 2019

Q: How do you define fake news? And is fake news really adequate to describe this phenomenon?

A: I would define it as information that is not verified or corroborated, well documented, verifiable, credible. Various factors go into defining what’s real news and what’s not real, or what’s fake news – or even anti-news, if I can use the expression. Because “real fake news” is often used to manipulate the audience, it could be considered anti-news.

I don’t remember the history of the expression “fake news.” It certainly wasn’t in common usage before Trump started really popularizing, then it went viral among certain kinds of populist leaders around the world, who used it and still do in the same way that Trump does. Or they saw it as an open invitation to use the expression and the concept to manipulate the public. So no, I don’t think it’s completely adequate. 

Q: I hear expressions such as “deliberate disinformation” or “information pollution”.

A: Exactly. Information pollution, you could argue, is information overload – a lot of information in which truth and untruth are mixed. The other term, deliberate disinformation, is exactly what Trump does. He’s a master of deliberate disinformation. He and his administration traffic in deliberate disinformation, and we saw this in the Brexit referendum campaign as well. That was a very conscious use of deliberate disinformation, as was well documented during and after the referendum.

Q: Does Trump discredit the press deliberately, knowing full well what the actual truth is? Or is it just ignorance on his part?

Both. I think he is a very ignorant person. On one hand, he’s ignorant of history, he’s ignorant about many subjects in depth. My sense is that he skates on the surface, and I think he very deliberately disinforms. He misinforms and disinforms as a practice – or as a “dark art.” And that’s been shown throughout the course of his career, long before he was in politics – as a businessperson, as a human being. He’s made it clear repeatedly himself – he’s talked about stretching the truth, bending the truth, shaping the truth. If he has a true talent for anything, it’s using “alternative facts” to create an alternative reality that will allow him and his people to do what they want to do. 

Q: Are there different types of fake news?

A: You could argue there are “slightly” alternative facts, “somewhat” alternative facts and “completely” alternative facts. Trump and his people traffic in shades of the truth to meet their immediate goal or the goal in the particular situation they’re in. Individuals in this administration, in various positions of authority, use facts and truths and news that they will shape in different ways, depending on the situation, who they’re talking with and what their goal is. We see 

examples where Trump will say something to somebody and say the opposite to somebody else. That kind of thing comes up all the time. 

Q: Why is it impossible to confront members of this administration with the truth?

A: Because they don’t care, nor does their political base. They’re focused on their goals. Whether you agree with those goals or not is one question, how they reach those goals is another. In my view, most of the time they don’t act according to smart governance, good public policy, the greater good, the general good. We have seen this with various members of this administration. We certainly saw it in the UK during the Brexit campaign. These characters will say and do whatever they think will get them to where they want to go, with little or no regard for what’s actually true, what the facts are, or what is best for the general public – or even what’s best for their constituency.

We see this in what the Trump administration is doing in the US. People voted for him because he made certain promises, but not only has he not delivered on these promises, what he and his people are delivering actually hurts or will hurt those people in the future. You see it economically, in health care, in what they are doing with natural resources and the environment. You see it in the denial of climate change, which to me is a perfect metaphor for the entire situation. It’s 2019 – are we really still arguing whether climate change is man-made, whether it is really damaging our environment? We’re taking huge steps backwards.

Going back to your earlier question: Is Trump ignorant, or does he know what he’s doing? I think there is a tremendous ignorance in all of this. He and the people around him generally do not reflect a sense or knowledge of history, do not understand or care about good governance. It’s really horrifying when you look at what is actually happening within federal agencies in the US.

Q: Is fake news a recent phenomenon, or is it historic? 

A: It’s historic and you can trace it back centuries. I think you came to me because I sat on stage recently with Tom Glocer, a friend and former CEO of Thomson Reuters, who had an example from ancient Greece. Manipulation of information goes back to the dawn of people talking to each other, so it’s not a new phenomenon. When I was a newspaper bureau chief in Mexico, a ridiculous rumour swept the country that people were kidnapping Mexican babies to murder them, harvest their organs and sell them to desperate rich parents in the US. It was a rumour that had started and had been picked up by some publication in Paraguay, I think, then it spread throughout Latin America. The Soviet Union grabbed it, and its very active disinformation unit spread it all over the place. That was back in the early 1990s.

I’ve seen examples of fake news throughout my career. To be fair, legitimate news organisations make mistakes, get things wrong. As a reporter, I have made mistakes in my reporting. But one of the differences between purveyors of fake news and responsible journalists is that real journalists and responsible media acknowledge their mistakes, and broadcast or print a correction. You let your audience know: I’m human, I report, I work hard but I make errors. I made a mistake in my story, and I want you to understand what that mistake was and I want to correct it.

In this time of fake news, when everybody is a publisher, that doesn’t happen very often. But it’s one of the definitions by which you distinguish somebody who’s purveying fake news from a legitimate news organisation or source – the latter will correct their mistakes. 

Q: Why do false stories have greater traction than the truth? 

A: Because generally they play on people’s emotions, which are always more powerful than rational thinking or intellect. Again, that’s why the Brexit advocates and the Trump campaigners traffic so much in fake news, because that’s where their genius lies. They understand people’s emotions, and right now the dominant emotion globally is fear. They’re very good at using fake news to play on people’s fears. And it’s a very effective way to win power and to hold power. And of course people have short memories, which works in their favour. 

A study I saw showed that even in situations when people know something isn’t true, when they know it’s fake, when they understand they are being fed “alternative” rather than real facts – if it could be true, that’s good enough. If I’m already a believer in Brexit or in Trump’s promises, and they say something that I know is ridiculous – “the wall with Mexico is going to stop the flow of migrants”- you think about it, you look at the facts and you reasonably conclude “it’s not true”. But a wall could stop some people from getting across the border, so it could be good. It plays on people’s fears and what they want to believe in – they’ll adjust the facts to their reality or to what they believe in, even while knowing that it may not be true. 

Q: Which changes in the way we produce and consume news have contributed to the epidemic of fake news?

A: The internet! In the same way that it has destroyed the business model for the mainstream press. Again, it’s the the fact that everybody can be a publisher: a story appears in print somewhere or is displayed in a nice layout on a screen, and friends and family put it in their news feed on Facebook. Because so many people now use Facebook as their main news channel, and the information coming to them is either from sources that are ideologically coherent with their beliefs or from their network, their friends and family, that’s where they get most of their news. If I see a story that fits my world view, even if it’s not based on a legitimate news source but it still looks real, and I put it out, people will accept it as real information. The notion that everybody can be a publisher of any kind of information is in my view a major reason that fake news has become an epidemic.

Q: So it’s not a coincidence that the interest of the public in fact-based reporting has decreased while at the same time there has been a rise in fake news?

A: No, this period is in many ways a perfect storm. I fence this period off because first we had the Brexit referendum, followed by Trump’s election, and everything that’s happened since. It’s no coincidence. Different factors have created this moment. Technological revolution and transition, the aftermath of the 2007-09 global financial meltdown in the US and UK, and in America, the vast demographic underway with the white population shrinking as other demographics grow and the fear that that engenders in the declining older white population.

In the US, there is the hangover of the Obama period, when a strong racist element opposed him and was fearful of the idea that minorities were gaining political power in the US. All that happened at the same time as the collapse of traditional media and its business model, while the purveyors of fake news were getting louder, using platforms like Facebook and the internet in general, as well as broadcast media, which has an enormous impact. In the US much of Fox News’ output is based on alternative facts,  not what I consider legitimate analysis of the news. It’s a perfect storm of all these things, not a coincidence – you can’t tease them apart.

Q: It’s a dangerous situation when so many legitimate journalists have lost their jobs because of the loss of advertising income, at a time when fake news is so popular. 

A: So true. Rarely have we needed real news more urgently than now, because this is such a critical time in the history of the planet. Except maybe world wars, it’s hard to think of a period more sensitive and vital for real, verifiable information to guide people to make the right decisions. On climate change alone, so much needs to happen right now to save the planet, but we’re so far from taking that action. And one of the reasons is that we are flooded with bad information and information that’s manipulated by the economic powers that want to maintain the fossil fuel industry, for instance. It’s a domino effect. 

Q: You tweeted the Washington Post Super Bowl message: “Democracy dies in darkness”. Did you ever think that it would become necessary to advertise fact-based journalism?

A: I was a journalist like you for 23 years, and for 21 of those years I never thought I’d do anything else. I thought I would be a working reporter until the day I died. And I was very happy with that idea. I loved what I did. I do believe journalism is a mission, not just a job. I think it’s God’s work in that sense, it’s so important. And I was proud and happy to be doing that. The collapse of the industry is something I never anticipated. Pre-internet, I figured I would be doing what I do forever, because there would always be a need for it and a platform for it.

So I didn’t anticipate that things would change the way they have. But one of the things I’m proud of with VitalBriefing, this business that we’ve built now, is that we are able to create work for journalists. Hundreds of thousands of us out there have lost their jobs in the past 20 years. At a time when democracy dies in darkness, we’ve never been needed more urgently, certainly in my professional lifetime and arguably since World War II. I don’t think there’s ever been a more urgent need for responsible, in-depth, journalism, good storytelling, knowing how to present stories that are important, entertaining, and meaningful to our audiences. Democracy absolutely lives or dies on the basis of good information. So I worry, I literally lose sleep over it. I believe democracy is really under attack right now.

Q: It’s a different kind of war.

A: Exactly. My family bars me from talking about this stuff anymore because I can be so pessimistic. 

Q: What are the effects of fake news on society?

A: Brexit is one example. It was sold on false information, as the Brexiteers admitted more or less the day after the referendum. Nigel Farage confessed on the BBC that it was “a mistake” to put on the campaign bus that Britain’s National Health Service would get £350 million a week back from the EU. It was a complete lie. You can go through one piece of information after another that was sold to the public to justify Brexit.

I think rational people can believe in Brexit and believe that the UK should pull out of the EU. While I don’t agree, and think it’s a massive, tragic mistake, there are legitimate arguments that can be made. But that’s not generally why people voted as they did. It wasn’t a policy-driven, reasoned discussion that fuelled the Brexit vote, and the fact that the result was so close is a good indication: had it been based on good information, I believe the outcome would have been very different.

I like to contrast last fall’s US mid-term election with the election in Luxembourg, which were held more or less around the same time. To me, the Luxembourg election was an example of a great campaign. It wasn’t personality-oriented. You could see the differences between the parties, but for the most part everybody was thinking about what’s best for this country over the long term. It was a boring campaign, and the forums I attended and the debates I watched were boring, which was wonderful. They were about policy: Mobilitéit, digitalisation, space, housing, growth – legitimate issues to be discussed. What does this country want to be, where is it going? Whereas in the US mid-term elections people were screaming at each other, and campaigns were based on false information. Generally there was little focus on policy issues. It did happen in some cases, which I think is one reason why so many incumbents lost and why the Democrats won the House of Representatives. There was legitimate discussion as well. But across the campaign as a whole there was a lot of screaming and personal attacks. 

Q: How can you spot fake news?

A: You have to be very discerning as a consumer of news. You need to think about the source, which most people don’t do. We do it because we’re professionals, but you need to assess for yourself: Who are the sources? Do the sources meet certain criteria, do you generally feel that the reporting is presenting the real facts, not alternative facts? Even if it’s something you don’t agree with, whether you can trust that the reporters are getting the right information in the right way, checking and verifying the information, finding multiple sources, and where possible identifying a paper trail. It should not be just “he said, she said,” but knowing that a verifiable document backs up whatever is being reported. It’s a matter of questioning the sources, making sure you know them, identifying sources you really respect and trust to deliver an accurate account of what’s happening.

Q: How can the media restore the public’s trust?

A: By doing just that – by being responsible, accurate, credible sources of information, by showing that they adhere to those criteria and take care with the information they’re presenting. Major legitimate news sources in the US, such as the New York Times, Washington Post, a number of regional papers, magazines like the New Yorker and the Atlantic, in broadcast CNN for the most part, are outlets in which you can believe based on their history and their track record in terms of verifying information and correcting mistakes. That’s really important – when you hide mistakes, it’s an indication that you’re not truthful. That’s how you restore faith in the media, which needs to be restored because the media and the news business in general is one of those institutions, a guardrail of democracy, in which people have lost faith, and it’s critical to restore it. It also requires trained journalists who know how to do the craft the way it should be done and have legitimate outlets to publish or broadcast their work. And there are fewer and fewer of those. 

Q: Is the fake news phenomenon an opportunity for the media to reignite interest in fact-based journalism?

A: Yes. As pessimistic as I am, I hope that once we get past this moment – as I remind myself all the time, because my vision has become somewhat short-term – we will come out of this and restore some sanity. The media in general is in a moment of transition in every way, like every industry, because of technology, because of the internet, because of the changing nature of our economies. This industry will find a way past this moment. The pendulum swings and it’s way to the extreme right now – not politically, but in terms of false information. I believe it will swing back as new platforms for legitimate and credible news reporting emerge, with business models that will sustain them.

VitalBriefing is one attempt to do that. We have been able to create a sustainable business model that does practice, I believe, responsible journalism, and there will be more and more media outlets like that, and more and more business models to support them. In the old days, when I was a reporter, we never worried about the business side. We saw them as “the business guys” and stayed away from them because we believed they wanted to influence our reporting to benefit their advertisers. They shouldn’t dare to cross that line, and if they did the reporters would be screaming and fighting, going to their editors or to the publisher. That’s as it should be.

But the business model wasn’t sustainable in the face of technological change. Now we all have to think about the business side. At the same time, there are more tools to support and empower great reporting and news-gathering than ever before. I think about the digital tools available now that would have made my life as a reporter so much easier.

In my last newspaper job, I worked on a project with a partner for a year and we probably could have cut the time down by half to two-thirds using the digital tools we have now. Most of our time was spent going through public records by hand, travelling around the state of California, going into one courthouse after another. All those public records are online now. We could do in days online what took months and a lot of money and travel and expense. The wealth of tools now available turbo-charge the ability to do great reporting, and you see great newspapers and great broadcasters doing that kind of work, finding great stories and creating great journalism.

You need the business model to support it, but it’s coming. And the irony of the past couple of years of Brexit and Trump is that some of the best reporting I’ve seen in my lifetime is happening right now, because of those tools. For example, the New York Times, one of the few newspapers that is financially sustainable, and the Washington Post, have owners who essentially say: You’ve got the resources you need, the money you need, go out and do it. The Guardian is supported by a foundation, an endowment, that financed its great journalism for a long time, although it has become smaller now and they’re searching for a new business model as well. But these outlets are still doing wonderful reporting because of the new tools. So while I’m pessimistic, I’m also very hopeful.

Fintech: closing in on the end of the beginning

Fintech is not about the future of the financial industry – but its present. 

Online and mobile banking is no longer futuristic, but what’s expected of any institution, from venerable financial dynasties to upstart challengers. 

Instant payments, smartphone transactions, crowdfunding and savings apps have moved from the disruptive fringe into the mainstream. Confined just a short time ago to the world of start-ups, today’s fintech firms just as likely could be well-established businesses recording swelling profits and paying handsome dividends to shareholders.

After years of steady rather than breakneck growth, investment in the sector may be growing faster than ever: New money doubled to $55 billion last year alone compared with a total of $153 billion in the eight years between 2010 and 2018. Almost half came from China ($26 billion), although the US and the UK, despite Brexit, remain significant sources of venture capital and other types of investment. 

Fintech firms are becoming bigger – much bigger – but there are fewer of them: the number of start-ups founded worldwide peaked at 668 in 2014 and in 2016 was down sharply to 256.

While still a hotbed of innovation, that’s a sign of a sector starting to mature. A few years ago, the industry’s most high-profile firms were focusing on, among others, mobile transactions, digital payments, and above all crypto-currencies and blockchain, the distributed ledger technology underpinning bitcoin. 

Today the headlines are more about artificial intelligence, machine learning and big data as new applications try less to sweep away the traditional financial architecture and its incumbents than to carry out more cheaply, quickly and efficiently familiar functions such as customer due diligence or trade processing.

The traditional financial industry remains worried about the possible impact on its business of technology giants such as Google, Apple and Facebook moving onto their turf to exploit huge established customer bases. 

For mainstream banks, insurers, asset and wealth managers, and their myriad service providers, fintech firms offer a source of new thinking not found in-house as well as technology to make them fit for purpose in the digital era.

For all their concern about the impact of disruptive technology on the stability of the financial system, even officials who might be considered champions of orthodoxy are looking for ways to encourage the flow of fintech innovation into the mainstream. Regulators’ digital sandbox schemes enable fintech firms to test and refine their products and services with live customers before they shoulder the full weight of regulatory compliance. 

They’re also encouraging the fast-growing area of regtech, enabling digital technology to ease the ever-more-complex process of adherence to the additional rules that have besieged the financial sector over the decade since the financial crisis. 

And even the world’s central banks, while they decry the instability, insecurity and lawlessness of crypto-currencies, are discreetly exploring the capability of digital money to smooth financial flows and anchor monetary policy-making. 

In short, fintech may be moving beyond its Wild West phase but the digital transformation of the global financial framework is barely at the end of the beginning.

Brexit : le Royaume-Uni – et le Luxembourg- en voyage vers l’inconnu

Simon Gray a longtemps travaillé au Luxembourg comme journaliste financier. Photo: Editpress/Hervé Montaigu

Simon Gray a longtemps travaillé au Luxembourg comme journaliste financier. Photo: Editpress/Hervé Montaigu

Voici encore quelques mois, alors que les défenseurs du Brexit promettaient à leurs compatriotes qu’ils pourraient avoir le beurre et l’argent du beurre, personne n’aurait pu imaginer que l’on se retrouverait dans la situation actuelle.

Alors que le Gouvernement et le Parlement britanniques tentent toujours – en vain- de s’accorder sur une éventuelle sortie du Royaume-Uni de l’Union européenne et, le cas échéant, sur ses modalités, le Luxembourg doit lui aussi faire face à de nombreuses incertitudes.

En effet, l’avenir du secteur financier luxembourgeois et en particulier les activités liées aux fonds d’investissement pourraient être considérablement secoués par un tel événement. Selon Standard & Poor’s, le Luxembourg est le pays qui, après l’Irlande, devrait ressentir le plus intensément les répercussions du Brexit.

Les magistrales erreurs commises par les dirigeants britanniques qui ont conduit à cette situation ont été amplement commentées. Parmi elles, on peut rappeler la mise en place du referendum de 2016 dans l’espoir des dirigeants britanniques de balayer “une fois pour toutes” l’insurrection eurosceptique qui minait le parti conservateur depuis plus de trois décennies.

Ou encore l’organisation d’élections législatives anticipées en 2017, inutiles, dont les résultats ont finalement fragilisé la majorité en place, ne laissant à aucune des forces politiques en présence les marges de manœuvre suffisantes pour sortir de l’impasse. En résulte, au final, cette stratégie absconse, insaisissable, rendant difficile la négociation et la conclusion d’un accord de sortie de l’Union européenne.

On peut se réjouir, au moins pendant quelques mois encore, que les pires craintes d’un Brexit sans accord ont été balayées (avec le risque de briser purement et simplement des relations financières qui ont été construites pendant plus d’un demi-siècle, d’empêcher les Britanniques de vivre et de travailler au sein de l’Union européenne, ou même de perturber la circulation aérienne entre l’Europe continentale et le Royaume-Uni).

Grâce au pragmatisme dont ont su faire preuve les autorités financières, au Royaume-Uni, au Luxembourg ainsi qu’au niveau de l’Union européenne, les règlements vont, en toute probabilité, rester en l’état actuel, au moins jusqu’à la fin de cette année, et sans doute encore durant 21 mois, voire davantage, quel que soit le dénouement du débat interne britannique.

A priori, le secteur financier luxembourgeois devrait être un bénéficiaire important du Brexit, aux côtés de Dublin, Francfort, Paris et Amsterdam ou encore Madrid.

A priori, le secteur financier luxembourgeois devrait être un bénéficiaire important du Brexit, aux côtés de Dublin, Francfort, Paris et Amsterdam ou encore Madrid Face au risque de ne plus pouvoir accéder au marché unique en cas de Brexit, près de 60 gestionnaires d’actifs, prestataires de services financiers et assureurs spécialisés, ont déjà fait le choix de s’installer au Grand-Duché.

En effet, des acteurs financiers établis au sein de l’Union européenne bénéficient d’un passeport leur permettant de distribuer leurs produits et services dans d’autres États membres sans avoir à obtenir d’autorisations supplémentaires. Si le Royaume-Uni devait sortir de l’UE, les acteurs financiers britanniques perdraient cet avantage, même sous un accord de sortie.

L’arrivée de ces acteurs au Luxembourg a eu pour effet de renforcer la position de la place financière internationale, et plus particulièrement son pôle d’activité lié aux fonds d’investissement. C’est d’ailleurs sans doute heureux que cette tendance n’ait pas– à ce jour– mené à une croissance majeure de l’emploi dans le secteur de la finance luxembourgeois.

A l’approche de la date initiale du Brexit, le 29 mars, le mouvement de migration d’acteurs venus du Royaume-Uni vers le Luxembourg semblait s’accélérer, les institutions financières craignant que la période de transition additionnelle de 21 mois ne se concrétise pas.

Selon la dernière estimation de Luxembourg for Finance, dix entreprises britanniques supplémentaires ont fait le choix de s’installer au Grand-Duché en février, portant leur nombre total à 58, dont 31 gestionnaires d’actifs. En outre, le Luxembourg, comme d’autres juridictions européennes d’ailleurs, va certainement profiter dans les années à venir de retombées liées à des investissements et opérations qui auraient normalement été confiés à Londres.

Selon S&P, le Luxembourg est une des économies les plus exposées aux répercussions ayant trait aux échanges commerciaux et à la migration

Toutefois, toute médaille a son revers. Selon Standard & Poor’s, le Grand-Duché est une des économies les plus exposées aux répercussions relatives aux perturbations des échanges commerciaux et des flux migratoires liés au Brexit, en raison notamment du nombre conséquent de transactions entre les deux places financières ainsi que du niveau d’exportation des biens et services luxembourgeois vers le Royaume-Uni.

Un rapport de la fondation allemande Bertelsmann Stiftung a évalué la perte des revenus auxquels Luxembourg aurait dû faire face cette année, en cas de Brexit sans accord, à 127 millions d’euros. Rapporté à la population du pays, cela représente un montant de 220 euros par habitant. Notons que la perte pour les résidents britanniques serait bien plus conséquente, puisque évaluée à 875 euros par habitant.

Malgré la décision de reporter la date limite du Brexit au 31 octobre, ce risque de préjudice économique demeure pour l’avenir, à moins qu’un accord de sortie ne soit conclu.

De manière générale, au sein de la communauté financière luxembourgeoise et dans les sphères dirigeantes du pays, de nombreuses personnalités considèrent le Brexit comme une perte globale pour le Grand-Duché. En effet, une grande partie des activités liées à l’industrie des fonds d’investissement découle directement des relations que la place financière luxembourgeoise entretient avec la City. Le Brexit risque de rendre ces relations bien plus complexes.

Dans les jours, semaines et mois à venir, Luxembourg pourrait faire face à un véritable séisme politique et économique, sans doute plus conséquent pour ce pays que ce qu’a pu représenter la chute du rideau de fer et de l’Union soviétique..

Les responsables de la place financière craignent notamment l’émergence de nouvelles restrictions et un renforcement du contrôle de l’Union européenne en matière de délégation de l’activité de gestion d’actifs vers des pays non européens, comme pourrait le devenir le Royaume-Uni. C’est un enjeu réel, et ce malgré l’assouplissement récent d’un projet de la Commission européenne qui prévoyait le transfert des pouvoirs des régulateurs nationaux vers l’autorité européenne de supervision des marchés financiers (ESMA).

Au-delà, avec le Brexit, le Luxembourg perd un allié puissant au cœur des délibérations menées au niveau de l’Union européenne. Le Royaume-Uni était un soutien fort du Luxembourg dans la défense du modèle d’ouverture des frontières et de libre-échange économique. Le Luxembourg peut davantage craindre que des barrières protectionnistes s’élèvent à nouveau en Europe, menaçant la croissance de l’industrie financière paneuropéenne. Le renforcement des mouvements populistes et la tendance à un plus grand protectionnisme dans de nombreuses régions du monde n’augurent en effet rien de bon.

Dans ce contexte, le Gouvernement, le Parlement et les régulateurs luxembourgeois ont fait de leur mieux pour protéger le pays et son secteur financier face à un risque de Brexit chaotique. Est-ce que cela sera suffisant ? Difficile à dire pour le moment. Dans les mois à venir, Luxembourg pourrait en effet devoir faire face à un véritable séisme politico-économique, peut-être plus conséquent pour ce pays que ce qu’a pu représenter la chute du mur de Berlin et l’effondrement de l’Union soviétique.

L’environnement économique et politique relativement stable du Luxembourg, qui lui a permis de prospérer considérablement au cours des dernières décennies malgré les crises, risque de disparaître à jamais. Il est désormais l’heure de boucler la ceinture, car nous partons en voyage vers l’inconnu.

A lire: LËTZEBUERGER JOURNAL – Petite mise au point

A CONFESSION: HOW I SURVIVED THE SLAUGHTER OF JOURNALISM

The author delivering an analysis of Donald Trump’s use of fake news as a vehicle to promote his political career Photo Credit: LaLa La Photo

by David Schrieberg

I feel guilty. I have a job as a journalist when tens of thousands of my colleagues – hundreds of thousands, actually – have lost theirs.

Call it survivor’s guilt.

As the traditional and digital media world I inhabited over three decades collapsed in a heap of failed business models, shedding journalists at a horrifying pace, in 2011 I came up with an idea that I hoped would achieve four goals and offer a sliver of light at the end of the ever-darker tunnel:

(a) Leverage a lifetime of experience as a print journalist, digital media executive and entrepreneur;

(b) Create a sustainable journalistic subscription business model around high-quality, accurate, fact-based content;

(c) Produce value for clients in the private and public sectors, on the one hand by teasing out what mattered from the tsunami of information in order to help them make decisions, and on the other by crafting worthwhile information to help their audiences make decisions;

(d)  Generate new work for journalists.

As the slaughter in media worsened – ironically as fake news became an epidemic and the need for quality journalism was never greater – reason (d) unexpectedly assumed increasing importance.

How Bad the Massacre?

When I was a newspaper and magazine journalist in what I consider the golden age of print – the 1970s to the late 90s – there were 458,000 reporters, editors and others in the business in the U.S., according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

For the most part, they held reasonably paid, secure positions, gathering facts and reporting accurately, challenging authority, explaining the world – digging beyond the surface to get to the “real story.”

By 2016, that number had plummeted by 60% to 174,000, and it’s getting worse.

In the past weeks alone, the bloodbath has been brutal, topping 1,000: dozens of journalists at BuzzFeed; 800 from Verizon’s media division, which includes TechCrunch, Yahoo, HuffPost and other content brands; 400 from Gannett and its national network of local newspapers, plus USA Today, as the mother company gasps to stay alive.

Advertising-based media business models have gone the way of the Gutenberg printing press. For a time, we all thought that digital outlets like Facebook and Google would be our savior. Instead, that hope has been betrayed by algorithmic changes like Facebook’s de-emphasizing “real” journalism content from respectable outlets in favor of content from users’ personal networks.

In today’s world, it’s all about scale, scale and more scale. That’s tough for all but a few outlets.

I wonder if Mark Zuckerberg feels guilty for this, among the many other reasons he should feel guilty? “The cause of each company’s troubles may be distinct, but collectively the bloodbath points to the same underlying market pathology: the inability of the digital advertising business to make room for anyone but monopolistic tech giants,” explains Farhad Manjoo, the New York Times tech columnist.

Everyone in global universe of “real” news and content is looking for sustainable ways to practice journalism. “I think media is still a great business, if you run it like a damn business,” Jim VandeHei, CEO of Axios, a Washington-based website told The New York Times.

Absolutely. That list above of goals turned into VitalBriefing, creating business intelligence and branded thought content for private and public sector clients in multiple industries.

And that’s another reason for my guilt – it’s a betrayal of the values I grew up with professionally. As a reporter in newspapers and magazines in the era of the “Chinese Wall” separating editorial and publishing (the business side), we journalists couldn’t care less about our business colleagues as long as they made enough money to keep paying us.

Our noses were in the air about our own business. In fact, we tended to see those folks as the enemy within, hell-bent on swaying our reporting based on advertisers’ concerns. We would scream any time we thought that commercial interests were trying to breach that wall.

My first inkling that things were about to change came in 1995 at Newsweek, where I was a foreign bureau chief, when the publisher announced at an all-staff meeting that the magazine was going online and putting its content there…for free. I remember thinking: “I’m no business guy but how’s that going to work exactly?”

Ah, the good old days. Newsweek was sold a few years ago for $1.

There Is Good News

In a few cases, 24 years later after that all-hands, the transition to digital, while painful, has started to pay off…for a few lucky ones. Recently, the New York Times announced that in 2018 it had generated more than $709 million in digital revenues and clocked 3.3 million digital subscribers, up 27% from the year before.

More revealing still was that for the first time, digital advertising outstripped print – a huge milestone in the industry and the clearest signal, in my mind, that the tipping point actually may be in sight.

Any time traditional news operations can make the transition to healthy business – well, that’s heartening for all of us. Digital-native companies like Vox Media, brilliantly run by my former AOL colleague Jim Bankoff, reportedly was profitable last year. I love seeing The New Yorker, The Atlantic and The Washington Post making their way to long-term digital sustainability.

And creating more jobs for journalists. Which helps assuage my guilt, but not completely.

The tragedy of the massive layoffs means lots of top talent with stellar backgrounds and experience from the best publications across their specialties, from finance to technology and beyond, is on hand to answer our frequent global calls for journalists.

Every time I review those resumes, it grieves me – so much talent in the market looking for a home. I want to hire them all. With our own business scaling now, we count some 50 journalists working with us and I’m hell-bent on growing so that eventually we’ll have hundreds.

Sustainability Is Us (We Hope)

We know now that we’ve created a sustainable business, and a sustainable business model – subscription-based, industry-specific, high value content – that can endure these uncertain times in the media world. We’ve grown steadily since we began at an ever-faster clip in markets increasingly hungry for reliable, accurate, and trustworthy information to feed their need for internal knowledge on one side, and well-told stories to share with their audiences on the other.

The New York Times columnist Manjoo hit on the VitalBriefing mantra when he noted that “we are in the midst of a persistent global information war.”

“We live our lives on technologies that sow distrust and fakery, that admit little room for nuance and complication, that slice up into ignorant and bleating tribes. It is an era that should be ripe for journalists and for the business of journalism – a profession that, though it errs often, is the best way we know of inoculating ourselves against the suffocating deluge of rumor and mendacity.”

We intend for our small inoculation to help our clients stay healthy, and plan on continuing to create opportunities for talented journalists through this painful transition of an industry in crisis.

VitalBriefing CEO David Schrieberg Joins Ex-Reuters Head, Other Experts to Discuss Battle Against Fake News

I was flattered to share the stage this past week with Thomson Reuters former CEO, Tom Glocer, and other distinguished participants for a wide-ranging discussion about fakenews. Thanks to Linklaters for putting together a fascinating evening of exploration that couldn’t have been more timely: literally during Britain’s Parliamentary brexit vote. I’ll be writing more about the issue soon. Meanwhile, Luxembourg press did a nice job covering the event:

Luxemburger Wort:

 

Lëtzebuerger Journal:

Fight Fake News: Work for VitalBriefing

 

 

The headlines just keep on coming. The latest: President Donald Trump uses blatantly wrong information in a threat to shut down the US government if Congress won’t fund his legendary and unnecessary wall against Mexico. Meanwhile, we learn the Kremlin put out phony stories for a year in preparation for a latest attack on the Ukraine. I could spend lots of “ink” listing one after the other example of misinformation, disinformation and “alternative facts” that these days drive both public policy and public opinion.

I’m a product of what was arguably the golden age of American journalism, “raised” in the business to believe that it’s not just a job, but a calling – offering me the privilege to cover stories like the one from this photo taken in 1987 – the return of Salvadoran refugees to their homes during the wars in Central America. 

I started my career not long after Watergate, when real facts and “getting it right” were as important as “getting it first,” and when accuracy, reliability and credibility were inviolable core values.    

I’ve been thinking a lot about these values lately in the era of fake news and too much information, for three reasons: 

• Personally, because I’ve been horrified by the growing impact of false information on national and local decisions around the world. 

• Professionally, because I worry that our profession and democracy have been degraded and diminished by manipulated information and “alternative facts” presented as reliable, verified, journalistically-based truth. 

• Entrepreneurially, because when I conceived VitalBriefing seven years ago, I wanted to ensure that businesses and organisations could get curated, business-critical information based on journalistic values of accuracy, timeliness and relevance on the competition, regulations, technology and developments that guide their decisions. 

Filing the story: Pre-laptop, pre-internet, phoning in the story – real facts – from a remote Salvadoran village

To Be Completely Honest… 

I also had an ulterior motive: As literally tens of thousands of my colleagues in newspapers and magazines around the world are losing their jobs, I hoped that in my small way, we could match some of those highly qualified journalists of all ages with the needs of our clients – that we could help our clients make better choices based on unbiased information rather than rely on social media echo chambers or partisan press outlets. 

Which brings me to today. As our business grows – confirming our idea that businesses and governments would welcome high-value, reliable, timely and accurate information – we’re recruiting experienced writers and editors to add to our growing global corps of experts. If that’s you (or someone you know), please contact jobs@vitalbriefing.com 

In this world of digital natives, we have created an unusual “newsroom.” Our journalists literally work from around the world. They’re multilingual and knowledgeable about the industries they cover for our clients. In many cases, they’re over 50 years old and have decades of experience at some of the the most respected general and industry-specific media, publications you would recognize for their accuracy and commitment to the facts. But age is no barrier where expertise, talent and enthusiasm are concerned. 

What We Offer 

We offer steady work and reasonable compensation, a humane environment that conforms to an independent lifestyle, be it in Luxembourg, Bulgaria, France, Spain, Greece, England, the United States, Singapore…and beyond. 

In a fast-paced company that melds cutting-edge search technology with irreplaceable journalistic skills, our international corps of expert journalists is fully focused on providing accurate, timely and reliable business intelligence. 

Whether it’s producing filtered, fact-checked and concise summaries of key industry developments about our clients’ industries and their competitors or longer, industry-specific stories and thought leadership articles, I like to think of VitalBriefing as one of the antidotes to fake news – wrapped in a viable and sustainable business model. 

So again, consider this post as a job ad. If this sounds like you or a friend, we’d love to know: jobs@vitalbriefing.com. 

Not Your Grandfather’s Space Race

In just a handful of years, space has become a key business focus for companies and governments alike.

The quadruple play of reusable rockets, new satellite technologies, 3-D manufacturing and the advent of asteroid mining capabilities promise to usher in a new era of space exploitation.

Buoyed by headlines like “Space mining will produce the world’s first trillionaire,” the sector is drawing investors around the world, powering a steady increase in funding: Since 2009, $15 billion has been funnelled into the space industry – one-quarter last year alone from private investment in more than 112 commercial space company deals.

No longer is the sector reserved for the countries with the most developed space technologies and capabilities. As competition accelerates, both Luxembourg and Australia have launched their own space agencies this year, while governments across the globe have been spending significantly on various space-related programs, projects and missions.

Demand for satellites, especially, is the current major focus. As the infographic below shows, the global satellite industry more than doubled from 2007 to 2016, growth expected to continue and increase over the coming decade. Cheaper, smaller and more sophisticated satellites easier to launch into orbit – known as nanosatellites and CubeSats – are the principal investment drivers. However, it won’t be long until advances in relevant technologies shift the focus to the next great frontier: space mining.

Luxembourg and space

Luxembourg is no stranger to the space industry, which already generates €2 billion a year, accounting for nearly 2% of the national GDP. Yet, the Grand Duchy has directed significant funds and resources to cement the country’s foothold, most recently inaugurating the Luxembourg Space Agency to encourage space-based industries – and creating a €100 million fund to invest in space technology start-ups.

As the contribution of space companies to Luxembourg’s economy evolves and grows, the government will continue to foster collaboration among key industry players, offering a legal, regulatory and business environment for activities including exploration and mining of space resources.

In fact, Luxembourg already is a recognised global leader in developing space mining, with an established regulatory structure that benefits companies in the sector, and $223 million of its national space budget earmarked for early-stage funding and grants.

With its space agency and ever-more-sophisticated infrastructure, the country is on track to become the world’s foremost space mining capital – not bad for a small, landlocked country successfully diversifying its economy for the future.

Proposed AIFMD marketing regulation could make life easier for alternative fund industry

Alternative fund managers in Europe and outside appear poised to win greater flexibility on early-stage marketing to professional investors, despite dissatisfaction with the first draft of EU legislation to amend the 2011 Alternative Investment Fund Managers Directive.

In March, the European Commission published a proposed directive amending EU regimes that regulate cross-border distribution of retail and alternative investment funds. The law is a key element of a legislative package advancing the Commission’s Capital Markets Union project, which also includes a prospective regulation intended to facilitate cross-border fund distribution.

At first, the Commission’s proposals to amend the AIFMD alarmed the fund industry, which feared they could make marketing more difficult in several major European markets.

However, following the drafting of a revised version of the legislation by the EU Council, comprised of member states, it now appears that alternative fund managers in Europe and elsewhere will win the greater flexibility they seek in early-stage marketing to professional investors. 

The proposed legislation defines and sets rules on ‘pre-marketing’ activity: gauging interest from potential investors before a fund has actually been established while avoiding the full disclosure and administrative rules the directive requires for fully-fledged fund marketing. 

This process enables managers to refine their investment offerings and terms, or even abandon projects if they fail to generate market enthusiasm.

What would change

The original AIFMD defines marketing but makes no mention of pre-marketing, leaving it to member states to choose whether or not to authorise it at all. Regulators including Luxembourg’s CSSF and the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority have done so, but other member states treat any initial contact with a prospective investor as marketing. 

In its proposals, the Commission was aiming for pre-marketing to be permitted throughout the European Economic Area – the EU plus other counties that follow its single market regime – but under uniform rules.

While the March proposals would liberalise the rules for fund managers in countries where pre-marketing is now barred, they would impose new constraints in other states. 

Most notably, they forbid the provision of offering documents or limited partnership agreements, even in draft form, to potential investors. Otherwise, the AIFMD’s full requirements governing marketing would be triggered.

Industry critics protested that the rules would prohibit established practice in the alternative investment industry. This applies especially to funds structured as limited partnerships, often the result of long negotiations between managers and cornerstone investors – whose commitment is essential to the project.

They also noted that the EU’s (now-superseded) Prospectus Directive governing the offering or listing of securities permits the circulation of draft prospectuses to professional investors. 

In some cases, critics argued, the proposed directive could force managers to comply with marketing passport conditions even before a final decision to establish a fund had been reached.

Responding to industry complaints

The revised draft issued by the EU Council on June 15 is viewed by analysts as far closer to the more liberal interpretation of the marketing requirements prevalent in the union’s leading asset management and fund service jurisdictions.

The changes would permit alternative investment fund managers (AIFMs) to explore the market of prospective investors, including by circulating draft fund documents until they are finalised before a launch. 

Investors would not be able to invest in the prospective fund at this point, and no subscription documents would be available. AIFMs would be required to document details of their market-testing activities and be prepared to supply them to regulators.

Under the Council’s amendments, any subscription to a fund within 18 months of pre-marketing that either referred to the fund, or was established as a result of pre-marketing, would be treated as a product of marketing and subject to notification or authorisation procedures – depending on the AIFM’s volume of assets under management. 

That rule would prevent managers from using pre-marketing to obtain reverse solicitation, where participation in the fund takes place at the investor’s initiative and is thus not subject to the directive’s rules on marketing.

The Council draft also would ease a proposed requirement that managers offer to repurchase shares or units from local investors in jurisdictions where they wish to discontinue marketing their funds. 

Notably, closed-ended funds are exempted from the repurchase obligation.

While the directive next faces negotiation between the Council and the European Parliament, alternative fund managers are now confident that established practice for dealing with key investors is less likely to be overturned as part of a well-intentioned liberalisation measure.

Don’t be fooled: Curing the fake news epidemic, one story at a time



Over the past two years, the world has succumbed to an epidemic of fake news. While disinformation has circulated for as long as people have created news, the internet, social media and changes in the way in which we consume information have turned fake news into an uncontrollable global virus with massive repercussions across politics, business and society.

Stories that on the surface may seem accurate but instead are misleading or downright false can have serious consequences once – to adopt the social media phraseology – they go ‘viral.’

Fake news stories have been absorbed and spread by millions of people, enticed by the click-bait headlines plaguing social media feeds – feeds originally designed to ease the sharing of content rather than to encourage the dissemination of untruth. On occasion, such as in the run-up to the US election or the Brexit referendum, this has resulted in a viral storm of sound bites that can trap people in a ‘filter bubble’ of disinformation, impacting how they vote, who they connect with socially and which companies they buy from.

While the mainstream media is certainly not innocent of embellishing the news to attract readers, of making mistakes or of inaccurate reporting, more alarmingly, the phrase ‘fake news’ is now deliberately being used by politicians and business leaders around the world as a weapon against legitimate news reporting, to mislead their constituencies and as an excuse to censor free speech.

In the business world, being tarnished with fake news that sticks can be disastrous, impacting public sentiment and your brand reputation with after-effects that can be hard – even impossible – to shake off.

No global vaccine exists for inoculating against the fake news epidemic, but VitalBriefing, as specialists in media and brand monitoring, has developed tools and techniques to filter fact from fiction, enhanced by our team of highly skilled and experienced journalists.

Here are six tips and tricks you can apply today when you read the news online or browse your social media feed:

  • Is the publisher credible?

Simply because a website is popular, does not mean it is accurate – especially if it appears on social media or automated news aggregation services where clicks and computer algorithms decide what leads. Be wary, for example, of unusual domain names or websites imitating legitimate news publications. Check the ‘About Us’ section to get an idea of what and who is behind the publication.

  • Is the writer credible? 

Check authors’ by-lines: Have they published anything else? Are they real writers, commentators or experts in their field or – as is often the case with fake news stories – simply a fictitious pseudonym?

  • Is the story credible?

Has the information been published on other websites, especially on authoritative ones such as noted mainstream media publications or specialist news outlets? If there’s no coverage elsewhere, it’s not a certainty that the news is fake, but it’s a strong warning sign that other verification methods need to be applied, especially if it’s not published by a legitimate news organisation.

  • Who’s in the story? 

If a person or organisation is quoted, perform a reverse search to check the original source of the quote. Is the attribution accurate? Is it being taken out of context? If there are no quotes or contributing sources, consider it another red flag.

  • How timely is the information?

Checking other sources can reveal a common indicator of fake news: the recycling of older information, dragged out of context, and made to appear as fresh news.

  • How’s the quality of the writing? 

Poor grammar and spelling is not necessarily indicative of a disreputable publication – automated or poor-quality translations are common on non-native language news sites, for example – but it should be a cause for scepticism, necessitating cross-checking the accuracy of the information. 

VitalBriefing applies all of the above and more when searching, filtering and curating information for your organisation, culling fake news to supply accurate business intelligence with journalistic integrity.

What in the world is a Circular Economy?

The meaning of the circular economy 
For the past decade, the expression ‘circular economy’ – with its promise to generate a more sustainable, equitable and just world – has steadily gained international traction. It actually represents an alternative to an ill-managed, extraction-based global economy generating unprecedented changes in the global climate and depleting the world’s natural resources.

Circular economy is relevant to every element of society, culture and economy. Yet, what does it really mean? What are its implications? How profound is its implementation for your organisation – and personal way of life?

Consider this: A recent study compiled and compared 114 definitions of circular economy in order to provide the first quantitative interpretation. The conclusion: Circular economy “means many different things to different people.”

We have the good fortune to cover the issue for our clients, so before you become discouraged or overwhelmed, we can help with some answers.

 

The meaning of the circular economy 
For the past decade, the expression ‘circular economy’ – with its promise to generate a more sustainable, equitable and just world – has steadily gained international traction. It actually represents an alternative to an ill-managed, extraction-based global economy generating unprecedented changes in the global climate and depleting the world’s natural resources.

Circular economy is relevant to every element of society, culture and economy. Yet, what does it really mean? What are its implications? How profound is its implementation for your organisation – and personal way of life?

Consider this: A recent study compiled and compared 114 definitions of circular economy in order to provide the first quantitative interpretation. The conclusion: Circular economy “means many different things to different people.”

We have the good fortune to cover the issue for our clients, so before you become discouraged or overwhelmed, we can help with some answers.

 

What is the circular economy?
Briefly, the circular economy is “a regenerative economic model.” Its purpose is to examine complex human behaviour and provide insights into a better allocation of resources. It’s holistic, taking into account the energy and materials we use, the ecological limits of our environment, and most important, people’s well-being.

In short, the circular economy seeks to create a system to meet our current needs while respecting the limits of our planet’s resources.

How does the circular economy function?
In this “regenerative system,” consumers and producers work together with policymakers at every level to generate environmental quality, economic prosperity and social equity. How does that happen? With an economic model that aims to retain as much value of products and materials as possible.

To get there involves refurbishing, remanufacturing, best re-use and recycling of the products and materials the world uses. The goal is a world without end-of-life of products and materials, reducing the generation of waste to its absolute minimum.

What does a circular economy strategy look like? We’re glad you asked:

– Waste virtually doesn’t exist. Products are designed to be disassembled and reused or, failing that, recycled. Long-lasting design ensures reduced energy use.
– Products components are categorised either as consumable (returned safely to the biosphere) or durable (designed for reuse and/or recycling).
– The energy required to power industry is renewable.

When is the circular economy arriving? 
It’s already here, permeating all sectors of the economy (which is why we at VitalBriefing cover it for our clients). You can find it in the products you consume, from cheese to smartphone, from clothing to the materials used to build your house.

The circular economy goes beyond strategies for reducing, re-using and recycling. It’s about generating an industrial ecosystem where these and many other strategies infuse every stage of products and services. Every day, we find a new company going circular, reducing the waste from its production, and collaborating with other circular-minded companies to create a healthy environment for their business and the world.

A few examples:

Luxembourg’s ArcelorMittal recognised for circular economy initiatives
ArcelorMittal has been recognised by the World Economic Forum for its ambitious circular economy efforts. The global steel group’s initiatives include paving more than 400 miles of Brazilian roadway with a product consisting mainly of waste steel slag, manufacturing a profitable low-carbon cement also from waste slag and pioneering steel re-use in structures. It has been producing steel in Luxembourg from scrap waste rather than primary raw materials for a quarter-century.

New businesses exploit massive seafood waste 
With about 40% of all seafood going to waste in an industry that has grown enormously over the past 50 years, new companies are starting to exploit seafood waste by-products in unusual ways. Ideas include applying fish skins as a treatment for burns, using fish scales in solar panel cells, and making salmon jerky from discarded fish meat.

IKEA trialling furniture rental and resale schemes 
Having won awards for its efforts to promote circular economy systems, Scandinavian flat-pack furniture giant Ikea is testing rental and buyback schemes in different parts of the world to cut down on waste. In Belgium, customers can re-sell, repair, or return their furniture, while in France and Japan, furniture can be returned to be sold in the store again.

To follow the circular economy more closely, or to have us help you follow the aspects that matter most to you, please contact: David Schrieberg – dschrieberg@vitalbriefing.com
Santiago Perez – sperez@vitalbriefing.com