Following the departure of founder Paul Jay, Baltimore-based Real News Network announced the appointment of John Duda as executive director following a national search earlier this year. Duda joins The Real News – a progressive, nonprofit online news organization – after nine years as communications director at The Democracy Collaborative, an international research institute working to develop practical models for a post-capitalist economy. Duda also has a PhD in intellectual history from Johns Hopkins University.
We caught up with the new CEO to discuss his background, reach a wider audience in the age of COVID, and the publication's commitment to on-site coverage.
You have both academic and scientific backgrounds and experience as a worker and founder as a founding member of Baltimore's long-time bookstore cafe Red Emma. What convinced you that it was time to get into journalism?
To some extent, it's a return for me. Most of the activism I did around the turn of the millennium was about digital media – I was trying to capitalize on the new opportunities that journalism opened up as the internet became more and more something that more and more people could access. But it's also a continuation of the same belief that led me to start Red Emmas and that I focused on in the world of think tank politics – that you don't have effective long-term movements for social change can, if you don't, build and maintain the infrastructure to support these movements. A key element of this infrastructure is, of course, the type of movement journalism that The Real News produces.
It was a strange time starting a new job.
Yes absolutely! My first day at work and every day since then I've only been zooming and emailing. I haven't even really met my colleagues. For example, trying to take on a leadership role in an organization while looking after a three-year-old who was stuck in the house for months was interesting.
Obviously, it was also a difficult time for fact-based reporting. What the information age should actually be seems to have become the disinformation age. How do you understand how social media – and Facebook in particular – has become a propaganda engine?
What makes the giant social media platforms like Facebook so powerful are the algorithms on which they are based. You want to sell as many ads as possible. So the more you get involved, the more money you can make. And because they have access to so much data, the algorithms can choose the content that is most likely to "engage" you. Not the content that is most important, the truest or the most likely that makes you think critically about the world, but the content that is statistically most likely, based on the record of your behavior and millions of other people around you Keep scrolling through your feed.
The problem is, fear, hate, and paranoia are those incredibly powerful emotional drivers that these algorithms naturally adhere to and that can reinforce them. The propaganda problem with algorithmic media does not only consist in the fact that fraudulent actors misuse the platform unethically, but also flow into the functioning of the platforms. At the same time, these platforms are dramatically exploiting the advertising revenues that many traditional media companies have relied on for journalism. Ultimately, I think that we as a society need to have a conversation about the kind of communication networks and journalism we need for democracy and whether these necessary public goods are things we can continue to rely on to deliver in the marketplace.
As the new managing director of The Real News Network, how do you plan to reduce noise and reach a larger audience?
This is a good question, especially since I think some traditional assumptions about the value of independent media have changed in recent years. It used to be that you only heard about certain ideas or perspectives when you were consuming alternative media. But today there are quite radical left scholars and experts who get a platform in places like the New York Times. So I think our role as an independent left media company needs to evolve. While we will still work to present critical analysis and stories that you may not hear elsewhere, one of the really important and effective things we can do is to the everyday people who work for a fairer world in our reporting Platform to offer. So that on the platforms we post to, we create feedback loops based on hope and a growing sense of collective agency, not just despair or cynicism. We want to do journalism in such a way that you feel that the world can be changed and that you can play a key role in it.
We have always recognized the Real News Network's commitment to local coverage in Baltimore, including its focus on the people hardest hit by city politics and police. How does this commitment look in the future?
We are committed to Baltimore for the long term and there are going to be some exciting developments on this front that we are about to announce that I think a lot of people will be really excited about. In the longer term, when the pandemic is over, we are very keen to explore how we can more specifically work with young people in Baltimore who continually give me hope for the future of the city and the world. How can we use the tools and platforms available to us to help them tell their own stories?
On site, the Real News Network employs a number of journalists with in-depth institutional knowledge of the city, including Marc Steiner, Lisa Snowden-McCray, Stephen Janis, Jaisal Noor, Eddie Conway and Taya Graham. Are there any personnel changes or additions in progress?
One big change recently is that Lisa Snowden-McCray is now officially our editor-in-chief and editor in Baltimore. Lisa is amazing, and I really can't think of anyone I'd rather have as the agenda for our reporting in Baltimore. She will move to our new Editor-in-Chief – Maximillian Alvarez, formerly Associate Editor at The Chronicle Review – to play a central role on our leadership team.
How has the pandemic and isolation affected your reporting in Baltimore?
Our best work in Baltimore capitalizes on the fact that this is our home – where we can really connect with other people, have conversations in our studio, or where people work in their community. For example, we were still able to personally cover a socially distant demonstration, but many of the more intimate conversations we would have liked to have had simply not been possible.
Many journalist organizations have struggled to remain financially viable, which worsened during the economic fallout from the COVID-19 outbreak. How has the Real News Network been impacted as a nonprofit, viewer-supported company?
There are many reasons I'm excited about nonprofit media models, and this pandemic has added a new one. Because we don't rely on advertising like traditional for-profit media, we didn't immediately achieve the same level of success as other outlets at the start of the current crisis. Although we had to be almost completely remote because of COVID-19 because our money comes from donors who believe in our mission, we have been in good financial shape compared to many other media outlets. So far we haven't had to fire anyone or take leave. I hope that we can continue to rely on existing and new donors to overcome this crisis and, on the other hand, are even stronger.