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April 01 2011

14:38

This Week in Review: Navigating the Times’ pay-plan loopholes, +1 for social search, and innovation ideas

Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news.

Putting the Times’ pay plan in place: If you read last week’s review, the first half of this week’s should feel like déjà vu — lots of back-and-forth about the wisdom of The New York Times’ new online pay plan, and some more hand-wringing about getting around that plan. If you want to skip that and get to the best stuff, I recommend Staci Kramer, David Cohn, and Megan Garber.

The Times launched its pay system Monday with a letter to its readers (snarkier version courtesy of Danny Sullivan), along with a 99-cent trial offer for the first four weeks and free access for people who subscribe to the Times on Kindle. Times digital chief Martin Nisenholtz gave a launch-day talk to newspaper execs, highlighted by his assertion that the link economy is not a win-win for content producers and aggregators.

Meanwhile, the discussion about the paywall’s worth rolled on. You can find a good cross-section of opinions in this On Point conversation with Ken Doctor, the Journal Register’s John Paton, The Times’ David Carr, and NYTClean creator David Hayes. The plan continues to draw support from some corners, including The Onion (in its typically ironic style, of course) and PC Magazine’s Lance Ulanoff. Former Financial Times reporter Tom Foremski and Advertising Age columnist Simon Dumenco both made similar arguments about the value of the plan, with Foremski urging us to support the Times as a moral duty to quality journalism and Dumenco ripping the blogosphere’s paywall-bashers for not doing original reporting like the Times.

And though the opposition was expressed much more strongly the past two weeks, there was a smattering of dissent about the plan this week, too — some from the Times’ mobile users. One theme among the criticism was the cost of developing the plan: Philip Greenspun wondered how the heck the Times spent $40 million on planning and implementation, and former Guardian digital head Emily Bell wrote about the opportunity cost of that kind of investment. BNET’s Erik Sherman proposed that the Times should have invested the money in innovation instead.

A few other interesting thoughts about the Times’ pay plan before we get to the wall-jumping debate: Media consultant Judy Sims said the plan might actually make the Times more social by providing an incentive for subscribers to share articles on social networks to their non-subscribing friends. Spot.Us’ David Cohn argued that the plan is much closer to a donation model than a paywall and argued for the Times to offer membership incentives. And Reuters’ Felix Salmon talked about how the proposal is changing blogging at the Times.

PaidContent’s Staci Kramer said the Times is fighting an uphill battle in the realm of public perception, but that struggle is the Times’ own fault, created by its way-too-complicated pay system.

The ethics of paywall jumping: With the Times’ “pay fence” going into effect, all the talk about ways to get around that fence turned into a practical reality. Business Insider compiled seven of the methods that have been suggested: A browser extension, Twitter feeds, using different computers, NYTClean and a User Script’s coding magic, Google (for five articles a day), and browser-switching or cookie-deleting. Mashable came up with an even simpler one: delete “?gwh=numbers” from the Times page’s URL.

Despite such easy workarounds, the Times is still cracking down in other areas: As Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan noted, it blocks links from all Google sites after the five-articles-per-day limit is reached. The Times also quickly (and successfully) requested a shutdown of one of the more brazen free-riding schemes yet concocted — NYT for a Nickel, which charged to access Times articles without paywall restrictions. (It also established a pattern for unauthorized Twitter aggregators and bookmarklets: You’re fine, as long as you don’t use the Times’ name.)

So we all obviously can crawl through the Times’ loopholes, but should we? A few folks made efforts to hack through the ethical thicket of the Times’ intentional and unintentional loopholes: Times media critic James Poniewozik didn’t come down anywhere solid, but said the Times’ leaky strategy “makes the paywall something like a glorified tip jar, on a massive scale—something you choose to contribute to without compulsion because it is the right thing” — except unlike those enterprises, it’s for-profit. In a more philosophical take, the Lab’s Megan Garber said the ethical conundrum shows the difficulty of trying to graft the physical world’s ethical assumptions onto the digital world.

A possible +1 for publishers: Google made a big step in the direction of socially driven search this week with the introduction of +1, a new feature that allows users to vote up certain search results in actions that are visible to their social network. Here are two good explainers of the feature from TechCrunch and Search Engine Land, both of whom note that +1′s gold mine is in allowing Google to personalize ads more closely, and that it’s starting on search results and eventually moving to sites across the web.

The feature was immediately compared to Facebook’s “Like” and Twitter’s retweets, though it functions a bit differently from either. As GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram noted, because it’s Google, it’s intrinsically tied to search, which is both an advantage and a disadvantage. As Ingram said, it’s smart to add more of a social component to search, but Google’s search-centricity makes the “social network” aspect of +1 awkward, just as Buzz and Wave were. To paraphrase the argument of Frederic Lardinois of NewsGrange: if your +1′s go into your Google Profile and no one sees them, do they really make a sound?

All this seems to be good news for media sites. Lost Remote’s Cory Bergman said that if they essentially become “improve the SEO of this site” buttons, media companies will be pretty motivated to add them to their sites. Likewise, Poynter’s Damon Kiesow reasoned that +1 could be a great way for media sites to more deeply involve visitors who arrive via Google, who have typically been less engaged than visitors from Facebook and Twitter.

Shrinking innovation to spur it: This month’s Carnival of Journalism focuses on how to drive innovation, specifically through the Knight News Challenge and Reynolds Journalism Institute. Most of the posts rolled in yesterday, and they contain a litany of quick, smart ideas of new directions for news innovation and how to encourage it.

A quick sampling: City University London and Birmingham City University j-prof Paul Bradshaw proposed a much broader, smaller-scale News Challenge fund, with a second fund aimed at making those initiatives scale. J-Lab Jan Schaffer said we need to quit looking at innovation so much solely in terms of tools and more in terms of processes and relationships. British journalist Mary Hamilton and Drury j-prof Jonathan Groves both focused on innovation in training, with Groves proposing “innovation change agents” funded by groups like Knight and the RJI to train and transform newsrooms.

Also, University of British Columbia j-prof Alfred Hermida opined on the role of theory in innovation, Lisa Williams of Placeblogger advocated a small-scale approach to innovation, and the University of Colorado’s Steve Outing had some suggestions for the RJI fellowship program.

The mechanics of Twitter’s information flow: Four researchers from Yahoo and Cornell released a study this week analyzing, as they called it, “who says what to whom on Twitter.” One of their major findings was that half the information consumed on Twitter comes from a group of 20,000 “elite” users — media companies, celebrities, organizations, and bloggers. As Mathew Ingram of GigaOM observed, that indicates that the power law that governs the blogosphere is also in effect on Twitter, and big brands are still important even on a user-directed platform.

The Lab’s Megan Garber noted a few other interesting implications of the study, delving into Twitter’s two-step flow from media to a layer of influential sources to the masses, as well as the social media longevity of multimedia and list-oriented articles. A couple of other research-oriented items about Twitter: a Lab post on Dan Zarrella’s data regarding timing and Twitter posts, and Maryland prof Zeynep Tufekci more theoretical exploration of NPR’s Andy Carvin and the process of news production on Twitter.

Reading roundup: Plenty of other bits and pieces around the future-of-news world this week:

— New York Times editor Bill Keller wrote a second column, and like his anti-aggregation piece a couple of weeks ago, this piece — about the value of the Times’ impartiality and fact-based reporting — didn’t go over well. Reuters’ Felix Salmon called him intellectually dishonest, Scott Rosenberg called him defensive, and the Huffington Post’s Peter Goodman (a former Times reporter) said Keller misrepresented him.

— A few notes on The Daily: Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici said it was downloaded 500,000 times during its trial period and has 70,000 regular users, and a study was conducted finding that it’s more popular with less tech-savvy, less content-concerned users.

— Journal Register Co. CEO John Paton talked about transforming newspapers at the Newspaper Association of America convention; he summarized what he had to say in 10 tweets, and Alan Mutter wrote a post about the panel. The moderator, Ken Doctor, followed up with a Lab post looking at how long, exactly, newspapers have left.

— I’ll send you off with Jonathan Stray’s thoughtful post on rethinking journalism as a system for informing people, rather than just a series of stories. It’s a lot to chew on, but a key piece to add to the future-of-news puzzle.

Image of a fence-jumper by like oh so zen used under a Creative Commons license.

March 30 2011

18:30

So, then…if you jump The New York Times’ paywall, are you stealing?

James Poniewozik has a great column this week asking a question we’ve been talking about here at the Lab: Given all the ways to avoid paying for a New York Times digital subscription — ways that the Times has purposely built into the pores of its paywall, and ways that clever techies have figured out — is it immoral to jump the wall? To what extent, essentially, is gaming the Times also stealing from it?

As Poniewozik said: “Calling the Ethicist!” And, totally. But — we checked — current Ethicist Ariel Kaminer is also currently employed by the Times, and so is indisposed on meta-ethical grounds…and Randy Cohen politely declined my request for a comment. So, for a bit of amateur Ethicism — buckle your seatbelts, everyone! — here are a few points to add to Poniewozik’s.

A Times kind of person

Here’s how Martin Nisenholtz explained wall-jumping to Peter Kafka:

I think the majority of people are honest and care about great journalism and the New York Times. When you look at the research that we’ve done, tons of people actually say, “Jeez, we’ve felt sort of guilty getting this for free all these years. We actually want to step up and pay, because we know we’re supporting a valuable institution.” At the same time we want to make sure that we’re not being gamed, to the extent that we can be.

This “honest people” attitude — the presumption being that if you bypass the wall, you are not one of those people — is echoed by Nisenholtz’s colleagues. At a Paley Center breakfast last week, Arthur Sulzberger acknowledged that wall-jumping, by Times mandate and otherwise, would happen. But: “Is it going to be done by the kind of people who buy the quality news and opinion of the New York Times? We don’t think so.” (And also: “It’ll be mostly high school kids and people out of work.” And also! “Just as if you run down Sixth Avenue right now and you pass a newsstand and grab the paper and keep running you can actually get the Times free.”)

It’s familiar logic — the same kind of analog-economics-for-digital-content thinking that fuels all those “People! Don’t you realize that X months of The New York Times is just X Starbucks lattes?” comments. What it overlooks, though, is the very real possibility that, not just physically but economically, atoms have different properties than bits. Whether bits-based products involve different ethical considerations than their atoms-based counterparts is an open question — and, in fact, the question. But it’s one the Times is begging — and possibly forcing — with the ethiconomical (to coin a horrible, sorry, but possibly useful term) logic of its wall. The paper’s public establishment of a certain “kind of people” — a class who not only read the Times, but pay for it — is interesting for several reasons, one of them being its suggestion that there is also a “kind of people” (potentially adolescent, probably unemployed, and possibly morally bankrupt) who wouldn’t pay but would still consume Times content beyond the newspaper’s stated bounds.

But how fair, really, is that suggestion? Is deleting cookies or URL characters from a web browser directly akin to stealing a physical product from a newsstand? (And, then, is ad-blocking software immoral? Is reading Times content, for free, on someone else’s computer?)

Don’t steal steaks

In the physical world, property and the ethics surrounding it are straightforward things: Basically, do not take something for which you are being asked to pay money. There is a necessary lack of nuance in this: Even if that something is free somewhere — anywhere, everywhere — else, and even if the price being asked for it is ridiculous, if the something’s owner asks for money in exchange for it, your choice as a consumer is pretty much either to pay up or shut up. As CJR’s Lauren Kirchner put it, discussing Stewart Brand’s intersection with paid content, “No one would say ‘groceries want to be free’ and use that as an excuse to steal steaks. Or I guess some people might, but those people would be jerks, and also criminals.”

Definitely. But, then, the obvious obviousness of Don’t Steal Steaks is also contingent and contextual; it’s based on the fact that steaks are things. The ethical boundaries we take for granted in the physical world of commerce are generally based on actual boundaries: spacial distinctions that define ownership, separating permission from perfidy. So you can cart that steak all around Safeway if you want — but you won’t get arrested unless you take the steak outside without paying for it. As a matter of cultural consensus, in the context of the grocery store — and in the context of the grocery store’s analogs — it is the space itself, the “in” versus the “out,” that defines the acceptable against the un-. And it is the universality of that definition — the fact that it applies to and is known by pretty much everyone, pretty much implicitly — that makes “don’t steal steaks” so obvious. In it, the ethical and cultural and legal coalesce into one easy mandate.

But online, where space is as infinite as the human capacity to create it — and where your consumption of a Times article doesn’t mean someone else doesn’t get to read it — the conveniently clear line between moral acceptability and moral depravity no longer holds. There’s no obvious “inside”; there’s no obvious “outside.” And the web’s broad wall-lessness, ironically, enforces a barrier between “obtaining” something and “owning” it. In a digital environment where so much is accessible and so little is own-able, what exactly — ethically, legally, pragmatically — is yours? And what, exactly, is mine?

Owning atoms, owning bits

These are legal issues that are being wrestled with every day — and by, you know, actual experts. But, for our purposes, it’s worth noting the broad cultural context in which the Times wall has been erected. The Internet, after all, is still young (in terms of widespread adoption, it’s just a tad older than one of Sulzberger’s high school kids), and so are the communal values that help us navigate it. The web’s “wild west” element — its newness, its rawness, its up-from-nothing-ness — also suggests its lawlessness. Legally and culturally. We simply haven’t had time yet, in this bizarre new environment we find ourselves in, to reach consensus about what’s stealing and what’s not, about what’s owned and what’s not. We’re figuring it out, sure, day by day. But the offline ethical assumptions whose convenience and communality we take for granted are also, it’s worth remembering, the products of centuries’ worth of friction. Consensus takes time.

The Times is part of a long continuum in attempting to graft the ethical assumptions of the physical world onto the economy of the digital. The iTunes Store, for example — the platform whose essential genius was that made it easier for people to pay for digital content than to pirate it — framed its introduction in vaguely ethical terms, as well. (As Steve Jobs said at the time: “Consumers don’t want to be treated like criminals and artists don’t want their valuable work stolen. The iTunes Music Store offers a groundbreaking solution for both.”)

But what makes the Times’ paywall pitch so interesting is that it’s less about the interplay between ethics, economics, and convenience, and more about the interplay between ethics, economics, and the communal good. Essentially, the paper is trying to define the communal good as an economic good that is — boldness! — implicit in its product. (This is the logic that merges Times journalists being kidnapped in Libya with “the Times should be paid for.” Which is implying something, actually, fairly revolutionary: that the practice of journalism is, economically, part of the product of journalism.) That’s not simply a matter of the NPRization of the NYT (although that’s one element of it); more interestingly, I think, it’s a matter of the commodity of news collapsing into the creation of news. You’re not paying for the thing, the Times is saying; you’re paying for the process that creates the thing.

Image by like oh so zen used under a Creative Commons license.

March 19 2010

22:49

4-Minute Roundup: Google TV Disrupts; Facebook Passes Google

This episode of 4MR is brought to you by the Knight Digital Media Center, providing a spectrum of training for the 21st century journalist. Find out more at KDMC's website. It's also underwritten by GoDaddy, helping you set up your own website in a snap with domain name registration, web hosting and 24/7 support. Visit GoDaddy to learn more.

Here's the latest 4MR audio report from MediaShift. In this week's edition, I look at Google TV, the new alliance between Google, Intel, Sony and Logitech to create a new TV or set-top box that will finally connect the TV with the Net in a simple way. Plus, Facebook last week surpassed Google in traffic for the U.S., according to Experian Hitwise, and Facebook referrals to news sites were more loyal visitors than referrals from Google News or the Google search engine. And I asked Just One Question to Time magazine TV critic James Poniewozik, getting his take on Google TV.

Check it out:

4mrbareaudio31910.mp3

>>> Subscribe to 4MR <<<

>>> Subscribe to 4MR via iTunes <<<

Listen to my entire interview with James Poniewozik:

Background music is "What the World Needs" by the The Ukelele Hipster Kings via PodSafe Music Network.

Here are some links to related sites and stories mentioned in the podcast:

Google and Partners Seek TV Foothold at NY Times

Google TV Should Finally Push Apple TV Beyond A Hobby at TechCrunch

It's Official - Facebook Rules the Web at PC World

Facebook surpasses Google in weekly traffic at San Jose Mercury News

How Facebook overtook Google to be the top spot on the Internet at Fortune Brainstormtech

Facebook edges past Google for weekly traffic at SFGate's Tech Chronicles

Facebook Visitors Come Back Again and Again at Hitwise blog

If You Tell Them On Facebook, They Will Come...Again and Again at ReadWriteWeb

The Google giant begins to topple at Network World

Check out some of our write-in answers to last week's poll question about what people thought about geo-location services such as Foursquare:

survey answers foursquare.jpg

Also, be sure to vote in our poll about what you think about your cable or satellite service:




What do you think about your cable or satellite TV service?answers

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

This episode of 4MR is brought to you by the Knight Digital Media Center, providing a spectrum of training for the 21st century journalist. Find out more at KDMC's website. It's also underwritten by GoDaddy, helping you set up your own website in a snap with domain name registration, web hosting and 24/7 support. Visit GoDaddy to learn more.

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