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October 08 2010

14:00

This Week in Review: A surprisingly sensible move online, two ugly falls, and questioning hyperlocal news

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week's top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

Another old-media stalwart goes online: This week’s biggest story is a lot more interesting for media geeks than for those more on the tech side, but I think it does have some value as a sort of symbolic moment. Howard Kurtz, who’s been The Washington Post’s media writer for pretty much all of its recent history, jumped this week to The Daily Beast, the aggregation and news site run by former magazine star Tina Brown and media mogul Barry Diller. Kurtz will head the site’s D.C. bureau and write about media and politics. He’s about as traditional/insider Washington media as they come (he also hosts CNN’s Reliable Sources), so seeing him move to an online-only operation that has little Beltway presence was surprising to a lot of media watchers.

So why’d he do it? In the announcement story at The Daily Beast, Kurtz said it was “the challenge of fast-paced online journalism” that drew him in. In interviews with TBD, Yahoo News and The New York Times, Kurtz referred to himself as an “online entrepreneur” who hopes to find it easier to innovate at a two-year-old web publication than within a hulking institution like the Post. “If you want to get out there and invent something new, maybe it is better to try to do that at a young place that’s still growing,” he told TBD.

Kurtz has his critics, and while there are some (like the American Journalism Review’s Rem Rieder) who saw this as a benchmark event for web journalism, several others didn’t see The Daily Beast as the plucky, outsider startup Kurtz made it out to be. PaidContent’s David Kaplan said that with folks like Brown and Diller involved, The Daily Beast has a lot of old media in its blood. (It may merge with Newsweek soon.) Salon’s Alex Pareene made the point more sharply, saying he was going to work for his “rich friend’s cheap-content farm” for a “fat check and a fancy title.” As Rachel Sklar told Politico (in a much kinder take), for Kurtz, this is “risk, but padded risk.”

Maybe the fact that this move isn’t nearly as shockingly risky as it used to be is the main cultural shift we’re seeing, argued Poynter’s Steve Myers in the most thoughtful piece on this issue. Kurtz is following a trail already blazed by innovators who have helped web journalism become financially mature enough to make this decision easy, Myers said. “Kurtz’s move isn’t risky or edgy; it’s well-reasoned and practical — which says more about the state of online media than it does about his own career path,” Myers wrote. For his part, Kurtz said that his departure from the Post doesn’t symbolize the death of print, but it does say something about the energy and excitement on the web.

Of course, people immediately started drawing up lists of who should replace Kurtz at the Post, but the most worthwhile item on that front is the advice for Howard Kurtz’s replacement by Clint Hendler of the Columbia Journalism Review. Hendler argued we’d be better off with a media critic than with another studiously balanced media writer. According to Hendler, that requires “someone who is willing to, as the case warrants, state opinions, poke fun, call sides, and make enemies.”

A reporter and a newspaper chain’s sad scandals: Two media scandals dominated the news about the news this week. First, Rick Sanchez up and got himself fired by CNN last Friday for a radio rant in which he called Jon Stewart a bigot and suggested that Jews run the news media. Sanchez apologized a few days later, and The Huffington Post’s Chez Pazienza mined the incident for clues of what CNN/Rick Sanchez relations were like behind the scenes.

There are a couple of minor angles to this that might interest future-of-news folks: Joe Gandelman at The Moderate Voice used the situation to point out that those in the news media are being targeted more severely by partisans on both sides. (We got better examples of this with the Dave Weigel, Octavia Nasr and Helen Thomas snafus this summer.) Also, Sanchez was one of the news industry’s most popular figures on Twitter, and his account, @RickSanchezCNN, may die. Lost Remote said it’s a reminder for journalists to create Twitter accounts in their own names, not just in their employers’.

Second, The New York Times’ David Carr detailed a litany of examples of a frat-boy, shock-jock culture that’s taken over the Tribune Co. since Sam Zell bought it in 2007. (Gawker and New York gave us punchy summaries of the revelations.) The Tribune is possibly the biggest and clearest example of the newspaper industry’s disastrous decline over the past few years, and this article simply adds more fuel to the fire. The Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum noted that the article also contains the first report of Zell directly intervening in news coverage to advance his own business interests. Meanwhile, the Tribune is slogging through bankruptcy, as mediation has broken down.

New media analyst Dan Conover saw the Tribune fiasco as evidence that the news business doesn’t just need to be reformed, it needs to be blown up. “We are past the point of happy endings, beyond the hope of half measures, and we know too much now to keep accepting the smugly reasonable advice of the Old Order’s deeply conflicted spokespeople,” he wrote. It’s quite the righteous-anger-fueled rant.

The hyperlocal business model questioned: We talked a bit about hyperlocal news last week, and that conversation bled over into this week, as Alan Mutter talked to J-Lab’s Jan Schaffer about her fantastic analysis of local news startups. Mutter quoted Schaffer as saying that community news sites are not a business, then went on to make the point that like many startups, many new news organizations go under within a few years. The money just isn’t there, Mutter said. (The Wall also has 10 takeaways from Schaffer’s study.)

For those in the local news business themselves, the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Joy Mayer provided some helpful tips and anecdotes from West Seattle Blog’s Tracy Record, and the Online Journalism Review’s Robert Niles put together an online news startup checklist. Meanwhile, the hyperlocal giant du jour, AOL’s Patch, continued its expansion with a launch in Seattle, and dropped hints of a plan to get into newspapers. TBD’s Steve Buttry assured local news orgs that they can compete and collaborate with Patch and other competitors at the same time.

The iPad’s explosive growth: It’s been a little while since we heard too much about the iPad, but we got some interesting pieces about it this week. CNBC informed us that the iPad has blown past the DVD player as the fastest-adopted non-phone product in U.S. history with 3 million units sold in its first 80 days and 4.5 million per quarter, well more than even the iPhone’s 1 million in its first quarter. It’s on pace to pass the entire industries of gaming hardware and non-smart cellphones in terms of sales by next year. The NPD Group also released a survey of iPad owners that found that early adopters are using their iPads for an average of 18 hours a week, and for a third of them, that number is increasing.

When the iPad first came out, many people saw its users spending that time primarily consuming media, rather than creating it. But in an attempt to refute that idea, Business Insider put together an interesting list of 10 ways people are using the iPad to create content. And marketer Hutch Carpenter looked at the quality of various uses for the iPad and predicted that as Apple and app developers improve the user’s experience, it will become a truly disruptive technology.

More defenses of social media’s social activism: Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker piece questioning Twitter’s capability of producing social change drew no shortage of criticism last week, and it continued to come in this week. Harvard scholar David Weinberger made several of the common critiques of the article, focusing on the idea that Gladwell is tearing down a straw man who believes that the web can topple tyrannies by itself. Other takes: Change Observer’s Maria Popova argued Gladwell is defining activism too narrowly, and that online communities broaden our scope of empathy, which bridges the gap between awareness and action; The Guardian’s Leo Mirani said that social media can quickly spread information from alternative viewpoints we might never see otherwise; and Clay Shirky, the target of much of Gladwell’s broadside, seemed kind of amused by Gladwell’s whole point.

The sharpest rebuttal this week (along with Weinberger’s) came from Shea Bennett of Twittercism, who argued that change starts small and takes time, even with social media involved, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. “As we all continue to refine and improve our online social communities, this shift in power away from a privileged few to an increasingly organised collective that can be called at a moment’s notice [presents] a real threat to the status quo,” he wrote.

Reading roundup: A few more nifty things to check out this weekend:

— A few cool resources on data journalism were published this week: British j-prof Paul Bradshaw wrote an invaluable guide to data journalism at The Guardian, taking you through everything from data collection to sorting to contextualizing to visualization. ReadWriteCloud’s Alex Williams followed that post up with two posts making the case for data journalism and giving an overview of five data visualization tools. And if you needed some inspiration, PBS’ MediaShift highlighted six incredible data visualization projects.

— The offline reading app Instapaper has become pretty popular with web/media geeks, and its founder, Marco Arment, just rolled out a paid subscription service. The Lab’s Joshua Benton examined what this plan might mean for future web paywalls.

— Several mobile journalism tidbits: TBD’s Steve Buttry made a case for the urgency of developing a mobile journalism plan in newsrooms, The Guardian reported on a survey looking at mobile device use and newspaper/magazine readership, and the Ryerson Review of Journalism gave an overview of Canadian news orgs’ forays into mobile news.

— Northwestern j-prof Pablo Boczkowski gave a fascinating interview to the Lab’s C.W. Anderson on conformity in online news. Must-reading for news nerds.

— The real hot topic of the past week in the news/tech world was not any particular social network, but The Social Network, the movie about Facebook’s founding released last weekend. I couldn’t bring myself to dedicate a section of this week’s review to a movie, but the Lab’s Megan Garber did find a way to relate it to the future of news. Enjoy.

October 01 2010

14:00

This Week in Review: AOL snaps up TechCrunch, effecting social change online, and hyperlocal minds meet

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week's top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

AOL continues moving into media: The Internet giant of the ’90s, AOL, has been aggressively trying to remake itself as a media company for the 2010s, and it made one of its biggest moves this week when it bought the influential tech blog TechCrunch. The deal was first reported by GigaOM and announced on stage Tuesday at TechCrunch’s Disrupt conference. AOL also scooped up the web video company 5Min and Thing Labs, maker of the social media reader Brizzly on the same day, though it couldn’t snatch the popular All Things Digital blogging crew away from The Wall Street Journal.

Given how central TechCrunch’s founder, Michael Arrington, is to the blog’s success, the first questions were twofold: Will Arrington be able to continue exercising his iconoclastic editorial voice with AOL, and can the blog remain strong if he leaves? Salon’s Dan Gillmor was skeptical about the latter, and Fast Company and The Atlantic gave reason for similar doubts about the former, with a list of Arrington’s past criticism of AOL and statements by the founder of Engadget, another blog purchased by AOL, that too many layers of management made the company difficult to work at. (He said things have changed at AOL since then.) For his part, Arrington gave assurances to tech blogger Robert Scoble and TechCrunch’s readers that he’ll have complete editorial independence and has agreed to stay on for at least three years.

The bigger media issue, of course, is that this purchase signals AOL’s deepening transformation into a full-on web media company. As a marketing exec told the New York Post’s Keith Kelly, “Nobody gives AOL enough credit for the massive transformation that the brand has undertaken.” AOL CEO Tim Armstrong explained the rationale behind the deal to Advertising Age and Bloomberg: TechCrunch’s insider, consumer audience can garner premium ad rates, and the TechCrunch brand can give AOL some cred it couldn’t necessarily get on its own. He also told GigaOM’s Om Malik that he wants to begin developing platforms in communication, content and advertising for other companies to build on, though he wouldn’t go into details.

The Wall Street Journal threw a little bit of cold water on the AOL hype, noting that more than 40 percent of the company’s revenue still comes from dial-up Internet service and related subscriptions. Advertisers haven’t totally bought into the change yet either, the Journal said. AOL might have come a long way, but it still has a long way to go, too.

Can social media produce real social change?: In a piece in this week’s New Yorker, cultural critic Malcolm Gladwell challenged the idea that social media is an effective tool of social change and revolution, comparing it with the civil rights movement and other pre-social media large-scale social reform efforts. Gladwell argued that social media is built on weak social ties, which are good for encountering new information and amassing followers of a cause, but bad at inspiring collective action. “The evangelists of social media don’t understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960,” Gladwell wrote.

Gladwell expounded helpfully on his points in a chat on the New Yorker website, in which he said, among other things, that he holds up the 2008 Obama presidential campaign as the “gold standard” for social media-fueled civic engagement. His piece generated some thoughtful disagreement: The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal said he liked the article overall but took issue with Gladwell’s assertion that online networks don’t have leadership or organization.

Others weren’t quite so complimentary: In a video conversation, politics professor Henry Farrell and the Cato Institute’s Julian Sanchez agreed that social media’s weak ties could make it easier to form the strong social ties that lead to significant action. A quasi-anonymous Economist correspondent made a similar arguments to both those points, saying that social media strengthens all social ties, and that networks’ bottom-up nature make them particularly subversive. Jeff Sonderman made similar points as well and pointed out that online and offline social networks tend to overlap, so they can’t be treated as discrete entities.

There were plenty of other avenues (thoughtful and somewhat less so) down which critics took this debate — see this New York Times feature for six of them — but the most cogent points may have come from Expert Labs director Anil Dash, who argued that Gladwell is limited by his outmoded idea that the only type of revolutions that produce change are those that come in the form of chanting, sign-wielding masses. “There are revolutions, actual political and legal revolutions, that are being led online,” Dash wrote. “They’re just happening in new ways, and taking subtle forms unrecognizable to those who still want a revolution to look like they did in 1965.”

Helping hyperlocal news thrive: Many of the U.S.’ hyperlocal-news pioneers gathered in Chicago late last week for the Block By Block Community News Summit hosted by the Knight Digital Media Center’s Michele McLellan and NYU j-prof Jay Rosen. A variety of ideas, tips, anecdotes flew back and forth at the event, which was ably summarized by the Lab’s Megan Garber as well as Lauren Kirchner of The Columbia Journalism Review and Polly Kreisman of the local-news blog Lost Remote. You can also check out videos of several of the sessions at the Reynolds Journalism Institute.

Garber listed several of the main themes of the gathering: Developing an intimate connection with a community (something of a throwback role for the news media, Garber said), building advertising and branding, and finding ways to share ideas with each other. Kirchner noted the common strain among the participants’ description of their own situations: “I’ve figured out how to do this, but I don’t know how to make it last.” She also noted the general tension in the room caused by the presence of representatives from AOL and Yahoo, two media companies with large-scale hyperlocal news aspirations. (Elsewhere this week, AOL’s hyperlocal Patch initiative was called the WalMart of news and a potential steamroller of hyperlocal startups, though The Batavian’s Howard Owens gave some tips on beating Patch in your own neighborhood.) Afterward, McLellan took stock of what hyperlocal journalists need next.

That wasn’t the only hyperlocal news resource to emerge this week. J-Lab released a report detailing what’s worked and what hasn’t in the the five years it’s been funding community-news startups. One major conclusion in the report is that hyperlocal news sites didn’t replace the journalism of traditional news sources; they added something that hadn’t been there before. (Some other key takeaways: Engagement, not just content; sweat equity is big; and the business model isn’t there yet.) At Lost Remote, Cory Bergman of Seattle’s Next Door Media offered an endorsement of the report, adding that for his startup, “the biggest critical success factor for a neighborhood news site is a passionate editor.” And at PBS Idea Lab, Martin Moore made the case for a bottom-up structure in local news sites.

Media trust hits a new low: Gallup released its annual poll on Americans’ trust in the news media, and in what’s become a fairly regular occurrence, that trust is at an all-time low. MinnPost’s David Brauer tried to square that finding with Pew’s finding two weeks ago that people are spending more time with the news. (My guess: Gallup’s survey measures feelings about the traditional news media, while Pew’s finding of increased news consumption is attributable largely to new media sources.)

The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson asked why trust is so low, and came up with an interesting hypothesis: The news media is telling us not to trust the news media. Citing Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck and Jon Stewart as examples, he concludes, “to consume opinion journalism … is to consume a product that exists to tell you that the product is inherently rotten.” As if on cue, the Los Angeles Times’ Andrew Malcolm rattled off a sarcastic litany of things the media has done to confirm people’s belief that it’s biased.

Reading roundup: Before we get the miscellany, there were a few smaller news developments that I want to highlight this week:

— The Boston Globe announced that it’s planning on splitting its websites into free and paid versions late next year. The Globe is owned by The New York Times Co., and The Times is also planning to charge for its website next year, and the Lab’s Megan Garber saw the plan as a logical extension of the Times’ paywall — a sort of steppingstone into the tablet-news world. Media analyst Ken Doctor wrote a smart analysis on the Globe’s strategy, calling it a plan to retain its print readers in the short run and convert them to (paid) tablet reading in the long run. The alt-weekly Boston Phoenix, meanwhile, didn’t waste time in writing Boston.com’s obituary.

— Mayhill Fowler, who gave The Huffington Post one of its biggest-ever scoops in 2008 as a reporter for the Off the Bus citizen-journalism project, wrote a kiss-off post on her personal blog announcing she was leaving the site, essentially, because she was tired of writing for nothing. The Post fired back, and Politico’s Ben Smith used the incident to wonder if the opinion-oriented blogosphere is moving toward news judgment as the mainstream media makes the opposite transition.

— After Forbes bought his freelance blogging network True/Slant, Lewis D’Vorkin is planning on selling blog space to advertisers alongside the company’s news blogs, Advertising Age reported. Reuters’ Felix Salmon predicted the plan would spur a uprising along the lines of ScienceBlogs’ PepsiGate this summer.

Now the three stray pieces you need to take a look at:

— The Awl’s Nick Douglas wrote a great post explaining why online forums are so underrated as online culture-drivers, and why Reddit is becoming more important within that subculture.

— Stanford scholar Geoff McGhee produced a fantastic set of videos on data journalism. Regardless of whether you’re familiar with data journalism, this is a must-see.

— And possibly the most essential piece of the week: Jonathan Stray’s case for designing journalism from the user’s perspective. “The news experience needs to become intensely personal,” Stray wrote. “It must be easy for users to find and follow exactly their interests, no matter how arcane. Journalists need to get proficient at finding and engaging the audience for each story.” A quote doesn’t do it justice; go read the whole thing.

June 07 2010

15:00

When web users cross the Gladwell 10,000-hour standard

Derek Powazek has a piece that tries to bring the Malcolm Gladwell Outliers thesis — that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master anything — and apply it to the explosion of content brought about by the Internet:

Ladies and gentlemen, we have the internet — the biggest no-experience-required open mic night ever created. It connects us all, whether we’ve put in 10,000 hours or ten.

It’s only because of extremely fortuitous timing that the world was spared my 16-year-old Beatles impersonation. I put in those hours before everything was digital and duplicated for free, forever. Make no mistake, if MySpace had been around when I was 16, my furtive recordings would still be haunting me.

Maybe it’s only because of fortuitous timing that we even expect anyone to be good at anything now. We were spared hearing The Beatles when they were new. There’s no record of Shakespeare’s embarrassing early attempts. No MP3s of Bach’s school choir. Maybe if we were more used to seeing people suck before they get good at something, we wouldn’t expect perfection from day one.

Derek’s right. (Even though I’m a bit suspicious of the random roundness of Gladwell’s 10,000-hour number. Lots of bands play a lot of gigs without becoming the Beatles; lots of programmers spent lots of time on computers without becoming Bill Gates.) The ease with which the Internet exposes less-than-professional work forces us to reset our expectations about what makes something worth public display. That’s a problem for some old-school journalists, who think the entire universe should be filtered through a copy desk before seeing the light of day.

But what if there’s a different implication for online news? Here’s Derek again:

Suppose Gladwell is right and it really does take 10,000 hours to master something. Let’s set the bar lower. Let’s say that it takes half that time to be merely good at it. And just to be generous, let’s say half again just to not suck at something. That would mean it takes 2,500 hours of practice to just not be awful.

Now ask yourself, what have you done for 2,500 hours? That’s 104 days. 14 weeks of constant practice. Just under four months of nonstop repetition.

Very few of us have spent that much time doing anything besides sleeping or watching TV.

Well, I can think of one area where lots of people are crossing 10,000 hours of time invested: using the Internet.

And unlike watching TV — where the rewards for your couch labor amount to mastery of your Tivo and better control of your remote — after 10,000 hours online, you’re a vastly smarter Internet user than you were at the start. You’ve stopped using Internet Explorer. You’ve abandoned the embarrassing email address. Your Google-fu is finely honed. Maybe you’ve messed around with RSS. Maybe you’ve got a smartphone and know how to swim between apps. In other words, the return on time investment isn’t just important for creators of technology; it’s also important to its users, who move past early awkwardness to feeling more like natives.

One recent study estimated Internet users spend 17 hours a week online; another one found for teens the number is 31 hours. At that rate, teens would get to 10,000 hours in a little over six years.

What will this mean for news? I won’t pretend to know. But I think anyone creating content online will have to think about how their products should shift as their audience gains increased mastery of the medium. Just as sites are slowly moving away from dial-up-safe sites to adjust to a broadband reality, sites will have to reckon with a savvier pool of users.

Part of that would include now-basic moves like search-engine optimization and social media, since Internet veterans are less likely to simply default to a news organization’s homepage as a point of entry. Will full-text RSS become more important as more users start using RSS or RSS-like feeds? What new navigation regimes will evolve to meet their needs of users aware of all their other options online? How will advertising evolve in a world where more people are using ad-blocking or Flash-blocking software, things previously the domain of nerds like me?

Who knows? But it’s worth remembering how much your audience is a moving target — one that is learning and practicing and getting better at this Internet thing all the time.

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