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March 29 2013

13:30

February 10 2012

15:00

This Week in Review: Facebook’s future and the open web, and finding balance on breaking news

Is Facebook a threat to the open web?: There was still a lot of smart commentary on Facebook’s filing for a public stock offering rolling in last late week, so I’ll start with a couple pieces I missed in last week’s review: Both The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal and Slate’s Farhad Manjoo were skeptical of Facebook’s ability to stay so financially successful. Madrigal said it’s going to have to get a lot more than the $4.39 in revenue per user it’s currently getting, and Manjoo wondered about what happens after the social gaming craze that’s been providing so much of Facebook’s revenue passes.

How to supplement those revenue streams? A lot of the answer’s going to come from personal data aggregation, and law professor Lori Andrews wrote in The New York Times about some of the dark sides of that practice, including stereotyping and discrimination. Facebook also needs to move more deeply into mobile, and Wired’s Tim Carmody documented its struggles in that area. On the bright side, Wired’s Steven Levy approved of Mark Zuckerberg’s letter to shareholders and his articulation of The Hacker Way.

Facebook’s filing also spurred an intriguing discussion of the relationship between it, Google, and the open web. As web pioneer John Battelle said best and The Atlantic’s James Fallows summarized aptly, several observers were concerned that Facebook’s rise and Google’s potential decline is a loss for the open web, because Google built its financial success on the success of the open web while Facebook’s success depends on increased sharing inside its own private channels. As Battelle argued, this private orientation threatens the core values that should drive the Internet: decentralization, a commons-based ethos, neutrality, interoperability, and data openness. Mathew Ingram of GigaOM countered that users don’t care so much about openness as usefulness, and that’s what could eventually do Facebook in.

Another Facebook-related discussion sprung up around Evgeny Morozov’s piece for The New York Times lamenting the death of cyberflânerie — the practice of strolling through the streets of the web alone, taking in and reflecting on its sights and sounds. Among other factors, he pinpointed Facebook’s “frictionless sharing” as the culprit, by mandating that all experiences be shared and tailored to our narrow interests. Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci pushed back against Morozov’s argument, countering that there’s still plenty of room for sharing-based serendipity because our friends’ interests don’t exactly line up with our own. And journalist Dana Goldstein argued that a lot of what yesterday’s flâneurs did is still echoed in the web today, for better or worse — cyberstalking, trying out new identities, and presenting our ideal selves to the public.

The clampdown on breaking news via Twitter: One of international journalism’s leaders in social media innovation, News Corp.’s Sky News, issued a surprisingly stern crackdown on its journalists’ Twitter practices, banning them from retweeting information from any other journalists without clearing it past the news desk and from tweeting about anything outside their beats.

There were a few people in favor of the new policy — Forbes’ Ewan Spence applauded the ‘better right than first’ approach, and Fleet Street Blues rather headscratchingly asserted that “it makes no sense for them to pay journalists to report through a medium outside its own editorial controls.” But far more people were crying out in opposition.

Reuters’ Anthony De Rosa reiterated that argument that a retweet is simply a quote, rather than an endorsement, and Breaking News’ Cory Bergman said not all the broadcast rules apply to Twitter — it’s okay to be human there. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram and POLIS’ Charlie Beckett made the point that Sky should want its reporters to be seen as go-to information sources, period — no matter where the information comes from. As Beckett put it: “We the audience now privilege interactivity and added value over conformity. We trust you because you share, not because you have hierarchical structures.”

The BBC also updated its social media guidelines to urge reporters not to break news on Twitter before they file it to the BBC’s internal systems. BBC social media editor Chris Hamilton quickly clarified that the policy wasn’t as restrictive as it sounded: The BBC’s tech allows its journalists to file simultaneously to Twitter and to its newsroom CMS (an impressive feat in itself), and when that tech isn’t available, they want their journalists to file to the newsroom first — “a difference of a few seconds.”

J-prof Alfred Hermida said the idea that journalists shouldn’t break news on Twitter rests on the flawed assumption that journalists have a monopoly on breaking the news. And on Twitter, fellow media prof C.W. Anderson asserted that the chief problem lies in the idea that breaking news adds significant value to a story. “The debate over “breaking news on Twitter” is a perfect example of mistaking professional values for public / financial / ‘rational’ ones,” he wrote. Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman, meanwhile, praised the BBC for putting some real thought into how to fit Twitter into the breaking news workflow.

An unclear picture of the Times’ paywall: The New York Times released its fourth-quarter results late last week, and, as usual with their recent announcements, it proved something of a media business Rorschach test. The company reported a loss of $39.7 million for the year, thanks in large part to declines in advertising revenue — though most of that was due to About.com, as revenue in its news division was slightly up for the quarter.

As for the paywall, media analyst Ken Doctor reported 390,000 digital subscribers and estimated the Times’ paywall revenue at $86 million and said the paper has climbed a big mountain in getting more than 70 percent of its print subscribers to sign up for online access. Reuters’ Felix Salmon saw the paywall numbers as “unamiguously good news” and said it shows the paywall hasn’t eaten into ad revenues as much as it was expected to.

Others were a bit less optimistic. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram said the Times’ new paywall revenue still isn’t enough to make up for its ad revenue declines, and urged the times to go beyond the paywall in hunting for digital revenue. Media analyst Greg Satell made a similar point, arguing that the paywall is a false hope and calling for the Times build up more “satellite” brands online, like the Wall Street Journal’s All Things Digital. Henry Blodget of Business Insider had a different solution: Keep cutting costs until the newsroom is down to a size that can be supported by a digital operation.

A nonprofit journalism merger: After a few weeks of speculation, two of the U.S.’ more prominent nonprofit news operations, the Bay Citizen and the Center for Investigative Reporting, have announced their intent to merge. Both groups are based in California’s Bay Area, and the CIR runs the statewide news org California Watch. The executive director of the new organization would be Phil Bronstein, the CIR board chairman and former San Francisco Chronicle editor.

Opinions on the move were mixed: Oakland Local founder (and former California Watch consultant) Susan Mernit thought it would make a lot of sense, combining the Bay Citizen’s strengths in funding and distribution with California Watch’s strengths in editorial content. Likewise, the Lab’s Ken Doctor saw it as an opportunity to make local nonprofit journalism work at an unprecedented scale.

There are reasons for caution, though. As Jim Romenesko noted, the Bay Citizen has recently gone through several key departures and the unexpected death of its co-founder and main benefactor, Warren Hellman (and even forgot to renew its web domain for a bit). And California Watch pointed out some of the potential conflicts between the two newsrooms — California Watch has a partnership with the Chronicle, whom the Bay Citizen considers a competitor. And the Bay Citizen has its own partnership with The New York Times for its regional edition, something PBS MediaShift’s Ashwin Seshagiri said could now prove as much a hindrance as an advantage.

J-prof Jay Rosen said the two orgs aren’t a good fit because of their differing institutional bases — the CIR is more established and has been on a steady build, while the Bay Citizen’s short history is full of turmoil. And the San Francisco Bay Guardian’s Steven Jones argued that Bronstein’s rationale for the merger is misrepresenting Hellman’s wishes.

Reading roundup: Lots of other stuff going on this week, too. Here’s a quick rundown:

— Another week, another few new angles to the already enormous News Corp. phone hacking scandal: The FBI is investigating the company for illegal payments of as much £100,000 to foreign officials such as police officers, a political blogger told British officials that the Sunday Mirror’s top editor personally authorized hacking, and The Times of London admitted it hacked into a police officer’s email to out him as the author of an anonymous blog. How much is this whole mess costing News Corp.? $87 million for the investigation alone last quarter.

— News Corp.’s tablet news publication The Daily got the one-year treatment with an update on its so-so progress in The New York Times. News business analyst Alan Mutter also gave a pretty rough review of the status of tablet news apps as a whole.

— A couple of other news developments of interest to folks in our little niche: The tech news site GigaOM announced it was buying paidContent from the Guardian (PBS MediaShift’s Dorian Benkoil loved the move, and the Knight Foundation announced the first of its new News Challenge competitions, this one oriented around networks.

— A couple of cool studies released this week: One from HP Labs on predicting the spread of news on Twitter, and another from USC on ways in which the Internet is changing us.

— Finally, for those of us among the digitally hyper-connected, The New York Times’ David Carr wrote a poignant piece on the enduring value of in-person connections, and sociologist Zeynep Tufekci offered a thoughtful response.

Original Twitter bird by Matt Hamm used under a Creative Commons license.

June 05 2011

06:01

iPad apps News.me, Idea Flight - What media companies need to learn from startups

GigaOM :: By now, there are plenty of examples of mainstream media companies pumping out newspaper and magazine iPad apps that look exactly like their printed product — the San Francisco Chronicle just joined the crowd — as well as putting up paywalls, and so on. But few of these companies are doing anything different or innovative. Why? Because most large companies in an industry that is more than a century old simply aren’t equipped to really innovate.

Continue to read Mathew Ingram, gigaom.com

April 21 2011

14:00

The newsonomics of a single investigative story

Editor’s Note: Each week, Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of news for the Lab.

It’s a week to celebrate great investigative work. ProPublica made some history with its Pulitzer for online-only work about the financial meltdown, and the Los Angeles Times crowned its success with the larger-than-life Bell corruption tale, winning its own top prize. Both well deserved.

Meanwhile, as journalists sat around their terminals awaiting the Pulitzer bulletin, an investigative series broke across California, perhaps reaching more audience more quickly than any previous investigative piece. There were no bodies to count, nor billions or millions of ill-gotten gains to uncover.

Rather, California Watch’s “On Shaky Ground” series is aimed at preventing disaster, getting ahead of the Grim Reaper. The series took a big look at the likely safety issues in the state’s schools when (not if, right?) The Big One hits. It found, not surprisingly, that although state law mandated seismic preparations, all kinds of bureaucratic nonsense has contravened that intent. It found that about 1,100 schools had been red-flagged as in need of repair, with no work done, while tens of thousands of others were in questionable and possibly illegal shape. The so-what: Some of the very institutions providing for the kids of California have a certain likelihood of actually falling on top of them and killing them.

It’s old-fashioned, shoe-leather, box-opening, follow-the-string journalism, and it is well done.

While it’s fun to celebrate great journalism, anytime, it’s vital to look at the newsonomics of this kind of investigative journalism. What did it take to get it done? How much did it cost and who paid for it? And, to look at the plainly fundamental question: How do we get lots more of it done in the future?

The series took more than 20 months to complete. The interactive timeline, “On Shaky Ground: The story behind the story,” tells that tale with tongue in cheek; it’s a great primer for any beginning journalism class. Corey G. Johnson, freshly hired from North Carolina and part of a young reporting contingent that has been mixed and mentored well by veterans like editorial director Mark Katches, stumbles on a list of 7,500 “unsafe schools” as he’s doing a routine story on the 20th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake.

Along the way, the story grows in import and paperwork. California Watch, the less-than-two-year-old offshoot of the Berkeley-based Center for Investigative Journalism (CIR), adds other staff to the effort, including reporter Erica Perez, public engagement manager Ashley Alvarado, distribution manager Meghann Farnsworth, and director of technology Chase Davis, among other reporters.

In the end, the series rolled out in three parts — with maps, databases, historical photos, its own Twitter hashtag, a “My Quake” iPhone app — and a coloring book (“California Watch finds a new consumer group, kids“), intended to reach kids, the most important subject and object of the reporting. Already, the state legislature has scheduled hearings for April 27.

The reach of the roll-out is one of the new lessons here. Six major dailies ran at least some part of the series. ABC-affiliate broadcasters took the story statewide. Public radio news leaders KQED, in the Bay Area, and KPCC, in L.A. ran with it. KQED-TV. The ethnic press signed on: La Opinion ran two seismic stories Sunday and Monday, while at least two Korean papers, one Chinese paper, and one Chinese TV station included coverage as well. More than 125 Patch sites in the state (California is major Patch turf) participated.

A number of the distributors did more than distribute. They localized, using data from California Watch, and reporting on their local schools’ shape. KQED-TV produced a 30-minute special that is scheduled to air on at least 12 PBS affiliates in the state.

San Francisco Chronicle managing editor Steve Proctor is frank about how priorities and resource use have changed in the age of downsizing. When Proctor came to the paper in 2003, he says, the paper had five to seven people assigned to a full-time investigative team. Now there’s no team per se, with the Chronicle investing investigative resources in an “investigate and publish” strategy, getting stories out to the public more quickly and then following up on public-generated leads they create. It’s an adjustment in strategy and in resource allocation — and the California Watch relationship makes it even more workable. “We’ve been pretty sympatico with them from the beginning,” he said. “We’ve used the majority of what they’ve produced.”

So let’s get deeper into some numbers, informed by this series, and see where this kind of work can go:

  • “On Shaky Ground” cost about $550,000 to produce, most of that in staff time, as the project mushroomed. That’s now a huge sum of money to a newsroom, even a metro-sized one. Ask a publisher whether he or she is willing to spend a half a million on a story, and you know the answer you’ll usually get. It’s a sum few newsrooms can or will invest. Consequently, the economics of getting a well edited, well packaged series for a hundreth of that price is an offer few newsrooms can (or probably should) refuse.
  • California Watch, not yet two years old, runs on a budget of about $2.7 million a year. That budget supports 14 journalists, whose funding takes up about 70 percent of that $2.7 million number. That’s an intriguing percentage in and of itself; most daily newspaper newsrooms make up of 20 percent or less of their company’s overall expenses. So, disproportionately, the money spent on California Watch is spent on journalists — and journalism.

The project is about midway through its funding cycles. The ubiquitous Knight Foundation (which has contributed about $15 million to a number of investigative projects nationwide through its Investigative Reporting Initiative), the Irvine Foundation, and the Hewlett Foundation, all of which have provided million-dollar-plus grants, are reviewing new proposals.

The key word, going forward here, is “sustaining.” Will foundations provide ongoing support of the “public good” of such journalism? There’s lots of talk among foundations, but no clear consensus among journalism-facing ones. “There really isn’t a foundation community that thinks with a common brain — same situation as in the news community,” Knight’s Eric Newton told me this week. “Each foundation makes its own decisions using different criteria. Some foundations see their role as launching new things and letting nature take its course.” CIR executive director Robert Rosenthal is among those trying to find a new course. Although he’s a highly experienced editor, he finds that most of his time is found fund- and friend-raising.

  • California Watch is building a syndication business, feeling its way along. Already, six larger dailies — the San Francisco Chronicle, the Sacramento Bee, the Orange County Register, the San Diego Union-Tribune, the Fresno Bee, and the Bakersfield California — are becoming clients, paying a single price for the all-you-can-eat flow of daily and enterprise stories California Watch produces. They, a number of ABC affiliates (L.A.’s KABC, the Bay Area’s KGO, 10 News San Diego, 10 News Sacramento, KSFN in Fresno), and KQED public radio and TV in the Bay Area are also annual clients pay between $3,000 and $15,000 a year each. A la carte pricing for individual projects can run from $3,000 to $10,000. The California Watch media network, just launched in January, is an important building block of the evolving business model. It is clear that while syndication can be a good support, at those rates, it’s a secondary support.
  • So, if California Watch were to be totally supported by foundation money, it would take an endowment of $54 million to throw off $2.7 million a year, at a five percent spend rate. Now $54 million raised one time isn’t an impossible sum. Consider just one gift: Joan Kroc left NPR more than $200 million eight years ago. Consider that the billionaires’ club started by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett (encouraging their peers to give away half of their wealths) is talking about newly raising a half a trillion dollars for the public good. Last summer, I suggested the group tithe a single percentage point of the club’s treasury for news-as-a-public-good. It seems to me that stories like “On Shaky Ground” make that pivotal education/health/journalism connection; send “Shaky Ground” to your favorite billionaire and urge him to sign on.
  • Let’s do some cost-benefit analysis. How much is a single child’s life worth? How about a school of 250? We could consult a liability lawyer, who undoubtedly would put assign a six- and seven-figure number per life, and then tie up the courts, post-disaster, making the math work. So if California, bereft as it is of capital, were to invest in the infrastructure, per its own laws, wouldn’t it be ultimately cost-effective? Of course it would be, and in this case we see in microcosm, the question of American infrastructure writ large. Are we a country that will let more bridges fall into mighty rivers, more schools fall onto our children and more poor roads cause preventable injury and death? You don’t need my political rant here. Rather, let us just make the point that journalism — old-fashioned journalism, newly digitally enhanced — is a key part of forcing America to face its own issues, whatever the solutions.

In this project and in California Watch generally, we see the reconfiguring of local media. An owner — whether AOL, Hearst, or private equity — can hardly reject the offer of paying one-hundreth of the cost for space-filling, audience-interesting content. Welcome to a new kind of content farm, to use that perjorative for a moment. Yes, California Watch operates on the same Demand Media-like principle of create-once-distribute-many, realizing the digital cost of the second copy is nil. Let’s consider it the organic, cage-free content farm. It makes sense for a state the size of a country (California = Canada); smaller versions of it make equal sense for Ohio, North Carolina, or Illinois.

Older media outsources journalism and in-sources (affordable) passion. There are lots of lessons here (“3 Reasons to Watch California Watch“), but that fundamental rejiggering of who does the work and how it is distributed and customized is a key one. As Mark Katches points out, “They [distributing partners] put their voices on our story.” That’s a new system in the making.

Old(er) editors can learn new tricks. For a good show-and-tell of that principle, check out Rosenthal’s talk to TEDxPresidio two weeks ago. I first saw him give the talk at NewsFoo in Phoenix in December. Amid more tech-oriented talks, his stood out and was much applauded. It’s a clarifying call for real journalism, perfected for the digital age. Share it.

April 20 2011

14:00

The writing on the wall: Why news organizations are turning to outside moderators for help with comments

When a news organization decides to have someone else to deal with their online comments, it’s sometimes seen as waving the white flag or the equivalent of dumping a problem child at a boarding school. (And that’s before the word “outsourcing” starts getting thrown around.) But look at it from the angle of time and resources in a newsroom: Would you rather have online staff spend their time playing traffic cop in the comments or producing work for the site?

It’s straightforward arithmetic, though somewhat slanted depending on the value you place on comments (i.e., whether you think they contribute to your site) and whether you have money. To borrow a line from The A-Team, “If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire…comment moderators.”

Most recently, The Boston Globe joined NPR and the San Francisco Chronicle as clients of ICUC Moderation Services, a Winnipeg-based company that deals in, as the name hints, moderating online content. The sacrifice in going outside is giving up the hands-on approach to building online community — but some news orgs probably don’t want to put their hands into something they consider a cesspool.

Keith Bilous, ICUC’s president, says hiring outside help with comments not only frees up newsroom resources, but also makes outlets consider what they want out of comments. “The focus is on getting more better-quality comments and conversation on sites instead of ‘let’s just get as much comments as we can,’” Bilous told me.

Defining the goals of comments

And that’s because the first order of business when you hire a company like ICUC is to layout your commenting guidelines and procedures — essentially what Bilous calls “the Bible to how we manage the content and community.” While this is a necessary step for ICUC’s moderators to know what’s fair or foul, it’s also a chance to clarify why to have comments and what role they play on a site, he said. There’s a need to guard against slander or libel in your comment threads, not to mention the ever-swelling and always creative list of naughty words — but beyond that things start to vary.

“Moderating for the CBC is different than moderating for The Boston Globe or The San Francisco Chronicle,” he said. “They’re all very unique in the way their content is managed.”

One area where sites diverge is on whether to moderate comments before or after being published. There’s a case to be made for both approaches — the idea of honoring the audience’s ability to have their say immediately versus the ability to carefully tend the garden as it grows. Bilous argues either can work.

“Look at TSN, by volume of comments that come to the TSN website and CBC site — which are through the freakin’ roof frankly — they’re all pre-moderated and going up every month,” he said.

If there’s a more pressing question news sites should be dealing with, it’s knowing when to throw the off switch on comments. Not in the “Christmas is canceled” way, but in the “maybe this isn’t the best story to include comments on” way. Bilous calls it “situational comments,” because he’s seeing more sites become selective with what stories they’ll allow comments on. A number of newspapers, like the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, automatically turn off comments on stories about topics like suicide, race, or gay rights. The challenge for editors, Bilou said, is knowing when stories can lead to useful community discussion and when they’ll descend into chaos.

With that in mind, Bilous has three pieces of advice for editors and managers to consider about comments: Be transparent about your policy and decisions. Always be willing to ask if comments are needed on an individual story. And, maybe most importantly, don’t be afraid to take a hit if bad things are said about your publication.

“We’re never going back to a web that is static, as in ‘here is a story no one can comment on,’” he said. “The audience is only being encouraged and conditioned to participate.”

March 08 2011

18:21

What we’re reading: death in all its guises

A week into March, we’re anxious for spring, but the narrative stories we’ve unearthed lately consistently offer up darker themes that go against the promise of the season. We’ve rounded up a few that focus specifically on death: murder on campus, suicide at work, death in combat and perhaps most surprising, a delicately crafted obituary for a rat. So as not to leave you in a winter funk, we’ve added two posts on craft to the end of the list: a primer for profile writing and an essay exploring the first use of cinematic scenes in writing.

What made this university scientist snap?” by Amy Wallace of Wired. “Bishop stood near the loading dock, unarmed. On her way down from the third floor, she had ducked into a restroom to stuff her Ruger 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol and blood-spattered black and red plaid jacket into a trash can. The 45-year-old assistant professor had also phoned her husband, James Anderson, and instructed him – as she often did – to come pick her up. ‘I’m done,’ she’d said.”

Lt. Gen. John Kelly, who lost son to war, says U.S. largely unaware of sacrifice” by Greg Jaffe of The Washington Post. “Before he addressed the crowd that had assembled in the St. Louis Hyatt Regency ballroom last November, Lt. Gen. John F. Kelly had one request. ‘Please don’t mention my son,’ he asked the Marine Corps officer introducing him.”

1 Million Workers. 90 Million iPhones. 17 Suicides. Who’s to Blame?by Joel Johnson in Wired (via @longreads). “It’s hard not to look at the nets. Every building is skirted in them. They drape every precipice, steel poles jutting out 20 feet above the sidewalk, loosely tangled like volleyball nets in winter. The nets went up in May, after the 11th jumper in less than a year died here. They carried a message: You can throw yourself off any building you like, as long as it isn’t one of these. And they seem to have worked. Since they were installed, the suicide rate has slowed to a trickle.”

S.F. kids spend recess toasting the best rat who ever lived,” by Steve Rubenstein from the 2002 archives of the San Francisco Chronicle (via @gangrey). A sendup of a classic obituary, this tribute to a classroom pet parodies the form while delivering a touching eulogy.

THOUGHTS ON WRITING

Profile Writing: The Basics” by Chris Jones, Esquire correspondent. Jones offers some fundamental rules, including that “Good features often have a ‘theme’ as well as an ‘idea’ – they’re about something, but they’re also about something else, if that makes any sense. They’re about beauty or art or the fragility of life. They’re inspirational or devastating. They’re not just a story; like fairytales, they have a moral, too.”

Zooming Out: How Writers Create Our Visual Grammar” by Rob Goodman on The Millions (via @TheBrowser). Did literature teach us how to connect scenic jumps and read panoramic shots centuries before moving pictures appeared?

January 19 2011

18:30

“Gee, you guys are spending an awful lot of money”: The Bay Citizen editor on funding quality news

Seven months into its bid to reinvent the metro newspaper, The Bay Citizen, the San Francisco-based nonprofit news site, has so far raised a total of $14.5 million in philanthropic gifts, rolled out daily online news and culture coverage with a 26-person-staff, and, during November, attracted a monthly audience of approximately 200,000 unique visitors. It’s on track to spend $4 million during its first year.

I interviewed editor-in-chief Jonathan Weber in The Bay Citizen’s downtown San Francisco office, and later by e-mail and over the phone, to find out what he’s learned from the site’s first half-year of operation — editorially and financially. This is the first in a two-part series.

“There is nothing especially virtuous about being broke”

In a world where many local nonprofit startups are shoestring operations run by refugees from downsized or shuttered metro papers, The Bay Citizen’s relatively large budget continues to attract scrutiny — and some hostility. (As a quick comparison, the national investigative nonprofit ProPublica spent approximately $9.3 million last year, and the local civic news outlet Voice of San Diego spent approximately $1 million.)

“I’m honestly mystified as to why so many journalist-commentators seem to think that spending real money on journalism is a bad thing,” Weber told me. “I’ve been there, and there is nothing especially virtuous about being broke.” Moreover, he said, “I would challenge anyone to take a hard look at what we do — and I mean really dive in in a serious way over a period of time — and tell me that we are wasting money.”

F. Warren Hellman, the San Francisco investor who provided $5 million in seed money for The Bay Citizen, initially described it as a journalistic mainstay during the “inevitable” demise of local newspapers, and said it “might put journalism, broadly defined, on a much more stable foundation.”

Since then, the outlet has emerged as a general interest site for the entire Bay Area: It provides lists of weekend events, covers breaking news, and has even commissioned local author and artist Dave Eggers to produce a series of whimsical sketches of a World Series game. Instead of focusing, as most sites do, on a smaller geographical area, or a content vertical (like the Gawker Media blogs, or NPR’s local, topic-based Argo blogs, which launched this fall), The Bay Citizen is assuming the entire portfolio of a print paper.

“Others might disagree, but I have never seen any critique related to what we actually do journalistically,” Weber said. “It’s sort of this abstract, ‘Gee, you guys are spending an awful lot of money’ — and that kind of criticism makes no sense to me.”

The latest debate over The Bay Citizen’s finances came late last month, after an item in the Chronicle detailing (and mocking) The Bay Citizen’s solicitation of $50 memberships implied that the outlet had spent all its $5 million in seed money — rather than the $4 million it had actually spent. (The Chron item also didn’t mention the additional $9.5 million the organization had raised.) Other journalists involved in smaller nonprofit and local news ventures tweeted their skepticism, including Howard Owens, publisher of the online-only Batavian in western New York, who wrote, “My question is, why do they need more than $1mill operational cost per year in SF?”

Weber responded that for a staff of 26, a $4 million budget was reasonable. (Steve Katz, publisher of the San Francisco-based nonprofit magazine Mother Jones, backed up that math.) But The Bay Citizen is also finding ways to amplify the work of its staff. Perhaps its most innovative step so far has been to position itself as a partner and umbrella site for the Bay Area’s many hyperlocal blogs.

“A different philosophical view about partnership”

The content on The Bay Citizen’s website is the product of a “range of different relationships,” Weber notes. On the front page, for instance, there are articles by staff reporters and paid freelancers. There is also content from the outlet’s community blog partners, who typically get paid $25 for every article The Bay Citizen re-posts from their sites. (The re-postings also appear on pages that are branded with the blog partners’ names and three additional links to articles on their homepages.) Weber has said repeatedly that he wants The Bay Citizen to be “a connector and a hub for an emerging ecosystem” of local blogs.

The site also features a Citizen Blog, which is open to pretty much anyone who wants to blog on local topics. (The Chron features a similar mix of content on its homepage, including citizen blog posts and stories from local partner sites, together with national wire stories, a “Daily Dish” of entertainment news, sports coverage, photo slideshows, and, of course, lots of advertising.) The Bay Citizen’s homepage features a single ad, as well as a jar of change with the slogan “$1 a week helps. Save Independent Reporting.”

The Bay Citizen’s local blog partnerships also include joint reporting projects between staffers and outside bloggers. The finished articles run both on the Bay Citizen and the local blog. They’re partnerships, Weber said, that can bring together the inside-baseball knowledge of local bloggers with the bigger-picture political perspective of staff reporters. “We have a different philosophical view about partnership and the role of non-staff people of various descriptions, and what role they play in the bigger project,” he notes. “I think traditionally mainstream media organizations have always had a religious view that ‘all news comes from here’ and ‘we don’t really publish other people’s news,’ and we definitely don’t.”

The Bay Citizen has also found “a sweet spot in mid-range enterprise news,” Weber said, as in its story about a payment scandal in the San Francisco Unified School District. These aren’t three-month, “capital I-investigative reporting” projects, as Weber put it, but quicker stories that might need only a single records request to pull together. (The Center for Investigative Reporting and its offshoot California Watch, which specialize in long-term investigative reporting projects, are right across the Bay in Berkeley.)

The value of business experience

While the idea for The Bay Citizen was conceived at a time when the San Francisco Chronicle was hemorrhaging millions and seemed close to shutting down, the outlet is now competing with a more stable Chronicle (whose print circulation, at last reporting, was 223,549 on weekdays) as well as a slew of other Bay Area news outlets, large and small. It’s doing so with the ambitious plan of leveraging its first few years of philanthropic funding into the kind of popular support that makes public broadcasting-style membership drives viable.

For all that, Weber said, employing a large staff — with business-side as well as journalistic expertise — makes sense. “The rationale on staff size is pretty simple,” he notes. “If you’re going to bite off something big and ambitious like doing daily and enterprise news and multimedia on a wide range of subjects for a large region, and producing 2 pages twice a week for The New York Times, you need the people to do it. ‘Big’ is a relative term. We have a big staff compared with New West or many other local start-ups, but we’re very small compared with any metro newspaper, and also smaller than ProPublica and CIR, as comparisons.”

While the $400,000 salary of Lisa Frazier, The Bay Citizen’s CEO, has generated particular criticism ever since it was announced last year, Weber has repeatedly said that “journalists tend to undervalue business experience.” And he told me that The Bay Citizen’s four-part revenue plan — which starts with large gifts and grants, and then aims to ramp up membership revenue over several years, bringing in additional money through syndication and underwriting — is complicated enough to need a sophisticated business manager. He also noted that The Bay Citizen’s ability to raise so much money in large gifts is indicative of the fact that major donors feel more comfortable giving to organizations with experienced businesspeople at the helm.

How does Weber expect it all to pay off? “By creating a great news operation that produces and supports important and interesting journalism and attracts a wide audience, which in turn will create financial support.”

October 29 2010

20:39

5Across: Politics in the Age of Social Media

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5Across is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

As more people use social media such as Twitter and Facebook, politicians and campaigns need to put more time, energy and money into reaching people there. According to the E-Voter Institute, 80% of people who are avid social network users consider themselves to be occasionally or very active in politics. And 34% of them rely on social networks for general information, up from 29% last year. (You can get more statistics and data on social networking use and politics in this great MediaShift report from Anthony Calabrese.)



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So for this month's episode of 5Across, I brought together people involved in politics and social media, looking at it from many angles. A local San Francisco politician, Phil Ting, discussed what he calls "user-generated government" and how online discussions can help shape policy. We also talked about the importance of being authentic on social media, and we questioned why campaigns continue to spend billions of dollars on TV ads while barely spending anything online. Finally, we discussed the exciting advent of open data from local and federal governments in the U.S., and the rise of mobile apps in campaigning -- and even fixing potholes. Check it out!

5Across: Politics + Social Media

polishift.mp4

>>> Subscribe to 5Across video podcast <<<

>>> Subscribe to 5Across via iTunes <<<

Guest Biographies

Ngaio Bealum describes himself on Twitter as "a comedian, magazine publisher, juggler, musician, parent, activist, Sacramentan, and a great cook. I also like hard beats and soft drugs." Bealum has been actively supporting the California initiative, Proposition 19, to legalize marijuana in the state.

Marisa Lagos covers state politics and government for the San Francisco Chronicle, including elections, the legislature and issues such as prisons and welfare. Over the past year her coverage has ranged from stories on the attorney general race and budget crisis to sex offender laws and legislation aimed at making sure consumers know whether they are wearing faux fur or raccoon dog (seriously). Previously, she worked at the Los Angeles Times and SF Examiner. She has written exclusively for the web, blogged and used social media to promote her work.

As communications and media director, Mary Rickles spends her days writing about Netroots Nation and getting others to do the same. She has a unique background in both traditional and new media, having worked as a reporter and with campaigns, agencies, non-profits and corporate companies on projects ranging from brand development to community outreach. She previously was communications director for the grassroots powerhouse Democracy for America and in 2009 was named one of New Leaders Council's Top 40 Under 40 Emerging Leaders. Mary grew up in Birmingham, Ala., where she got her first taste of politics by volunteering for Don Siegelman's gubernatorial campaign.

As Assessor-Recorder of San Francisco, Phil Ting is a reformer whose efforts have enabled him to generate over $245 million in new revenue for San Francisco.
Ting began his career as a real estate financial advisor, working at Arthur Andersen and CB Richard Ellis. Prior to serving as the Assessor-Recorder, Ting also had a long history of civil rights advocacy -- he was the executive director of the Asian Law Caucus. He is past president of the Bay Area Assessors Association and has served on the board of Equality California Institute.

Theo Yedinsky started Social Stream Consulting, a social media and political strategy firm and is a partner in the Oakland-based social media firm, North Social. In 2009, Theo Yedinsky served as the new media director for San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's campaign for Governor of California. At the time, Mayor Newsom's campaign boasted the largest Facebook and Twitter following for a non-presidential Democratic candidate in the country. Prior to joining the Newsom campaign, Theo served as the first executive director of the New Politics Institute, a think-tank designed to study the increasing impact of technology and new media in political campaigns. Prior to launching the New Politics Institute, he managed Simon Rosenberg's campaign to become chairman of the Democratic National Committee and worked extensively on Senator Kerry's campaign for President.

If you'd prefer to watch sections of the show rather than the entire show, I've broken them down by topic below.

User-Generated Government

Authenticity Online

The Power of Facebook

Buying Ads Online

Open Data and Mobile Apps

Credits

Mark Glaser, executive producer and host
Corbin Hiar, research assistant

Jason Blalock, camera

Julie Caine, audio

Location: Vega Project & Kennerly Architecture office space in San Francisco

Special thanks to: PBS and the Knight Foundation

Music by AJ the DJ

*****

What do you think? Which politicians are doing the best job of utilizing social media? Which mobile apps are helping you get local information? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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.

news21 small.jpg

5Across is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

October 13 2010

15:00
14:00

Does investing in print help the bottom line? Discouraging evidence from the San Francisco Chronicle

The Globe and Mail is the latest newspaper to double down on print — investing big money in a new, glossy, full-color format aimed at making the value of news-on-paper more clear. As Canadians kvell over the print redesign and read the national daily without the inky stain of newsprint on their fingers, it’s worth remembering that the San Francisco Chronicle made a similar move almost a year ago.

Last November, the Chronicle began printing its weekday front page, section fronts and select inside pages on high-gloss paper as a way to lure advertisers and strive for “magazine-quality production,” publisher Frank Vega and editor Ward Bushee said at the time. (The paper revamped its layout in February 2009.) It was an interesting move, considering that less than eight months earlier the paper, facing the threat of closure by its parent company Hearst, was shedding nearly $1 million a week. The switch was a result of a 15-year, $1 billion deal between Hearst and Canadian printing giant Transcontinental, which opened a $200 million plant near San Jose.

Looking at the numbers, it’s hard to see any improvement from the move. Circulation numbers are still in decline, and the Chronicle has scaled back glossy printing to its Sunday paper only. Which raises the questions: Is glossy paper worth it, both in terms of circulation and advertising? And if readers enjoy a smoother feel to their paper, does that warrant the extra cost?

“I don’t think so,” Chronicle president Mark Adkins told me. “You would have to be part of a broader strategy that would include more commercial printing and higher consumer pricing. It’s not a good tactical move for other papers.”

Lack of advertiser response

When it switched to glossy, the Chronicle circulated around 251,782 weekday papers, a 26-percent drop from the previous year. By March 2010, weekday circulation was down to 241,330. The economy certainly takes part of the blame, but the marketing power of a classier kind of newsprint doesn’t seem to be having much of an impact. It costs about 30 percent more to print on the new heat-set presses, which are rare (and expensive) in the newspaper industry.

“On the ad side, advertisers have not responded to it at all,” Adkins says, although the Chronicle wouldn’t reveal specific ad revenue numbers. When the Chronicle switched to glossy, it had “no advertisers lined up,” Adkins adds. The move was primarily aimed at consumers, to present a more luxurious product. But to some extent, that’s what the Chronicle expected when it restructured its business model around readership and circulation revenue, rather than advertising, almost two years ago. Even before the arrival of glossy stock, the paper had increased single-copy and subscription prices. Readers have responded favorably to the new paper, Adkins says, but they’re shouldering more of the production cost.

But back when the shift was made, Adkins also emphasized the appeal to advertisers, leading the San Francisco Business Times to write: “Without naming names, Adkins said that some advertisers who are now playing ball with the Chronicle wouldn’t before. They shunned newspaper ads because ‘they don’t deliver the brand image they require,’ he said — an obstacle the Chron’s new paper removes.”

“People are definitely and truly intrigued when they see copies of the Chronicle,” says Chuck Moozakis, editor of the print innovation monthly Newspapers & Technology. “The paper is trying to send a signal that you can have a newspaper that looks like this and not like that. But it’s a challenge now.”

Looking internationally

The Chronicle won’t be phasing out high-gloss paper any time soon — not with that $1 billion Hearst deal — but Adkins isn’t ready to champion glossy as the savior of the print industry. That’s partly because in most cases printing on high-gloss paper requires outsourcing — a costly and alienating move — to independent commercial presses like Transcontinental. Heat-set presses simply aren’t ubiquitous enough in the United States to make higher-grade printing a viable option for most newspapers.

As for Canada’s Globe and Mail, editor John Stackhouse told readers that he wasn’t looking to the American newspaper market for inspiration when it comes to his “Proudly Print” approach: “Rather than study the U.S. market which is fairly depressed in terms of newpaper innovation, we looked to quality papers in southern Europe, Latin America and parts of Asia and found a great array of ideas that encouraged us to pursue a bold and confident look as well as a design that would continue to support great, in-depth journalism…One of the principal goals of the redesign is to raise the quality of The Globe at a time when we feel many other media are reducing their quality.”

October 05 2010

14:00

Doubling down on print: Canada’s Globe and Mail unveils a new print edition to complement the web

The Globe and Mail, Canada’s most-circulated national daily newspaper, revealed its much-ballyhooed redesign on Friday. The paper is calling it “the most significant redesign” in its 166-year history, and it’s a billion-dollar bet on print at a time when the format’s fortunes would seem to be fading.

The renovations to “Canada’s National Newspaper” are part of what editor-in-chief John Stackhouse boldly calls his “Proudly Print” approach, with print as one component (with online and mobile) of a three-pronged news attack. The redesign tries to make the differences between print and web more clear. Full-color printing and a high-gloss wrap — the first of its kind in North America — aim to help lure advertisers. There’ll be more magazine-like stories, including photo-driven features plastered boldly on the front page. A slightly narrower size means shorter, punchier stories. And that’s not to mention the informational accoutrements, like sidebars and info graphs, and the litany of new inserts and content realignments. The redesign “once again demonstrates our commitment to the newspaper business,” according to publisher and CEO Phillip Crawley.

This is a big-time overhaul for the Globe, and not only because the paper sees it as a reassertion of dominance — i.e., shelling the struggling National Post, its conservative competitor since 1999, in the national newspaper war of attrition — over the Canadian media landscape.

But whenever a redesign happens, criticism follows. The prevailing question in this case is fairly obvious: Why invest in an 18-year, C$1.7-billion printing deal — with the same press as the San Francisco Chronicle — at a time when newsprint seems like yesterday’s medium?

“It’s going to be a millstone around the Globe’s neck,” says Mathew Ingram, a senior writer at GigaOm and former Globe web editor (and Lab contributor). “That’s 10 years you’re going to be paying for something that’s going to restrict the paper’s ability to do things that are focusing on the web. That’s not a thing a newspaper needs at a time like this.”

But the Globe sees its investment as a bet on print having a complementary role to online news going forward. “Our readers are digitally-minded people,” Stackhouse told me on launch day. “We publish a paper for people who are online a lot and still want a printed product at their doorstep every day to make sense of a world that flew by them while there were online.” Stackhouse, who took over as editor-in-chief in spring 2009 after a career as a business reporter, knows what he’s up against, and he’s making an argument about what a 21st-century newspaper needs to look like.

The Globe has always been the highbrow stalwart in Canadian journalism — and judging from its minimalist yet dramatic ad campaign, the paper still sees itself at the head of table. (For more proof, check out this nifty microsite.) Stackhouse uses the term “the daily pause,” when readers feel obligated to close their browsers and read insightful, show-stopping journalism. That’s what newspapers should strive to give their readers, he told me. He says there “needs to be more selection. We need to bring more insight to issues that matter most and focus on issues of consequence and try to have fun with it.”

The Globe, like most other newspapers, realizes there’s still money in print advertising. According to a profile of the Globe in last month’s Toronto Life magazine, the paper’s online component brings in roughly 15 percent of the revenue generated on the print side — not far off the totals for most large American newspapers.

Whether or not Crawley’s doubling-down strategy will work remains to be seen. Eighteen years is a long time. Critics wonder if placing such emphasis on print will limit the Globe’s ability to take the reigns of a slim Canadian online news market. The responses look a lot like this tweet, from Toronto-based technology consultant Rob Hyndman: “The Globe’s changes are about fear of loss, not about moving towards a positive goal.”

The Globe surely sees things differently. Its prime competitors — the National Post, the Toronto Star, and free dailies like Metro and 24 — are all print products. In fact, the paper’s weekday circulation jumped 5 percent last year and its print revenue increased 10 percent, while everyone else took a step backward. In Canada, the world of print is still the gladiator ring. The Canadian online news marketplace is underdeveloped: There’s nothing like Salon or The Daily Beast or The Huffington Post to draw eyeballs away from sites — GlobeandMail.com, CBC.ca, CTV.ca, GlobalTV.com — already affiliated with traditional news organizations. Speaking at the Economic Club of Canada on the eve of the launch, Stackhouse pinpointed four online competitors — The Huffington Post, Bloomberg, Yahoo Finance, and the BBC — none of which are Canadian. Without a sea of competitors galvanizing innovation and growth in Canadian online news, the Globe seems to think it makes sense to stick to the gravy — a move Ingram thinks is a mistake.

“Now is the time to seize the day, to become a leader,” he says, “because the Globe doesn’t have a huge amount of competition in print or online. It feels like it’s the only game in town — except maybe the CBC — and that lulls the paper into a false sense of security about its future.”

August 06 2010

11:15

Advertising Age: San Francisco Chronicle on using Demand Media content

Advertising Age interviews Michele Slack, vice president of digital media for SFGate.com, the website for the San Francisco Chronicle, which recently introduced content from Demand Media to its website. The interview looks at editorial outsourcing and issues of quality control:

Ad Age: Does bringing in outside content, supplied by freelancers, undermine the need for your own full-time reporters, or does it support the business that pays for the newsroom?

Ms. Slack: I prefer to think it’s the latter. This provides us with additional revenue opportunities that we can use to support our core newsroom. Our core newsroom is our competitive advantage, so we really depend on the content they provide us with. These partnerships are about bringing in additional users and incremental revenue. All of that is to support our core business and the newsroom is an integral part of that.

Full story on Advertising Age at this link…Similar Posts:



June 29 2010

16:50

5Across: Arts Criticism in the Digital Age

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5Across is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

As newspapers and magazines have cut staff in the shift to digital, arts critics find themselves with less sure footing when it comes to a full-time staff position. According to a recent article in the Australian, 65 full-time film critics have lost jobs on American newspapers and magazines since 2006. Can't local newspapers just use syndicated reviews for movies shown nationally? And isn't the Internet giving many more critics outside of traditional publications the chance to shine?

Plus, there are review aggregator sites such as Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic that simply give people a roundup of what critics have said about a particular movie. In the case of Rotten Tomatoes, you even get a 1 to 100 rating that is an aggregation of all the major reviews. What is the state of arts criticism, and can traditional critics hold onto their jobs? We convened a roundtable to discuss the rise of aggregators, audience participation, and what happened when one San Francisco newspaper asked its critics to use social media. (They didn't.)

5Across: Arts Criticism in the Digital Age

artcritics.mp4

>>> Subscribe to 5Across video podcast <<<

>>> Subscribe to 5Across via iTunes <<<

Guest Biographies

Matt Atchity is editor-in-chief for Rotten Tomatoes. Matt is responsible for defining the editorial voice of Rotten Tomatoes, and oversees the publishing of all of the content on the site, including original news stories, interviews and columns. Before Rotten Tomatoes, Matt was senior content producer and managing editor at Yahoo Movies. He has also worked as a site producer for Warner Bros. online and Entertainment Asylum.

Kenneth Baker has been art critic for the San Francisco Chronicle since 1985. A native of the Boston area, he served as art critic for the Boston Phoenix between 1972 and 1985. He has written on a freelance basis for publications ranging from Artforum, Art in America, Art News and Art + Auction to Smithsonian Magazine and the New York Times Book Review. He was a contributing editor of Artforum from 1985 through 1992. Baker is the author of two books: "Minimalism: Art of Circumstance" (Abbeville Press, 1989/1997) and "The Lightning Field" (Yale University Press, 2008).

Reyhan Harmanci grew up in Amish country in central Pennsylvania, and moved to San Francisco in 2001. She began working at the San Francisco Chronicle as an editorial assistant in 2002, eventually becoming an arts/culture/trend reporter in 2006. She took a buyout in April 2009, freelancing for California magazine, Village Voice, McSweeney's, Style.com, SF Weekly and others. Currently, she is the culture editor/writer at the new non-profit site, Bay Citizen.

Jonathan Kiefer is a leading Northern California freelance arts critic. He's a former arts editor and still a film critic for the alternative weekly Sacramento News & Review, and has written for Salon, the New Republic, the San Francisco Chronicle, the New York Times Book Review, and Film Quarterly, among others. He writes regularly about books and theater for SF Weekly, and about film for the Faster Times (an online newspaper), KQED.org, San Francisco magazine, and several alternative newsweeklies. His book about Bay Area cinema is forthcoming from City Lights Books.

Susan Young is the president of the Television Critics Association, an organization of more than 220 professional TV critics and writers based in the United States and Canada. The TCA holds twice-yearly press tours in Los Angeles and hosts the annual TCA Awards. Susan was the TV critic for the Oakland Tribune for 15 years and now is a freelance writer for publications including People magazine, Variety and MSNBC.com.

If you'd prefer to watch sections of the show rather than the entire show, I've broken them down by topic below.

Traditional Jobs Disappear

Rise of Aggregators

Audience Participation and Comments

Who's a Critic?

Print vs. Online

Credits

vegaproject-pbs-mediashift.png

Mark Glaser, executive producer and host
Corbin Hiar, research assistant

Charlotte Buchen, camera

Julie Caine, audio

Location: Vega Project & Kennerly Architecture office space in San Francisco

Special thanks to: PBS and the Knight Foundation

Music by AJ the DJ

*****

What do you think? Should local newspapers continue to have arts critics on staff, or will more critics become freelancers? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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.

news21 small.jpg

5Across is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

April 15 2010

11:00

Mark Fiore can win a Pulitzer Prize, but he can’t get his iPhone cartoon app past Apple’s satire police

This week cartoonist Mark Fiore made Internet and journalism history as the first online-only journalist to win a Pulitzer Prize. Fiore took home the editorial cartooning prize for animations he created for SFGate, the website for the San Francisco Chronicle.

I spoke with Fiore about his big win and plans for his business. Fiore is not on staff at the Chronicle, or anywhere else; since 1999, he’s run a syndication business, selling his Flash animations à la carte to TV, newspaper, and magazine websites for about $300 a piece. (The price varies by size of the outlet.) In a typical month, he might have about eight clients. Before 1999, he ran a similar syndication business for his print cartoons, using a lower-price-per-image, higher-volume model.

When I asked about the next phase of his business, curious if it will include a mobile element, Fiore said he’s definitely hopeful about mobile devices. “I think the iPads and anything iPod to iPhone — to maybe a product not made by Apple — will be good or could be good for distributing this kind of thing,” he said.

But there’s just one problem. In December, Apple rejected his iPhone app, NewsToons, because, as Apple put it, his satire “ridicules public figures,” a violation of the iPhone Developer Program License Agreement, which bars any apps whose content in “Apple’s reasonable judgement may be found objectionable, for example, materials that may be considered obscene, pornographic, or defamatory.”

Here’s the email Fiore received from Apple on December 21, 2009:

Dear Mr. Fiore,

Thank you for submitting NewsToons to the App Store. We’ve reviewed NewsToons and determined that we cannot post this version of your iPhone application to the App Store because it contains content that ridicules public figures and is in violation of Section 3.3.14 from the iPhone Developer Program License Agreement which states:

“Applications may be rejected if they contain content or materials of any kind (text, graphics, images, photographs, sounds, etc.) that in Apple’s reasonable judgement may be found objectionable, for example, materials that may be considered obscene, pornographic, or defamatory.” Examples of such content have been attached for your reference.

If you believe that you can make the necessary changes so that NewsToons does not violate the iPhone Developer Program License Agreement, we encourage you to do so and resubmit it for review.

Regards,

iPhone Developer Program

Apple attached screenshots of the offending material, including an image depicting the White House gate crashers interrupting an Obama speech. Two other grabs include images referencing torture, Balloon Boy, and various political issues.

Fiore isn’t the first editorial cartoonist to clash with Apple. Last year, an app called Bobble Rep app, which used political caricatures by Tom Richmond, was initially rejected by Apple. After an online uproar, a few days later Apple changed its position, allowing the app into the store. (Fiore’s rejection landed in his inbox just a month later.) Daryl Cagle, who runs a cartoon syndication site with 900 newspaper subscribers, had a similar battle with Apple last year, waiting around for months before eventually being allowed in. And while Apple eventually ruled in those cartoonists favor, the company went on an app-banning spree in February targeting apps with bikini-level sexual content. (Although a few established news brands like Sports Illustrated were allowed to remain.)

It’s also an example of the alarm bells some critics of the app store system were sounding in the lead-up to the release of the iPad. Brian Chen at Wired warned publishers to consider questions of independence, in light of a controversy over Apple’s vague policy on sexual content. And several German news orgs like Bild and Stern have already seen Apple get into the business of banning certain editorial content from the App Store.

Fiore has not resubmitted his app, saying he’d heard about the experiences of others cartoonists and wasn’t in a position to get into a fight with Apple. Still, he has a hunch Apple will eventually change its mind on him, as it has with other cartoon apps. “They seem so much more innovative and smarter than that,” he told me.

Apple did not respond to my request for comment on its satire policy, or Fiore’s case in particular.

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