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April 27 2012

16:09

Daily Must Reads, April 27, 2012

The best stories across the web on media and technology, curated by Lily Leung.

1. Rupert Murdoch apologizes for hacking scandal (NYT)



2. Providence may sell its stake in Hulu for $2 billion (Bloomberg)



3. Redbox revenue grows 39 percent in the first quarter (LAT)



4. Gawker still embraces anonymous commenters as other media orgs push them away (Gawker)



5. Free data-journalism handbook to launch Saturday (Online Journalism Blog)



6. Why flying drones may be a big part of the future of journalism (Fast Company)




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June 17 2011

13:00

Alicia Shepard: Anonymity allows “the loudest drunk at the bar” to dominate online conversations

Editor’s Note: Our sister publication Nieman Reports is out with its summer 2011 issue, “Links That Bind Us,” which focuses on the role community plays in journalism. We’re highlighting a few entries that connect with subjects we follow at the Lab, but go read the whole issue. In this piece, Alicia Shepard writes about quality of online discourse (or lack thereof) during her three-year tenure as NPR ombudsman.

Nieman Reports summer 2011 coverIt might be hard to believe, but one reason NPR was inspired to build its social media community is what it found in personal ads like this one — “Female golfer, loves NPR, travel and skydiving, is looking for like-minded man.” With NPR squeezed into the middle of self-portraits, the network figured that if it created a digital public square, people would want to congregate there.

So three years ago NPR invited its 27 million listeners to gather at this virtual water cooler to share ideas, suggest stories, offer comments and criticisms, and participate in civil dialogue. Joining NPR’s digital community requires creating an account. Individuals need to log in each time they comment on a story, though using real names is not required. So far 500,000 people have signed up as members of the NPR.org community.

Since the launch in 2008, those tasked with oversight of this digital community’s dynamics at times have felt as though they are riding a bucking bronco in the rodeo ring. Those feelings hit hardest when contentious issues surface, and it can be challenging to maintain civil dialogue as conversations devolve into downright meanness.

Keep reading »

March 11 2011

15:00

This Week in Review: NPR at a crossroads, hyperlocal’s personal issue, and keeping comments real

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

A bad week for NPR execs named Schiller: For the second time in five months, NPR has found itself in the middle of a controversy that’s forced it to wrestle with issues of objectivity, bias, and its own federal funding. This one started when the conservative prankster James O’Keefe orchestrated a hidden-camera video of a NPR fundraising exec bashing Tea Partiers and generally straying from the NPR party line while meeting with people pretending to represent a Muslim charity. (The “donors” also met with PBS, but their people didn’t take the bait.)

Reaction was mixed: The right, of course, was outraged, though others like Slate’s Jack Shafer and Gawker’s John Cook downplayed the significance of the video. NPR was outraged, too — “appalled,” actually, with 21 journalists condemning the remarks. CEO Vivian Schiller said she was upset and that the two execs had put on administrative leave, but within about 12 hours, however, Schiller herself had been forced out by NPR’s board. The New York Times has good background on the shocking turn of events, and Poynter summarized the six months of controversy that led up to this, stretching back to Juan Williams’ firing (the American Journalism Review’s Rem Rieder called Schiller’s ouster “Williams’ revenge”).

Reaction to NPR’s handling of the situation was decidedly less mixed — and a lot more scathing. In a chat and column, NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard ripped just about all parties involved, and the online response from media-watchers was just as harsh. NYU j-prof Jay Rosen called it “profoundly unjust,” and several others blasted NPR’s leadership.

The Awl’s Choire Sicha called NPR’s management “wusses,” CUNY j-prof Jeff Jarvis called the NPR board “ballless” and said the episode exposes the difference between NPR and the stations who run it, ex-Saloner Scott Rosenberg lamented NPR’s allowing the O’Keefes of the world to take over public discourse, and Rosen and Northeastern j-prof Dan Kennedy told NPR to start fighting back. The Columbia Journalism Review’s Joel Meares put it best, saying the fiasco “exposes them as an organization that is fundamentally weak — too concerned about its image to realize that ‘surrender’ is not always the best option.”

The episode also stoked the fires of the perpetual debate over whether public radio should keep its federal funding. The Atlantic’s Chris Good looked at the political aspects of the issue, and The Christian Science Monitor examined whether public radio stations would survive without federal money. A few calls to defund public radio came from outside the traditional (i.e. conservative) places, with Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan and media analyst Alan Mutter arguing that NPR will be in an untenable situation as a political football as long as they’re getting federal funds. Meanwhile, here at the Lab, USC’s Nikki Usher did give some encouraging information from the whole situation, looking at Schiller’s legacy of digital and local innovation during her NPR tenure.

Making hyperlocal news personal: AOL continued its move into local news late last week, as it bought the hyperlocal news aggregator Outside.in. In an excellent analysis at the Lab, Ken Doctor argued that the purchase is a way for AOL to get bigger quickly, particularly by bulking up Patch’s pageviews through cheap local aggregation tools. ReadWriteWeb’s Marshall Kirkpatrick took the opportunity to ask why hyperlocal news technology services like Outside.in, Everyblock, and Fwix haven’t been as useful as we had hoped.

Mathew Ingram of GigaOM posited an answer: Hyperlocal journalism only works if it’s deeply connected with the community it serves, and those technologies aren’t. Without that level of community, “AOL is pouring money into a bottomless pit,” he wrote. The Knight Digital Media Center’s Amy Gahran said that might be where local news organizations can step in, focusing less on creating news articles and more on using their community trust to make local information useful, relevant and findable.

Elsewhere on the cheap-content front: All Things Digital reported that AOL is laying off hundreds of employees (including the widely expected gutting of several of its news sites), and Business Insider snagged the memo. Wired talked to two Google engineers about its anti-content farm changes, and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said good content is created either by passionate fans or by proper journalists being paid a fair amount. But, he said, “paying people a very low amount of money to write about stuff they don’t care about — that doesn’t work.” And Dan Conover at Xark warned against turning content — especially hyperlocal — into a franchise formula.

Accountability and authenticity in online comments: TechCrunch was one of the first companies to try out Facebook’s new commenting system, and after about a week, MG Siegler noted that the number of the site’s comments had decreased, and they’d also gone from nasty to warm and fuzzy. Entrepreneur Steve Cheney proposed a reason why the comments were so “sterile and neutered”: Facebook kills online authenticity, because everyone is self-censoring their statements to make sure their grandmas, ex-girlfriends, and entire social network won’t be offended.

Tech guru Robert Scoble disagreed, arguing that TechCrunch’s comments have improved, and people know real change and credibility only comes from using their real identities. Slate’s Farhad Manjoo made a somewhat similar argument, eloquently making the case for the elimination of anonymous commenting. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram weighed in by saying that Facebook can’t make or break comments — it all depends on being involved in an actual conversation with users. He pointed to a brilliant post by NPR’s Matt Thompson, who gave numerous tips on cultivating community in comments; much it went back to the idea that “The very best filter is an empowered, engaged adult.”

Meanwhile, Joy Mayer of the Reynolds Journalism Institute got some advice on cultivating online reader engagement from the Wall Street Journal’s (and formerly the Lab’s) Zach Seward, and the Lab’s Megan Garber reported on the results of some research into which stories are the most liked and shared on Facebook.

More paywall test cases: Newspapers continue to pound the paywall drumbeat, with the CEO of newspaper chain Gannett saying the company is experimenting with various pay models in anticipation of a potential one-time company-wide rollout and the Dallas Morning News rolling out its own paywall this week. Ken Doctor crunched the numbers to try to gauge the initiative’s chances, and media consultant Mike Orren disagreed with the News’ idea of how much a metro newspaper’s operation should cost.

Elsewhere, Reuters’ Felix Salmon made the case that Britain’s Financial Times’ paywall strategy has contributed to its decline, writing, “the FT strategy is exactly the strategy I would choose if I was faced with an industry in terminal decline, and wanted to extract as much money as possible from it before it died.” Meanwhile, The New York Times’ public editor, Arthur Brisbane, chided the Times for not aggressively covering news of its own paywall, and Mathew Ingram of GigaOM called paywalls a futile attempt to hold back the tide of free online content.

Reading roundup: Some things to read in between SXSW Interactive panels:

— New York Times executive editor Bill Keller wrote a rather odd little column taking shots at news and opinion aggregators, especially Arianna Huffington. Everyone then took shots at his column, including Huffington, TechDirt’s Mike Masnick, GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, and Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan.

— Newsweek published its first redesigned issue under The Daily Beast’s Tina Brown this week. The Society of Publication Designers had a look at the issue, which Slate’s Jack Shafer panned. The New York Times noted the issue’s familiar bylines.

— A few Apple-related notes: At MediaShift, Susan Currie Sivek looked at the impact of Apple’s 30-percent app subscription cut on small magazines, and Poynter’s Damon Kiesow urged Apple-fighting publishers to move to the open web, not Android-powered tablets. GigaOM’s Om Malik joined the chorus of people calling for iPad apps to be reimagined.

— Two great posts at the Lab on search engine optimization: Richard J. Tofel on why the web will be better off with the decline of SEO, and Martin Langeveld on the SEO consequences of including paid links on sites.

— Former Guardian digital chief Emily Bell gave a fantastic interview to CBC Radio about various future-of-news issues, and Mathew Ingram summarized a talk she gave on newspapers and the web.

— Finally, two must-reads: The Atlantic’s James Fallows wrote a thoughtful essay arguing that we should take the contemporary journalism environment on its own terms, rather than unfairly comparing it to earlier eras. And at the Lab, former St. Pete Times journalist and current Nebraska j-prof Matt Waite called news developers to let the old systems go and “hack at the very core of the whole product.”

March 08 2011

14:51

One identity or more?

Given the discussion about Facebook enabling other sites to use its comment infrastructure — and what that means for identity and anonymity in discussion — I thought I’d share some of what I’m saying about the question of multiple identities in my book, .

* * *

One tactic to cope with the fear of exposure and overexposure is anonymity. Anonymity has its place. It protects the speech of Chinese dissidents, Iranian protestors, and corporate whistleblowers. It allows Wikileaks to expose secrets. It helps people share, for example, medical data and benefit others without having to reveal themselves. It lets people play with new identities. When the game company Blizzard Entertainment tried to bring real identity into the forums around its massive, multi-player games, including World of WarCraft, players revolted, and no wonder: Who wants everyone to know that in your other life, you see yourself as a level 80 back-stabbing night elf rogue who ganks lowbies at the Crossroads? Taking on identities—pseudonymity—is the fun of it.

But anonymity is often the cloak of cowards. Anonymous trolls—of the human race, not the WarCraft type—attack people online, lobbing snark at Julia Allison, spreading rumors and lies about public figures, sabotaging a politician’s Wikipedia page, or saying stupid stuff in the comments on my blog. I tell commenters there that I will respect what they have to say more if they have the guts to stand behind their own words with their own names, as I do.

Real identity has improved the tone and tenor of interaction online. That was Facebook’s key insight. Twitter’s, too. Tweeters want credit for their cleverness; they are rewarded with followers and retweets, their nanoseconds of microfame. Facebook is built on real relationships with real people in real life. “The whole thing was based on this foundation of reality,” Mark Zuckerberg says in an interview. “That doesn’t mean that every single thing is true. But on balance, I think it’s a lot more real than other things on the internet. In that way, I think, yes, it does create authenticity.”

Zuckerberg believes we have one authentic identity and says it is becoming “less and less true” that people will maintain separate identities. Emily Gould, admitted oversharer, agrees. Julia Allison, on the other hand, sides with those who say we should maintain many identities—one for work, another for school, another for home, another for friends. Those folks say we get in trouble online when these identities mix and blur, when our boss sees our picture from the college beer party (as if bosses never had beer). In a New York Times Magazine piece arguing that “the internet records everything and forgets nothing,” Jeffrey Rosen tells the story of a 25-year-old student-teacher who was deprived of her diploma after posting a MySpace photo of herself drinking over the caption, “Drunken Pirate.” On his blog, Scott Rosenberg counters that “the photo is harmless; the trouble lies with the people who have turned it into a problem.”

What needs to change is not so much our behavior, our rules, or our technology but, again, our norms: how we operate as a society and interact with each other. When presented with someone’s public face, which may differ from our own, is our response to disapprove, condemn, ridicule, and snipe, or is it to try to understand differences, offer empathy, overlook foolishness, offer freedom, and share in kind? When we do the former—and we all have—we are guilty of intolerance, sometimes bigotry. When we do the latter we become open-minded. I suggested in my last book that because we are all more public, we will soon operate under the doctrine of mutually assured humiliation: I’ll spare you making fun of your embarrassing pictures if you’ll do the same for me. “An age of transparency,” says author David Weinberger, “must be an age of forgiveness.”

There are two forces at work here: identity and reputation. Our identities are the first-person expressions of ourselves. Our reputations are others’ third-person views of us. Thanks to our increasing publicness, the two are coming closer and sometimes into conflict. As I was discussing these topics on my blog, Weinberger left a sage comment wondering about what he called the private-public axis:

Marilyn Monroe was a public figure but most of us are private citizens. That used to be pretty easy to compute and, because of the nature of the broadcast medium, it used to tend toward one extreme or another: He’s Chevy Chase and you’re not. But there’s another private-public axis: who we really are and how we look to others. We have tended to believe, at least in the West, that our true self is the inner self. The outer, public self may or may not reflect our inner, private self, and we have an entire moral/normative vocabulary to talk about the relation of the two: sincerity, authenticity, integrity, honesty….

Those are the two identities we are trying to manage—not our work selves and our home selves, not our party selves and our serious selves, but our inner, real selves and our outer, show selves. When our inner and outer selves get into conflict and confusion, we look inauthentic and hypocritical. In all our spoken fears about privacy and publicness, I think this is the great unspoken fear: that we’re not who people think we are, and we’ll be found out.

These are new skills for everyone, celebrity and commoner alike. Marilyn Monroe never had to deal with blogs and Twitter, let alone 24-hour TV news. She had press agents to create and manage her identity and big, frightening security people to keep the scary strangers away. Today, stars and pols have to deal with being constantly exposed. When they are caught in a contradiction of words or deeds—not exactly a challenge—they suffer the gotcha. Then again, stars like Ashton Kutcher, Lady Gaga, and Howard Stern are grabbing the opportunity on Twitter to interact directly with their publics without scripts or PR people in-between. Reputation.com, which makes a business out of helping people whose online reputation is being harmed by others, suggests that the solution is not to hide but to publish more about yourself so that will rise in Google’s search about you. The way to improve your reputation is to share more of your identity.

The best solution is to be yourself. If that makes you uneasy, talk with your shrink. Better yet, blog about it.

July 30 2010

14:15

This Week in Review: WikiLeaks’ new journalism order, a paywall’s purpose, and a future for Flipboard

[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]

WikiLeaks, data journalism and radical transparency: I’ll be covering two weeks in this review because of the Lab’s time off last week, but there really was only one story this week: WikiLeaks’ release of The War Logs, a set of 90,000 documents on the war in Afghanistan. There are about 32 angles to this story and I’ll try to hit most of them, but if you’re pressed for time, the essential reads on the situation are Steve Myers, C.W. Anderson, Clint Hendler, and Janine Wedel and Linda Keenan.

WikiLeaks released the documents on its site on Sunday, cooperating with three news organizations — The New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel — to allow them to produce special reports on the documents as they were released. The Nation’s Greg Mitchell ably rounded up commentary on the documents’ political implications (one tidbit from the documents for newsies: evidence of the U.S. military paying Afghan journalists to write favorable stories), as the White House slammed the leaks and the Times for running them, and the Times defended its decision in the press and to its readers.

The comparison that immediately came to many people’s minds was the publication of the Pentagon Papers on the Vietnam War in 1971, and two Washington Post articles examined the connection. (The Wall Street Journal took a look at both casesFirst Amendment angles, too.) But several people, most notably ProPublica’s Richard Tofel and Slate’s Fred Kaplan, quickly countered that the War Logs don’t come close to the Pentagon Papers’ historical impact. They led a collective yawn that emerged from numerous political observers after the documents’ publication, with ho-hums coming from Foreign Policy, Mother Jones, the Washington Post, and even the op-ed page of the Times itself. Slate media critic Jack Shafer suggested ways WikiLeaks could have planned its leak better to avoid such ennui.

But plenty of other folks found a lot that was interesting about the entire situation. (That, of course, is why I’m writing about it.) The Columbia Journalism Review’s Joel Meares argued that the military pundits dismissing the War Logs as old news are forgetting that this information is still putting an often-forgotten war back squarely in the public’s consciousness. But the most fascinating angle of this story to many of us future-of-news nerds was that this leak represents the entry of an entirely new kind of editorial process into mainstream news. That’s what The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal sensed early on, and several others sussed out as the week moved along. The Times’ David Carr called WikiLeaks’ quasi-publisher role both a new kind of hybrid journalism and an affirmation of the need for traditional reporting to provide context. Poynter’s Steve Myers made some astute observations about this new kind of journalism, including the rise of the source advocate and WikiLeaks’ trading information for credibility. NYU j-prof Jay Rosen noted that WikiLeaks is the first “stateless news organization,” able to shed light on the secrets of the powerful because of freedom provided not by law, but by the web.

Both John McQuaid and Slate’s Anne Applebaum emphasized the need for data to be, as McQuaid put it, “marshaled in service to a story, an argument,” with McQuaid citing that as reason for excitement about journalism and Applebaum calling it a case for traditional reporting. Here at the Lab, CUNY j-prof C.W. Anderson put a lot this discussion into perspective with two perceptive posts on WikiLeaks as the coming-out party for data journalism. He described its value well: “In these recent stories, its not the presence of something new, but the ability to tease a pattern out of a lot of little things we already know that’s the big deal.”

As for WikiLeaks itself, the Columbia Journalism Review’s Clint Hendler provided a fascinating account of how its scoop ended up in three of the world’s major newspapers, including differences in WikiLeaks’ and the papers’ characterization of WikiLeaks’ involvement, which might help explain its public post-publication falling-out with the Times. The Times profiled WikiLeaks and its enigmatic founder, Julian Assange, and several others trained their criticism on WikiLeaks itself — specifically, on the group’s insistence on radical transparency from others but extreme secrecy from itself. The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz said WikiLeaks is “a global power unto itself,” not subject to any checks and balances, and former military reporter Jamie McIntyre called WikiLeaks “anti-privacy terrorists.”

Several others were skeptical of Assange’s motives and secrecy, and Slate’s Farhad Manjoo wondered how we could square public trust with such a commitment to anonymity. In a smart Huffington Post analysis of that issue, Janine Wedel and Linda Keenan presented this new type of news organization as a natural consequence of the new cultural architecture (the “adhocracy,” as they call it) of the web: “These technologies lend themselves to new forms of power and influence that are neither bureaucratic nor centralized in traditional ways, nor are they generally responsive to traditional means of accountability.”

Keeping readers out with a paywall: The Times and Sunday Times of London put up their online paywall earlier this month, the first of Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers to set off on his paid-content mission (though some other properties, like The Wall Street Journal, have long charged for online access). Last week, we got some preliminary figures indicating how life behind the wall is going so far: Former Times media reporter Dan Sabbagh said that 150,000 of the Times’ online readers (12 percent of its pre-wall visitors) had registered for free trials during the paywall’s first two weeks, with 15,000 signing on as paying subscribers and 12,500 subscribing to the iPad app. PaidContent also noted that the Times’ overall web traffic is down about 67 percent, adding that the Times will probably tout these types of numbers as a success.

The Guardian did its own math and found that the Times’ online readership is actually down about 90 percent — exactly in line with what the paper’s leaders and industry analysts were expecting. Everyone noted that this is exactly what Murdoch and the Times wanted out of their paywall — to cut down on drive-by readers and wring more revenue out of the core of loyal ones. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram explained that rationale well, then ripped it apart, calling it “fundamentally a resignation from the open web” because it keeps readers from sharing (or marketing) it with others. SEOmoz’s Tom Critchlow looked at the Times’ paywall interface and gave it a tepid review.

Meanwhile, another British newspaper that charges for online access, the Financial Times, is boasting strong growth in online revenue. The FT’s CEO, John Ridding, credited the paper’s metered paid-content system and offered a moral argument for paid access online, drawing on Time founder Henry Luce’s idea that an exclusively advertising-reliant model weakens the bond between a publication and its readers.

Flipboard and the future of mobile media: In just four months, we’ve already seen many attention-grabbing iPad apps, but few have gotten techies’ hearts racing quite like Flipboard, which was launched last week amid an ocean of hype. As Mashable explained, Flipboard combines social media and news sources of the user’s choosing to create what’s essentially a socially edited magazine for the iPad. The app got rave reviews from tech titans like Robert Scoble and ReadWriteWeb, which helped build up enough demand that it spent most of its first few post-release days crashed from being over capacity.

Jen McFadden marveled at Flipboard’s potential for mobile advertising, given its ability to merge the rich advertising experience of the iPad with the targeted advertising possibilities through social media, though Martin Belam wondered whether the app might end up being “yet another layer of disintermediation that took away some of my abilities to understand how and when my content was being used, or to monetise my work.” Tech pioneer Dave Winer saw Flipboard as one half of a brilliant innovation for mobile media and challenged Flipboard to encourage developers to create the other half.

At the tech blog Gizmodo, Joel Johnson broke in to ask a pertinent question: Is Flipboard legal? The app scrapes content directly from other sites, rather than through RSS, like the Pulse Reader. Flipboard’s defense is that it only offers previews (if you want to read the whole thing, you have to click on “Read on Web”), but Johnson delved into some of the less black-and-white scenarios and legal issues, too. (Flipboard, for example, takes full images, and though it is free for now, its executives plan to sell their own ads around the content under revenue-sharing agreements.) Stowe Boyd took those questions a step further and looked at possible challenges down the road from social media providers like Facebook.

A new perspective on content farms: Few people had heard of the term “content farms” about a year ago, but by now there are few issues that get blood boiling in future-of-journalism circles quite like that one. PBS MediaShift’s eight-part series on content farms, published starting last week, is an ideal resource to catch you up on what those companies are, why people are so worked up about them, and what they might mean for journalism. (MediaShift defines “content farm” as a company that produces online content on a massive scale; I, like Jay Rosen, would define it more narrowly, based on algorithm- and revenue-driven editing.)

The series includes an overview of some of the major players on the online content scene, pictures of what writing for and training at a content farm is like, and two posts on the world of large-scale hyperlocal news. It also features an interesting defense of content farms by Dorian Benkoil, who argues that large-scale online content creators are merely disrupting an inefficient, expensive industry (traditional media) that was ripe for a kick in the pants.

Demand Media’s Jeremy Reed responded to the series with a note to the company’s writers that “You are not a nameless, faceless, soul-less group of people on a ‘farm.’ We are not a robotic organization that’s only concerned about numbers and data. We are a media company. We work together to tell stories,” and Yahoo Media’s Jimmy Pitaro defended the algorithm-as-editor model in an interview with Forbes. Outspoken content-farm critic Jason Fry softened his views, too, urging news organizations to learn from their algorithm-driven approach and let their audiences play a greater role in determining their coverage.

Reading roundup: A few developments and ideas to take a look at before the weekend:

— We’ve written about the FTC’s upcoming report on journalism and public policy earlier this summer, and Google added its own comments to the public record last week, urging the FTC to move away from “protectionist barriers.” Google-watcher Jeff Jarvis gave the statement a hearty amen, and The Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby chimed in against a government subsidy for journalism.

— Former equity analyst Henry Blodget celebrated The Business Insider’s third birthday with a very pessimistic forecast of The New York Times’ future, and, by extension, the traditional media’s as well. Meanwhile, Judy Sims targeted a failure to focus on ROI as a cause of newspapers’ demise.

— The Columbia Journalism Review devoted a feature to the rise of private news, in which news organizations are devoted to a niche topic for an intentionally limited audience.

— Finally, a post to either get you thinking or, judging from the comments, foaming at the mouth: Penn professor Eric Clemons argues on TechCrunch that advertising cannot be our savior online: “Online advertising cannot deliver all that is asked of it.  It is going to be smaller, not larger, than it is today.  It cannot support all the applications and all the content we want on the internet. And don’t worry. There are other things that can be done that will work well.”

July 23 2010

15:14

April 16 2010

13:20

This Week in Review: News talk and tips at ASNE, iPad’s ‘walled garden,’ and news execs look for revenue

[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]

Schmidt and Huffington’s advice for news execs: This week wasn’t a terribly eventful one in the future-of-journalism world, but a decent amount of the interesting stuff that was said came out of Washington D.C., site of the annual American Society of News Editors conference. The most talked-about session there was Sunday night’s keynote address by Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who told the news execs there that their industry is in trouble because it hasn’t found a way to sustain itself financially, not because its way of producing or delivering news is broken. “We have a business-model problem, we don’t have a news problem,” Schmidt said.

After buttering the crowd up a bit, Schmidt urged them to produce news for an environment that’s driven largely by mobile devices, immediacy, and personalization, and he gave them a glimpse of what those priorities look like at Google. Politico and the Lab’s Megan Garber have summaries of the talk, and paidContent has video.

There were bunches more sessions and panels (American Journalism Review’s Rem Rieder really liked them), but two I want to highlight in particular. One was a panel with New York Times media critic David Carr, new-media titan Ariana Huffington and the Orlando Sentinel’s Mark Russell on the “24/7 news cycle.” The Lab’s report on the session focused on four themes, with one emerging most prominently — the need for context to make sense out of the modern stream of news. St. Petersburg Times media critic Eric Deggans and University of Maryland student Adam Kerlin also zeroed in on the panelists’ call to develop deeper trust and participation among readers.

The second was a presentation by Allbritton’s Steve Buttry that provides a perfect fleshing-out of the mobile-centric vision Schmidt gave in his keynote. Poynter’s Damon Kiesow had a short preview, and Buttry has a longer one that includes a good list of practical suggestions for newsrooms to start a mobile transformation. (He also has slides from his talk, and he posted a comprehensive mobile strategy for news orgs back in November, if you want to dive in deep.)

There was plenty of other food for thought, too: Joel Kramer of the Twin Cities nonprofit news org MinnPost shared his experiences with building community, and one “where do we go from here?” panel seemed to capture news execs’ ambivalence about the future of their industry. Students from local universities also put together a blog on the conference with a Twitter stream and short recaps of just about every session, and it’s worth a look-through. Two panels of particular interest: One on government subsidies for news and another with Kelly McBride of Poynter’s thoughts on the “fifth estate” of citizen journalists, bloggers, nonprofits and others.

Is a closed iPad bad for news?: In the second week after the iPad’s release, much of the commentary centered once again on Apple’s control over the device. In a long, thoughtful post, Media watcher Dan Gillmor focused on Apple’s close relationship with The New York Times, posing a couple of arresting questions for news orgs creating iPad apps: Does Apple have the unilateral right to remove your app for any reason it wants, and why are you OK with that kind of control?

On Thursday he got a perfect example, when the Lab’s Laura McGann reported that Pulitzer-winning cartoonist Mark Fiore’s iPhone app was rejected in December because it “contains content that ridicules public figures.” Several other folks echoed Gillmor’s alarm, with pomo blogger Terry Heaton asserting that the iPad is a move by the status quo to retake what it believes is its rightful place in the culture. O’Reilly Radar’s Jim Stogdill says that if you bought an iPad, you aren’t really getting a computer so much as “a 16GB Walmart store shelf that fits on your lap … and Apple got you to pay for the building.” And blogging/RSS/podcasting pioneer Dave Winer says the iPad doesn’t change much for news because it’s so difficult to create media with.

But in a column for The New York Times, web thinker Steven Johnson adds an important caveat: While he’s long been an advocate of open systems, he notes that the iPhone software platform has been the most innovative in the history in computing, despite being closed. He attributes that to simpler use for its consumers, as well as simpler tasks for developers. While Johnson still has serious misgivings about the Apple’s closed policy from a control standpoint, he concludes that “sometimes, if you get the conditions right, a walled garden can turn into a rain forest.”

In related iPad issues, DigitalBeat’s Subrahmanyam KVJ takes a step back and looks at control issues with Apple, Facebook, Twitter and Google. Florida j-prof Mindy McAdams has a detailed examination of the future of HTML5 and Flash in light of Adobe’s battle with Adobe over the iPad. Oh yeah, and to the surprise of no one, a bunch of companies, including Google, are developing iPad competitors.

News editors’ pessimism: A survey released Monday by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism presented a striking glimpse into the minds of America’s news executives. Perhaps most arresting (and depressing) was the finding that nearly half of the editors surveyed said that without a significant new revenue stream, their news orgs would go under within a decade, and nearly a third gave their org five years or less.

While some editors are looking at putting up paywalls online as that new revenue source, the nation’s news execs aren’t exactly overwhelmed at that prospect: 10 percent are actively working on building paywalls, and 32 percent are considering it. Much higher percentages of execs are working on online advertising, non-news products, local search and niche products as revenue sources.

One form of revenue that most news heads are definitely not crazy about is government subsidy: Three quarters of them, including nearly 90 percent of newspaper editors, had “serious reservations” about that kind of funding (the highest level of concern they could choose). The numbers were lower for tax subsidies, but even then, only 19 percent said they’d be open to it.

The report itself makes for a pretty fascinating read, and The New York Times has a good summary, too. The St. Pete Times’ Eric Deggans wonders how bad things would have to get before execs would be willing to accept government subsidies (pretty bad), and the Knight Digital Media Center’s Amy Gahran highlights the statistics on editors’ thoughts on what went wrong in their industry.

Twitter rolls out paid search: This week was a big one for Twitter: We finally found out some of the key stats about the microblogging service, including how many users it has (105,779,710), and the U.S. Library of Congress announced it’s archiving all of everyone’s tweets, ever.

But the biggest news was Twitter’s announcement that it will implement what it calls Promoted Tweets — its first major step toward its long-anticipated sustainable revenue plan. As The New York Times explains, Promoted Tweets are paid advertisements that will show up first when you search on Twitter and, down the road, as part of your regular stream if they’re contextually relevant. Or, in Search Engine Land’s words, it’s paid search, at least initially.

Search blogger John Battelle has some initial thoughts on the move: He thinks Twitter seems to be going about things the right way, but the key shift is that this “will mark the first time, ever, that users of the service will see a tweet from someone they have not explicitly decided to follow.Alex Wilhelm of The Next Web gives us a helpful roadmap of where Twitter’s heading with all of its developments.

Anonymity and comments: A quick addendum to last month’s discussion about anonymous comments on news sites (which really has been ongoing since then, just very slowly): The New York Times’ Richard Perez-Pena wrote about many news organizations’ debates over whether to allow anonymous comments, and The Guardian’s Nigel Willmott explained why his paper’s site will still include anonymous commenting.

Meanwhile, former Salon-er Scott Rosenberg told media companies that they’d better treat it like a valuable conversation if they want it to be one (that means managing and directing it), rather than wondering what the heck’s the problem with those crazy commenters. And here at The Lab, Joshua Benton found that when the blogging empire Gawker made its comments a tiered system, their quality and quantity improved.

Reading roundup: This week I have three handy resources, three ideas worth pondering, and one final thought.

Three resources: If you’re looking for a zoomed-out perspective on the last year or two in journalism in transition, Daniel Bachhuber’s “canonical” reading list is a fine place to start. PaidContent has a nifty list of local newspapers that charge for news online, and Twitter went public with Twitter Media, a new blog to help media folks use Twitter to its fullest.

Three ideas worth pondering: Scott Lewis of the nonprofit news org Voice of San Diego talks to the Lab about how “explainers” for concepts and big news stories could be part of their business model, analysts Frederic Filloux and Alan Mutter take a close look at online news audiences and advertising, and Journal Register Co. head John Paton details his company’s plan to have one newspaper produce one day’s paper with only free web tools. (Jeff Jarvis, an adviser, shows how it might work and why he’s excited.)

One final thought: British j-prof Paul Bradshaw decries the “zero-sum game” attitude by professional journalists toward user-generated content that views any gain for UGC as a loss for the pros. He concludes with a wonderful piece of advice: “If you think the web is useless, make it useful. … Along the way, you might just find that there are hundreds of thousands of people doing exactly the same thing.”

April 13 2010

17:22

Tough love: Gawker finds making it harder for comments to be seen leads to more (and better) comments

That chart is, for news organizations seeking to tame their commenters, perhaps the best evidence yet that adding a few obstacles for those seeking the leave their mark on a web page can actually lead to more comments. And better ones, too.

That chart (bigger version here) tracks the number of comments left by month on the Gawker Media blog empire, Nick Denton’s collection of themed sites (Gawker, Gizmodo, Deadspin, et al.). It covers September 2005 to the present. See that big dip on the right? That’s when Gawker implemented a new, stricter commenting system, in which trusted commenters get preferred access to readers and the unknown hoi polloi have to audition for an audience. (We wrote about it at the time; in an internal memo, Denton wrote about “taking back the site from some commenters who thought they were in charge” and said “we’ll be able to encourage the kind of discussion that *we* want — not one that is dominated merely by the most prolific of our commenters. It’s our party; we get to decide who comes.”)

In essence, Gawker’s “class system” means unknown commenters get stuck behind a “show all discussions” link few users will click. What most readers will see are only the musings of trusted commenters and the few comments from the riff-raff that either Gawker staff or trusted commenters have decided to promote — the “featured discussions.” (The system also put the most recent comments on top, not on bottom as at most sites. That would seem to reduce the possibility that a dumb early comment would sway the chain of comments that follow it into irrelevance.)

As the chart shows, the shift led to an immediate decline in comment volume. (Interestingly, the biggest drop seems to have been at Jezebel, Gawker’s women-centric site. Attention communications and/or gender studies grad students: There’s a thesis somewhere in there!) But comments quickly rebounded and have since skyrocketed at a much faster slope than before the switch. Some of that is no doubt related to Gawker’s overall increase in traffic, but the scale of the increase is still remarkable.

Gawker Media CTO Tom Plunkett posted the chart on his blog. His interpretation?

Quality *and* growth — it’s possible! We launched tiered commenting mid-year 2009, and introduced a new process to manage comment volume. Note the dramatic drop in volume, and the subsequent rise (double in 9 months). With this increase, Gawker still has the best commenting system/experience out there — and I usually hear the same from people that want to share their opinion…

Though there were some calls to do so, purging commenter accounts is not a solution for the out-of-control commenter community. Nor is a large moderation staff. We believe pruning, and a commenting platform as we have implemented, will lead to increased participation, while at the same time encouraging quality. This data, and the subjective opinion of many, seem to back this assertion.

I’m a regular Gizmodo and Gawker reader (and less regular Lifehacker and Deadspin reader), and I can add to the subjective opinion that average comment quality is higher than before. But “better” isn’t the only scale on which you can measure comments. I think the audition-for-an-audience nature of the new system also makes the comments quippier; Gawker comments can feel like a bunch of wannabe Henny Youngmans spouting one-liners and seeking attention. But that vibe may have more to do with Gawker’s content and tone than the details of its commenting policies.)

In any event, complaining about awful commenters seems to be the first thing any gaggle of journalists does when lamenting the new news reality. The default solution has been to say every commenter should have to use his or her real name — a solution with practical as well as ethical problems. (Although Facebook Connect may be taking away some of the practical concerns.) Still, there’s a whole world of ways a news site can improve the tenor of its comments while keeping itself reasonably open. Gawker Media’s success is one example of how.

March 27 2010

08:08

March 26 2010

14:00

This Week in Review: Anonymous news comments, two big media law cases, and a health coverage critique

[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]

Anonymity, community and commenting: We saw an unusually lively conversation over the weekend on an issue that virtually every news organization has dealt with over the past few years: anonymous comments. It started with the news that Peer News, a new Hawaii-based news organization edited by former Rocky Mountain News chief John Temple, would not allow comments. His rationale was that commenting anonymity fosters a lack of responsibility, which leads to “racism, hate and ugliness.”

That touched off a spirited Twitter debate between two former newspaper guys, Mathew Ingram (Globe and Mail, now with GigaOm) and Howard Owens (GateHouse, now runs The Batavian). Afterward, Ingram wrote a fair summary of the discussion — he was pro-anonymous comments, Owens was opposed — and elaborated on his position.

Essentially, Owens argued that it’s unethical for news sites (particularly community-based ones) to allow anonymous comments because “readers and participants have a fundamental right to know who is posting what.” And Ingram makes two main points in his blog post: That many online communities have anonymous comments and very healthy community, and that it’s virtually impossible to pin down someone’s real identity online, so pretty much all commenting online is anonymous anyway.

Several other folks chimed in with various ideas for news commenting. Steve Buttry, who’s working on a fledgling as-yet-unnamed Washington news site wondered whether news orgs could find ways to create two tiers of commenting — one for ID’d, the other for anonymous. Steve Yelvington, who dipped into Ingram and Owens’ debate, extolled the values of leadership, as opposed to management, in fostering great commenting community. The Cincinnati Enquirer’s Mandy Jenkins offered similar thoughts, saying that anonymity doesn’t matter nearly as much as an active, personable moderator.

J-prof and news futurist Jeff Jarvis and French journalist Bruno Boutot zoom out on the issue a bit, with Jarvis arguing that commenting is an insulting, inferior form of communication for news organizations to offer, and they should instead initiate more interactive, empowering communication earlier in the journalistic process. Boutot builds on that to say that newspapers need to invite readers into the process to build trust and survive, and outlines a limited place for anonymity in that goal. Finally, if you’re interested in going deeper down the rabbit hole of anonymous commenting, Jack Lail has an amazingly comprehensive list of links on the subject.

The iPad and magazines: The iPad will be officially released next Saturday, so expect to see the steady stream of articles and posts about it will or won’t save publishers and journalism to swell over the next couple of weeks. This week, a comScore survey found that 34 percent of their respondents would be likely to read newspapers or magazines if they owned an iPad — not nearly the percentage of people who said they’d browse the internet or check email with it, but actually more than I had expected. PaidContent takes a look at 15 magazines’ plans for adapting to tablets like the iPad, and The Wall Street Journal examines the tacks they’re taking with tablet advertising.

At least two people aren’t impressed with some of those proposals. Blogger and media critic Jason Fry says he expects many publishers to embrace a closed, controlled iPad format, which he argues is wearing thin because it doesn’t mesh well with the web. “With Web content, publishers aren’t going to be able to exercise the control that print gave them and they hope iPad will return to them,” he writes. And British j-prof Paul Bradshaw calls last week’s VIV Mag demo “lovely but pointless.” Meanwhile, Wired’s Steven Levy looks at whether the iPad or Google’s Chrome OS will be instrumental in shaping the future of computing.

Aggregation and media ownership in the courts: In the past week or so, we’ve seen developments in two relatively outside-the-spotlight court cases, both of which were good news for larger, traditional media outlets. First, a New York judge ruled that a web-based financial news site can’t report on the stock recommendations of analysts from major Wall Street firms until after each day’s opening bell. The Citizen Media Law Project’s Sam Bayard has a fantastic analysis of the case, explaining why the ruling is a blow to online news aggregators: It’s an affirmation of the “hot news” principle, which gives the reporting of certain facts similar protections to intellectual property, despite the fact that facts are in the public domain.

Meanwhile, the Lab’s C.W. Anderson analyzed the statements of several news orgs’ counsel at an FTC hearing earlier this month, finding in them a blueprint for how they plan to protect (or control) their content online. Some of those arguments include the hot news doctrine, as well as a concept of aggregation as an opt-in system. Both Anderson’s and Bayard’s pieces are lucid explanations of what’s sure to be a critical area of media law over the next couple of years.

And in another case, a federal appeals judge at least temporarily lifted the FCC’s cross-ownership ban that prevents media companies from owning a newspaper and TV station in the same outlet. Here’s the AP story on the ruling, and just in time, we got a great summary by Molly Kaplan of the New America Foundation of the “what” and “so what” of media concentration based on a Columbia University panel earlier this month.

Health care coverage taken to task: Health care reform, arguably the American news media’s biggest story of the past year, culminated this week with the passage of a reform bill. Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz was among the first to take a crack at a postmortem on the media’s performance on the story, chiding the press in a generally critical column for focusing too much (as usual) on the political and procedural aspects of health care reform, rather than the substance of the proposals. The news media produced enough data and analysis to satisfy policy junkies, Kurtz said, but “in the end, the subject may simply have been too dense for the media to fully digest…For a busy electrician who plugs in and out of the news, the jousting and the jargon may have seemed bewildering.”

Kurtz was sympathetic, though, to what he saw as the reasons for that failure: The story was complicated, long, bewildering, and at times tedious, and the press was driven by the constant need to produce new copy and fill airtime. Those excuses didn’t fly with C.W. Anderson, who contended that Kurtz “is basically admitting the press has no meaningful role in our democracy.” If the press can’t handle meaningful stuff like health care reform, he asked, what good is it? And Rex Hammock used Kurtz’s critique as an example of why we need another form of context-oriented journalism to complement the day-to-day grind of information.

Google pulls an end-around on China: This isn’t particularly journalism-related, so I won’t dwell on it much, but it’s huge news for the global web, so it deserves a quick summary. Google announced this week that it’s stopping its censorship of Chinese search by using its servers in nearby Hong Kong, and two days later, a Google exec also told Congress that the United States needs to take online censorship seriously elsewhere in the world, too.

The New York Times‘ and the Guardian’s interviews with Sergey Brin and James Fallows’ interview with David Drummond give us more insight into the details of the decision and Google’s rationale, and Mathew Ingram has a good backgrounder on Google-China relations. Not surprisingly, not everyone’s wowed by Google’s move: Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan says it’s curiously late for Google to start caring about Chinese censorship. Finally, China- and media-watcher Rebecca MacKinnon explains why the ball is now in China’s court.

Reading roundup: I’ve got a bunch of cool bits and pieces for you this week. We’ll try to run through them quickly.

— Jacob Weisberg, chairman of the Slate Group, gives a brief but illuminating interview with paidContent’s Staci Kramer that’s largely about, well, paid content. Weisberg explains why Slate’s early experiment with a paywall was a disaster, but says media outlets need to charge for mobile news, since that’s a charge not for content, but for a convenient form of delivery.

— Since we’ve highlighted the launch and open-sourcing of Google’s Living Stories, it’s only fair to note an obvious downside: Florida j-prof Mindy McAdams points out that it’s been a month since it was updated. Google has acknowledged that fact with a note, and Joey Baker notes that he guessed last month that Google was open-sourcing the project because the Washington Post and New York Times weren’t using it well.

— Like ships passing in the night: USC j-prof Robert Hernandez argues that for many young or minority communities in cities, their local paper isn’t just dying; it’s long been dead because it’s consciously ignored them. Meanwhile, Gawker’s Ravi Somaiya notes that with the rise of Twitter and Facebook, big-time blogging is becoming more fact-driven, professionally written and definitive — in other words, more like those dead and dying newspapers.

— Colin Schultz has some great tips for current and aspiring science journalists, though several of them are transferable to just about any form of journalism.

— Finally, I haven’t read it yet, but I’m willing to bet that this spring’s issue of Nieman Reports on visual journalism is chock full of great stuff. Photojournalism prof Ken Kobre gives you a few good places to start.

Mask photo by Thirteen of Clubs used under a Creative Commons license.

March 21 2010

07:16

January 30 2010

11:51

December 11 2009

00:00

Is It Legal for an Editor to Unmask an Anonymous Commenter?

On November 13, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's website, StLToday, asked readers to comment on a story titled, "What's the craziest thing you've ever eaten?"

Soon, a commenter posted a reply that included a "vulgar, two-syllable word for a part of a woman's anatomy," according to an online account by Kurt Greenbaum, the paper's director of social media. Editors at the website promptly deleted the comment, only to see the commenter repost the same word just a few minutes later.

What happened next has been the subject of discussion and debate within the world of online journalism.

For his part, Greenbaum summed it up in the title of his blog entry about the incident, "Post a vulgar comment at work, lose your job."

Sick of the commenter's shenanigans, he located the person's IP address, and tracked them to a local school. Greenbaum then called school officials and told them about the comment. The school's IT coordinator was able to pinpoint the post to a specific employee who was confronted by school officials and "resigned on the spot."

Greenbaum, who declined to be interviewed for this story, soon published another blog post explaining his actions. He admitted that he may have overreacted by calling the school, but stated, "I am constantly frustrated by the difficulty of dealing with this kind of language" on the paper's website.

Greenbaum's blog entry was republished on the Post-Dispatch's website and has received over 450 comments. In an angry response, an anonymous person created a website mocking Greenbaum, repeatedly calling him the same "vulgar, two-syllable word for a part of a woman's anatomy" that started everything.

Aside from the ethical debate about this incident, there are two important legal questions to consider.

Can He Do That?

The first question: Is what Greenbaum did legal? Answer: yes, probably.

The paper's privacy policy states that the Post-Dispatch and its employees "will not share individual user information with third parties unless the user has specifically approved the release of that information."

However, the policy also states that a commenter's IP address "does not contain personally identifiable information, nor does it identify you personally." Thus, the Post-Dispatch would argue, Greenbaum's use of the anonymous commenter's IP address is not a violation of the website's privacy policy.

Tom Curley, an attorney with the media law firm Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, said that the legal rules surrounding comments and message boards "can vary widely from site to site." Curley said some websites may provide an absolute promise to not reveal any identifying information, while others may offer only conditional promises.

Additionally, websites are a form of private property, and can be managed as such.

"There are some websites that are open forums, which is perfectly fine," Curley said. "But there is nothing that stops a website, legally, from deciding that there are some things that shouldn't be published."

Ethical Implications

In his blog post, Greenbaum stated that the Post does not routinely "take the steps I took in this case. For particularly bad cases of abusing our guidelines with vulgarity and obscenity, we would not rule it out."

malcolm moran.jpg

Malcolm Moran, a professor of media ethics at Pennsylvania State University, questioned Greenbaum's approach. "The main ethical question I would raise in this case is: When does an editor decide the rules change?"

The Post-Dispatch's terms of service state that the website "encourage[s] a free and open exchange of ideas in a climate of mutual respect." However, Greenbaum's actions could chill that climate of open exchange and mutual respect.

"What happens if a person comments about a controversial issue and has legitimate reason for staying anonymous?" Moran said. "Next time, will an editor identify that person if he or she disagrees with the commenter's views?"

Attacking the Editor with Anonymous Speech

The second legal question is whether Greenbaum can sue the anonymous individual who created a website ridiculing him. The likely answer: no.

The anonymous website created in Greenbaum's name is vulgar, to say the least. But that does not make it defamatory. In order to sustain a lawsuit for defamation, a plaintiff must show that the words in question state or imply false facts. Simply calling an individual a degrading name does not imply a fact at all. Rather, it is a non-actionable figure of speech.

Thomas Dienes.jpg

Thomas Dienes, a professor at George Washington University Law School, said the mocking website may be in bad taste, but is not defamatory. "This case would be thrown out of court so fast that I can't imagine a lawyer would take it," Dienes said.

"Over the years, there have been a number of these types of websites devoted to a particular reporter. It's rare but not unheard of," Curley said. "Normally, the reporter just shrugs and it all blows over."

This incident is a case study in the struggle that news organizations face when it comes to allowing anonymous speech on their websites. On one hand, this speech can be vile, cowardly, vengeful and tasteless. On the other, anonymous speech can be valuable and is also constitutionally protected.

"The tradition of anonymous speech in this country is incredibly important," Curley said. In fact, media organizations themselves have noted the importance of confidential sources and anonymous speech.

Anonymous Speech Being Tested

Two Supreme Court cases, often referred to as Talley and McIntyre, have affirmed the idea that "an author's decision to remain anonymous...is an aspect of the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment."

Although this constitutional right only exists in the context of government regulation, the importance of anonymous speech, even if it is in the form of an anonymous comment on a news outlet's website, still holds its importance.

That does not mean, however, that all anonymous speech on the Internet is free from liability.

Recently, plaintiffs in New Jersey, South Carolina, and California asked judges to subpoena the identifying information of anonymous bloggers and commenters in order to sue them. The frequency of these types of subpoenas has reached a dizzying pace.

Generally speaking, courts have taken two different approaches in determining when to reveal the identity of an anonymous blogger or commenter. First, some courts require that a plaintiff make a "good faith" showing that the he or she has a viable lawsuit before a judge will subpoena any identifying information. These courts offer anonymous speech a particularly low level of protection, believing that everyone should have their day in court.

A second group of courts require that higher standards be met before an anonymous poster is revealed. These courts employ either the Dendrite test or the Cahill tests, as they are commonly known. The Dendrite and Cahill procedures require plaintiffs to show a litany of factors before receiving any identifying information.

The law concerning what you can and cannot anonymously publish on the Internet is undergoing change on almost a daily basis. This back-and-forth has left the legal state of anonymous speech on the Internet as uncertain at best.

Rob Arcamona is a second-year law student at the George Washington University Law School. Prior to attending law school, Rob worked at the Student Press Law Center and also helped establish ComRadio, the Pennsylvania State University's student-run Internet-based radio station. He writes the Protecting the Source blog.

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December 09 2009

19:01

NYTPicker Covers New York Times Like a Wet Blanket

On Sunday, the New York Times published an Editors' Note detailing a conflict of interest:

The "Place" feature about Miami in the T magazine travel issue on Nov. 22 included a reference to the 8 oz. Burger Bar. The writer has had a long personal relationship with a co-owner of the restaurant; had editors known of that connection, the restaurant would not have been included in the article.

One thing the note didn't disclose was that this personal relationship was first identified and publicized by the NYTPicker, an anonymous group blog (and Twitter account) that has been keeping tabs on the New York Times for a little over a year. During its relatively brief existence, the site's hundreds of posts have demonstrated that its authors have a breadth and depth of insight into the paper.

Just last week, the NYTPicker raised some serious and legitimate questions about a new book edited by Gretchen Morgenson, the Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning business columnist.

The NYTPicker has also demonstrated a talent for spotting overused phrases by Times headline writers; it celebrated the work of Times journalist Robin Toner after she died late last year; and it has been diligent about tracking the work -- and titles -- of technology columnist David Pogue.

If you're interested in the Times, you need to read the NYTPicker. Here's how the site describes itself and the people who write for it:

This website devotes itself exclusively to the goings-on inside the New York Times -- the newspaper and the institution itself. Written by a team of journalists who prefer to work in anonymity, The NYTPicker reports daily on the internal workings of the nation's top newspaper, and comments on its content.

The site's authors refused to provide even a few hints as to their identities, but they did, for the first time, agree to answer questions via email. As a result, we now know that six people write for the site, they describe themselves as "reporters," and they aren't impressed with the work of Thomas L. Friedman. On top of that, they're a pretty funny group.

Q&A

Why did you start the site?

We came up with the name "NYTPicker" and realized it didn't really work for our soft-core porn idea.

How many people visit the site per day?

maureen-dowd-chair.jpg

We average about 1,000 to 1,500 hits a day, but have had a few 10,000-hit days. Depends on what we write about, who links to us, and whether we use that sexy photo of Maureen Dowd in a lounge chair.

Do you get a lot of traffic from folks inside the Times?

Um, yes.

Do you consider the site to be a watchdog of the Times? Why or why not?

We're not media critics. We're journalists who love the NYT and hope our stories improve it. We report on aspects of coverage NYT readers might not otherwise know or think about.

One common theme on the site seems to be conflicts of interest. You often point out how the personal and professional relationships of Times reporters and editors appear to play a role in coverage. Do you see this as a big problem at the paper? And do you think it's worse at the Times compared to other media organizations?

We're not writing an institutional history of the NYT -- we're covering it day to day. We point out the problems when we find them. They don't seem to be going away.

You often display a decent amount of insider knowledge. A recent example would be the fact that you knew about Times freelancer Suzy Buckley's old boyfriend. Does this kind of information come from sources inside the Times? Or do your contributors have a handle on this stuff on their own?

We're reporters. We don't talk about our sources.

How has the site changed over the course of its first year of publishing?

We're more selective about posts now than in the beginning. We only publish when we've got a story, or angle, you won't find anywhere else.

Is there one post that you'd highlight as your best work?

We liked the story we did on Brad Stone's page-one trend piece, the one that was filled with quotes from friends and colleagues. We were also proud of our stories about the NYT's deeply-flawed Caroline Kennedy coverage, and our reporting on the Maureen Dowd plagiarism scandal. We still haven't gotten any comment from the NYT about whether the paper investigated Dowd's explanation, which wasn't very plausible.

Our biggest scoop? Probably when we discovered that the anagram for "New York Times" was "Write, Monkeys."

Have you received any official reaction from the Times?

When Catherine Mathis, the NYT's recently-departed spokeswoman, answered our emails, she always wrote, "Dear NYTPicker." That was sweet. We liked her.

What is your biggest issue of concern at the paper right now?

That changes every day. We read the paper every morning with an open mind, looking for stories, angles, ideas, and funny bylines. The NYT used to have funnier bylines. We miss Serge Schmemann. We hope we'll be seeing more stories from David Belcher.

We've also been working very hard on a story about the difference between Kirk Johnson and Dirk Johnson. That should be ready shortly.

Who is the paper's best columnist and why?

Philip Adler on bridge. Last week he ended his column with the line, "The imponderables of bridge keep us thinking and playing." That's freaking genius.

thomas friedman.jpg

Who is its worst and why?

Thomas L. Friedman. Do we really need to explain?

You recently contacted sports editor Tom Jolly and received an official comment from him. Did he have any specific reaction to being contacted by your site? Was he familiar with it?

We asked him a few questions, and he answered. Simple as that.

Where does the Times excel in terms of its journalism, and where does it fall short?

Too many stories about texting and driving. We get it. It's dangerous. We'll stop.

Can you give me a preview of the top candidates for the Worst NYT Story of 2009 award?

It all depends on what happens next in "The Puppy Diaries."

Why do you need to remain anonymous?

Mom thinks we're doing our homework and we don't want to get in trouble.

I noticed that a comment on your one-year anniversary post read, "Congratulations on a year of anonymity and cowardice!" Do you regularly face criticism for this decision?

Once every few weeks, social media editor Jennifer Preston calls us cowards and invites us to lunch. Otherwise, not really.

How many people write for the blog?

Six.

What can you tell me about them? (Where at the Times did they work, did any of you take buyouts, are any of you current employees, etc.?)

We're all very attractive.

How many people are answering these questions?

Four. Two of us have declined to comment.

Craig Silverman is an award-winning journalist and author and an associate editor at MediaShift and Idea Lab. He is the founder and editor of Regret The Error, the author of Regret the Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech, and a weekly columnist for Columbia Journalism Review. Follow him on Twitter at @CraigSilverman.

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December 08 2009

14:44

What’s your problem with the internet? A crib sheet for news exec speeches

When media executives (and the occasional columnist on a deadline) talk about ‘the problem with the web’ they often revert to a series of recurring themes. In doing so they draw on a range of discourses that betray assumptions, institutional positions and ideological leanings. I thought I’d put together a list of some common memes of hatred directed towards the internet at various points by publishers and journalists, along with some critical context.

If you can think of any other common complaints, or responses to the ones below, post them in the comments and I’ll add them in.

Undemocratic and unrepresentative (The ‘Twitterati’)

The presumption here is that the media as a whole is more representative and democratic than users of the web. You know, geeks. The ‘Twitterati’ (a fantastic ideologically-loaded neologism that conjures up images of unelected elites). A variant of this is the position that sees any online-based protest as ‘organised’ and therefore illegitimate.

Of course the media is hardly representative or democratic on any level. In every general election in the UK during the twentieth century, for example, editorial opinion was to the right of electoral opinion (apart from 1997). In 1983, 1987 and 1992 press support exceeded by at least half the Conservative Party’s share of the vote. Similar stats can be found in US election coverage. The reasons are obvious: media owners are not representative or democratic: by definition they are part of a particular social class: wealthy proprietors or shareholders (although there are other factors such as advertiser influence and organisational efficiencies).

Journalists themselves are not representative either in terms of social classgender, or ethnicity – and have become less representative in recent decades.

But neither is the web a level playing field. Sadly, it has inherited most of the same barriers to entry that permeate the media: lack of literacy, lack of access and lack of time prevent a significant proportion of the population from having any voice at all online.

So any treatment of internet-based opinion should be done with caution. But just as not everyone has a voice online, even fewer people have a voice in print and broadcast. To accuse the web of being unrepresentative can be a smokescreen for the lack of representation in the mainstream media. When a journalist uses the unrepresentative nature of the web as a stick, ask how their news selection process presents a solution to that: is there a PR agency for the poor? Do they seek out a response from the elderly on every story?

And there is a key difference: while journalism becomes less representative, web access becomes more so, with governments in a number of countries moving towards providing universal broadband and access to computers through schools and libraries.

‘The death of common culture’

The internet, this argument runs, is preventing us from having a common culture we can all relate to. Because we are no longer restricted to a few terrestrial channels and a few newspapers – which all share similar editorial values – we are fragmented into a million niches and unable to relate to each other.

This is essentially an argument about culture and the public sphere. The literature here is copious, but one of the key planks is ‘Who defines the public sphere? Who decides what is shared culture?’ Commercial considerations and the needs of elite groups play a key role in both. And of course, what happens if you don’t buy into that shared culture? Alternative media has long attempted to reflect and create culture outside of that mainstream consensus.

You might also argue that new forms of common culture are being created – amateur YouTube videos that get millions of hits; BoingBoing posts; Lolcats; Twitter discussions around jokey hashtag memes – or that old forms of common culture are being given new life: how many people are watching The Apprentice or X Factor because of simultaneous chatter on Twitter?

The ‘echo chamber’/death of serendipity (homophily)

When we read the newspapers or watched TV news, this argument runs, we encountered information we wouldn’t otherwise know about. But when we go online, we are restricted to what we seek out – and we seek out views to reinforce our own (homophily or cyberbalkanisation).

Countering this, it is worth pointing out that in print people tended to buy a newspaper that also supported their own views, whereas online people switch from publication to publication with differing political orientations. It’s also worth pointing out that over 80% of people have come across a news article online while searching for something else entirely. Many websites have ‘related/popular articles/posts/videos’ features that introduce some serendipity. And finally, there is the role of social media in introducing stories we otherwise wouldn’t encounter (a good example here is the Iran elections – how many people would have skimmed over that in a publication or broadcast, but clicked through because someone was tweeting #cnnfail)

That’s not to say homophily doesn’t exist – there is evidence to suggest that people do seek out reinforcements for their own views online – but that doesn’t mean the same trend didn’t exist in print and broadcast, and it doesn’t make that true of everyone. I’d argue that the serendipity of print/broadcast depends on an editor’s news agenda and the serendipity of online depends on algorithms and social networks.

‘Google are parasites’

This argues that Google’s profits are based on other people’s content. I’ve tackled the Google argument previously: in short, Google is more like a map than a publication, and its profits are based on selling advertising very effectively against searches, rather than against content (which is the publisher’s model). It’s also worth pointing out that news content only forms around 0.01% of indexed content, and that news-related searches don’t tend to attract much advertising anyway. (If it was, Google would try to monetise Google News).

It’s often worth looking at the discourses underlying much of the Google-parasite meme. Often these revolve around it being ‘not fair’ that Google makes so much money; around ‘the value of our content’ as if that is set by publishers rather than what the market is willing to pay; and around ‘taking our content’ despite the fact that publishers invite Google to do just that through a) deciding not to use the Robots Exclusion Protocol (ACAP appears to be an attempt to dictate terms, although it’s not technically capable of doing so yet) and b) employing SEO practices.

Another useful experiment with these complaints is to look at what result publishers are really aiming for. Painting Google as a parasite can, variously, be used as an argument to relax ownership rules; to change copyright law to exclude fair comment; or to gain public subsidy (for instance, via a tax on Google or other online operators). In a nutshell, this argument is used to try to re-acquire the monopoly over distribution that publishers had in the physical world, and the consequent ability to set the price of advertising.

‘Bloggers are parasites’

A different argument to the one above, this one seeks to play down the role of bloggers by saying they are reliant on content from mainstream media.

Of course, you could equally point out that mainstream media is reliant on content from PR agencies, government departments, and, most of all, each other. The reliance of local broadcasters on local newspaper content is notorious; the lifting of quotes from other publications equally common. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that – journalists often lift quotes for the same reasons as bloggers – to contextualise and analyse. The difference is that bloggers tend to link to the source.

Another point to make here is some blogs’ role as ‘Estate 4.5‘, monitoring the media in the same way that the media is supposed to monitor the powerful. “We can fact-check your ass!

‘You don’t know who you’re dealing with’

On the internet no one knows you're a dog

Identity is a complex thing. While it’s easy to be anonymous online, the assertions that people make online are generally judged by their identities, just as in the real world.

However, an identity is more than just a name – online, more than anything, it is about reputation. And while names can be faked, reputations are built over time. Forum communities, for example, are notorious for having a particularly high threshold when it comes to buying into contributions from anyone who has not been an active part of that community for some time. (It’s also worth noting that there’s a rich history of anonymous/pseudonymous writing in newspapers).

Users of the web rely on a range of cues and signals to verify identity and reputation, just as they do in the physical world. There’s a literacy to this, of course, which not everyone has at the same levels. But you might argue that it is in some ways easier to establish the background of a writer online than it was for their print or broadcast counterparts. On the radio, nobody knows you’re a dog.

Rumour and hearsay ‘magically become gospel’

They say “A lie is halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on.” And it’s fair to say that there is more rumour and hearsay online for the simple reason that there is more content and communication online (and so there’s also more factual and accurate information online too). But of course myths aren’t restricted to one medium – think of the various ‘Winterval’ stories propagated by a range of newspapers that have gained such common currency. Or how about these classics:

Express cover: Migrants take all new jobs

The interactive nature of the web does make it easier for others to debunk hearsay through comments, responses on forums, linkbacks, hashtagged tweets and so on. But interactivity is a quality of use, not of the thing itself, so it depends on the critical and interactive nature of those browsing and publishing the content. Publishers who don’t read their comments, take note.

‘Unregulated’ lack of accountability

Accountability is a curious one. Often those making this assertion are used to particular, formal, forms of accountability: the Press Complaints Commission; Ofcom; the market; your boss. Online the forms of accountability are less formal, but can be quite savage. A ream of critical comments makes you accountable very quickly. Look at what happened to Robert Scoble when he posted something inaccurate; or to Jan Moir when she wrote something people felt was in bad taste. That accountability didn’t exist in the formal structures of mainstream media.

Related to this is the idea that the internet is ‘unregulated’. Of course it is regulated – you have (ironically, relatively unaccountable) organisations like the Internet Watch Foundation, and the law applies just as much online and in the physical world. Indeed, there is a particular problem with one country’s laws being used to pursue people abroad – see, for example, how Russian businessmen have sued American publishers in London for articles which were accessed a few times online. On the other hand, people can escape the attentions of lawyers by mirroring content in other jurisdictions, by simply being too small a target to be worth a lawyer’s time, or by being so many that it is impractical to pursue. These characteristics of the web can be used in the defence of freedoms (see Trafigura) as much as for attacks (hate literature).

Triviality

Trivial is defined as “of very little importance or value”. This is of course a subjective value judgement depending on what you feel is important or valuable. The objection to the perceived triviality of online content – particularly those of social networks and blogs – is another way to deprecate an upstart rival based on a normative ideal of the importance of journalism. And while there is plenty of ‘important’ information in the media, there is also plenty of ‘trivial’ material too, from the 3am girls to gift ideas and travel supplements.

The web has a similar mix. To focus on the trivial is to intentionally overlook the incredibly important. And it is also to ignore the importance of so much apparently ‘trivial’ information – what my friends are doing right now may be trivial to a journalist, but it’s useful ‘news’ or content to me. And in a conversational medium, the exchange of that information is important social glue.

To take journalists’ own news values: people within your social circle are ‘powerful’ within that circle, and therefore newsworthy, to those people, regardless of their power in the wider world.

‘Cult of the amateur’ undermining professionals

This argument has, for me, strange echoes of the arguments against universal suffrage at various points in history. Replace ‘bloggers’ with ‘women’ or ‘the masses’ and ‘professionals’ with ‘men’ or ‘the aristocracy’ in these arguments and you have some idea of the ideology underlying them. It’s the notion that only a select portion of the population are entitled to a voice in the exercise of power.

The discourse of ‘amateur’ is particularly curious. The implication is that amateur means poor quality, whereas it simply means not paid. The Olympics is built on amateurism, but you’d hardly question the quality of Olympic achievement throughout time. In the 19th century much scientific discovery was done by amateur scientists.

Professional, on the other hand, is equated with ‘good’. But professionalism has its own weaknesses: the pressures of deadlines, pressures of standardisation and efficiency, commercialism and market pressures, organisational culture.

That’s not to say that professionalism is bad, either, but that both amateurism and professionalism have different characteristics which can be positive or negative in different situations.

There’s an economic variant to this argument which suggests that people volunteering their efforts for nothing undermines the economic value of those who do the same as part of a paid job. This is superficially true, but some of the reasons for paying people to do work are because you can expect it to be finished within a particular timeframe to a particular quality – you cannot guarantee those with amateur labour (also, amateurs choose what they want to work on), so the threat is not so large as it is painted. The second point is that jobs may have to adapt to this supply of volunteer information. So instead of or as well as creating content the role is to verify it, contextualise it, link it, analyse it, filter it, or manage it. After all, we don’t complain about the ‘cult of the volunteer’ undermining charity work, do we?

Thanks to Nick Booth, Jon Bounds, Will Perrin, Alison Gow, Michele Mclellan, King Kaufman, Julie Posetti, Mark Pack, James Ball, Shane Richmond, Clare White, Sarah Hartley, Mary Hamilton, Matt Machell and Mark Coughlan for contributing ideas via Twitter under the #webhate tag.

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