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July 18 2011

13:00

Pew: Nonprofit journalism doesn’t mean ideology-free

Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism is out with a new study this morning that looks at the new universe of nonprofit journalism — and tries to get beyond the ProPublicas of the world to see who else is producing journalism under the legal structure of a 501(c)3 exemption. After all, remember, “nonprofit” signals a tax status, not a belief system or a commitment to any particular ideals, journalistic or otherwise.

The study found more than a little ideology lurking under that IRS umbrella. Of the 46 sites examined — 39 nonprofit and 7 commercial as a control — around half “produced news coverage that was clearly ideological in nature,” the researchers report.

Pew had the expected nice things to say about the usual nonprofit rock stars, like ProPublica, the Texas Tribune, MinnPost, and California Watch. They’re transparent about their funding sources, which are numerous; their doesn’t skew too far in one political direction; they produce a lot of journalism, compared to their nonprofit peers. But the major national networks of state politics sites — the conservative Watchdog.org sites and the liberal American Independent News Network — don’t reveal much about who’s paying their bills, and their work skews clearly in one direction, both in the topics they cover and the content of individual stories.

(Because it attempted to cover an entire universe of nonprofit outlets, researchers had to limit their targets to a reasonable number. As a result, older news orgs like the Center for Public Integrity and metro-scale outlets like Voice of San Diego were both excluded.)

PEJ does a great job, with this and other studies, of moving past barroom debates and gathering real-world data on the new worlds of journalism. And while this research doesn’t draw explicit moral conclusions, it won’t be hard for others to: These nonprofits aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. They’re not objective; they’re hidden tools of politicos; they’re no replacement for newspapers. Beyond the flagships like ProPublica and Texas Tribune, it’s a mucky world.

And there’s some truth in that! But two points: First, few of even the most ambitious nonprofit outlets consider themselves true replacements for newspapers. The scale just isn’t there; as Pew’s study notes, the median editorial-staff size at the nonprofits they studied was three. (Although those three people are usually more topic-focused than their print peers — a nonprofit site covering a statehouse might be the biggest player in town with three reporters.) Replacement is a straw man; the vast majority of nonprofits, ideological or not, view themselves more as supplements.

Second, a little ideology isn’t such a bad thing. Take the right-of-center Watchdog.org sites, which we wrote about last year. They say their mission is to “promote social welfare and civil betterment by undertaking programs that promote journalism and the education of the public about corruption, incompetence, fraud, or taxpayer abuse by elected officials at all levels of government.” They investigate Democrats a lot more than Republicans, and they’re no great fans of what they see as wasteful big government.

The left-of-center American Independent News Network sites works the other side, saying its reporting “emphasizes the positive role of democratically elected government in securing the common good and social welfare, and the continuing benefits of our founding culture of egalitarian government by the people, for the people.” They take on the GOP more than Democrats, and they write a lot about the environment and labor issues.

Viewed as replacements, they fall short of what we’d expect from a good newspaper. But as supplements, I’m happy that both exist — that in a state with both a Watchdog site and an Independent site, both sides of the aisle will be poked and prodded, and that stories will surface that otherwise wouldn’t. I’d draw a distinction between ideological outlets as drivers of political culture — Fox News being a prime example — and as drivers of new information. The biggest risk posed by the loss of reporting manpower in places like our nation’s statehouses is that real stories will go unreported. Adding ideological outlets to the mix reduces that chance; at least someone will be paying attention to environmental issues or fraud at the DMV. And, unlike with Fox News, the readers of many of these sites tend to be high-information consumers of political news; a statehouse-news-only site isn’t ever going to reach the broader general audience of a newspaper or TV station.

Anyway, that’s just one take on what is a data-rich analysis, a snapshot of an important group of new players in the news world. Go read the full paper.

March 25 2011

14:00

This Week in Review: The New York Times’ fees and free-riders, and tying community to local data

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

Debating the Times’ pricing structure: There was really only one big news story in the media world this week: The New York Times’ paid-content plan, which is live in Canada now and coming to everyone else on Monday. I divided the issue into two sections — the first on general commentary on the plan, and the second specifically about efforts to get around the paywall.

We learned a bit more about the Times’ thinking behind the plan, with a story in the Times about the road from its last paid-content system, TimesSelect, to this one, and an All Things Digital interview with Times digital chief Martin Nisenholtz, in which he said, among other things, that the Times didn’t consider print prices when setting their online price levels. Former Times designer Khoi Vinh also looked at the last couple of years, lamenting the lost opportunity for innovation and the legacy of TimesSelect.

There were a couple pieces written supporting the Times’ proposal: Former CBS digital head Larry Kramer said he’d be more likely to pay for the Times than for the tablet publication The Daily, even though it’s far more expensive. The reason? The Times’ content has consistently proven to be valuable over the years. (Tech blogger John Gruber also said the Times’ content is much more valuable than The Daily’s, but wondered if it was really worth more than five times more money.) Nate Silver of Times blog FiveThirtyEight used some data to argue for the Times’ value.

The Times’ own David Carr offered the most full-throated defense of the pay plan, arguing that most of the objection to it is based on the “theology” of open networks and the free flow of information, rather than the practical concerns involved with running a news organization. Reuters’ Felix Salmon countered that the Times has its own theology — that news orgs should charge for content because they can, and that it will ensure their success. Later, though, Salmon ran a few numbers and posited that the paywall could be a success if everything breaks right.

There were more objections voiced, too: Both Mathew Ingram of GigaOM and former newspaper journalist Janet Coats both called it backward-looking, with Ingram saying it “seems fundamentally reactionary, and displays a disappointing lack of imagination.” TechDirt’s Mike Masnick ripped the idea that people might have felt guilty about getting the Times for free online.

One of the biggest complaints revolved around the Times’ pricing system itself, which French media analyst Frederic Filloux described as “expensive, utterly complicated, disconnected from the reality and designed to be bypassed.” Others, including Ken Doctor, venture capitalist Jean-Louis Gassee, and John Gruber, made similar points about the proposal’s complexity, and Michael DeGusta said the prices are just too high. Poynter’s Damon Kiesow disagreed about the plan structure, arguing that it’s well-designed as an attack on Apple’s mobile paid-content dominance.

Are paywall loopholes a bug or feature?: Of course, any barrier online is also a giant, flashing invitation to get around said barrier, and someplace as influential as the Times was not going to be an exception. Several ways to bypass the Times’ pay system popped up in the last week: There was @FreeNYT, the Twitter account that will aggregate Times content shared on Twitter, and NYTClean, a browser bookmarklet that strips the Times’ paywall coding, allowing you to read the Times just like normal. The Lab’s Josh Benton noted how easy the hack was to come up with (four lines of code!) and speculated that the Times might actually want nerds to game their system, “because they (a) are unlikely to pay, (b) generate ad revenue, and (c) are more likely to share your content than most.”

So how has the Times responded to all this? A bit schizophrenically. Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. said the people who would find ways around the system would be “mostly high-school kids and people who are out of work.” And the Times asked Twitter to shut down the aggregating Twitter accounts (for a trademark violation) and extended its limit on daily search-engine referrals beyond Google. But the Times is also widening some pathways of its own, making it so you can’t hit the wall directly from a blog link, and offering 200,000 regular readers free online access for the rest of the year through an advertiser.

Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan mocked the Times’ behavior toward wall-jumpers as an effort to have its paid-content cake and eat it too: “This wall is designed, as best I can tell, only to be a barrier to your most loyal — and most stupid — readers.” Slate’s Jack Shafer made a similar argument to Benton’s, pointing out that online free-riders aren’t keeping paying customers from reading the Times (like, say, someone who steals a paper edition, as Sulzberger analogized) and are actually help the paper continue its influence and reach.

Adding community to local data: EveryBlock, a three-year-old site owned by MSNBC.com that specializes in hyperlocal news data, unveiled its first major redesign this week, which includes a shift in focus toward community and location-based conversation, rather than just data. All place pages now allow users to post messages to those nearby, using what founder Adrian Holovaty called the “geo graph,” rather than the “social graph.” Mashable added a few valuable details (notably, the site will bring in revenue from location-based Groupon displays and Google ads).

Holovaty answered a lot of questions about the redesign in a Poynter chat, saying that the site’s mission has changed from making people informed about their area as an end in itself to facilitating communication between neighbors in order to improve their communities. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram applauded the shift in thinking, arguing that the main value in local news sites is in the people they connect, not in the data they collect. At 10,000 Words, Jessica Roy noted that the change was a signal that hyperlocal sites should focus not just on the online realm, but on fostering offline connections as well.

NPR on the defense: Two weeks on, the hidden-camera attack on NPR continues to keep it in the middle of the news conversation. Following last week’s vote by the House to cut off NPR’s limited federal funding, several media folks made cases to keep NPR’s federal funding alive, including the Washington Post’s Len Downie and Robert Kaiser and Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark. NPR host Steve Inskeep argued that NPR’s most important work has nothing to do with any liberal/conservative bias. “Think again of my colleagues in Libya, going forward to bear witness amid exploding shells. Is that liberal or conservative?” he asked.

Elsewhere, James O’Keefe, the producer of the gotcha video, and Bob Garfield of NPR’s On The Media had it out on the air, and DailyFinance gave a picture of NPR’s financial situation. Howard Kurtz of Newsweek and The Daily Beast wrote that some NPR journalists think that NPR management’s passive, reactionary defense of their organization is damaging it almost as much as the attacks themselves.

Reading roundup: Not too busy of a week in the media world outside of Timesmania. A few things to take note of:

— A quick news item: Journalism Online, Steve Brill’s initiative to help media companies charge for their content online, is being snatched up by the Fortune 500 printer RR Donnelley, reportedly for at least $35 million. PaidContent broke the story, and Ken Doctor wrote about the unexpected difficulties the startup encountered.

— At the New York Review of Books, Steve Coll wrote a thoughtful piece on the competing claims regarding technology’s role in social change.

— For the stat nerds: The Lab’s Josh Benton looked at the latest of the continual stream of depressing graphs flowing from the newspaper industry, and Peter Kafka of All Things Digital analyzed the source of traffic for some major sites across the web, comparing the influence of Facebook and Google.

— For the academic nerds: Here at the Lab, USC Ph.D. candidate Nikki Usher talked to media sociology rock star Herbert Gans about targeted and multiperspectival news, and Michigan Ph.D. candidates William Youmans and Katie Brown shared a fascinating study about Al Jazeera and bias perception.

March 24 2011

16:00

The power of brand to inspire bias: How do perceptions of Al Jazeera English change once the logo’s gone?

William Youmans and Katie Brown are Ph.D. candidates in communication studies at the University of Michigan who just published an interesting paper in the journal Arab Media & Society about how audience bias against Al Jazeera is pushing the network to seek nontraditional methods of distribution. You can read the entire academic paper, but they’ve written a summary for the Lab below.

The diminished capacity of American TV news networks to cover international news became sharply evident during the recent uprisings in the Middle East, most notably Egypt. Into that void stepped Al Jazeera English (AJE). With headquarters in Qatar and staff already stationed in Egypt, the global news media outlet quickly mobilized an on-the-ground newsgathering presence.

But most Americans couldn’t just turn on their televisions to watch AJE’s coverage. The network is largely absent from cable and the main satellite providers’ offerings despite being available in 250 million homes globally. As Ph.D candidates in communication studies at the University of Michigan, we were interested in the role that Americans’ perception of the channel might have in its difficulties getting cable carriage — and how online distribution might serve as a fruitful workaround. That led us to an experimental study that looked at how Al Jazeera branding might influence public perception of a piece of journalism.

The Egypt effect

For years, some in the Bush administration and the American media spoke of the Arabic Al Jazeera channel (AJ) as a spreader for enemy propaganda in Afghanistan and Iraq. This association proved robust in American political discourse. It was one reason AJE had such a tough time getting into the American market when it launched in late 2006. Even today, only cable systems in Washington, D.C., Burlington, Vermont, and Toledo, Ohio currently carry the channel in its entirety.

AJE’s coverage of Egypt was something of a turning point for the network’s image in the United States. Visits to AJE’s website increased 25 times, with more than half of the traffic coming from the U.S. The D.C. area was one of the leaders in Google searches for “Al Jazeera English” at the time. The press not only turned to AJE for information and footage, but lauded its work; ABC News’ Sam Donaldson thanked the network on air. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called AJE “real news” and juxtaposed it with the talking head-dominated American channels.

As public discourse about AJE changed, many began to question its lack of availability on television sets. Then-New York Times columnist Frank Rich made a tongue-in-cheek analogy: during the Egypt story, “news-starved Americans” tracking down AJE online were like “Iron Curtain citizens clandestinely trying to pull in the jammed Voice of America signal in the 1950s.”

But despite the accolades and calls for carriage, cable companies appeared to let AJE’s “moment” pass, at least for now. In late February, AJE met with the nation’s two largest cable operators, Comcast and Time-Warner. No deal has been announced in the month since (although carriage deals often take longer to materialize).

It is likely the operators are holding out for evidence that attention on AJE sustains or increases. The question of cable carriage is not just a function of policymakers, the press, and cable company preferences. Public demand is an important part of the equation. Are Americans generally open-minded towards AJE after the Egypt coverage?

We conducted an experimental study (pdf) on how potential viewer attitudes toward AJE change with exposure to the channel’s news content. Carried out online in late February to early March, our study involved 177 American participants, drawn from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk pool.

The participants were randomly assigned to three groups. Two of them watched an AJE-produced news clip about the Taliban’s position towards peace talks, which included minimal reference to America. The first group watched the original clip with AJE’s branding:

The second group saw the same news piece re-edited to carry CNN International’s (CNNI) logo.

The third group, the control, viewed no clip. We then asked participants in each group to rate, in general, how biased they thought AJE and CNNI were.

Watching the AJE clip — branded as AJE — did not seem to have an impact on perceptions of bias; bias ratings were equal between those in the AJE-clip-watching group and the control group.

But in the group that had just watched the clip with fake CNNI branding, participants rated CNNI as less biased than those in the control group.

This suggests that many Americans may be unwilling to change their perceptions of AJE — despite the fact that the same clip, when attributed to CNNI, boosted their impressions of the American network.

We also asked all the participants about views towards cable carriage: Should AJE be on cable systems? The responses were distributed in a bell-curve, with no significant differences between conditions. The largest group, about 40 percent, was indifferent. Roughly 25 percent said they prefer carriage but would not take action to promote it. Slightly fewer, about 20 percent, said they would merely prefer it’s not on air, but would do nothing about it either way. While 5 percent said they would contact cable companies to request AJE, 7 percent said they would actively oppose AJE’s carriage. (No one said they would take action opposing CNNI’s availability.)

This finding of an oppositional minority is echoed by actual action, ranging from national petitions to protests against a Pacifica radio station in Houston and a campaign against a small college cable system’s airing of AJE programming in Daytona Beach. In Vermont, some members of the public and Burlington city officials protested the presence of AJE on the municipally-run telecom, sparking a local debate. AJE remained a part of the lineup. Former NBC executive Jeff Zucker suggested that one cause of AJE’s cable troubles is the fear advocacy groups and high-profile media figures “would go after some of those distributors if they were to put Al-Jazeera on.”

But even absent public opposition, there would still be doubts about the commercial feasibility of another news network. Cable companies can point to declining news audiences and the supposed lack of American public interest in international news, arguing that the TV news market has reached a saturation point. These, along with the fear of backlash, only creates further reluctance in an already risk averse industry. The preferences of those in favor of AJE’s availability, around one-third of our respondents, are overridden by this outcome. The power of cable as a gatekeeper prevents AJE from participating in the open competition of ideas so important to American free press values.

Circumventing cable

AJE’s best chance for getting around cable gatekeepers is by continuing to develop new, mostly online, distribution channels. Survey research from Pew suggests that while TV news viewing since 1996 has been relatively stable, online news consumption since 2006 has been on the rise.

The lack of cable carriage may force AJE to look ahead of the curve if it is to build an American audience. AJE’s online news gathering, presentation, and distribution are still developing, but have shown major improvements in the past year especially.

AJE’s provision of video clips and online livestreaming via its website and YouTube, where it is currently the third most watched news and politics channel, enhanced its accessibility tremendously. Google, to the extent it is increasingly becoming a media company, has been hospitable to AJE.

AJE has arranged a deal for carriage through Roku, the Internet-based set-top video delivery company — although how much of a substitute such Internet-based TV systems will be for cable is still an open question. And AJE continued to roll out smartphone distribution by adding an Android app to its iPhone, Nokia, and Samsung lineup.

During the Egypt story, the network’s website coverage and online videos were heavily redistributed via social media such as Twitter and Facebook and led many to AJE’s website. At times, as many as 70 percent of its website visitors linked in from social networking platforms and sites.

News flows online are diffuse and remain relatively free of large gatekeepers. Small vocal groups are less able to deny access to news and information they oppose through protests and threats of boycott. Questions of middle-man profitability and channel capacity constraints do not constrain online distribution. One unintentional advantage of its exclusion from cable and American satellite is that AJE will be better placed as news consumption routines increasingly depend on the Internet — assuming new, powerful gatekeepers do not arise to block others’ access to information.

November 12 2010

16:00

This Week in Review: An objectivity object lesson, a paywall is panned, and finding the blogger’s voice

[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]

Olbermann and objectivity: Another week, another journalist or pundit disciplined for violating a news organization’s codes against appearances of bias: This week (actually, late last week) it was Keith Olbermann, liberal anchor and commentator for the cable news channel MSNBC, suspended for donating money to Democratic congressional candidates, in violation of NBC News policy. Olbermann issued an apology (though, as Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici noted, it was laced with animus toward MSNBC), and returned to the air Tuesday. There were several pertinent peripheral bits to this story — Olbermann was reportedly suspended for his refusal to apologize on air, it’s unclear whether NBC News’ rules have actually applied to MSNBC, numerous other journalists have done just what Olbermann did — but that’s the gist of it.

By now, we’ve all figured out what happens next: Scores of commentators weighed in on the appropriateness (or lack thereof) of Olbermann’s suspension and NBC’s ban on political contributions. The primary arguments boiled down to the ones expressed by Poynter’s Bob Steele and NYU’s Jay Rosen in this Los Angeles Times piece: On one side, donating to candidates means journalists are acting as political activists, which corrodes their role as fair, independent reporters in the public interest. On the other, being transparent is a better way for journalists to establish trust with audiences than putting on a mask of objectivity.

Generally falling in the first camp are fellow MSNBC host Rachel Maddow (“We’re a news operation. The rules around here are part of how you know that.”), Northeastern j-prof Dan Kennedy (though he tempered his criticism of Olbermann in a second post), and The New York Times’ David Carr (“Why merely annotate events when you can tilt the playing field?”). The Columbia Journalism Review was somewhere in the middle, saying Olbermann shouldn’t be above the rules, but wondering if those rules need to change.

There were plenty of voices in the second camp, including the American Journalism Review’s Rem RiederMichael Kinsley at Politico, and Lehigh j-prof Jeremy Littau all arguing for transparency.

Slate media critic Jack Shafer used the flap to urge MSNBC to let Olbermann and Maddow fly free as well-reported, openly partisan shows in the vein of respected liberal and conservative political journals. Jay Rosen took the opportunity to explain his phrase “the view from nowhere,” which tweaks traditional journalism’s efforts to “advertise the viewlessness of the news producer” as a means of gaining trust. He advocates transparency instead, and Terry Heaton provided statistics showing that the majority of young adults don’t mind journalists’ bias, as long as they’re upfront about it.

On The Media’s Brooke Gladstone summed up the issue well: “Ultimately, it’s the reporting that matters, reporting that is undistorted by attempts to appear objective, reporting that calls a lie a lie right after the lie, not in a box labeled “analysis,” reporting that doesn’t distort truth by treating unequal arguments equally.”

Commodify your paywall: We talked quite a bit last week about the new numbers on the paywall at Rupert Murdoch’s Times of London, and new items in that discussion kept popping up this week. The Times released a few more details (flattering ones, naturally) about its post-paywall web audience. Among the most interesting figures is that the percentage of U.K.-based visitors to The Times’ site has more than doubled since February, rising to 75 percent. Post-paywall visitors are also visiting the website more frequently and are wealthier, according to News Corp.

Of course, the overall number of visitors is still way down, and the plan continued to draw heat. In a wide-ranging interview on Australian radio, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger expressed surprise at the fact that The Times’ print circulation dropped as their print-protectionist paywall went up. That, he said, “suggests to me that we overlook the degree to which the digital forms of our journalism act as a kind of sort of marketing device for the newspapers.” ResourceWebs’ Evan Britton gave five reasons why news paywalls won’t work, and Kachingle founder Cynthia Typaldos argued that future news paywalls will be tapping into a limited pool of people willing to pay for news on the web, squeezing each other out of the same small market.

Clay Shirky used The Times’ paywall as a basis for some smart thoughts about why newspaper paywalls don’t work in general. The Times’ paywall represents old thinking, Shirky wrote (and the standard argument against it has been around just as long), but The Times’ paywall feels differently because it’s being taken as a “referendum on the future.” Shirky said The Times is turning itself into a newsletter, without making any fundamental modifications to its product or the basic economics of the web. “Paywalls do indeed help newspapers escape commodification, but only by ejecting the readers who think of the product as a commodity. This is, invariably, most of them,” he wrote.

A conversation about blogging, voice, and ego: A singularly insightful conversation about blogging was sparked this week by Marc Ambinder, who wrote a thoughtful goodbye post at his long-running blog at The Atlantic. In it, Ambinder parsed out differences between good print journalism (ego-free, reliant on the unadorned facts for authority) and blogging (ego-intensive, requires the writer to inject himself into the narrative). With the switch from blogging to traditional reporting, Ambinder said, ”I will no longer be compelled to turn every piece of prose into a personal, conclusive argument, to try and fit it into a coherent framework that belongs to a web-based personality called ‘Marc Ambinder’ that people read because it’s ‘Marc Ambinder,’ rather than because it’s good or interesting.”

The folks at the fantastically written blog Snarkmarket used the post as a launching point for their own thoughts about the nature of blogging. Matt Thompson countered that Ambinder was reducing an incredibly diverse form into a single set of characteristics, taking particular exception to Ambinder’s ego dichotomy. Tim Carmody mused on blogging, voice, and authorship; and Robin Sloan defended Ambinder’s decision to leave the “Thunderdome of criticism” that is political blogging. If you care at all about blogging or writing for the web in general, make sure to give all four posts a thorough read.

TBD’s (possible) content/aggregation conflict: The new Washington-based local news site TBD has been very closely watched since it was launched in August, and it hit its first big bump in the road late last week, as founding general manager Jim Brady resigned in quite a surprising move. In a memo to TBD employees, TBD owner Robert Allbritton (who also launched Politico) said Brady left because of “stylistic differences” with Allbritton. Despite the falling-out, Brady, a washingtonpost.com veteran, spoke highly of where TBD is headed in an email to staff and a few tweets.

But the immediate questions centered on the nature of those differences between Allbritton and Brady. FishbowlDC reported and Business Insider’s Henry Blodget inferred from Allbritton’s memo that the conflict came down to an original-content-centric model (Allbritton) and a more aggregation-based model (Brady). Brady declared his affirmation of both pieces — he told Poynter’s Steve Myers he’s pro-original content and the conflict wasn’t old media/new media, but didn’t go into many more details — but that didn’t keep Blodget from taking the aggregation side: The web, he said, “has turned aggregation into a form of content–and a very valuable one at that.” Lost Remote’s Cory Bergman, meanwhile, noted that while creating content is expensive, Allbritton’s made the necessary investments and made it profitable before with Politico.

A new iPad app and competitor: There were two substantive pieces of tablet-related news this week: First, The Washington Post released its iPad app, accompanying its launch with a fun ad most everyone seemed to enjoy. Poynter’s Damon Kiesow wrote a quick summary of the app, which got a decent review from The Post’s Rob Pegoraro. For you design geeks, Sarah Sampsel wrote two good posts about the app design process.

The other tablet tidbit was the release of Samsung’s Galaxy Tab, which runs on Google’s Android system. Kiesow rounded up a few of the initial reviews from All Things Digital (a real iPad competitor, though the iPad is better), The New York Times (beautiful with some frustrations), Wired (more convenient than the iPad, but has stability problems) and Gizmodo (“a grab bag of neglect, good intentions and poor execution”). Kiesow also added a few initial impressions of the Galaxy’s implications for publishers, predicting that as it takes off, it will put pressure on publishers to move to HTML5 mobile websites, rather than developing native apps.

In other tablet news, MediaWeek looked at the excitement the iPad is generating within the media industry, but ESPN exec John Skipper isn’t buying the hype, telling MarketWatch’s Jon Friedman, ”Whenever a new platform comes up, people want to take the old platform and transport it to the new platform.” It didn’t work on the Internet, Skipper said, it won’t work on the iPad either.

Reading roundup: More thoughtful stuff about news and the web was written this week than most normal people have time to get to. Here’s a sample:

— First, two pieces of news: First, word broke last night that Newsweek and The Daily Beast will be undergoing a 50-50 merger, with the Beast’s Tina Brown taking over editorship of the new news org. The initial news accounts started to roll out late last night and into this morning at The New York Times, Washington Post, and NPR, who posted an interview with Brown. Obviously, this is a big, big story, and I’m sure I’ll have much more commentary on it next week.

— Second, U.S. News & World Report announced last week that it’s dropping its regular print edition and going essentially online-only, only printing single-topic special issues for newsstand sales. The best analysis on the move was at Advertising Age.

— Two great pieces on journalism’s collaborative future: Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger in essay form, and UBC j-prof Alfred Hermida in audio and slide form.

— Poynter published an essay by NYU professor Clay Shirky on “the shock of inclusion” in journalism and the obsolescence of the term “consumer.” Techdirt’s Mike Masnick added a few quick thoughts of his own.

— Two cool posts on data journalism — an overview on its rise by The Columbia Journalism Review’s Janet Paskin, and a list of great tools by Michelle Minkoff.

— Finally, two long thinkpieces on Facebook that, quite honestly, I haven’t gotten to read yet — one by Zadie Smith at The New York Review of Books, and the other by The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal. I’m going to spend some time with them this weekend, and I have a feeling you probably should, too.

Olbermann photo by Kirsten used under a Creative Commons license.

July 01 2010

14:15

When a journalism gig is paid for by outsiders

In the sea of good pieces last week about the Dave Weigel imbroglio, his own explanation of events stood out. And there was one paragraph that particularly interested me:

In 2004, when I was graduating [from Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism], I was offered two jobs — an editing role at the libertarian magazine Liberty and a fellowship at USA Today, sponsored by the conservative Collegiate Network. I chose the USA Today job, but kept freelancing, mostly for magazines like The American Spectator and Reason.

I was familiar with the Collegiate Network from my own college days; it funded a conservative publication on campus, and that’s what I thought the extent of their work was. But I didn’t realize that it also pays for journalists to work at mainstream news organizations. So I contacted USA Today and got this reply from spokesperson Elga Maye:

We’ve had Collegiate Network interns — including Weigel — working with the paper’s editorial board for several years. They participate in board discussions, their primary daily duty is fact-checking, and their work (like that of all interns) is closely supervised. Toward the end of their internships, some have written editorials reflecting the board’s consensus or, less frequently, bylined op-ed pieces reflecting their own point of view. Their value to us — apart from their labor — is to add another voice, young and conservative, to the diversity of perspectives we already have on an ideologically mixed editorial board.

In that context, the fact that they have a strong point of view — their own, not the Collegiate Network’s — is an asset. We’d gladly take a qualified intern from a liberal organization on the same terms if we were aware of such a program.

The Collegiate Network describes these jobs as year-long fellowships, with stipends of $24,000 to $30,000 paid by CN, and along with USA Today lists Roll Call among outlets where it’s placed journalists. Their Wikipedia page also lists a wide variety of conservative publications and outlets, but also US News & World Report. The application form also lists the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the News & Observer, the San Diego Union-Tribune, and my old paper The Dallas Morning News — although that form doesn’t differentiate between summer internships and the year-long fellowships. And based on this post, fellows aren’t just on the editorial board — they’re also writing news stories.

We normally don’t write about issues of media bias here — we leave that to the 10 million other people out there who write about media bias — so I didn’t pursue this any further. Go make your own calls! But given what some journalists have argued recently about the proper role of ideology and opinion in a newsroom — which is to say, no role — it’s an interesting data point that a political group is paying the salaries behind some of the bylines you see.

June 09 2010

14:21

SB Nation CEO on how we’re fans of teams, not sports, T.V. shows, not T.V., and what that means for news

SB Nation — short for Sports Blog Nation — just announced it’s launching 20 new regional sports sites, with Houston and Dallas launching tomorrow aimed at competing with local newspapers’ sports sections and the new wave of local sports competitors like the ESPN local sites. SB Nation is a network of over 250 sites, most of them written by fans now paid on a contract basis. The vast majority of those writers have day jobs outside blogging. (Most common: lawyer.) Individual member blogs focus on one team or one sport, while the flagship site covers news of national interest.

SB Nation CEO Jim Bankoff is a former AOL executive with big plans for the site; at AOL, he was involved in the growth of prominent sites like TMZ and Engadget. I spoke with Bankoff this week about SB Nation’s expansion in the context of what news organizations can learn from the success of his project. “I actually think there is a bigger media story here,” Bankoff told me; he sees an opportunity for media companies to borrow some of SB Nation’s ideas. Here are a few.

Voice and perspective

SB Nation tosses aside the idea of objectivity. The premise of the site is to get sports fans hooked on their blogs written by sports fans. “We actually embrace fan bias and fan perspective,” Bankoff told me, adding that doesn’t mean they’re always cheerleaders: “Fans can be the most vocal critics of a team.” Writing with a point of view is still contentious in traditional newsrooms. It also helps that SB Nation sites focus on aggregation of and commentary on other people’s reporting than its own original work.

Focused content

Think of a typical newspaper sports section. It covers everything sports. Football, baseball, soccer, gymnastics — whatever season it is, that’s what you get. There’s a regional emphasis, but still, golf and ice skating live on the same pages. Bankoff’s approach is to think about people’s habits, rather than a broad topic. “We’re not fans of sports — we’re fans of teams,” Bankoff says. “We’re not fans of television. We’re fans of shows.” Are we interested in health? Perhaps, but we’re definitely interested in a disease, when we have one. Creating a community around a topic online needs to be sharply focused and relevant to readers.

Leverage repeat visitors

The potential to update a story in realtime is one of the great promises of the web. SB Nation has developed a good way to present updates, not unlike a tag page but with a sharper design. “One of our key innovations is the ’story stream,’” Bankoff told me, urging me to browse to the front page of his flagship. There I noticed several ongoing stories noting the number of updates posted, plus some links with time stamps. Clicking the update bar takes the reader to a stream of posts, organized by time stamp. An individual update provides the reader a link to the stream. Bankoff said it’s particularly handy for users following a story on a mobile device. (And repeat readers who keep hitting “Reload” for the latest updates are obviously appealing from an advertising perspective.)

“It was a little bit of an experiment,” Bankoff said. He wanted to improve on the various ways bloggers have updated stories in the past: the long single post with many updates pasted on top of each other, the tag (that is not immediately obvious to users), the disconnected posts that might appear in a “related posts” section. Those models have their merits but can be “clunky” and difficult for the user to navigate, he said. Bankoff said user feedback to the format has been positive.

Scalability

SB Nation has another advantage: It’s designed to expand. It’s the same instinct behind AOL’s hyperlocal project Patch (which hopes to launch “hundreds” of sites by the end of the year) and, on a smaller scale, the Gothamist or Gawker sites: Leverage the cost of the overhead of one site by running many. This is particularly important when you’ve invested in technology. SB Nation has a team of half a dozen developers who’ve built a shared platform that allows hundreds of users to contribute to the network sites at once, plus tools like the story stream and mobile products. With the technology in place, expansion becomes much less expensive. “We can expand in many directions,” Bankoff said.

March 18 2010

14:21

Milton Wolf Seminar: NGOs as newsmakers, journalists and aid workers as Facebook friends

VIENNA — When a massive earthquake rocked Haiti on January 11, there was only one foreign correspondent — a writer for the Associated Press — in the country to cover the disaster. In the following days, media from around the world parachuted in, relying heavily on NGOs for sources and context.

Two weeks later, most media had left. But there was still an audience around the globe, particularly in the United States, hearing stories and getting information because a handful of NGO workers, many of them former journalists, were still tweeting and blogging about what was happening on the ground.

This anecdote, recounted by Kimberly Abbott of the International Crisis Group, was the first we heard today at the Milton Wolf Seminar on the changing role of NGOs and media. The opening panel, “NGOs as Newsmakers in a Social Media Networking Environment,” laid out great questions to start people thinking about how the Internet, social media tools, and the mainstream media’s shrinking capacity are reshaping relationships between NGOs and journalists. There are pitfalls the panelists agreed, but the potential is exciting.

Abbott says that those tweeting and blogging NGO workers are not journalists in a traditional sense, but that they have the potential to help fill gaps in coverage. “As mainstream media is cutting back, the digital revolution is making it such that the public doesn’t have to take what the media serves up — they can be the curators of their information,” Abbott said.

Thomas Seifert, a foreign correspondent for the Austrian daily Die Presse, jumped on the idea of NGOs as news producers. When he was covering the Afghan elections, the personal blog of a UN field worker had an impact on his own coverage: “During the election phase, [the UN worker] wrote wonderful pieces on his personal blog,” Seifert said. The UN’s press releases were not, he hesitated to explain, quite as helpful.

Seifert sees social media and the connections it lets him forge with NGOs as a great tool for journalists; field-workers-turned-Facebook-friends have brought him great leads on stories in India and Afghanistan. But he also warned about the pitfalls. An NGO has to have “credibility, experience and proof,” Seifert said, quoting fellow panelist Franz Küberl, the president of Caritas Austria, a Catholic charity. “That’s a very good compass for us.”

Seifert described hopping a flight to Sudan with a Christian NGO. The story he saw unfold was the NGO freeing slaves who’d been kidnapped. “Henchmen” with cash bought their freedom. “It looked wonderful on camera,” Seifert said. “They came in with huge bags of money…it was great pictures.”

Two weeks after the story ran, he and a colleague at The Boston Globe started to think, “Come on, this is really too perfect.” The New Yorker eventually did the same story, raising questions about the motivations of the NGO, writing a more nuanced look at slavery, NGOs and the relationships with the government. NGOs have plenty of interests themselves, Seifert noted. In unstable places, they may prefer to work with one faction of the government over another.

Simon Cottle of the Cardiff School for Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies offered a broader perspective on how NGOs struggle with the new media world, based on interviews he’s conducted with Australian NGOs. Cottle argued that social media isn’t the future, but just a piece of a much larger galaxy of media that NGOs must operate within.

His presentation, which included points he’s written about for the Lab, touched on how competitive the new landscape is. NGOs fight to build up a “brand” and bend what they do to get media coverage.

“It may occassionally be possible for NGOs to lead rather than follow prevailing media logic,” Cottle concluded.

March 03 2010

19:22

Newspaper bias: just another social network

Profit maximising slant

There’s a fascinating study on newspaper bias by University of Chicago professors Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro which identifies the political bias of particular newspapers based on the frequency with which certain phrases appear.

The professors then correlate that placement with the political leanings of the newspaper’s own markets, and find

“That the most important variable is the political orientation of people living within the paper’s market. For example, the higher the vote share received by Bush in 2004 in the newspaper’s market (horizontal axis below), the higher the Gentzkow-Shapiro measure of conservative slant (vertical axis).”

Interestingly, ownership is found to be statistically insignificant once those other factors are accounted for.

James Hamilton, blogging about the study, asks:

“How slant gets implemented at the ground level by individual reporters. My guess is that most reporters know that they are introducing some slant in the way they’ve chosen to frame and report a story, but are unaware of the full extent to which they do so because they are underestimating the degree to which the other sources from which they get their information and beliefs have all been doing a similar filtering. The result is social networks that don’t recognize that they have developed a groupthink that is not centered on the truth.” [my emphasis]

In other words, the ‘echo chamber’ argument (academics would call it a discourse) that we’ve heard made so many times about the internet.

It’s nice to be reminded that social networks are not an invention of the web, but rather the other way around.

h/t Azeem Azhar

March 01 2010

05:01

Loving mobile and print: Five key findings from Pew’s new news study

Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism has just released a new study on news consumption habits across platforms.

The big takeaway: Americans want their news portable (33% of cell phone users now access news on their devices), personalized (28% of internet users have customized home pages) and participatory (37% of Internet users have contributed to a news story or shared it in some way).

Project director Tom Rosenstiel told me the findings have serious implications for online news business models: “The data suggest that the notion of a primary news source is almost obsolete. People graze. I think it’s increasingly clear that conventional popups and display advertising aren’t going to work.”

The 51-page report is packed with fascinating findings. But here are five that struck me as particularly interesting (emphasis mine):

1. Just because you love to scan headlines on your cell phone, that doesn’t mean you don’t also love ink on your fingers:

While [mobile news consumers] are no more likely than other adults to say they follow the news “all or most of the time,” they utilize a greater number of news platforms. More than half of the on-the-go news consumers (55%) use at least 4 different news platforms on a typlical day. They are 50% more likely than other adults to read the print version of a national newspaper (23% of on-the-go v. 15% all other adults). The only news platform they are less likely than other adults to use on a typical day is their local television news, and this difference is only slight.

2. Get your news only from the Internet? You’re in a tiny minority:

Americans today routinely get their news from multiple sources and a mix of platforms. Nine in ten American adults (92%) get news from multiple platforms on a typical day, with half of those using four to six platforms daily. Fully 59% get news from a combination of online and offline sources on a typical day. Just over a third (38%) rely solely on offline sources, and 2% rely exclusively on the internet for their daily news.

3. Users want to remix your news site:

Some 42% of the internet users who get news online — or 30% of all internet users — say that it is important to them when choosing news sites to be able to customize the news they get at that site. It is fascinating to note that this feature applies equally as much to those who say they prefer to follow specific topics (51% of them like being able to customize news on a site) and those who say they rely on others to keep them abreast of news (52% of them like this feature on a news website). At the same time, disproportionate numbers of those under age 50, blacks, wide-ranging platform users and browsers for online news, and social media users say this is a preference for them on a news website.

4. The devotion to objectivity isn’t as popular outside newsrooms:

Only half [of Americans] say their preference is for objective, straight news: 49% say they prefer getting news from sources that do not have a particular point of view; 31% prefer sources that share their point of view; and 11% say they prefer sources whose point of view differs with theirs. The rest say the don’t know their preference or don’t want to declare it.

5. Local news is nowhere near the top of most people’s news wishlists:

The most popular online news subjects are the weather (followed by 81% of internet news users), national events (73%), health and medicine (66%), business and the economy (64%), international events (62%), and science and technology (60%). Asked what subjects they would like to receive more coverage, 44% said scientific news and discoveries, 41% said religion and spirituality, 39% said health and medicine, 39% said their state government, and 38% said their neighborhood or local community.

Photo by Ian Lamont used under a Creative Commons license.


November 06 2009

12:58
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