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September 16 2011

15:30

This Week in Review: A unique paywall plan in Boston, and ethics at TechCrunch and the Times

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

Paid and free, side by side: The Boston Globe became the latest news organization to institute an online paywall this week, but it did so in an unprecedented way that should be interesting to watch: The newspaper created a separate paid site, BostonGlobe.com, to run alongside its existing free site, Boston.com. PaidContent has the pertinent details: A single price ($3.99 a week), and Boston.com gets most of the breaking news and sports, while BostonGlobe.com gets most of the newspaper content.

As the Globe told Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman, the two sites were designed with two different types of readers in mind: One who has a deep appreciation for in-depth journalism and likes to read stories start-to-finish, and another who reads news casually and briefly and may be more concerned about entertainment or basic information than journalism per se.

The first thing that caught many people’s attention was new site’s design — simple, clean, and understated. Tech blogger John Gruber gave it a thumbs-up, and news design guru Mario Garcia called it ”probably the most significant new website design in a long time.” The Lab’s Joshua Benton identified the biggest reasons it looks so clean: Far fewer links and ads.

Benton (in the most comprehensive post on the new site) also emphasized a less noticeable but equally important aspect of BostonGlobe.com’s design: It adjusts to fit just about any browser size, which reduces the need for mobile apps, making life easier for programmers and, as j-prof Dan Kennedy noted at the Lab, a way around the cut of app fees required by Apple and others. If the Globe’s people “have figured out a way not to share their hard-earned revenues with gatekeepers such as Apple and Amazon, then they will have truly performed a service for the news business — and for journalism,” Kennedy said.

Of course, the Globe could launch the most brilliantly conceived news site on the web, but it won’t be a success unless enough people pay for it. Poynter’s Sonderman (like Kennedy) was skeptical of their ability to do that, though as the Atlantic’s Rebecca Rosen pointed out, the Globe’s plan may be aimed as much at retaining print subscribers as making money off the web. The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple wondered if readers will find enough at BostonGlobe.com that’s not at Boston.com to make the site worth their money.

The TechCrunch conflict and changing ethical standardsLast week’s flap between AOL and TechCrunch over the tech site’s ethical conflicts came to an official resolution on Monday, when TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington parted ways with AOL, the site’s owner. But its full effects are going to be rippling for quite a while: Gawker’s Ryan Tate called the fiasco a black eye for everyone involved, but especially AOL, which had approved Arrington’s investments in some of the companies he covers just a few months ago. Fellow media mogul Barry Diller also ripped AOL’s handling of the situation.

At the Guardian, Dan Gillmor said that while he doesn’t trust TechCrunch much personally, it’s the audience’s job to sort out their trust with the help of transparency, rather than traditional journalism’s strictures. Others placed more of the blame on TechCrunch: Former Newsweek tech editor Dan Lyons said TechCrunch’s people should have expected this type of scenario when they sold to a big corporation, and media analyst Frederic Filloux said TechCrunch is a perfect example of the blogosphere’s vulnerability to unchecked conflicts of interest.

There was more fuel for those kinds of ethical concerns this week, as the winning company at TechCrunch’s annual Disrupt competition was one that Arrington invests in. But Arrington had an ethical accusation of his own to make at the conference, pointing out that the New York Times invests in a tech venture capital fund which has put $3.5 million into GigaOM, a TechCrunch competitor. Poynter’s Steve Myers detailed the Times’ run-ins between the companies it invests in and the ones it covers (and its spotty disclosure about those connections), concluding that even if the conflict is less direct than in blogging, it’s still worth examining more closely.

As it plunged further into its battle with TechCrunch late last week, AOL was also reported to be talking with Yahoo, which recently fired its CEO, about a merger between the two Internet giants. All Things Digital’s Kara Swisher said there’s no way the deal would actually happen; Wired’s Tim Carmody called it a “spectacularly crazy idea” and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram agreed, while Business Insider reminded us that they said a year ago that AOL and Yahoo should merge.

Meanwhile, the New York Times’ David Carr homed in on the core problem that both companies are facing: The fact that people want information online from niche sites, not giant general-news portals. “As news surges on the Web, giant ocean liners like AOL and Yahoo are being outmaneuvered by the speedboats zipping around them, relatively small sites that have passionate audiences and sharply focused information,” he wrote.

Facebook opens to subscribers: It hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention as some of its other moves, but Facebook took another step in Twitter’s direction this week by introducing the Subscribe Button, which allows users to see other people’s (and groups’) status updates without friending or becoming a fan of them.

As GeekWire’s Monica Guzman and many others noted, Facebook’s “subscribe” looks a heck of a lot like Twitter’s “follow.” When asked about similar Google+ features at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference, a Facebook exec said it wasn’t a response to Google+.

Guzman said Facebook is putting down deeper roots by going beyond the limits of reciprocal friendship, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram pinpointed the reason why this could end up being a massive change for Facebook: It’s beginning to move Facebook from a symmetrical network to an asymmetrical one, which could fundamentally transform its dynamics. Still, Ingram said Twitter is much better oriented toward being an information network than Facebook is, even with a “Subscribe” button.

The change could have particularly interesting implications for journalists, as Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman explained in his brief outline of the feature. As he noted, it may eliminate the need for separate Facebook profiles and pages for journalists, and while Lost Remote’s Cory Bergman said that should be a welcome change for journalists who were trying to manage both, he noted that shows and organizations may want to stick with pages.

News Corp.’s scandal widens: An update on the ongoing scandal enveloping News Corp.: A group of U.S. banks and investment funds that own shares in News Corp. expanded a lawsuit to include allegations of stealing, hacking, and anti-competitive behavior by two of the company’s U.S. subsidiaries — an advertiser and a satellite TV hardware manufacturer. As the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple noted, these are old cases, but they’re getting fresh attention, and that’s how scandals gain momentum.

James Murdoch, the son of News Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch, was also recalled to testify again before members of Britain’s Parliament later this fall, facing new questions about the breadth of News Corp.’s phone hacking scandal. The Wall Street Journal examined the scandal’s impact on the elder Murdoch’s succession plan for the conglomerate, especially as it involves James. The company’s executives also announced this week that they’ve found tens of thousands of documents that could shed more light on the phone hacking cases.

Reading roundup: Here’s what else went on this week:

— The biggest news story this week, of course, is actually 10 years old: Here’s a look at how newspapers marked the anniversary of 9/11, how news orgs used digital technology to tell the story, and a reflection on how 9/11 changed the media landscape.

— Twitter introduced a new web analytics tool to measure Twitter’s impact on websites. Here’s an analysis from Mathew Ingram of GigaOM.

— At an academic conference last weekend, Illinois j-prof Robert McChesney repeated his call for public funding for journalism. Here are a couple of good summaries of his talk from fellow j-profs Axel Bruns and Alfred Hermida.

— Finally, here’s a relatively short but insightful two-part interview between two digital media luminaries, Henry Jenkins and Dan Gillmor, about media literacy, citizen journalism and Gillmor’s latest book. Should make for a quick, thought-provoking weekend read.

May 13 2011

16:30

Kara Swisher, Michael Arrington, and me: New conflicts, and new opportunities, for the tech press

Changing technology is changing journalism in more ways than we can probably even understand. One of those changes concerns the definitions of “journalist” and “journalism” themselves, the question of who’s permitted to make or contest those definitions, and the other question of whether those lines are fair to draw in the first place.

This is one story about an instance of this argument that’s unusual for at least four reasons:

  • It involves some of the biggest bloggers in tech and in journalism
  • It happened on Mother’s Day;
  • It happened on Twitter;
  • I started it. And it was an accident.

Arrington and his investments

The focus of this particular argument was Michael Arrington. Arrington was an angel investor in technology startups before he founded TechCrunch, one of the biggest and most influential technology and tech business news sites on the web. For a few years, he was an investor and a publisher too.

In March 2009, in a post titled “The Rules Apply To Everyone,” he announced that he was going to discontinue investments to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest. Then on April 27 of this year — some time after TechCrunch and then the Huffington Post had been acquired by AOL — he wrote “An Update to My Investment Policy,” announcing that he was investing in companies again, including companies and industries covered by TechCrunch.

Arrington acknowledged that from time to time, this would create conflicts of interest in his coverage, but promised he would disclose those whenever possible. He also wrote: “Other tech press will make hay out of this because they don’t like the fact that we are, simply, a lot better than them.”

The next day, AllThingsD‘s Kara Swisher wrote “Godspeed on That Investing Thing, Yertle–But I Still Have Some Questions for Your Boss, Arianna.”

Swisher wasn’t exactly polite to Arrington — the Yertle the Turtle comparison, and all — and said his post and policy were “vaguely icky.” But the thrust was directed not at Arrington or TechCrunch, but at Ariana Huffington, who is newly ranked above Arrington on AOL’s organizational chart:

Would it surprise you to know that BoomTown doesn’t really care anymore if TechCrunch editor Michael Arrington sidelines as a blogger while he makes investments in tech companies his tech news site covers? ….

[W]hile I kind of understand where Arrington is coming from, what I don’t understand is how this kind of convenient and on-the-fly rule-making can govern a much larger company whose strongly and repeatedly stated goal by Huffington herself is to create quality journalism….

Simply put, does AOL, which is touting itself as a 21st-century media company, need to have 21st-century rules of the road? Or perhaps not so much?

Who’s a journalist? What’s journalism?

These questions are contentious and much-contended. They also often obscure what might be a more meaningful inquiry into what makes for best journalism practices in this new world. How much do writers need to tell readers about themselves? Is a tweet a story? Now that journalists have more means to address each other and each other’s work directly, what’s the most appropriate way to do it?

When professional journalism organizations had a near-monopoly on publishing and broadcasting tools, they were largely able to dictate the codes of the trade among themselves. It’s easy to overstate how homogeneous those were, especially at different points in history. But it’s definitely true that as new publishing tools and new media companies are disrupting established businesses, they’re disrupting those codes, too.

The technology press is arguably at the head of this disruption. Tech blogs and media companies were (and are) among the first and most successful competitors to print and broadcast journalism. Because tech outlets also usually cover media-producing and media-consuming technology, they’re among the most reflective on their own tools.

They have also been the most entrepreneurial, partly mirroring the industries they cover. That’s how TechCrunch works, and also how AllThingsD works. Those outlets both put together big technology conferences. They both work very hard for the bottom line. They’re both 21st-century media companies.

“Screw Them All”

On May 7, Arrington responded to Swisher and other writers who’d questioned his new policy, in a blistering (even for Arrington) post titled “The Tech Press: Screw Them All.” In particular, he called out Swisher, her parent company AllThingsD, and her employee Liz Gannes, accusing them of being equally conflicted and much more evasive about their conflicts:

AllThingsD’s Kara Swisher, the chief whiner about our policy, is married to a Google executive. This is disclosed by her, but I certainly don’t see it as any less of a conflict than when I invest in a startup. And yet she whines. One of her writers, Liz Gannes, is married to a Facebook consultant. She covers the company and its competitors regularly. She discloses it as well, but it isn’t clear whether or not her husband has stock in Facebook. That’s something as a reader I’d like to know. And regardless, it’s a huge conflict of interest. I think someone will think twice before slamming a company and then going to sleep next to an employee of that company. Certain adjectives, for example, might be softened in the hopes of marital harmony….

Why do the people who complain the most about TechCrunch have these vague conflicts of interest themselves? Why aren’t they more forthcoming in their disclosures? How do they justify their hypocrisy, even to themselves? Seriously, how?

Aaaannnd this is where we jump to Twitter.

[View the story "Kara Swisher, Michael Arrington, and Me" on Storify]

Meanwhile, Columbia’s Emily Bell hit on one of the few really good ideas to come out of this whole mess:

[View the story "A new beat: accountability in tech press" on Storify]

Dave Winer — who would go on to discuss the idea in more detail with Jay Rosen — may have put the best coda on the whole affair with his post, “Journalist or not? Wrong question“:

[F]ights over who’s a journalist or not are pointless.

However, there is a line that is not pointless: Are you an insider or a user?

Insiders get access to execs for interviews and background info. Leaks and gossip. Vendor sports. Early versions of products. Embargoed news. Extra oomph on social networks. Favors that will be curtailed or withdrawn if you get too close to telling truths they don’t want told.

All the people participating in the “journalist or not” debate are insiders. They are all compromised. Whether or not they disclose some of these conflicts, none of them disclose the ones that are central to what they will and will not say.

That’s where we’re left. Are you in or are you out?

Image by Joi Ito used under a Creative Commons license.

October 22 2010

16:00

Using the power of publishing to influence: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s entry into the news biz

On the front page of today’s New York Times is a story on the prodigious corporate funding of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the tax-exempt group that supports business-friendly policies and has been an aggressive spender in recent (and upcoming) elections. The story, by Eric Lipton, Mike McIntire, and Don Van Natta Jr., focuses on the secrecy surrounding donors to the Chamber, which the group is not required by law to report.

But money isn’t the only area where associations can be kept quiet. For the past several years, the Chamber has also invested in its own publishing platform, running a network of local publications (print and online) that focus on legal issues in areas where business interests have been critical of the decisions of local courts. It also runs an online-only national publication called Legal Newsline.

“We’re beginning to see advocacy groups, nonprofit groups, mission-directed groups, not always evil by any means, having a particular truth that they see and a particular lens through which they look at news and they want to report news through that lens,” Jan Schaffer told me. She’s executive director of J-Lab at American University, and she pointed to Kaiser Health News, owned by the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Foreign Affairs, owned by the Council on Foreign Relations, as examples.

But there’s a big difference between the sites Schaffer mentioned — which happily promote their nonprofit parents — and the Chamber’s sites, which are published by a subsidiary called the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform. Nowhere on the main pages of the Chamber sites is the Institute or Chamber mentioned. In 2008, the most recent year available, the Institute spent $41 million (pdf) on various activities pushing for the cause of tort reform. At the same time, the Institute’s reporters are covering civil cases with large settlements and other tort reform-related news — and working for news outlets set up in some of the nation’s most tort-friendly jurisdictions.

Local publications in allegedly business-unfriendly jurisdictions

Along with the national site, the Chamber-affiliated local publications are all set in areas where plaintiffs’ attorneys have had success with class-action suits and other litigation. There’s little else that would connect the states of Louisiana and West Virginia and the areas around East St. Louis, Illinois (Madison and St. Clair counties) and Beaumont, Texas. To give an idea of the flavor of the publications, here’s the about page for the Louisiana site, the Louisiana Record:

To be sure, whether one agrees or disagrees with the happenings at our courthouses, no one should believe that what happens at them is the norm. This year, Louisiana’s courts were ranked among the most unfair in the nation, according to a survey (Harris Interactive) of top corporate lawyers and business executives.

Many accomplished local plaintiffs’ attorneys and erstwhile activists would argue that, in fact, they are the great leaders of their time, holding that Louisiana has it right and everyone else has it wrong.

On the flipside, many who drive this country’s economic engine — small businessmen, medical professionals and corporate executives — argue the opposite. They hold that plaintiffs’ attorneys use frivolous lawsuits to game the system and pillage private property. If every state were like ours, they say, America would be out of business.

At The Louisiana Record, we hope to provide an objective view of the playing field as well as an active forum for both sides of the argument so that all of us can decide for ourselves.

Similar phrasing appears at the West Virginia, Madison, and Southeast Texas sites. (The Madison site says a “welcome mat to class action filings and lottery-like awards have helped create a ‘judicial hellhole’ reputation.”)

The mention of a Harris Interactive survey refers to the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform’s annual State Liability Systems Ranking Study, which gave low marks to the jurisdictions where the Chamber publications are based.

Chamber says it does not interfere editorially

The publisher of the sites, Brian Timpone, says the Chamber is no different than any other parent company. “The Chamber is like most media owners — it stays out of editorial operations,” Timpone told me over email. “That was the deal upon which we agreed when I started the first Record in 2004 (I was a community newspaper publisher then) and it remains the deal today. Myself and my editorial team have full editorial control. There is no direction from ownership — thematic or otherwise.”

Timpone called his disclosure policy — explaining who owns the publication when the Chamber is specifically mentioned in the story — fair. He said in an email that that is when it is the best time to tell readers because it is “communicated in a useful, proper context.”

When asked for comment, a Chamber spokesperson said in a statement that it “has great respect for the norms of professional journalism. Our professional publisher, editors and reporters have strong journalistic backgrounds and skills, and operate under the highest professional standards and conduct.” The Chamber statement said it is not involved in the day-to-day of the operations, and is hands off when it comes to editorial control.

Legal Newsline has the look and feel of a trade publication, the kind read by members of the legal community, lawmakers, and traditional reporters looking for story ideas. Several journalists I spoke with said they thought the Chamber should be more upfront about its connection, even if the journalists working for them publish accurate stories.

“I think they should just put on the site that they’re the U.S. Chamber of Commerce,” Mary Jacoby, the editor-in-chief of a legal publication called Main Justice, told me. (I wrote about Main Justice in May.) Jacoby is particularly irked because story subjects on the Chamber’s sites sometimes overlap with hers, which covers the Justice Department. Several of her reporters linked to Legal Newsline in their stories before she was aware that the site wasn’t an independent trade publication. “It’s news, it’s true that they have real news and they have real reporters, but they’re writing it from an agenda and trying to underline certain ideas that they have,” she said.

The importance of disclosure

For example, the current top story at the Southeast Texas Record is “With retirement announced, tort reform groups praise Judge Jack’s impact.” An excerpt:

[Retiring U.S. District Judge Janis Graham] Jack’s 2005 decision also “laid a corner stone for future investigations of abuse of the civil justice system,” according to Darren McKinney, spokesperson for the American Tort Reform Association.

“We here at ATRA…are admiring of Judge Jack’s impact in Texas, which has long been known to be a judicial hellhole,” McKinney said. “Her decision reverberated throughout the nation.”

ATRA is the group that publishes an annual list of “Judicial Hellholes,” which it describes as “America’s most unfair jurisdictions.” Each of the areas covered by the Chamber publications is mentioned in the executive summary of the list — West Virginia as a “Hellhole,” Madison County, Ill., and the Gulf Coast of Texas on a Hellhole “Watch List,” and Louisiana’s Orleans and Jefferson parishes as “other areas to watch.”

The Southeast Texas Record story also features approving quotes from Texans for Lawsuit Reform and Texans Against Lawsuit Abuse, two groups that share the Chamber’s perspective on tort reform. But because the story does not mention the Chamber specifically, it carries no disclosure.

On the web, disclosure is perhaps even more important than in print. Readers aren’t necessarily making an active choice to consume information on Legal Newsline; as with any site on the web, visitors often arrive via search or a link from a mainstream source. USA Today, for example, has linked to articles on the site on its automatically aggregated topic pages. USA Today’s online editor Chet Czarniak said he’d take a look at the Chamber sites to see if the reader needs more of a heads up. “It’s been a while since we’ve done a full review” of the sources used in the topic pages, Czarniak said. “I think frankly, I’m now curious about the sites we have out there.”

This isn’t the first time the disclosure policy has come into question. In 2007, the Southeast Texas Record came under fire from plaintiff attorneys who said the print edition, which is distributed at the local courthouse, was a dubious attempt to influence jurors.

Nonprofit journalism is booming, at the local and national level. When our Jim Barnett was trying to suss out what makes a nonprofit news outlet “legit” in his eyes, he cited financial transparency as a key element. Looking at the front page of one of the Chamber’s publications, that transparency is sometimes hard to see.

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