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April 20 2012

13:58

This Week in Review: Digital journalism’s big Pulitzer win, and ebook concerns shift to Amazon

The Pulitzers and HuffPo’s arrival: The Pulitzer Prizes were awarded this week, accompanied as usual by tears and impromptu speeches in newsrooms around the country (documented well by Jeff Sonderman on Storify). On the meta-level, the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple criticized the awards’ secrecy, but Dean Starkman of the Columbia Journalism Review offered a defense of having such publicly celebrated industry awards in the first place, arguing that during an era when news organizations have become so adept at measuring journalism quantity, the Pulitzers are one of the few barometers left for journalism quality.

As for this year’s awards themselves, the American Journalism Review’s Rem Rieder pointed out that while the Pulitzers are usually dominated by a few heavy hitters, this year brought several feel-good stories. One of those was the Pulitzer won by the Philadelphia Inquirer, the once-great paper that has had an extremely rough last several years and was sold yet again for a bargain-basement price just a few weeks ago. Poynter’s Steve Myers reported on the award’s impact, which one reporter called “a wonderful burst of hope.”

Another remarkable Pulitzer winner was Sara Ganim of the Patriot News of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, who at 24 became one of the youngest Pulitzer winners ever for her reporting on the Penn State sex abuse scandal. Poynter’s Mallary Tenore explained how she took the lead on the story at two different papers. Not all the news was heartwarming, though — there was no prize for editorial writing. Erik Wemple explained why (nothing personal!), but Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan loved the decision, calling editorials “a worthless anachronism in this modern media age.”

But the biggest theme in this year’s Pulitzers was the prominence of online journalism: The online-only Huffington Post and the very online-centric Politico both won prizes, which the Lab’s Adrienne LaFrance called a victory for their fast-paced, aggressive editorial models. Additionally, Twitter played a big role in the tornado coverage that earned Alabama’s Tuscaloosa News a Pulitzer, as Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman detailed.

Of those online-oriented Pulitzers, the Huffington Post’s drew the bulk of the attention. HuffPo’s Michael Calderone and Poynter’s Mallary Tenore both told the story behind HuffPo’s award-winning story, and in an AP story, Ken Doctor called it an arrival of sorts for HuffPo, while VentureBeat’s Jolie O’Dell called it a win for quality blogs everywhere. PaidContent’s Staci Kramer said HuffPo’s win shows the old guard has finally learned that the work, not the medium, is the message. Both GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram and NYU prof Jay Rosen (in Calderone’s article) pointed out that this isn’t as much of a “new media vs. old media” win as people might think; traditional news orgs and digital outfits have been looking more and more alike for quite some time now.

There was also quite a bit of other talk about HuffPo’s model this week, though most of it wasn’t directly related to the Pulitzers. Media blogger Andrew Nusca expressed his frustration with the parade of “awful posts and shameless slideshows” that populates most of HuffPo and its competitors, and the Columbia Journalism Review published an in-depth story on how HuffPo developed its distinctive model and why it works. Meanwhile, the Lab’s Justin Ellis wrote on HuffPo’s refusal to employ false balance when covering climate change and Folio reported on its coming magazine iPad app.

Amazon under fire: A week after the U.S. Justice Department sued Apple and five major book publishers for antitrust violations (paidContent’s Laura Hazard Owen has a good description of what it means for readers), most of the attention shifted to the biggest ebook player not involved in the lawsuit: Amazon. The New York Times reported on a small publisher that has removed its titles from Amazon out of frustration that the retailer’s low prices were undercutting its own booksellers.

CNET’s Greg Sandoval talked to other small publishers who see Amazon as a much bigger threat than Apple, and at the Daily, Timothy Lee urged the U.S. government to change copyright law to allow Amazon’s competitors to convert Kindle books to be compatible with other devices. The New York Times’ David Carr gave the most ominous warning of Amazon’s below-cost ebook pricing’s effect on the publishing industry, saying that with the suit, “Now Amazon has the Justice Department as an ally to rebuild its monopoly and wipe out other players.”

Novelist Charlie Stross went into the economics of Amazon’s ebook strategy, comparing it to big-box retailers that wipe out mom-and-pop stores with their extremely low pricing: “Amazon has the potential to be like that predatory big box retailer on a global scale. And it’s well on the way to doing so in the ebook sector.” Forbes’ Tim Worstall pushed back against Stross’ characterization, arguing that Amazon doesn’t have a monopoly on the ebook market because it’s still extremely easy to put ebooks on a server, achieve some scale and contest Amazon’s dominance.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, for his part, released a letter to shareholders last Friday that asserted that “even well-meaning gatekeepers slow innovation.” Techcrunch’s John Biggs said this philosophy makes sense in the world of networked information, but Wired’s Tim Carmody said Amazon is really trying to draw a contrast between its own infrastructure-based model and the product-based “gatekeeping” model of its chief competitor, Apple.

Google’s open web warning: A few nuggets regarding Google: In an interview with the Guardian, Google co-founder Sergey Brin warned of “very powerful forces” lining up against the open web around the world, referring both to oppressive governments like China and Iran and to Google’s competitors, like Facebook and Apple. Tech blogger John Gruber noted that Brin seems to be assuming that the open web is “only what Google can index and sell ads against,” and Wired’s Tim Carmody took that point deeper, arguing that Google is part of the continuum of control and closure of the Internet between governments and corporations, not separate from it.

Elsewhere, Ross Douthat of the New York Times used Google’s recently unveiled Project Glass, which would bring all the information of a smartphone in front of our eyes in the form of glasses, as a warning against the possibility of a sort of hyper-surveillance techno-tyranny. Web philosopher Stowe Boyd ripped Douthat’s assertion that Google’s glasses are a reflection of our growing loneliness. (Slate’s Eric Klinenberg wrote a more thorough takedown of the “we’re getting lonelier” hypothesis, targeting Atlantic’s recent article on Facebook.) And late last week, Google’s news products chief, Richard Gingras wrote at the Lab about the questions that will define the future of journalism.

Reading roundup: It’s been a fairly slow week, but there are still a few interesting items to keep an eye on:

— Facebook has begun testing “trending articles” as a way to get more people to use its social news apps, though ReadWriteWeb’s Jon Mitchell said those apps, and the “frictionless sharing” they depend on, aren’t working. Meanwhile, the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal said it’s time to get past the Facebook mentality of social networking and figure out what’s next for the Internet.

— NYU prof Jay Rosen wrote about a fascinating question that’s been puzzling him for years — Why does the American public trust the press so much less than it used to? — positing a few possible explanations and asking for more ideas. You can also hear Rosen talking about the state of the media and the public in this Radio Open Source podcast.

— Two more intriguing entries on the ongoing series of posts on how people get their news, these from News.me: Digital media researcher danah boyd, who talked about young people’s news consumption, and former New York Times digital chief Martin Nisenholtz, who talked about the Times’ transition into a digital world.

— Finally, the Times’ Brian Stelter wrote a thoughtful piece on the fleeting nature of today’s information environment, and the ephemeral, hyperactive common conversation it gives us.

October 07 2011

21:21

TrueTies.Org Wants to Increase Transparency on the Op-Ed Page

The following is a guest opinion from Gabe Elsner of The Checks and Balances Project, which recently launched a new project aimed at increasing transparency at news outlets.

Every day, Americans read the opinion and commentary of seemingly impartial "experts" from think tanks on critical subjects in the pages of the nation's newspapers.

What these readers don't know is that the authors of these opinion pieces work for think tanks and organizations funded by the same industries they are "impartially" writing about. Rarely -- if ever -- are readers informed that the so-called expert has received money from the industry he or she is championing or defending.

Why? All too often, top news outlets don't ask pundits about these conflicts, and so readers don't get the whole story.

That's why, starting Oct. 6, The Checks and Balances Project launched an online petition at TrueTies.org.

As the recession has ground on, many news media outlets went out of business or fled quality journalism. Fortunately, the New York Times did the opposite -- it doubled down. That's why we're asking the Times, as our nation's paper of record, to increase transparency on the opinion pages by beginning a practice of asking one basic question of every op-ed submission finalist: "Do you have direct or indirect ties to the industries you are writing about?" And, if the answer is yes, to tell their readers at the time the piece is published.

The case of the "senior fellow"

The Checks and Balances Project -- a startup watchdog organization committed to holding government officials, lobbyists, and corporate management accountable to the public -- decided to launch True Ties after reading a June 2011 op-ed in The New York Times by Robert Bryce.

Bryce, using the title "senior fellow" at the Manhattan Institute, claimed that renewable energy was bad for the environment and that natural gas was far preferable, despite widespread concerns about the gas industry's potential contamination of public drinking water supplies. What readers weren't told, while reading his argument in favor of fossil fuels, is that his host organization, the Manhattan Institute, received nearly $3 million from fossil fuel companies, including ExxonMobil and Koch Industries.

Wouldn't it have been better if someone from the Times' opinion page staff asked Bryce one question about his financial ties? Don't readers deserve to know that this columnist's paycheck is funded in part by fossil fuel-tied groups?

Sadly, the New York Times piece by Bryce is not an isolated incident. This problem is widespread -- in newspapers, cable television, radio and beyond. Bryce points out that his work has been seen by millions of Americans through "publications ranging from the Wall Street Journal to Counterpunch and Atlantic Monthly to Oklahoma Stripper." In addition, he's appeared on television shows ranging from the PBS "Newshour" to Fox News to "Energy Now."

Bryce is just one example in a growing industry of front groups and industry-sponsored pundits. These organizations are functionally serving as industry public relations firms, while carrying neutral-sounding names such as the Mercatus Center, Institute for Energy Research and the Cato Institute. They provide a platform not just for Bryce, but for other "experts," such as the Mercatus Center's Andrew P. Morriss, to spread fossil-fuel industry talking points while taking fossil-fuel money. Much of the funding for the Mercatus Center comes from the Koch Family Foundations, while the Institute for Energy Research is essentially a joint project of Koch Industries and ExxonMobil. And, similar to Bryce, Morriss, a fellow at the Mercatus Center, works for organizations with sponsors who remain hidden from readers and viewers.

These pundits have the right to be heard, but they shouldn't get to hide their industry funding. The New York Times, as the standard bearer of journalism, has a responsibility to ensure consumers know all the facts.

What do we do about it?

The clearest step forward is simple: The New York Times and other important media outlets can ask a basic question of anyone publishing opinions on their pages regarding financial conflicts of interest -- and then tell readers about the conflicts.

Full disclosure of these ties will increase transparency. More importantly, it will ensure that readers have the relevant information they need to put commentaries into proper context, and ultimately, help inform their opinions on vital issues. By asking contributors like Bryce to answer a short set of disclosure questions, the New York Times can set the industry standard and help their readers get the full story.

Gabe Elsner is a public interest advocate based in Washington, D.C. For the past five years, he has worked with a variety of non-profit organizations to elevate the voice of ordinary people in policy debates. Gabe understands that citizens need to stand up for true American values to restore democracy and to overcome the influence of lobbyists and special interest groups. He joined the Checks and Balances Project in June 2011 to help increase transparency and inform the public on critical issues, especially related to energy.

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