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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.”

September 20 2010

16:00

A warning to nonprofit news organizations: Government funding may not boost the bottom line much

At a time when some Americans are talking about increasing government support for journalism, here’s an interesting new study that adds a useful data point to the discussion: When governments provide financial support to nonprofit organizations, 73 percent of the extra money is counterbalanced by a decline in support from private donors. In other words, the value of government money received is decreased by a reduction in funds from elsewhere.

The paper is by Jim Andreoni of UC San Diego and A. Abigail Payne of Canada’s McMaster University, and it examines over 8,000 nonprofit organizations. The idea that government funding reduces private giving is not new, but this paper attempts to figure out why — and how — the trade-off occurs. Is it because private donors think that government grants eliminate their own need to give — the idea that they “already gave at the office” through their tax dollars? Or is it because getting government money causes nonprofits to relax, to reduce how aggressively they pursue outside money through fundraising?

Andreoni and Payne come down squarely on the side of the latter — it’s primarily nonprofits’ own reduction of their own fundraising efforts that lead to less outside support, not any change of heart by donors. When the government gives, nonprofits take that as an opportunity to cut back on fundraising, even though fundraising is highly cost-effective; the paper finds an average $5 return in gifts for every $1 spent on raising money. Reducing fundraising may save some cash in the short term, but it doesn’t appear to be a smart strategy.

If charity managers find fund-raising a “necessary evil,” or fear it may hurt their evaluation from charity watchdog groups, then a government grant will allow them to redirect efforts from fund-raising to providing charitable services. This means that after getting a grant, charities may simply cut back fund-raising.

The paper finds that for every $1,000 given through a government grant, nonprofits reduce their spending on fundraising by an average of $137. But that decrease leads to a drop of $772 in donor gifts. (The paper found that, contrary to the fears of some, government grants encourage outside donors to give instead of discouraging them — but the impact is small, only about $45 per $1,000 in government grants.)

In other words, adding it all together, $1,000 in government money only nets out to $410 in the end, on average.

The study didn’t look specifically at nonprofits engaged in journalism, and it’s difficult to apply its findings directly to the ongoing debate over government support for news. Check out the full paper for much more detail. But if I were in charge of a nonprofit news organization, here’s what I’d take away from Andreoni and Payne:

Government help is not a cure-all. Even setting aside the very legitimate arguments over the wisdom or ethics of government support for news, it doesn’t appear to be quite the financial boon some are foreseeing, at least for nonprofit organizations more broadly.

Fundraising is worth investing in. Andreoni and Payne say it’s surprising to economists that $1 spent on fundraising could lead to $5 in revenue, but it’s a robust finding that lines up with what the industry reports internally. They also point out that not every nonprofit approaches fundraising with the same sort of enthusiasm (the “necessarily evil”); those who find the task distasteful will pay for it in the pocketbook.

Success in one source of revenue can’t lead to the abandonment of others. The smartest nonprofit news organizations are busy trying to build a multi-pronged model for financial sustainability — often blending advertising, sponsorship, small individual donors, money from big foundations, content-sharing alliances, and more. Over-reliance on any one source is dangerous; just ask the publisher of a major metro newspaper about classified advertising circa 1995.

Photo by Thomas Hawk used under a Creative Commons license.

July 16 2010

14:00

This Week in Review: Paying for obits online, ESPN’s news-ad fusion, and the great replacement debate

[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]

Should papers charge for obits on the web?: We’ve written a whole bunch about Steve Brill’s paid-online-news venture Journalism Online around these parts, and the company’s first Press+ system went live on a newspaper site this week, with Pennsylvania’s LancasterOnline obits section going to a metered pay model for out-of-town visitors. PaidContent has a good summary of how the arrangement works: Out-of-towners get to view seven obits a month, after which point they’re asked to pay $1.99 a month or $19.99 a year for more access. Obits make up only 6 percent of the site’s pageviews, but the paper’s editor is estimating $50,000 to $150,000 in revenue from the paywall.

Poynter’s Bill Mitchell offered a detailed look at the numbers behind the decision and said the plan has several characteristics in its favor: It has valuable content that’s tough to find elsewhere, flexible payment, and doesn’t alienate core (local) readers. (He did note, though, that the paper isn’t providing anything new of value.) Most other media watchers on the web weren’t so impressed. MinnPost’s David Brauer was skeptical of Lancaster’s revenue projections, but noted that obits are a big deal for small-town papers. Lost Remote’s David Weinfeld was dubious of the estimates, too, wondering how many out-of-towners would actually be willing to pay to read obit after obit. GrowthSpur’s Mark Potts’ denouncement of the plan is the most sweeping: “Every assumption it’s based on — from projected audience to the percentage of readers that might be willing to pay — is flawed.”

TBD’s Steve Buttry posted his own critique of the plan, centering on the fact that the paper is double-dipping by charging people to both read and publish obits. The paper’s editor, Ernie Schreiber, fired back with a rebuttal (the experiment is intended to help define their online audience, he said, and no, they’re not double-dipping any more than charging for an ad and a subscription), and Buttry responded with a point-by-point counter. Finally, Buttry came up with the most constructive part of the discussion: A proposal for newspapers on how to handle obituaries, with seven different free and paid obit options for newspapers to offer families. Jeff Sonderman offered a different type of proposal, arguing that obituaries should be free to place and read, because if they aren’t, they’re about to be Craigslisted.

Meanwhile, MinnPost’s Brauer discovered that all you need to bypass the paywall is FireFox’s NoScript add-on, and Schreiber added a few more work-arounds while responding that he’s not worried, because the tech-geek and obit-junkie crowds don’t have a whole lot of overlap. Reuters’ Felix Salmon backed Schreiber up, arguing that a loose paywall is much better than a firm one that unwittingly harasses loyal customers.

A new degree of news-advertising mixture: We may have caught a glimpse into one less-than-savory aspect of the future of journalism late last week through the sports media world, when ESPN aired “The Decision.” Here’s what happened, for the sports-averse: 25-year-old NBA superstar LeBron James was set to make his much-anticipated free agency decision this summer, and ESPN agreed to air James’ announcement of which team he’d play for last Thursday night on a one-hour special. The arrangement originated from freelance sportscaster Jim Gray and James’ marketing company, which dictated the site of the special, James’ interviewer (Gray, naturally), and a deal in which the show’s advertising proceeds (all lined up by James’ company) would go toward James’ designated charity, the Boys and Girls Club. ESPN insisted that it would otherwise have full editorial control.

The show — and particularly the manner in which it was set up — received universally scathing reviews from sports media watchers: Sports Illustrated media critic Richard Deitsch called it “the worst thing ESPN has ever put its name to,” legendary sportswriter Buzz Bissinger said ESPN’s ethical conflict was so big it can never be fully trusted as a news source, Baltimore Sun TV critic David Zurawik fumed that “never in the history of sports has the media behaved in a such a whored-out, dazed, confused and crass a manner,” and L.A. Times media critic James Rainey accused ESPN of playing up both sides of a spectacle it created.

The ethical conflict seemed even worse when there was a report that Gray, the interviewer, was paid by James, rather than ESPN (as it turned out, ESPN covered his expenses, but other than that he says he wasn’t paid at all). But the true details, as revealed by Advertising Age, were almost as shocking: ESPN had previously hoped to arrange a special program before its sports awards show, the ESPYs, with James handing out the first award just after his announcement.

Ad Age’s phenomenal article hammered home another important point for those concerned about the future of news: This program represented a new level of integration between advertising and news, and even a new breed of advertiser-driven news programming. Ad Age detailed the remarkable amount of exposure that the program’s advertisers received, and included superagent Ari Emanuel, the man who orchestrated the arrangement, boasting that “we’re getting closer to pushing the needle on advertiser-content programming.” In his typically overheated style, Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi called the show “the prototype for all future news coverage,” in which a few dominant news organizations create their own versions of reality in a race for advertising money, while a few scattered web denizens try to ferret out the real story.

Replacing the newspaper, or complementing it?: This week, the University of Missouri School of Journalism publicized a study that its scholars published this spring comparing citizen-driven news sites and blogs with daily newspaper websites. The takeaway claim from Mizzou’s press release — and, in turn, Editor & Publisher’s blurb — was that citizen journalism sites aren’t replacing the work that was being done by downsizing traditional news organizations. Not surprisingly, that drew a few people’s criticism: Ars Technica’s John Timmer said the study provides evidence not so much that citizen-driven sites are doing poorly, but that legacy media sites are embracing many of the web’s best practices. He and TBD’s Jeff Sonderman also pointed out that if one startup news site is lacking in an area, web users are smart enough to just find another one. The question isn’t whether a citizen journalism site can replace a newspaper site, Sonderman said, it’s whether a whole amateur system, with its capacity for growth and specialization, can complement or replace the one newspaper site in town.

TBD’s Steve Buttry (who must have had a lot of free time this week) delivered a point-by-point critique of the study, making a couple of salient points: It ignores the recent spate of professional online-only news organizations and vastly over-represents traditional news sites’ relative numbers, and, of course, the long-argued point that the question of whether one type of journalism can replace another is silly and pointless. One of the Mizzou scholars responded to Buttry, which he quotes at the end of his post, that the researchers had no old-media agenda.

After hearing about all of that debate, it’s kind of strange to read the study itself, because it doesn’t actually include any firm conclusions about the ability of citizen-led sites to replace newspapers. In its discussion section, the study does make a passing reference to “the inability of citizen news sites to become substitutes for daily newspaper sites” and briefly states that those sites would be better substitutes for weekly papers, but the overall conclusion of the study is that citizen sites work better as complements to traditional media, filling in hyperlocal news and opinion that newspapers have abandoned. That’s quite similar to the main point that Buttry and Sonderman are making. The study’s guiding question may be deeply flawed, as those two note, but its endpoint isn’t nearly as inflammatory as it was publicized to be.

Looking at a BBC for the U.S.: A few folks went another round in the government-subsidy-for-news debate this week when Columbia University president Lee Bollinger wrote an op-ed column in The Wall Street Journal advocating for a stronger public-media system in the U.S., one that could go toe-to-toe with the BBC. Bollinger argued that we’re already trusting journalists to write independent accounts of corporate scandals like the BP oil spill while their news organizations take millions of dollars in advertising from those companies, so why would journalism’s ethical standards change once the government is involved?

The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson agreed that government-funded journalism doesn’t have to be a terrifying prospect, but several others online took issue with that stance: CUNY j-prof Jeff Jarvis said we need to teach journalists to build self-sustaining businesses instead, and two British j-profs, George Brock and Roy Greenslade, both argued that Bollinger needs to wake up and see the non-institutional journalistic ecosystem that’s springing up to complement crumbling traditional media institutions. But the people who do want an American BBC are in luck, because the site launched this week.

Reading roundup: A few cool things to think on this weekend:

— Curtis Brainard of the Columbia Journalism Review has a long story on what is a safe bet to be one of the two or three most talked about issues in the industry over the next year: How to bring in revenue from mobile media.

— French media consultant Frederic Filloux asks what he rightly calls “an unpleasant question”: Do American newspapers have too many journalists? It’s not a popular argument, but he has some statistics worth thinking about.

— Adam Rifkin has a well-written post that’s been making the rounds lately about why Google doesn’t do social well: It’s about getting in, getting out and getting things done, while social media’s about sucking you in.

— The New York Times and the Lab have profiles of two startups, Techmeme and Spotery, that are living examples of the growing role of human-powered editing alongside algorithmic authority. And Judy Sims urges newspapers to embrace the social nature of life (and news) online.

— Finally, news you can use: A great Poynter feature on ways news organizations can use Tumblr, from someone who used it very well: Mark Coatney, formerly of Newsweek, now of Tumblr.

June 03 2010

21:31

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.”

March 12 2010

15:00

This Week in Review: Plagiarism and the link, location and context at SXSW, and advice for newspapers

[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]

The Times, plagiarism and the link: A few weeks ago, the resignations of two journalists from The Daily Beast and The New York Times accused of plagiarism had us talking about how the culture of the web affects that age-old journalistic sin. That discussion was revived this week by the Times’ public editor, Clark Hoyt, whose postmortem on the Zachery Kouwe scandal appeared Sunday. Hoyt concluded that the Times “owes readers a full accounting” of how Kouwe’s plagiarism occurred, and he also called out DealBook, the Times’ business blog for which Kouwe wrote, questioning its hyper-competitive nature and saying it needs more oversight. (In an accompanying blog post, Hoyt also said the Times needs to look closer at implementing plagiarism prevention software.)

Reuters’ Felix Salmon challenged Hoyt’s assertion, saying that the Times’ problem was not that its ethics were too steeped in the ethos of the blogosphere, but that they aren’t bloggy enough. Channeling CUNY prof Jeff Jarvis’ catchphrase “Do what you do best and link to the rest,” Salmon chastised Kouwe and other Times bloggers for rewriting stories that other online news organizations beat them to, rather than simply linking to them. “The problem, here, is that the bloggers at places like the NYT and the WSJ are print reporters, and aren’t really bloggers at heart,” Salmon wrote.

Michael Roston made a similar argument at True/Slant the first time this came up, and ex-newspaperman Mathew Ingram strode to Salmon’s defense this time with an eloquent defense of the link. It’s not just a practice for geeky insiders, he argues; it’s “a fundamental aspect of writing for the web.” (Also at True/Slant, Paul Smalera made a similar Jarvis-esque argument.) In a lengthy Twitter exchange with Salmon, Times editor Patrick LaForge countered that the Times does link more than most newspapers, and Kouwe was an exception.

Jason Fry, a former blogger for the Wall Street Journal, agreed with Ingram and Smalera, but theorizes that the Times’ linking problem is not so much a refusal to play by the web’s rules as “an unthinking perpetuation of print values that are past their sell-by date.” Those values, he says, are scoops, which, as he argued further in a more sports-centric column, readers on the web just don’t care about as much as they used to.

Location prepares for liftoff: The massive music/tech gathering South By Southwest (or, in webspeak, SXSW) starts today in Austin, Texas, so I’m sure you’ll see a lot of ideas making their way from Austin to next week’s review. If early predictions are any indication, one of the ideas we’ll be talking about is geolocation — services like Foursquare and Gowalla that use your mobile device to give and broadcast location-specific information to and about you. In anticipation of this geolocation hype, CNET has given us a pre-SXSW primer on location-based services.

Facebook jump-started the location buzz by apparently leaking word to The New York Times that it’s going to unveil a new location-based feature next month. Silicon Alley Insider does a quick pro-and-con rundown of the major location platforms, and ReadWriteWeb wonders whether Facebook’s typically privacy-guarding users will go for this.

The major implication of this development for news organizations, I think, is the fact that Facebook’s jump onto the location train is going to send it hurtling forward far, far faster than it’s been going. Within as little as a year, location could go from the domain of early-adopting smartphone addicts to being a mainstream staple of social media, similar to the boom that Facebook itself saw once it was opened beyond college campuses. That means news organizations have to be there, too, developing location-based methods of delivering news and information. We’ve known for a while that this was coming; now we know it’s close.

The future of context: South By Southwest also includes bunches of fascinating tech/media/journalism panels, and one of them that’s given us a sneak preview is Monday’s panel called “The Future of Context.” Two of the panelists, former web reporter and editor Matt Thompson and NYU professor Jay Rosen, have published versions of their opening statements online, and both pieces are great food for thought. Thompson’s is a must-read: He describes the difference between day-to-day headline- and development-oriented information about news stories that he calls “episodic” and the “systemic knowledge” that forms our fundamental framework for understanding an issue. Thompson notes how broken the traditional news system’s way of intertwining those two forms of knowledge are, and he asks us how we can do it better online.

Rosen’s post is in less of a finished format, but it has a number of interesting thoughts, including a quick rundown of reasons that newsrooms don’t do explanatory journalism better. Cluetrain Manifesto co-author Doc Searls ties together both Rosen’s and Thompson’s thoughts and talks a bit more about the centrality of stories in pulling all that information together.

Tech execs’ advice for newspapers: Traditional news organizations got a couple of pieces of advice this week from two relatively big-time folks in the tech world. First, Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen gave an interview with TechCrunch’s Erick Schonfeld in which he told newspaper execs to “burn the boats” and commit wholeheartedly to the web, rather than finding way to prop up modified print models. He used the iPad as a litmus test for this philosophy, noting that “All the new [web] companies are not spending a nanosecond on the iPad or thinking of ways to charge for content. The older companies, that is all they are thinking about.”

Not everyone agreed: Newspaper Death Watch’s Paul Gillin said publishers’ current strategy, which includes keeping the print model around, is an intelligent one: They’re milking the print-based profits they have while trying to manage their business down to a level where they can transfer it over to a web-based model. News business expert Alan Mutter offered a more pointed counterargument: “It doesn’t take a certifiable Silicon Valley genius to see that no business can walk away from some 90% of its revenue base without imploding.”

Second, Google chief economist Hal Varian spoke at a Federal Trade Commission hearing about the economics of newspapers, advising newspapers that rather than charging for online content, they should be experimenting like crazy. (Varian’s summary and audio are at Google’s Public Policy Blog, and the full text, slides and Martin Langeveld’s summary are here at the Lab. Sync ‘em up and you can pretty much recreate the presentation yourself.) After briefly outlining the status of newspaper circulation and its print and online advertising, Varian also suggests that newspapers make better use of the demographic information they have of their online readers. Over at GigaOM, Mathew Ingram seconds Varian’s comments on engagement, imploring newspapers to actually use the interactive tools that they already have at their sites.

Reading roundup: We’ll start with our now-weekly summary of iPad stuff: Apple announced last week that you can preorder iPads as of today, and they’ll be released April 3. That could be only the beginning — an exec with the semiconductor IP company ARM told ComputerWorld we could see 50 similar tablet devices out this year. Multimedia journalist Mark Luckie urged media outlets to develop iPad apps, and Mac and iPhone developer Matt Gemmell delved into the finer points of iPad app design. (It’s not “like an iPhone, only bigger,” he says.)

I have two long, thought-provoking pieces on journalism, both courtesy of the Columbia Journalism Review. First, Megan Garber (now with the Lab) has a sharp essay on the public’s growing fixation on authorship that’s led to so much mistrust in journalism — and how journalists helped bring that fixation on. It’s a long, deep-thinking piece, but it’s well worth reading all the way through Garber’s cogent argument. Her concluding suggestions for news orgs regarding authority and identity are particularly interesting, with nuggets like “Transparency may be the new objectivity; but we need to shift our definition of ‘transparency’: from ‘the revelation of potential biases,’ and toward ‘the revelation of the journalistic process.’”

Second, CJR has the text of Illinois professor Robert McChesney’s speech this week to the FTC, in which he makes the case for a government subsidy of news organizations. McChesney and The Nation’s John Nichols have made this case in several places with a new book, “The Death and Life of American Journalism,” on the shelves, but it’s helpful to have a comprehensive version of it in one spot online.

Finally, the Online Journalism Review’s Robert Niles has a simple tip for newspaper publishers looking to stave off their organizations’ decline: Learn to understand technology from the consumer’s perspective. That means, well, consuming technology. Niles provides a to-do list you can hand to your bosses to help get them started.

January 21 2010

19:14

The FCC’s future of media project

The Federal Communications Commission today posted its notice for public comment for its “examination of the future of media and the information needs of communities in a digital age.” It’s an ambitious undertaking, to say the least.

The notice lists 42 questions exploring topics that range from the travails of the newspaper industry to what our kids are watching when their parents aren’t around. One of the questions I liked best was No. 8:

Compared to earlier decades, are Americans more or less likely to seek and find more specialized media (i.e., that focused on a specific topic, appealing to a specific demographic group, or promoting a similar ideology or world view)? What are the positive and negative consequences of such patterns?

In my mind, this is the $64,000 question that gets at the role of mainstream media going forward. Will there be media sources that have some measure of credibility across diverse communities, like newspapers in the old days? Or more to the point, is there any role for mainstream media going forward?

Lower down, there’s a group of questions — Nos. 12 through 16 — on business models and financial trends. This is where I wanted to see some recognition that the nonprofit sector is responding to societal needs with innovation and creativity that complement the for-profit sector and eventually may become part of it. But questions about the nonprofit model were scattered throughout the document and didn’t seem particularly well informed. For instance, No. 25 asks in part:

What should be the role of non-profit media that are not noncommercial broadcast licensees (for instance, non-profit websites, news services, mobile applications, or reporting-oriented organizations)?

Likewise, No. 29 asks in part:

In general, how much journalism and other forms of information provision can be supported by private-sector non-profit sources?

That’s a bit like asking how many web pages can be created on the Internet. A better question might be, what is the case for philanthropy, and is it gaining traction with foundations and grassroots supporters? Put another way, do readers/listeners/viewers think of journalism as a socially beneficial endeavor that merits their support like a disease foundation or social service provider?

But the document does suggest that the FCC has some appreciation for what the sector has accomplished so far. It states:

(T)he Future of Media project starts with the assumption that many of the challenges encountered in today’s media environment will be addressed by the private for-profit and non-profit sectors, without government intervention. We will remain mindful of the Hippocratic Oath of physicians, “First, do no harm.”

Let’s hope so.

November 20 2009

14:00

The FTC should give nonprofit news a closer look

You know the old saying about how we’re from the government and we’re here to help you? That’s what came to mind as I read the Federal Trade Commission’s notice for its workshop on journalism in the digital age.

The notice makes the case that “news organizations,” which it notably does not attempt to define, are suffering at the hands of aggregators and other online actors that have drained the fun and profit from news gathering. Among the solutions the FTC wants to examine are some that would seem to support nonprofits — tax treatment and greater public funding, for example.

Memo to the FTC: No thanks.

It’s not that the FTC’s proposed solution are so bad, though I don’t much like the idea of government funding non-broadcast news operations. It’s that they provide fresh fodder for misinformed critics who have come to the conclusion that nonprofits pose a threat to for-profit news sites and journalism generally.

Mention “nonprofit” to some of these folks, and you’re likely get an allergic reaction. No sooner had San Francisco investor Warren Hellman ponied up $5 million for the Bay Area News Project than somebody complained errantly that the new venture would rely on unpaid college students, forcing other media to cut staff to remain competitive. News flash: Old media aren’t competitive in the online age, and that isn’t the fault of Warren Hellman or any nonprofit. Others fretted that donated money like Hellman’s comes with agendas and strings attached. And advertising dollars don’t?

But I digress. Nonprofits offer a viable solution to the decline of socially responsible journalism. By design, they put mission ahead of profit. And as a result, they will live or die based on their commitment to transparency. When the government gets involved, it introduces the appearance of special favors and the potential for political interference. That’s the death of transparency.

To be clear, I don’t object to the notion of government oversight. A little can go a long way — witness the FTC’s late-1990s antitrust investigation of Intel Corp. At the time, Intel dominated the computer chip market and, along with Microsoft Corp., seemed capable of devouring anything in its path, much as Google appears today. But just before trial began in 1999, Intel signed a settlement with the FTC in which it admitted no guilt and essentially agreed to be nicer to the smaller kids in the technology sandbox.

Based on this experience, we can assume that what the FTC workshop really hopes to accomplish is to once again nudge the bullies into being nicer. I would submit that there are better ways to accomplish this goal. One might be to bring in witnesses who can explain how the nonprofit model works and how it complements the work of for-profits in journalism and other sectors.

My nomination would go to Duke’s Jay Hamilton, author of All the News That’s Fit to Sell, which is cited in the FTC notice. In the book, Hamilton makes the case that journalism is becoming a public good. He writes:

The point here is that since individuals do not calculate the full benefit to society of their learning about politics, they will express less than optimal levels of interest in public affairs coverage and generate less than desirable demands for news about government.

I do agree with the FTC that the stakes are high because unlike the great oil and steel trusts of old, the big powerhouses of the Internet are in the business of ideas. As Bill Kovacic, then a law professor at George Washington University and now an FTC commissioner, told me during the Intel case: “I think the impact is so important because its impact on information services affects everything we do.”

The FTC workshop will be held in Washington Dec. 1-2.

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