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January 20 2012

16:00

This Week in Review: The SOPA standoff, and Apple takes on textbooks with ebooks

The web flexes its political muscle: After a couple of months of growing concern, the online backlash against the anti-piracy bills SOPA and PIPA reached a rather impressive peak this week. There’s a lot of moving parts to this, so I’ll break it down into three parts: the arguments for and against the bill, the status of the bill, and this week’s protests.

The bills’ opponents have covered a wide variety of arguments over the past few months, but there were still a few more new angles this week in the arguments against SOPA. NYU prof Clay Shirky put the bill in historical context in a 14-minute TED talk, and social-media researcher danah boyd parsed out both the competitive and cultural facets of piracy. At the Harvard Business Review, James Allworth and Maxwell Wessel framed the issue as a struggle between big content companies and smaller innovators. The New York Times asked six contributors for their ideas about viable SOPA alternatives in fighting piracy, and at Slate, Matthew Yglesias argued that piracy actually has some real benefits for society and the entertainment industry.

The most prominent SOPA supporter on the web this week was News Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch, who went on a Twitter rant against SOPA opponents and Google in particular, reportedly after seeing a Google TV presentation in which the company said it wouldn’t remove links in search to illegal movie streams. Both j-prof Jeff Jarvis and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram responded that Murdoch doesn’t understand how the Internet works, with Jarvis arguing that Murdoch isn’t opposed so much to piracy as the entire architecture of the web. At the Guardian, however, Dan Gillmor disagreed with the idea that Murdoch doesn’t get the web, saying that he and other big-media execs know exactly the threat it represents to their longstanding control of media content.

Now for the status of the bill itself: Late last week, SOPA was temporarily weakened and delayed, as its sponsor, Lamar Smith, said he would remove domain-name blocking until the issue has been “studied,” and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said he won’t bring the bill to the House floor until some real consensus about the bill can be found.

That consensus became a bit less likely this week, after the White House came out forcefully against SOPA and PIPA, calling for, as Techdirt described it, a “hard reset” on the bills. The real blow to the bills came after Wednesday’s protests, when dozens of members of Congress announced their opposition. The fight is far from over, though — as Mathew Ingram noted, PIPA still has plenty of steam, and the House Judiciary Committee will resume its work on SOPA next month.

But easily the biggest news surrounding SOPA and PIPA this week was the massive protests of it around the web. Hundreds of sites, including such heavyweights as Wikipedia, Reddit, Mozilla, BoingBoing, and WordPress, blacked out on Wednesday, and other sites such as Google and Wired joined with “censored” versions of their home pages. As I noted above, the protest was extremely successful politically, as some key members of Congress backed off their support of the bill, leading The New York Times to call it a “political coming of age” for the tech industry.

The most prominent of those protesting sites was Wikipedia, which redirected site users to an anti-SOPA action page on Wednesday. Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales’ announcement of the protest was met with derision in some corners, with Twitter CEO Dick Costolo and PandoDaily’s Paul Carr chastising the global site for doing something so drastic in response to a single national issue. Wales defended the decision by saying that the law will affect web users around the world, and he also got support from writers like Mathew Ingram and the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal, who argued that Wikipedia and Google’s protests could help take the issue out of the tech community and into the mainstream.

The New York Times’ David Pogue was put off by some aspects of the SOPA outrage and argued that some of the bill’s opposition grew out of a philosophy that was little more than, “Don’t take my free stuff!” And ReadWriteWeb’s Joe Brockmeier was concerned about what happens after the protest is over, when Congress goes back to business as usual and the public remains largely in the dark about what they’re doing. “Even if SOPA goes down in flames, it’s not over. It’s never over,” he wrote.

Apple’s bid to reinvent the textbook: Apple announced yesterday its plans to add educational publishing to the many industries it’s radically disrupted, through its new iBooks and iBooks Author systems. Wired’s Tim Carmody, who’s been consistently producing the sharpest stuff on this subject, has the best summary of what Apple’s rolling out: A better iBooks platform, a program (iBooks Author) allowing authors to design their own iBooks, textbooks in the iBookstore, and a classroom management app called iTunes U.

After news of the announcement was broken earlier this week by Ars Technica, the Lab’s Joshua Benton explained some of the reasons the textbook industry is ripe for disruption and wondered about the new tool’s usability. (Afterward, he listed some of the change’s implications, including for the news industry.) Tim Carmody, meanwhile, gave some historical perspective on Steve Jobs’ approach to education reform.

As Carmody detailed after the announcement, education publishing is a big business for Apple to come crashing into. But The Atlantic’s Megan Garber explained that that isn’t exactly what Apple’s doing here; instead, it’s simply “identifying transformative currents and building the right tools to navigate them.” Still, Reuters’ Jack Shafer asserted that what’s bad for these companies is good for readers like him.

But while Apple talked about reinventing the textbook, several observers didn’t see revolutionary changes around the corner. ReadWriteWeb’s John Paul Titlow noted that Apple is teaming up with big publishers, not killing them, and Paul Carr of PandoDaily argued that iBook Author’s self-made ebooks won’t challenge the professionally produced and marketed ones. All Things Digital’s Peter Kafka did the math to show the publishers should still get plenty of the new revenue streams.

The news still brought plenty of concerns: At CNET, Lindsey Turrentine wondered how many schools will have the funds to afford the hardware for iBooks, and David Carnoy and Scott Stein questioned how open Apple’s new platforms would be. That theme was echoed elsewhere, especially by developer Dan Wineman, who found that through its user agreement, Apple will essentially assert rights to anything produced with its iBooks file format. That level of control gave some, like GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, pause, but Paul Carr said we shouldn’t be surprised: This is what Apple does, he said, and we all buy its products anyway.

Making ‘truth vigilantes’ mainstream: The outrage late last week over New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane’s column asking whether the paper’s reporters should challenge misleading claims by officials continued to yield thoughtful responses this week. After his column last week voicing his support for journalism’s “truth vigilantes,” j-prof Robert Niles created a site to honor them, pointing out instances in which reporters call out their sources for lying. Salon’s Gene Lyons, meanwhile, said that attitudes like Brisbane’s are a big part of what’s led to the erosion of trust in the Times and the mainstream press.

The two sharpest takes on the issue this week came from The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf and from Columbia Ph.D. student Lucas Graves here at the Lab. Friedersdorf took on journalists’ argument that people should read the news section for unvarnished facts and the opinion section for analysis: That argument doesn’t work, he said, because readers don’t consume a publication as a bundle anymore.

Graves analyzed the issue in light of both the audience’s expectations for news and the growth of the fact-checking movement. He argued for fact-checking to be incorporated into journalists’ everyday work, rather than remaining a specialized form of journalism. Reuters’ Felix Salmon agreed, asserting that “the greatest triumph of the fact-checking movement will come when it puts itself out of work, because journalists are doing its job for it as a matter of course.” At the Lab, Craig Newmark of Craigslist also chimed in, prescribing more rigorous fact-checking efforts as a way for journalists to regain the public’s trust.

Reading roundup: Not a ton of other news developments per se this week, but plenty of good reads nonetheless. Here’s a sample:

— There was one major development on the ongoing News Corp. phone hacking case: The company settled 36 lawsuits by victims, admitting a cover-up of the hacking. Here’s the basic story from Reuters and more in-depth live coverage from the Guardian.

— Rolling Stone published a long, wide-ranging interview with WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange as he awaits his final extradition hearing. Reuters’ Jack Shafer also wrote a thoughtful piece on the long-term journalistic implications of WikiLeaks, focusing particularly on the continued importance of institutions.

— Two interesting pieces of journalism-related research: Slate’s Farhad Manjoo described a Facebook-based study that throws some cold water on the idea of the web as a haven for like-minded echo chambers, and the Lab’s Andrew Phelps wrote about a study that describes and categorizes the significant group people who stumble across news online.

— In a thorough feature, Nick Summers of Newsweek/The Daily Beast laid out the concerns over how big ESPN is getting, and whether that’s good for ESPN itself and sports media in general.

— Finally, for those thinking about how to develop the programmer-journalists of the future, j-prof Matt Waite has a set of thoughts on the topic that functions as a great jumping-off point for more ideas and discussion.

January 19 2012

16:30

The day the bookshelf shook: Four lessons for news orgs from today’s Apple iBooks announcements

Apple’s New York education event — smack in the middle of the book publishing world — has concluded. You can see coverage from The Verge here, but the main takeaways are a new version of iBooks that enables great-looking interactive textbooks; a new Mac app called iBooks Author that promises to make it much easier to assemble and publish ebooks; and a new iTunes U app that makes it easier for universities and schools to create and distribute an entire course’s worth of material, from lecture videos to readings to assignments.

The focus was on education, and Apple faces some significant hurdles in getting their products into actual schools (where textbook and technology purchasing are constricted by forces bureaucratic, fiscal, and otherwise). But in truth much of what Apple announced was squarely aimed at further disruption of the publishing industry — in this case, the book publishing industry, already facing disruption from Amazon and ebooks more broadly.

So what should someone in the news business take away from today’s announcements? Here are four ideas I think are worth keeping in mind.

News organizations: Now’s the time to figure out how to jump on the ebook bandwagon.

As I wrote the other day, ebooks as a platform have been limited by the relatively clunky process for converting a stack of text into an attractive digital product. It’s not impossible, of course — it’s just a pain.

Today’s announcement of iBooks Author promises to make that process a lot easier. (Although just for iBooks, of course — in most cases, of course, you’ll also want to publish to the Kindle.) Particularly for news organizations — which typically have lots of good art to go along with their longer-form content — pulling together an attractive package could now be a matter of minutes instead of hours. (Or, to put it another way, something done routinely in-house instead of farmed out to a contractor.)

How will news organizations react to that newfound ease of publishing? What are the ebooks already lurking inside the heart of the newsroom, just waiting to be unlocked? Is it a compilation of all a newspaper’s restaurant reviews? A popular columnist’s collected works? A compendium of all the paper’s stories about the local high school football team, player profiles and game stories, full of big art? Several years’ worth of gardening columns, filtered to focus on what grows well in the local soil? A local band book/database that includes MP3 samples from each? An expanded version of the 100 Biggest Local Businesses section the biz desk puts out once a year? A detailed guide to the local public schools, aimed at people new to area?

In the print book era, deciding to try one of these ideas would involve estimating the potential audience, deciding whether it’s worth investing the time to design it, guessing at a print run, figuring out how to get it in the hands of local retailers, and a host of other complications. But with ebooks — if publishing those ebooks is uncomplicated, just a few more steps than hitting File -> Save As…, built around common templates — what kinds of value could be unlocked?

“Book” content can be episodic too.

One of the standout new textbooks announced today was E.O. Wilson’s Life on Earth, the Harvard professor’s attempt to rethink the biology textbook. Aside from what wisdom it will bring about the Mesozoic Era, perhaps its most interesting element is that it is being released chapter by chapter. The first two chapters are available for download now; the remaining ones will be available later at an “aggressive” price.

Think of Charles Dickens, whose books were famously serialized and left crowds hanging out at the New York docks for a new chapter to roll in to find out what happened to little Nell.

News organizations have traditionally thought of books — when they’ve thought of them at all — as something to be assembled after the fact. Maybe it’s a 10-part series that gets massaged into paperback form after the newsprint run is over. Or it’s a recap of the local football team’s championship season.

But news orgs are really good at producing episodic information. And if books like Wilson’s begin to train readers that books can start incomplete and fill in over time, the technology’s already there — in iBooks and on the Kindle. (The tech book world is already ahead of the game here; books about programming languages now regularly appear first in “beta,” for instance, and O’Reilly’s Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto is adding chapter over time — in part in response to reader feedback.

Once books stop being only finished, whole things — when they can also be works in progress, works in development — the possibilities for journalists open up. Imagine a book on the health-care reform debate that could be updated with each twist and turn, adding profiles of the players, daily news updates, legislative summaries, and more as the story developed. Imagine if buying a book was less a purchase of a contained story and more a statement of desire — “I’m interested in this subject and I want to have all the important news and analysis about it delivered to me, in the place I’m used to reading.”

“Publishing” is becoming a convergence of technologies and workflows.

As Apple showed off the process of making ebooks with iBooks Author, what stood out for me is how much it draws on all the disparate workflows that you could lump under “publishing.” There was a bit drawn from word processing, a little from layout design, some from presentation-building, a touch of web-page building, and even a little drawn from app development. (The preview-on-an-attached-iPad comes straight from Xcode, the app you use to build iPhone, iPad, and Mac native apps.) And of course, I haven’t even mentioned all the (important, duh) work that happens before iBooks Author gets launched — namely writing and editing.

It’s a mish-mash of styles. It looks, at very first glance, that iBooks Author does a good job of making it all user friendly, but it’s a reminder that “publishing,” as an act and as a field, pulls together a full liberal-arts curriculum’s worth of skills. Those whose abilities cover a wider range of those skills will do well; those who stick to one part of the process had better be really good at it.

Desktops and laptops are out of style.

There’s no reason, technically, why there couldn’t be a version of iBooks for the Mac. (Or the PC, for that matter.) But Apple has stuck to its guns: Reading iBooks is something you do on your iPhone or your iPad, not a desktop or laptop computer. (And today’s presentation went even narrower, focusing squarely on the iPad. For people who think a tablet would duplicate the kind of work they can already do their MacBook, today should help nail home the differentiation.)

I can’t imagine news organizations need any further evidence that reading is going to keep moving from big screens to smaller ones, from stationary to mobile. But judging by a lot of news sites’ abysmal mobile experiences, maybe they do. So here’s one more data point: Apple’s investing big in a creating a new kind of reading experience for a new kind of content, and they’re completely ignoring every desktop and laptop computer in the universe.

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