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April 27 2012

14:00

This Week in Review: Rupert takes the stand, and the Post’s pressure on young aggregators

Fresh accusations and denials for News Corp.: After several months of investigation, News Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch and his son, James, testified this week before the British government’s Leveson inquiry into their company’s phone hacking and bribery scandal. Rupert made headlines by apologizing for his lack of action to stop the scandal and by admitting there was a cover-up — though he said he was the victim of his underlings’ cover-up, not a perpetrator himself (a charge one of those underlings strenuously objected to).

Murdoch also said he “panicked” by closing his News of the World newspaper last year, but said he should have done so years earlier. He spent the first day of his testimony defending himself against charges of lobbying public officials for favors, saying former Prime Minister Gordon Brown “declared war” on News Corp., which Brown denied. James Murdoch also testified to a lack of knowledge of the scandal and cozy relationships with officials.

Attention in that area quickly shifted this week to British Culture Minister Jeremy Hunt, with emails released to show that he worked to help News Corp. pick up support last year for its bid to takeover the broadcaster BSkyB — the same bid he was charged with overseeing. Hunt called the accusation “laughable” and refused calls to resign, though one of his aides did resign, saying his contact with News Corp. “went too far.”

The commentary on Murdoch’s appearance was, perhaps surprisingly, mixed. The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple mocked the fine line Murdoch apparently walked in his currying favor from public officials, and the Guardian’s Nick Davies said Murdoch looks vulnerable: “The man who has made millions out of paying people to ask difficult questions, finally faced questioners he could not cope with.” He antagonized quite a few powerful people in his testimony, Davies said, and the Leveson inquiry ultimately holds the cards here.

But Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff said Rupert doesn’t use his newspapers to gain officials’ favor in the way he’s accused of doing, and Reuters’ Jack Shafer argued that there’s nothing really wrong with lobbying regulators to approve your proposals anyway. “Don’t damn Murdoch for learning the rules of the regulatory game and then playing them as aggressively as he can,” he wrote.

Plagiarism and aggregation at the Post: A Washington Post blogger named Elizabeth Flock resigned last week after being caught plagiarizing, but the story went under the radar until the Post’s ombudsman, Patrick Pexton, wrote a column charging the Post with failing to properly guide its youngest journalists. Pexton said he talked with other young Post aggregators who “felt as if they were out there alone in digital land, under high pressure to get Web hits, with no training, little guidance or mentoring and sparse editing.”

Poynter’s Craig Silverman wrote a strong follow-up to the column, talking to several people from the Post and emphasizing the gravity of Flock’s transgression, but also throwing cold water on the “journalism’s standards are gone, thanks to aggregation” narrative. Reuters’ Jack Shafer thought Pexton went too easy on Flock’s plagiarism, but others thought it was the Post he wasn’t hard enough on. The Awl’s Trevor Butterworth said Flock’s mistake within the Post’s aggregation empire shed light on the “inherent cheapness of the product and the ethical dubiety of the entire process. You see, the Post—or any legacy news organization turned aggregator—wants to have its cake and other people’s cake too, and to do so without damaging its brand as a purveyor of original cake.”

BoingBoing’s Rob Beschizza made the same point, criticizing the Post for trying to dress up its aggregation as original reporting. The Raw Story’s Megan Carpentier used the example as a warning that even the most haphazard, thoughtless aggregated pieces have a certain online permanence under our bylines.

Technology, connection, and loneliness: A week after an Atlantic cover story asked whether Facebook was making us lonely (its answer: yes), MIT professor and author Sherry Turkle echoed the same point last weekend in a New York Times opinion piece. Through social and mobile media, Turkle argued, we’re trading conversation for mere connection, sacrificing self-reflection and the true experience of relating with others in the process.

Numerous people disputed her points, on a variety of different fronts. Cyborgology’s David Banks charged Turkle with “digital dualism,” asserting that “There is no ‘second self’ on my Facebook profile — it’s the same one that is embodied in flesh and blood.” At The Atlantic, Alexandra Samuel said Turkle is guilty of a different kind of dualism — an us/them dichotomy between (generally younger) social media users and the rest of us. Turkle, she wrote, “assumes conversations are only meaningful when they look like the conversations we grew up having.”

Like Banks, Mathew Ingram of GigaOM pointed out the close connection between online and offline relationships, and sociology prof Zeynep Tufekci argued at The Atlantic that if we are indeed seeing a loss in substantive interpersonal connection, it has more to do with our flight to the suburbs than social media. Claude Fischer of Boston Review disputed the idea that loneliness is on the rise in the first place, and in a series of thoughtful tweets, Wired’s Tim Carmody said the road to real relationship is in our own work, not in our embrace or denial of technologies.

New media lessons from academics and news orgs: The University of Texas hosted its annual International Symposium on Online Journalism last weekend, one of the few of the scores of journalism conferences that brings together both working journalists and academics. As usual, University of British Columbia j-prof Alfred Hermida live-blogged the heck out of the conference, and you can see his summaries of each of his 14 posts here.

Several people distilled the conference’s many presentations into a few themes: The Lab’s staff identified a few, including the need to balance beauty and usefulness in data journalism and the increasing centrality of mobile in news orgs’ strategies. At the Nonprofit Journalism Hub, conference organizer Amy Schmitz Weiss organized the themes into takeaways for news orgs, and Wisconsin j-prof Sue Robinson published some useful notes, organized by subject area.

A couple of specific items from the conference: The Lab’s Adrienne LaFrance wrote on a University of Texas study that found that the people most likely to pay for news are young men who are highly interested in news, though it also found that our stated desires in news consumption don’t necessarily match up with our actual habits. And Dan Gillmor touted the news-sharing potential of one of the conference’s presenters, LinkedIn, saying it’s the first site to connect news sharing with our professional contacts, rather than our personal ones.

[Editor's note: Mark's too modest to mention the paper he coauthored and presented at ISOJ.]

Reading roundup: Several interesting debates lurked just a bit under the radar this week. Here’s a quick lay of the land:

— Reuters’ Felix Salmon wondered why the New York Times doesn’t sell early access to its big business scoops to hedge funds looking for a market advantage, as Reuters and Bloomberg do. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram argued that the public value of those is too great to do that, and Salmon responded to his and others’ objections. The conversation also included a lively Twitter exchange, which Ingram and the Lab’s Joshua Benton Storified.

— The Chicago Tribune announced its decision to outsource its TribLocal network of community news sites to the Chicago company Journatic, laying off about 20 employees in the process. The Chicago Reader and Jim Romenesko gave some more information about Journatic (yes, the term “content farm” comes up, though its CEO rejected the term). Street Fight’s Tom Grubisich called it a good deal for the Tribune.

— In a feature at Wired, Steven Levy looked at automatically written stories, something The Atlantic’s Rebecca Greenfield said she didn’t find scary for journalism’s future prospects, since those stories aren’t really journalism. Nebraska j-prof Matt Waite also said journalists shouldn’t be afraid of something that frees them up to do their jobs better, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram tied together the Journatic deal and the robot journalism stories to come up with something a bit less optimistic.

— This week on the ebook front: A good primer on the U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit of Apple and publishers for price-fixing, which The Wall Street Journal’s Gordon Crovitz said is a completely normal and OK practice. Elsewhere, some publishers are dropping digital rights management, and a publishing exec talked to paidContent about why they broke DRM.

— Gawker revealed its new commenting system this week — the Lab’s Andrew Phelps gave the background, Gawker’s Nick Denton argued in favor of anonymity, Dave Winer wanted to see the ability for anyone to write an article on it, and GigaOM talked with Denton about the state of tech.

— Google shut down its paid-content system for publishers, One Pass, saying it’s moved on to its Consumer Surveys.

— Finally, a few long reads for the weekend: David Lowery on artist rights and the new business model for creative work, Ethan Zuckerman on the ethics of tweet bombing, danah boyd on social media and fear, and Steve Buttry and Dan Conover on restoring newsroom morale.

Rupert Murdoch artwork by Surian Soosay and texting photo by Ed Brownson used under a Creative Commons license.

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.

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