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July 29 2011

14:00

This Week in Review: Design and the Times, Google+ growing pains, and the extinction of the mogul

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

Debating the Times’ paywall and design: In its quarterly earnings call late last week, the New York Times gave the clearest picture yet of how its new online pay plan is working. As usual, it turned out to be something of a Rorschach test: BNET’s Erik Sherman called the numbers evidence that the paywall isn’t protecting the Times’ print subscriptions, as it was intended to. On the other hand, the Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum argued that the Times’ big digital subscription figure (224,000) “proves that, contra the naysayers, readers will pay good money for quality news.” The Times’ paywall adds an important digital revenue stream, he said, while also letting in enough casual readers to keep the value of digital advertising up.

The most thorough defense of the Times, though, came from New York magazine’s Seth Mnookin: “The Times has taken a do-or-die stand for hard-core, boots-on-the-ground journalism, for earnest civic purpose, for the primacy of content creators over aggregators, and has brought itself back from the precipice.” BNET’s Jim Edwards said it’s premature for Mnookin to say the Times is back, but Reuters’ Felix Salmon, a former Times paywall skeptic, agreed with Mnookin that the paywall is working, saying he’s glad the Times has shown a porous paywall can work.

The other Times-related item is firmly in the hypothetical realm, but it generated at least as much conversation as the real-world pay plan. Last week, web designer Andy Rutledge critiqued the Times’ online design and proposed his own version, emphasizing headlines, timestamps, authors, and separating news from opinion.

The response wasn’t particularly positive. The redesign was generally trashed on Twitter, with a typical sentiment expressed by 10,000 Words’ Lauren Rabaino: “It’s hard to take seriously a design that completely ignores the constraints of a typical newspaper.” One of the most comprehensive responses came from Guardian developer Martin Belam, who pointed out things like faces, article summaries, and points of social connection that Rutledge was missing.

The Lab’s Joshua Benton argued that Rutledge’s redesign doesn’t acknowledge that “the problems of large-scale information architecture for news sites are really hard problems.” Meanwhile, Belgian developer Stijn Debrouwere went the other direction, asking for more unrealistic mockups like this one to help us brainstorm what news sites could look like. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram said the problem with the Times’ site is that it’s designed as if readers are interested in everything the paper produces, which is almost never the case. And Paul Scrivens said both Rutledge and the Times should look outside the news industry for design cues.

The Google+ lockout: Google+ continues to grow at a ridiculous pace — far faster than either Facebook or Twitter, as Idealab’s Bill Gross pointed out — and as Simon Dumenco of Ad Age argued, the platform represents a social media do-over for a lot of users. It’s still generating dissent, though, with much of it stemming from Google+’s policy toward business pages. As Google’s Christian Oestlien wrote late last week, the company is working on a business profile template that will be up in the next few months, but they’re deleting business pages (including news organization pages) in the meantime.

A few companies will get trial pages before they’re available to everyone, and others have found workarounds — the tech blog Mashable managed to keep all its followers by simply changing its page name to the name of its CEO, Pete Cashmore. That got other members of the tech press worked up, including Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan, who urged Google to restore the deleted pages and let businesses create pages normally. TechCrunch’s MG Siegler said Google is essentially creating its own version of Twitter’s Suggested User List, and Mathew Ingram of GigaOM made the case for why this is a big deal.

Elsewhere in the world of Google+, Mathew Ingram wrote about the issues it’s dealing with regarding anonymity, and The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal is experimenting with a daily news roundup on his personal page there. The Next Web’s Martin Bryant examined Google+’s usefulness as a news tool, concluding that while it has potential, it needs a bigger, broader user base to start to really challenge Twitter and Facebook.

The last media mogul?: The News Corp. phone hacking scandal shifted down a gear this week, but there were still a few developments to report. The News of the World hacking victims also reportedly included the mother of an 8-year-old murder victim, and two former employees testified that they had told James Murdoch that the hacking was widespread, contradicting what Murdoch had told Parliament last week. Other News Corp. veterans challenged the picture Rupert Murdoch painted of himself as a largely hands-off newspaper boss.

The New York Times’ David Carr wrote that James Murdoch is done, and that Rupert has finally been revealed as vulnerable. CUNY j-prof Jeff Jarvis was more emphatic, calling Murdoch the last media mogul: “The mogul is extinct. The kind of big media institution he built will follow him. Lovely chaos will follow. It’s called democracy.” The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple took a quick look at what a post-Murdoch world might look like.

A couple of other News Corp.-related avenues to chase down: Dean Starkman of the Columbia Journalism Review argued that a scandal like News of the World’s won’t happen in the U.S., and News Corp.’s newest property, the tablet publication The Daily, appears to be floundering, according to a New York Observer feature, though a new version was released last week.

Reading roundup: There wasn’t a whole lot to take in this week, but here’s a quick sampling:

— The FCC is releasing a series of studies on media ownership, one of the newest of which suggested that media cross-ownership (ownership of multiple media outlets within a single market) doesn’t hurt local news, and may actually help it.

— Wisconsin j-prof Stephen Ward made a thoughtful case for redefining objectivity in the digital age.

— Particularly for the Twitter skeptics and writing teachers out there, Poynter’s Mallary Jean Tenore put together a great post outlining the ways Twitter has made her a better writer.

— Finally, I’ve been trying to cover this piecemeal discussion here, but the AP’s Jonathan Stray did a much better job of summarizing the recent conversation about the changing structure of news stories with a fantastic reading list. Now that you’re done with this link-fest, be sure to give that one a look-through, too.

April 30 2010

14:30

This Week in Review: Gizmodo and the shield law, making sense of social data, and the WSJ’s local push

[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]

Apple and Gizmodo’s shield law test: The biggest tech story of the last couple of weeks has undoubtedly been the gadget blog Gizmodo’s photos of a prototype of Apple’s next iPhone that was allegedly left in a bar by an Apple employee. That story got a lot more interesting for journalism- and media-oriented folks this week, when we found out that police raided a Gizmodo blogger’s apartment based on a search warrant for theft.

What had been a leaked-gadget story turned into a case study on web journalism and the shield law. Mashable and Poynter did a fine job of laying out the facts of the case and the legal principles at stake: Was Gizmodo engaged in acts of journalism when it paid for the lost iPhone and published information about it? Social media consultant Simon Owens has a good roundup of opinions on the issue, including whether the situation would be different if Gizmodo hadn’t bought the iPhone.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, came out most strongly against the raid, arguing to Wired and Laptop magazine and in its own post that California law is clear that the Gizmodo blogger was acting as a reporter. The Citizen Media Law Project’s Sam Bayard agreed, backing the point up with a bit more case history. Not everyone had Gizmodo’s back, though: In a piece written before the raid, media critic Jeff Bercovici of Daily Finance said that Gizmodo was guilty of straight-up theft, journalistic motives or no.

J-prof Jay Rosen added a helpful clarification to the “are bloggers journalists” debate (it’s actually about whether Gizmodo was engaged in an act of journalism, he says) and ex-Saloner Scott Rosenberg reached back to a piece he wrote five years ago to explain why that debate frustrates him so much. Meanwhile, the Columbia Journalism Review noted that the Gizmodo incident was just one in a long line of examples of Apple’s anti-press behavior.

Bridging the newsroom-academy gap: Texas j-prof Rosental Alves held his annual International Symposium on Online Journalism last weekend, and thanks to a lot of people’s work in documenting the conference, we have access to much of what was presented and discussed there. The conference site and Canadian professor Alfred Hermida devoted about 20 posts each to the event’s sessions and guests, so there’s loads of great stuff to peruse if you have time.

The conference included presentations on all kinds of stuff like Wikipedia, news site design, online comments, micropayments, and news innovation, but I want to highlight two sessions in particular. The first is the keynote by Demand Media’s Steven Kydd, who defended the company’s content and businessmodel from criticism that it’s a harmful “content farm.” Kydd described Demand Media as “service journalism,” providing content on subjects that people want to know about while giving freelancers another market. You can check summaries of his talk at the official site, Hermida’s blog, and in a live blog by Matt Thompson. The conference site also has video of the Q&A session and reflections on Kydd’s charisma and a disappointing audience reaction. The other session worth taking a closer look at was a panel on nonprofit journalism, which, judging from Hermida and the conference’s roundups, seemed especially rich with insight into particular organizations’ approaches.

The conference got Matt Thompson, a veteran of both the newsroom and the academy who’s currently working for NPR, thinking about what researchers can do to bring the two arenas closer together. “I saw a number of studies this weekend that working journalists would find fascinating and helpful,” he wrote. “Yet they’re not available in forms I’d feel comfortable sending around the newsroom.” He has some practical, doable tips that should be required reading for journalism researchers.

Making sense of social data: Most of the commentary on Facebook’s recent big announcements came out last week, but there’s still been plenty of good stuff since then. The tech blog ReadWriteWeb published the best explanation yet of what these moves mean, questioning whether publishers will be willing to give up ownership of their comments and ratings to Facebook. Writers at ReadWriteWeb and O’Reilly Radar also defended Facebook’s expansion against last week’s privacy concerns.

Three other folks did a little bit of thinking about the social effects of Facebook’s spread across the web: New media prof Jeff Jarvis said Facebook isn’t just identifying us throughout the web, it’s adding a valuable layer of data on places, things, ideas, everything. But, he cautions, that data isn’t worth much if it’s controlled by a company and the crowd isn’t able to create meaning out of it. Columbia grad student Vadim Lavrusik made the case for a “social nut graph” that gives context to this flood of data and allows people to do something more substantive than “like” things. PR blogger Paul Seaman wondered about how much people will trust Facebook with their data while knowing that they’re giving up some of their privacy rights for Facebook’s basic services. And social media researcher danah boyd had some insightful thoughts about the deeper issue of privacy in a world of “big data.”

The Wall Street Journal goes local: The Wall Street Journal made the big move in its war with The New York Times this week, launching its long-expected New York edition. The Times’ media columnist, David Carr, took a pretty thorough look at the first day’s offering and the fight in general, and Columbia j-prof Sree Sreenivasan liked what he saw from the Journal on day one.

Slate media critic Jack Shafer said the struggle between the Journal and the Times is a personal one for the Journal’s owner, Rupert Murdoch — he wants to own Manhattan, and he wants to see the Times go down in flames there. Meanwhile, Jeff Jarvis stifled a yawn, calling it “two dinosaurs fighting over a dodo bird.”

Along with its local edition, the Journal also announced a partnership with the geolocation site Foursquare that gives users news tips or factoids when they check in at certain places around New York — a bit more of a hard-news angle than Foursquare’s other news partnerships so far. Over at GigaOm, Mathew Ingram applauded the Journal’s innovation but questioned whether it would help the paper much.

Apple and app control: The fury over Pulitzer-winning cartoonist Mark Fiore’s proposed iPhone app has largely died down, but there were a few more app-censorship developments this week to note. MSNBC.com cartoonist Daryl Cagle pointed out that despite Apple’s letup in Fiore’s case, they’re not reconsidering their rejection of his “Tiger Woods cartoons” app. Political satirist Daniel Kurtzman had two of his apps rejected, too, and an app of Michael Wolff’s Newser column — which frequently mocks Apple’s Steve Jobs — was nixed as well. Asked about the iPad at the aforementioned International Symposium on Online Journalism, renowned web scholar Ethan Zuckerman said Apple’s control over apps makes him “very nervous.”

The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta also went deep into the iPad’s implications for publishers this week in a piece on the iPad, the Kindle and the book industry. You can hear him delve into those issues in interviews with Charlie Rose and Fresh Air’s Terry Gross.

Reading roundup: We had some great smaller conversations on a handful of news-related topics this week.

— Long-form journalism has been getting a lot of attention lately. Slate’s Jack Shafer wrote about longform.org, an effort to collect and link to the best narrative journalism on the web. Several journalistic heavyweights — Gay Talese, Buzz Bissinger, Bill Keller — sang the praises of narrative journalism during a Boston University conference on the subject.

Nieman Storyboard focused on Keller’s message, in which he expressed optimism that long-form journalism could thrive in the age of the web. Jason Fry agreed with Keller’s main thrust but took issue with the points he made to get there. Meanwhile, Jonathan Stray argued that “the web is more amenable to journalism of different levels of quality and completeness” and urges journalists not to cut on the web what they’re used to leaving out in print.

— FEED co-founder Steven Johnson gave a lecture at Columbia last week about the future of text, especially as it relates to tablets and e-readers. You can check it out here as an essay and here on video. Johnson criticizes the New York Times and Wall Street Journal for creating iPad apps that don’t let users manipulate text. The American Prospect’s Nancy Scola appreciates the argument, but says Johnson ignored the significant cultural impact of a closed app process.

— Two intriguing sets of ideas for news design online: Belgian designer Stijn Debrouwere has spent the last three weeks writing a thoughtful series of posts exploring a new set of principles for news design, and French media consultant Frederic Filloux argues that most news sites are an ineffective, restrictive funnel that cut users off from their most interesting content. Instead, he proposes a “serendipity test” for news sites.

— Finally, if you have 40 free minutes sometime, I highly recommend watching the Lab editor Joshua Benton’s recent lecture at Harvard’s Berkman Center on aggregation and journalism. Benton makes a compelling argument from history that all journalism is aggregation and says that if journalists don’t like the aggregation they’re seeing online, they need to do it better. It makes for a great introductory piece on journalism practices in transition on the web.

March 12 2010

08:49

March 08 2010

16:12

Zooming the news: Is Seadragon a new news interface?

Frédéric Filloux has an interesting piece in this week’s Monday Note (which, if you’re not already reading, you should be). It’s on Microsoft’s work on Seadragon, which is a piece of tech that allows “infinite zooming”:

This is what Seadragon is about: it lets you dive in an image down to the smallest detail. All done seamlessly using the internet. The Seadragon deep-zooming system achieves such fluidity by sending requests to a database of “tiles”, each one holding a fraction of the total image. The required tiles load as we zoom and pan. And because each request is of a modest size, it only needs to cover a fraction of our screen, the process works fine with a basic internet connection.

Filloux argues that something like Seadragon might be a new interface for news:

In a prototype, they used a set of 6400 pages of the final editions of the Seattle Post Intelligencer, the local daily that folded few months ago. Let’s picture this: a one year of a daily newspaper entirely shown on one screen. 365 days x 50 pages of newspaper on average, that is about 17 800 pages to navigate. At first, this collection is represented using a series of thumbnails that are too small to be identified. One click breaks up the stack by month, another click organizes it in a much more manageable set of weeks. Now, I pick up an issue and dive in…Unlike the hyperlink system I use when going from one page to another, in the Seadragon-based interface I’m not leaving my “newspaper”. I’m staying inside the same zoomable set of elements. As I land on a page of interest, again, I can zoom in to a particular story (which, in passing, reconstructs itself in order to avoid the “old-style” jump to the article’s continuation on another page).

I absolutely agree that we’re nowhere near a stable endpoint for how we present news online — there’s a huge need for innovation. (One of the things I admire most about Gawker Media, for example, is that they are willing to rethink basic elements like comments, post styles, and ad placement. And the chance to try new presentation forms is one of the most exciting things about the iPad.)

But I’d push back against the idea of a Seadragon-like interface being the future. Two reasons:

People don’t like immersive environments online as much as some would like to think. Compare the amount of hype Second Life got to the actual amount of use it gets today. (How are all those Second Life “news bureaus” doing today?) I remember back when VRML was the future, and that we would all by 2002 be spending our time walking through news corridors and news caves. Aside from World of Warcraft and other games, users have consistently been less interested in immersive experiences than technologists have. When we’re seeking information, as opposed to play, we’ve defaulted to something closer to flat navigation. I don’t think that’s the endpoint of news, but I think it’s an indicator that “diving deep” into a geographic news landscape might not be the metaphor that wins out.

The main problem with contemporary news navigation is discovery, not depth. Most news consumers are looking for interesting content, stories they’ll enjoy, photos they’ll like to look at, videos they’ll think are worth watching. One reason time-on-site is so low for news sites is that, when a story grabs someone’s interest, news sites do a bad job of showing them other stories that will grab it again. News organizations produce a ton of content, but it’s difficult to present it all well to readers. That, to me, is the big challenge, not the need for the sort of depth that an infinite-zoom metaphor might provide.

But that’s just my quick take. What do you guys think: Is something like Seadragon doing to be a big influence on how we navigate news in the near future?

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