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February 10 2012

15:00

This Week in Review: Facebook’s future and the open web, and finding balance on breaking news

Is Facebook a threat to the open web?: There was still a lot of smart commentary on Facebook’s filing for a public stock offering rolling in last late week, so I’ll start with a couple pieces I missed in last week’s review: Both The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal and Slate’s Farhad Manjoo were skeptical of Facebook’s ability to stay so financially successful. Madrigal said it’s going to have to get a lot more than the $4.39 in revenue per user it’s currently getting, and Manjoo wondered about what happens after the social gaming craze that’s been providing so much of Facebook’s revenue passes.

How to supplement those revenue streams? A lot of the answer’s going to come from personal data aggregation, and law professor Lori Andrews wrote in The New York Times about some of the dark sides of that practice, including stereotyping and discrimination. Facebook also needs to move more deeply into mobile, and Wired’s Tim Carmody documented its struggles in that area. On the bright side, Wired’s Steven Levy approved of Mark Zuckerberg’s letter to shareholders and his articulation of The Hacker Way.

Facebook’s filing also spurred an intriguing discussion of the relationship between it, Google, and the open web. As web pioneer John Battelle said best and The Atlantic’s James Fallows summarized aptly, several observers were concerned that Facebook’s rise and Google’s potential decline is a loss for the open web, because Google built its financial success on the success of the open web while Facebook’s success depends on increased sharing inside its own private channels. As Battelle argued, this private orientation threatens the core values that should drive the Internet: decentralization, a commons-based ethos, neutrality, interoperability, and data openness. Mathew Ingram of GigaOM countered that users don’t care so much about openness as usefulness, and that’s what could eventually do Facebook in.

Another Facebook-related discussion sprung up around Evgeny Morozov’s piece for The New York Times lamenting the death of cyberflânerie — the practice of strolling through the streets of the web alone, taking in and reflecting on its sights and sounds. Among other factors, he pinpointed Facebook’s “frictionless sharing” as the culprit, by mandating that all experiences be shared and tailored to our narrow interests. Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci pushed back against Morozov’s argument, countering that there’s still plenty of room for sharing-based serendipity because our friends’ interests don’t exactly line up with our own. And journalist Dana Goldstein argued that a lot of what yesterday’s flâneurs did is still echoed in the web today, for better or worse — cyberstalking, trying out new identities, and presenting our ideal selves to the public.

The clampdown on breaking news via Twitter: One of international journalism’s leaders in social media innovation, News Corp.’s Sky News, issued a surprisingly stern crackdown on its journalists’ Twitter practices, banning them from retweeting information from any other journalists without clearing it past the news desk and from tweeting about anything outside their beats.

There were a few people in favor of the new policy — Forbes’ Ewan Spence applauded the ‘better right than first’ approach, and Fleet Street Blues rather headscratchingly asserted that “it makes no sense for them to pay journalists to report through a medium outside its own editorial controls.” But far more people were crying out in opposition.

Reuters’ Anthony De Rosa reiterated that argument that a retweet is simply a quote, rather than an endorsement, and Breaking News’ Cory Bergman said not all the broadcast rules apply to Twitter — it’s okay to be human there. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram and POLIS’ Charlie Beckett made the point that Sky should want its reporters to be seen as go-to information sources, period — no matter where the information comes from. As Beckett put it: “We the audience now privilege interactivity and added value over conformity. We trust you because you share, not because you have hierarchical structures.”

The BBC also updated its social media guidelines to urge reporters not to break news on Twitter before they file it to the BBC’s internal systems. BBC social media editor Chris Hamilton quickly clarified that the policy wasn’t as restrictive as it sounded: The BBC’s tech allows its journalists to file simultaneously to Twitter and to its newsroom CMS (an impressive feat in itself), and when that tech isn’t available, they want their journalists to file to the newsroom first — “a difference of a few seconds.”

J-prof Alfred Hermida said the idea that journalists shouldn’t break news on Twitter rests on the flawed assumption that journalists have a monopoly on breaking the news. And on Twitter, fellow media prof C.W. Anderson asserted that the chief problem lies in the idea that breaking news adds significant value to a story. “The debate over “breaking news on Twitter” is a perfect example of mistaking professional values for public / financial / ‘rational’ ones,” he wrote. Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman, meanwhile, praised the BBC for putting some real thought into how to fit Twitter into the breaking news workflow.

An unclear picture of the Times’ paywall: The New York Times released its fourth-quarter results late last week, and, as usual with their recent announcements, it proved something of a media business Rorschach test. The company reported a loss of $39.7 million for the year, thanks in large part to declines in advertising revenue — though most of that was due to About.com, as revenue in its news division was slightly up for the quarter.

As for the paywall, media analyst Ken Doctor reported 390,000 digital subscribers and estimated the Times’ paywall revenue at $86 million and said the paper has climbed a big mountain in getting more than 70 percent of its print subscribers to sign up for online access. Reuters’ Felix Salmon saw the paywall numbers as “unamiguously good news” and said it shows the paywall hasn’t eaten into ad revenues as much as it was expected to.

Others were a bit less optimistic. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram said the Times’ new paywall revenue still isn’t enough to make up for its ad revenue declines, and urged the times to go beyond the paywall in hunting for digital revenue. Media analyst Greg Satell made a similar point, arguing that the paywall is a false hope and calling for the Times build up more “satellite” brands online, like the Wall Street Journal’s All Things Digital. Henry Blodget of Business Insider had a different solution: Keep cutting costs until the newsroom is down to a size that can be supported by a digital operation.

A nonprofit journalism merger: After a few weeks of speculation, two of the U.S.’ more prominent nonprofit news operations, the Bay Citizen and the Center for Investigative Reporting, have announced their intent to merge. Both groups are based in California’s Bay Area, and the CIR runs the statewide news org California Watch. The executive director of the new organization would be Phil Bronstein, the CIR board chairman and former San Francisco Chronicle editor.

Opinions on the move were mixed: Oakland Local founder (and former California Watch consultant) Susan Mernit thought it would make a lot of sense, combining the Bay Citizen’s strengths in funding and distribution with California Watch’s strengths in editorial content. Likewise, the Lab’s Ken Doctor saw it as an opportunity to make local nonprofit journalism work at an unprecedented scale.

There are reasons for caution, though. As Jim Romenesko noted, the Bay Citizen has recently gone through several key departures and the unexpected death of its co-founder and main benefactor, Warren Hellman (and even forgot to renew its web domain for a bit). And California Watch pointed out some of the potential conflicts between the two newsrooms — California Watch has a partnership with the Chronicle, whom the Bay Citizen considers a competitor. And the Bay Citizen has its own partnership with The New York Times for its regional edition, something PBS MediaShift’s Ashwin Seshagiri said could now prove as much a hindrance as an advantage.

J-prof Jay Rosen said the two orgs aren’t a good fit because of their differing institutional bases — the CIR is more established and has been on a steady build, while the Bay Citizen’s short history is full of turmoil. And the San Francisco Bay Guardian’s Steven Jones argued that Bronstein’s rationale for the merger is misrepresenting Hellman’s wishes.

Reading roundup: Lots of other stuff going on this week, too. Here’s a quick rundown:

— Another week, another few new angles to the already enormous News Corp. phone hacking scandal: The FBI is investigating the company for illegal payments of as much £100,000 to foreign officials such as police officers, a political blogger told British officials that the Sunday Mirror’s top editor personally authorized hacking, and The Times of London admitted it hacked into a police officer’s email to out him as the author of an anonymous blog. How much is this whole mess costing News Corp.? $87 million for the investigation alone last quarter.

— News Corp.’s tablet news publication The Daily got the one-year treatment with an update on its so-so progress in The New York Times. News business analyst Alan Mutter also gave a pretty rough review of the status of tablet news apps as a whole.

— A couple of other news developments of interest to folks in our little niche: The tech news site GigaOM announced it was buying paidContent from the Guardian (PBS MediaShift’s Dorian Benkoil loved the move, and the Knight Foundation announced the first of its new News Challenge competitions, this one oriented around networks.

— A couple of cool studies released this week: One from HP Labs on predicting the spread of news on Twitter, and another from USC on ways in which the Internet is changing us.

— Finally, for those of us among the digitally hyper-connected, The New York Times’ David Carr wrote a poignant piece on the enduring value of in-person connections, and sociologist Zeynep Tufekci offered a thoughtful response.

Original Twitter bird by Matt Hamm used under a Creative Commons license.

May 07 2010

15:00

This Week in Review: Newsweek on the block, Twitter as a journalistic system, and more paywall rumblings

[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]

Has Newsweek’s time come?: This week was a relatively quiet one until Wednesday, when The Washington Post Co. announced that it’s trying to sell Newsweek, which it’s owned since 1961. A possible sale doesn’t always signal the demise of a news organization, but in this case, as the folks at The Wall Street Journal’s All Things Digital noted, this move was the equivalent of “hastily scrawling out a ‘Going Out of Business — Name Your Price’ sign and plastering it on the front window.” The New York Times has the details, including a j-prof’s pronouncement that “the era of mass is over, in some respect.”

PaidContent’s Staci Kramer talked to Washington Post Co. chairman Don Graham, who boiled Newsweek’s profitability problems to one telling statistic: Newsweek’s staff split its time about evenly between print and digital last year, but print brought in $160 million in revenue, while the digital side drew $8 million. Newsweek’s digital operation was good, Graham said — just not good enough to stand out from the hundreds of other news sites out there. Still, he was confident the Post would find a buyer (though he hasn’t talked with anyone seriously), and that Newsweek and newsweeklies in general would live on.

Newsweek editor Jon Meacham talked to the New York Observer, saying he’s going to see if he can save the magazine, possibly by rounding up bidders to buy it. Meacham’s conversation with Jon Stewart the day the news broke was laced with both optimism and gallows humor, and New York magazine examined Meacham’s decision to try to make Newsweek the American equivalent of The Economist.

In a well-written piece, The New York Times’ David Carr summed up two bits of conventional wisdom about Newsweek’s downfall: The economics of weekly publishing simply aren’t feasible anymore, and the Washington Post Co.’s Slate, with its snarky, knowing tone, has taken Newsweek’s place. MarketWatch’s Jon Friedman suggested that the Post combine the two. Slate’s Jack Shafer said it wasn’t the Internet that killed Newsweek, but instead an ongoing game of musical chairs that someone had to lose. (Slate and Time, for example, seem to be doing just fine, thanks.) Meanwhile, Derek Powazek, who’s edited several web magazines, gave his recipe for newsweekly success in the digital age.

The next question, of course, is who will buy Newsweek. News business analyst Ken Doctor examined two possibilities: TV-based news orgs like ABC, CBS, and NBC looking for a print distribution point, and “firebrand owners” like media moguls Mort Zuckerman or Marty Peretz. Either way, Doctor said, Newsweek will probably be all but extinct before long. Poynter’s Rick Edmonds, Media Alley, and Mediaite all throw out some combination of Zuckerman, Meacham, Bloomberg, and Rupert Murdoch. as possibilities.

Committing journalism with Twitter: Many of Twitter’s users have understood and used it as a medium for breaking, spreading and consuming news for quite a while now, but some research presented within the past week adds some backbone to that idea. Four Korean researchers collected all of Twitter’s data over a month’s time last year and released their research on it — the first quantitative study of the entire Twitterverse.

What they found, according to PC World, was that both the structure of Twitter (with its asymmetrical following system, creating a world with some incredibly influential users and many other more peripheral ones) and its messages (85 percent are about news) give it more of a resemblance to a news medium than to its fellow social networks online. Our Jason Fry also gave his take, noting the potential value of reciprocity even in an environment that doesn’t require it.

MIT’s Technology Review zeroed in on two particularly interesting findings illustrating the breadth of this new news system: First, two-thirds of Twitter users aren’t followed by anyone that they follow, meaning they use it for information consumption rather than social connections. Second, despite the wide disparity between the Twitter “stars” and typical users, anyone’s tweet still has the possibility of reaching a wide audience, thanks to the usefulness of the retweet function. “Individual users have the power to dictate which information is important and should spread by the form of retweet,” the researchers wrote. “In a way we are witnessing the emergence of collective intelligence.”

Also this week, Canadian j-prof Alfred Hermida put forward his argument in an academic paper for Twitter as an “ambient form of journalism” — a medium in which the former news audience creates, disseminates and discusses news, performing acts of journalism that were once performed only by professionals. In a more technical paper, Alex Burns delved into the definition of “ambient journalism,” especially as it relates to Twitter. Here at the Lab, Megan Garber also looked at the way news organizations in several countries are using Twitter and other social media for news.

The paid-content beat goes on: A few quiet indicators this week of the move toward news paywalls: Rupert Murdoch said News Corp. will be announcing their paywall plans in a few weeks. Those plans apparently include anchoring a consortium of paid-content systems across various media companies, using technology that powers the Wall Street Journal’s paywall, the Los Angeles Times reported. Meanwhile, the number of publications that Journalism Online’s execs say they’re working with on paywall plans has increased to 1,400, including the sizable MediaNews chain of newspapers.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s new publisher/CEO, Mike Klingensmith, talked to MinnPost about his plans for a new metered-model system (like what The New York Times announced in January), and from the sound of it, he’s looking at charging primarily for local news — the paper already charges for some of its Minnesota Vikings coverage — and wants to allow traffic from links to come in fairly uninhibited. A decision on the specific plans sound like they’re at least a year off, though.

Advertising Age’s Nat Ives also took a look at paywalls for smaller newspapers (here’s the link, but Ives’ article is also under a paywall). Ken Doctor says that for smaller papers, a paywall may be a good short-term wait-and-see strategy, but papers still have to be proactive about ensuring long-term growth.

The pros and cons of Facebook’s spread: There wasn’t a lot of news involving Facebook this week, but the grumblings about its privacy issues rolled on. The New York Times used Facebook’s latest (relatively minor, it seems) privacy glitch to give another overview about those concerns, and TechNewsWorld pegged their overview to a Consumer Reports survey about Facebook information sharing that was released this week.

Social media guru Robert Scoble wrote a depressing piece about why Facebook’s disregard for privacy can’t be regulated, concluding that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg “just played chicken with our privacy and it sure looks like he won.” New media expert Jeff Jarvis suggested that Facebook turn their bad privacy PR into a service for users (with some help from their ubiquity), offering them a simpler way to see what’s being written about them across the web and manage their online reputation.

The New York Times’ digital chief Martin Nisenholtz was pretty impressed by Facebook’s spread across the web, giving a sharp analysis of the importance of engagement and identity to publishers online. Those are things that Facebook has mastered, he said, but news organizations haven’t, and that’s a shame when the Times’ most valuable asset is “our audience as knowledgeable participants in the life our web site.”

Reading roundup: This week, I’ve got two news items and a few other good ideas to chew on.

— EBay founder Pierre Omidyar launched his new local news site, Honolulu Civil Beat, this week. It’s being run by John Temple, who was at the helm of the Rocky Mountain News when it shut down. The biggest distinctive of this project: It’s almost entirely behind a paywall. PaidContent and NPR both have the details.

— The Audit Bureau of Circulations reported the most recent set of newspaper numbers a couple of weeks ago, and here at the Lab, newspaper vet Martin Langeveld punched a few holes in the Newspaper Association of America’s declaration that the results are the sign of a turnaround. And after the announcement of the first quarter’s newspaper profit numbers, the Lab’s Ken Doctor explained why newspapers aren’t going to be investment those profits in much-needed innovation.

— Publish2’s Greg Linch put together a great case for incorporating more of a computational mindset into journalism, identifying several common elements between journalism and programming and urging the two groups to work more closely together. English professor Kim Pearson followed that post up with some proposals for ways to integrate computational thinking into curriculums.

— We’ve been hearing a lot about online comments over the past few weeks, and Poynter’s Mallary Jean Tenore took a close look at the ways several news organizations are working to improve them.

— I’ll close with two simple but thoughtful pieces on online media, one from the production standpoint, and the other looking at consumption. First social media entrepreneur and blogger Ben Elowitz gave a fine summary of the way the definition of quality has changed in online media versus traditional publishing, and Slate’s William Saletan had some helpful tips to make your media consumption broader, deeper and altogether smarter. It’s hard work, but it’s necessary, Saletan said: “In the electronic echo chamber, it’s easier than ever to shut out what you don’t want to hear. Nobody will make you open the door and venture out. You’ll have to do that yourself.”

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