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August 06 2010

14:30

This Week in Review: Newsweek’s new owner, WikiLeaks and context, and Tumblr’s media trendiness

[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]

A newbie owner for Newsweek: This week was a big one for Newsweek: After being on the block since May, it was sold to Sidney Harman, a 92-year-old audio equipment mogul who’s married to a Democratic congresswoman and owns no other media properties. The price: $1, plus the responsibility for Newsweek’s liabilities, estimated at about $70 million. The magazine’s editor, Jon Meacham, is leaving with the sale, though he told Yahoo’s Michael Calderone that he had decided in June to leave when Newsweek was sold, no matter who the new owners were. Harman’s age and background and the low sale price made for quite a few biting jokes about the sale on Twitter, dutifully chronicled for us by Slate’s Jack Shafer.

Harman didn’t help himself out much by telling The New York Times he doesn’t have a plan for Newsweek. In a pair of sharp articles, The Daily Beast painted a grim picture of what exactly Harman’s getting himself into: The magazine’s revenue dropped 38 percent from 2007 to 2009, and it’s losing money in all of its core areas. The Beast noted that with no other media properties, Harman doesn’t have the synergy potential that the magazine’s previous owners, The Washington Post Co., said Newsweek would need. So why was he chosen? Apparently, he genuinely cares about the publication, and he’s planning the least number of layoffs. (That, and the other bidders weren’t too attractive, either.) PaidContent reported that his primary goal is to bring the magazine back to stability while he sets up a succession plan.

Everybody has ideas of what Harman should do with his newest plaything: Jack Shafer tells him to treat Newsweek as a magazine to be saved rather than a fun vanity project, and MarketWatch’s Jon Friedman wants to see Newsweek drop the opinion-and-analysis approach that it’s been aping from The Economist, as do several of the observers Politico talked to. (DailyFinance’s Jeff Bercovici just wants Harman to make it a little less excruciatingly dull to read.) Two other Politico sources — new media guru Jeff Jarvis and former Newsweek Tumblr wizard Mark Coatney — want to see Newsweek shift away from a print focus and figure out how to be vital on the web. Media consultant Ken Doctor proposes pushing forward on tablet editions, multimedia and interacting with readers online as the future of the magazine. Jarvis also has some pieces of advice for magazines in general, urging to them to resist the iPad’s siren song and get local, among other things.

Poynter’s Rick Edmonds has the most intriguing idea for a new Newsweek — going nonprofit. That would likely require refining its editorial mission to a narrower focus on national and international affairs, with the pop culture analysis getting cut out, Edmonds says, but he believes Harman might actually be considering a nonprofit approach. Ken Doctor suggests that with Harman’s statements about the relative unimportance of turning a profit from the magazine, he’s already blurring the lines between a for-profit and nonprofit organization.

Meanwhile, others were busy speculating about who might be the editor to lead Newsweek into its next incarnation. Names thrown out included Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria, Newsweek.com editor Mark Miller, Slate Group editor Jacob Weisberg, and former Time editor and CNN CEO Walter Isaacson, though Isaacson has taken himself out of consideration.

WikiLeaks and the need for context: WikiLeaks continued to see fallout from its unprecedented leak of 92,000 documents about the war in Afghanistan two weekends ago, with more cries for it to be shut down and its founder, Julian Assange, arrested, largely because its leak revealed the names of numerous Afghan informants to the U.S. Assange expressed regret for those disclosures, and WikiLeaks said it’s even asking for the Pentagon’s help in identifying and redacting names of informants in its next document dump, though the Pentagon said they haven’t heard from WikiLeaks yet. Not that the U.S. government hasn’t been trying to make contact — it demanded the documents be returned(!), and agents detained a WikiLeaks researcher at customs and then tried to talk with him again at a hacking conference this week. An Australian TV station gave a fascinating inside look at Assange’s life on the run, and Slate’s Jack Shafer contrasted Assange’s approach to leaking sensitive documents with the more government-friendly tack of traditional media outlets. WikiLeaks also had some news to report on the business-model side: It will begin collecting online micropayment donations through Flattr.

The ongoing discussion around WikiLeaks this week centered on what to do with the data it released. The Tyndall Report provided a thorough roundup of how TV news organizations responded to the leak, and several others pinned the rather ho-hum public reaction to the documents’ contents on a lack of context provided by news organizations. Former Salon editor Scott Rosenberg said the leak provides a new opportunity to shed an antiquated scoop-based definition of news and bring the reality of the war home to people. In a smart post musing on the structure of the modern news story, the Lab’s Megan Garber proposed an outlet dedicated solely to follow-up journalism, arguing that one of the biggest challenges in modern journalism is giving a sense of continuity to long-running stories. “What results is a flattening: the stories of our day, big and small, silly and significant, are leveled to the same plane, occupying the same space, essentially, in the wobbly little IKEA bookshelf that is the modular news bundle,” she wrote in a follow-up post.

Mashable also examined (in nifty infographic form!) how WikiLeaks changes the whistleblower-journalist relationship, while NPR wondered whether WikiLeaks is on the source or journalist side of equation. And PBS’ Idea Lab had something handy for news orgs: A guide to helping them think about how to handle large-scale document releases.

Tumblr trends upward: The social blogging service Tumblr got the New York Times profile treatment this week, as the paper focused on its growing popularity among news organizations who are trying to jump on it as the next big social media trend — a form of communication somewhere between Twitter and blogging. The article noted that several prominent media brands have Tumblr accounts, though many of them aren’t doing much with theirs. Over at Mediaite, Anthony De Rosa, who runs the Tumblr account for the sports blog network SB Nation, said we can expect to see still more media outlets jump on the Tumblr bandwagon, especially because it rewards smart media companies who have a distinctive voice.

New York’s Nitasha Tiku tried to douse the hype, arguing that Mark Coatney’s often-mentioned Tumblr success for Newsweek “wasn’t thanks to the distribution channel on Tumblr, it was his irreverent, conversational style — and that will be difficult for the fresh-faced interns that old-media publications don’t pay to run their Tumblrs.” And Gawker gave us a graded rundown of traditional news orgs’ Tumblr accounts.

Two Internet freedom scares: From The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times this week came two stories that have had many people concerned about issues of freedom and the web. First, the Journal ran a series on the alarming amount of your online data and behavior that companies track on behalf of advertisers. Cluetrain Manifesto co-author Doc Searls argued that while the long-held ideal of intensely personal advertising is getting closer to reality, “the advertising business is going to crash up against a harsh fact: ‘consumers’ are real people, and most real people are creeped out by this stuff.” Jeff Jarvis was much less moved by the Journal’s reporting, mocking it as scaremongering that tells us nothing new. Salon’s Dan Gillmor fell closer to Searls’ outrage than to Jarvis’ nonchalance, and media consultant Judy Sims said this series is a window into a complex future for display advertising, one that media executives need to become familiar with in a hurry.

Second, the Times unleashed an avalanche of commentary in the tech world with a report that Google and Verizon are moving toward an agreement that would allow companies to pay to get their content to web users more quickly, which would effectively end the passionately held open-Internet principle known as net neutrality. The FCC quickly suspended its closed-door net neutrality meetings, and despite denials from Google and Verizon (which Wired picked apart), a whole lot of whither-the-Internet concern ensued. I’m not going to dig too deeply into this story here (I’d rather wait until we have something concrete to opine about), but here are the best quick guides to what this might mean: J-prof Dan Kennedy, Salon’s Dan Gillmor and ProPublica’s Marian Wang.

Reading roundup: Just a couple of quick items this week:

— Thanks to Poynter, we got glimpses of a couple of softer paid-content options being tried out by GlobalPost and The Spokesman-Review of Spokane, Washington, that might be sprouting up soon elsewhere, too. The Lab’s Megan Garber profiled one of the new companies offering that type of porous paywall, MediaPass, and All Things Digital’s Peter Kafka sifted through survey results to try to divine what The New York Times’ paywall might look like.

— Google’s social media platform Google Wave officially died this week, a little more than a year after it was born. Tech pioneer Dave Winer looked at why it never took off and drew a few lessons, too.

— Finally, the Lab’s Jonathan Stray took a look at some very cool things that The Guardian is doing with data journalism using free web-based tools. It’s a great case study in a blossoming area of journalism.

April 12 2010

12:28

The future is mobile, and other thoughts from Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s speech at ASNE

Yes, he got the inevitable “shouldn’t you pay content providers?” question from an audience member. And, yes, he gave the inevitable “most news organizations actually want the traffic we provide” answer. But for the most part, though it tread familiar territory, Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s speech last night — delivered to a packed half-ballroom at the American Society of News Editors conference in DC — was an impressive feat of rhetorical tight-rope-walking. (Text: You, news editors, are guardians of democracy. Subtext: You, news editors, should probably rethink your patrol systems.)

So was the speech well-received? My read: the crowd reception to the uber-exec and his thoughts was cordial, but — despite the many, many compliments Schmidt paid to journalism and journalists during the course of the talk — not overly friendly. (Usually, at a speech like this, there’d be a vibrant back-channel conversation, via Twitter, that would allow a more nuanced assessment. Last night’s speech didn’t have that back-talk; relatively few people were tweeting it, though many were taking notes on reporters’ pads.)

Below, I’ve excerpted the sections of the talk that I found most interesting; they’re listed in chronological order to give you an idea of the arc of the speech.

On newspapers and discovery:
I love newspapers. I love of reading them — that when you’re finished, you’re done, and you know what’s going on. I love the notion of discovery that newspapers represent…. Newspapers are fundamental, not just in America, but around the world.

On information and democracy:
We have goals in common. Google believes in the power of information. We believe that it’s better to have more information than less. We also understand that information can annoy governments and annoy people…but that ultimately the world is a better place with more information available to more and more people. And the flow of accurate information, of the diverse views and debate that we’re so used to, is really, really fundamental to a functioning democracy.

On criticism (and sympathy):
You all get criticized all the time. On the left, you get criticized for being too liberal. On the right, you get criticized for being too conservative. In our case, we just get kicked out of China. Same thought.

On journalism as an art form:
We’re not in the news business, and I’m not here to tell you how to run a newspaper. We are computer scientists. And trust me, if we were in charge of the news, it would be incredibly accurate, incredibly organized, and incredibly boring. There is an art to what you do. And if you’re ever confused as to the value of newspaper editors, look at the blog world. That’s all you need to see. So we understand how fundamental tradition and the things you care about are.

On the best of times, the worst of times:
You have more readers than ever; you have more sources than ever, for sure; you have more ways to report. And new forms of making money will develop. And they’re underway now…. So we have a business model problem. We don’t have a news problem. That’s ultimately my view.

On our new emphasis on now-ness:
What do our children know now that our parents did not know when they were the age of our children? They know about now. They know about precisely now, in a way that our parents’ generation did not. That this now-ness drives everything…and what happens is, you experience the reality of the moment in a way that’s much, much more intense.

On the implications of now-ness:
It’s creating a problem which I’m going to call “the ersatz experience problem.” On the one hand, you have a sense of connectedness to everything — literally, every event globally…but you also have a false sense of actual experience, since you’re not really there. So the trade-off is that you know everything, but you’re not physically in any one place. And that shift is actually a pretty profound one in the way society’s going to consume media and news and so forth. And all of us are part of it. And Google is obviously moving it forward.

On Google’s “mobile-first” focus:
It’s important to understand that three things are coming together: the powerful mobile devices that …are paired with the tremendous performance that we can now get on computers…it is the sum of that, and the capabilities and the technologies that will exploit the sum of that, that will define the next ten or twenty years for all of us. So when I say “Internet first,” I mean “mobile first.”

Now, some of the most clever engineers are working on mobile applications ahead of personal computer applications. People are literally moving to that because that’s where the action is, that’s where the growth is, there’s a completely unwashed landscape, you have no idea where folks are going to go.

On news’ mobile/personal/multi-platform future:
Google is making the Android phone, we have the Kindle, of course, and we have the iPad. Each of these form factors with the tablet represent in many ways your future….: they’re personal. They’re personal in a really fundamental way. They know who you are. So imagine that the next version of a news reader will not only know who you are, but it’ll know what you’ve read…and it’ll be more interactive. And it’ll have more video. And it’ll be more real-time. Because of this principle of “now.”

When I go to a news site, I want that site to know me, to know about me: what I care about, and so forth. I don’t want to be treated as a stranger, which is what happens today. So, remember me. Show me what I like. But I also want you to challenge me. I want you to say, “Here’s something new. Here’s something you didn’t know.”

On the sheer volume of information out there today:
The Internet is about scale. I was studying this, because I was trying to figure out how big this thing is. Between the dawn of humanity and 2003, roughly 5 Exabytes of information were created. (An Exabyte is roughly a million gigabytes.) We generate that amount in every two days now…. So there is a data explosion. And the data explosion is overwhelming all of us. Of course, this is good business for Google and others who try to sort all this out.

On the future of display ads:
If you think about it in this context — you have this explosion of mobile devices, you have this connection, and so forth — what does this mean for the business world? Well, it’s obvious that advertising, which is the business Google is in, is going to do very well in this space. Because advertising works well when it’s very targeted. Well, these devices are very targeted. So we can give a personalized ad.

Furthermore, Google — and others — are busy building vertical display ads that look an awful lot like the ads that look an awful lot like the ads that are in traditional newspapers…. In the next few years, you should be able to do very, very successful display advertising against this kind of content. You may not be able to do it against murders, because it’s very difficult to get the right targeted ad in that case — what, are you going to advertise a knife? It’s obviously terrible. I’m not trying to make a joke about it; it’s a real business problem.

On the future of subscriptions:
We and others are working on ubiquitous ways in which subscriptions can be bundled, packaged, and delivered. We’re seeing this today with both the Kindle and the iPad. Both of which have this subscription model which you can test. You can actually find out, “What will people pay for this?” And eventually that model should have higher profitability. Because it has a low cost of goods, right, because you don’t have the newspaper and the printing and distribution costs. So there’s every reason to believe that eventually we’ll solve this and ultimately bring some significant money into this thing.

On the need for experimentation:
A Ralph Waldo Emerson quote is, “Don’t be too timid and squeamish about your actions; life is an experiment.” On the Internet, there is never a single solution…. The fact of the matter is there are no simple solutions to these complex problems. And in order to really find them, we’re going to have to run lots of experiments.

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