This Week in Review: Twitter and press intimidation in Ferguson, and a journalist’s brutal execution
[This review was originally posted at the Nieman Journalism Lab on Aug. 22, 2014.]
This week’s essential reads: The key reads this week are The New York Times’ David Carr on the role of Twitter in informing the world about Ferguson, a pair of posts by The Guardian’s James Ball on the social media dissemination and censorship of ISIS’ video of James Foley, and Clay Shirky on cshirky/last-call-c682f6471c70">the endgame for newspapers and journalists there.
Police aggressiveness and media coverage in Ferguson: In the second week of protests in Ferguson, Missouri, following the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown by police, the targeting, threats, and violence toward journalists only escalated, with at least six more journalists arrested, including Getty Images photographer Scott Olson. Ryan Devereaux, a reporter for First Look Media’s The Intercept, spent the night in jail, being arrested (though not charged) because of “failure to disperse,” as he explained in a first-person account.
In addition to the arrests, at least four reporters caught police on tape threatening to mace, shoot, “bust your head,” or kill them. (The officer who made the latter threat was suspended.) Forty-eight media organizations signed a letter protesting the violent treatment of journalists and the lack of information being provided about those incidents and Brown’s shooting. As the week went on, journalists began being harassed and threatened by protesters as well when they attempted to record looting.
Bob Butler, president of the National Association of Black Journalists, chastised the police for their disturbingly aggressive behavior, and The Huffington Post’s Jack Mirkinson made the case for why the treatment of reporters matters: When police arrest or threaten journalists, it’s not just about them. “They are trying to decrease the flow of information that the journalists can provide the rest of us. They are trying to keep all of us in the dark,” he wrote. The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi explained how reporters were adjusting to the stonewalling and danger in a situation that ranged beyond what many of them had ever been trained for, and on Medium, Quinn Norton gave some useful advice for reporters on covering civil unrest. The Columbia Journalism Review’s Jonathan Peters added a primer for journalists on their First Amendment rights in these situations.
A few publications highlighted the stellar work being done by journalists in Ferguson: The Columbia Journalism Review’s Deron Lee gave a thorough review of the excellent coverage by local news organizations, and Time’s Olivier Laurent went behind the coverage by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s photojournalists, while Poynter’s Benjamin Mullin looked at the work the Riverfront Times, St. Louis’ alt-weekly, has done on the protests. The Huffington Post announced it would establish a crowdfunded fellowship with the St. Louis Beacon to keep a reporter in Ferguson for the next year, though many, including The Awl’s Matt Buchanan, Ad Age’s Simon Dumenco, and 10,000 Words’ Karen Fratti, wondered why such a massive media organization is crowdfunding a position it should be able to easily pay for itself. Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram argued that it’s a smart move for both HuffPo and the Beacon.
There were some questions about the media’s behavior in Ferguson, though. Photojournalist Abe Van Dyke explained why he was embarrassed to be part of the media in Ferguson — it reached a point, he said, where the media was “no longer simply reporting what is happening but rather becoming a hindrance and making the situation worse.” Ryan Schuessler, who had been covering Ferguson with Al Jazeera America, also expressed disgust at the media’s tone-deaf behavior, concluding that “In the beginning there was a recognizable need for media presence, but this is the other extreme. They need time to work through this as a community, without the cameras.” Similarly, BagNews’ Michael Shaw said the media presence has gotten so heavy that it’s become difficult to tell what’s the story and what’s spectacle.
Noah Rothman of the conservative blog Hot Air questioned whether the press was too closely identifying itself with the protesters, a point echoed by Politico’s Dylan Byers. But Slate’s Josh Voorhees countered that the press is siding with protesters because “what the people in the streets of Ferguson want is the same thing the journalists were sent there to find” — namely, the truth about Michael Brown’s killing. M. Scott Brauer of the photojournalism blog dvafoto provided a good roundup of the discussion of both police brutality toward journalists and media coverage of the protests.
Following Ferguson on Twitter: Much of this action on the streets in Ferguson was reaching us through the filter of Twitter, which for many people was a nonstop feed of the latest reports, photos, and video from both professional reporters and protesters. The New York Times’ David Carr argued that this story highlights one of Twitter’s greatest strengths in its ability to capture the interests and informational needs of a broad range of news consumers that the traditional media often misses, including communities of color. Politico’s Byron Tau explained that it took the arrests of two reporters last week for Ferguson to finally grab the establishment political press’s attention.
There are downsides to the way Twitter mediates events like Ferguson’s protests as well: Politico’s Alex Byers talked to several experts who said Twitter’s free-for-all nature fused with the chaos in Ferguson “to create an environment that spotlights startling developments over measured action or solutions.” Still, many users have remarked on how much better Twitter has been for following the situation in Ferguson than Facebook, which has been inundated with videos of people being dumped with buckets of ice water for most of the week.
Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram highlighted several reasons for the differences between the two platforms, focusing on Facebook’s symmetrical following model and the algorithms behind its News Feed. Likewise, Poynter’s Sam Kirkland noted that Facebook’s algorithm has prioritized personalized relevance over newness, which hurts it for minute-by-minute stories like Ferguson. The American Journalism Review’s Lisa Rossi advised readers to spread their news consumption across platforms, and Mandy Brown of The Verge called for more transparent and sophisticated filters that can help us comprehend information at the same speed we’re sharing it.
The Guardian’s Dan Gillmor praised the citizen journalism coming out of Ferguson, particularly the valuable documentation of police brutality. At the Local News Lab, Josh Stearns looked at what local journalists can do to aid community-driven information efforts like those fueling the Ferguson story, and journalism professor Jeff Jarvis emphasized the importance of journalists to start serving communities by listening to and understanding them, rather than charging in from the outside.
A brutal execution, and censorship questions: The Islamic militant group ISIS posted a video on YouTube this week of its execution of freelance photojournalist James Foley, who was kidnapped in Syria two years ago. As The New York Times explained, the video was meant to intimidate the U.S. into stopping its airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq, and concluded with a threat to kill another freelance journalist. President Obama said he was appalled by Foley’s beheading but declared he would continue the airstrikes, and Obama administration officials revealed they had tried and failed a secret operation to rescue Foley earlier this year.
Reuters’ Jack Shafer traced some of the history of videotaped murders of journalists and argued that ISIS will accomplish none of its goals regarding American policy and public opinion as a result of this video, though it may serve as an effective recruiting tool. The New York Times’ Ravi Somaiya and Christine Haughney examined the immense dangers journalists are facing both at home and abroad.
Foley’s friends and colleagues paid tribute to his immense courage and selflessness. You can get a good sense of the kind of man he was through articles by Vox’s Max Fisher, CNN’s Brian Stelter, and BuzzFeed’s Sheera Frenkel.
The discussion also shifted to the spread of the video on social media, as journalists voiced their opposition to other journalists and news organizations who posted screenshots and clips from the video. In the U.K., police warned that sharing and even viewing the video could be grounds for arrest under terrorism legislation, something Techdirt’s Mike Masnick scoffed at. News organizations that published images from the video, several of them tabloids belonging to News Corp, defended their decisions.
As Foreign Policy’s Shane Harris and The Guardian’s Hannah Jane Parkinson reported, the social networks themselves, particularly YouTube and Twitter, scrambled to block the photo, with Twitter suspending accounts that post graphic images. Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram objected to that decision, arguing that the decision over whether to view images or footage from the execution should be our decision as users.
The Guardian’s James Ball pointed out the departure of this decision from Twitter’s very laissez-faire past on free speech. He concluded that “if Twitter has decided to make editorial decisions, even on a limited basis, it is vital that its criteria are clearly and openly stated in advance, and that they are consistently and evenly applied,” and PandoDaily’s David Holmes also called for consistency on Twitter’s part. The Berkman Center’s David Weinberger noted what a difficult decision this is for YouTube and Twitter, saying that by becoming used as a news distribution system, “Twitter has been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, it did not ask for.”
As for the personal decision to view, The Guardian’s Ball urged serious self-examination before clicking on such links, while also wondering if we’re disproportionately concerned about graphic images of white Westerners. And Charlie Warzel of BuzzFeed used this as an example of the downside of Twitter’s (generally) unfiltered stream of news.
Reading roundup: There were a few stories about the media this week that didn’t have to do with violence and repression. Here’s a sampling:
— Gawker published an internal Time Inc. spreadsheet. obtained from a union representative, that showed that Sports Illustrated online staffers are being evaluated based on, among other things, producing “content that [is] beneficial to advertiser relationship.” Those evaluations may have played a role in SI’s recent layoffs. A Time Inc. exec “clarified” to CNN’s Brian Stelter that that evaluation means “Does what they create or who they are capture the attention of Madison Avenue?” which, as Politico’s Dylan Byers noted, sounds like kind of the same thing. Time’s Norman Pearlstine gave a further defense to New York’s Gabriel Sherman, calling the reaction overblown.
— After experimenting with the change earlier this summer, Twitter officially added some favorited tweets from people you follow to users’ feeds. It seems exactly no one liked the change, and The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer said that while we have already been seeing tweets from people we don’t follow in our streams (those would be ads), this change is damaging because it breaks Twitter’s “favorite” function, and TechCrunch’s Natasha Lomas made a similar point a bit more bluntly.
— The anonymous duo who busted BuzzFeed’s Benny Johnson for serial plagiarism went after CNN’s Fareed Zakaria this week, accusing him of lifting from a wide variety of publications. Zakaria was accused of plagiarism in 2012, and a spokesman for Time magazine, which reviewed his work at that point, said it would review his material again, though The Washington Post and CNN said they saw nothing in these new allegations to justify a new review. Zakaria offered his own defense to Politico’s Dylan Byers, and Steve Buttry gave some tips for avoiding plagiarism through attribution and linking.
— Finally, three very smart pieces on where the news business is headed: Journalism professor Nikki Usher in the Columbia Journalism Review with some insights into her research on the new wave of news aggregation apps, French newspaper exec Frederic Filloux on the future of mobile news apps, and NYU professor Clay Shirky with a cshirky/last-call-c682f6471c70">warning call to journalists working in newspapers.
[This review was originally posted at the Nieman Journalism Lab on Aug. 15, 2014.]
This week’s essential reads: This week’s most important pieces are Zeynep Tufekci on Ferguson and algorithmic filtering, felixsalmon/normally-when-some-big-deal-is-announced-in-the-business-world-a-rah-rah-press-release-goes-out-236f5ae86ee4">Felix Salmon on BuzzFeed, and Ethan Zuckerman on the failings of the ad-based business model on which the Internet runs.
Press freedom and citizen journalism in Ferguson: The ongoing tensions in Ferguson, Missouri this week that followed a police officer’s killing of an unarmed black teenager became a major story about the media as well when two reporters were arrested without any apparent justification Wednesday night and numerous others were tear-gassed or shot with rubber bullets by police. The two reporters, Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post and Ryan Reilly of The Huffington Post, were arrested as police cleared out a McDonalds they were in. They were released about a half-hour after they arrived at the police station, after a phone call from a Los Angeles Times reporter alerted the police chief to their arrests. Lowery wrote a first-person account of the incident.
In addition, video showed an Al Jazeera America crew getting hit with tear gas and fleeing, followed quickly by a SWAT team dismantling their equipment. Law enforcement officials claimed the gassing was unintentional. Poynter’s Al Tompkins and Kristen Hare reported on the experiences of several local reporters on the scene, and Ellyn Angelotti provided some legal background on what police are able to do to journalists during protests.
Journalism professor Jeremy Littau noted the outrage expressed over Lowery and Reilly’s arrests, and called on journalists to stand up for citizens’ rights alongside professional reporters’, especially since they have been so vital in disseminating information about events such as the Ferguson protests. Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram argued that in situations where traditional journalists can’t or won’t witness abusive police behavior, the crowd-powered platforms like Twitter can be an important check on authority, and Jezebel’s Kara Brown said the events in Ferguson have shown how traditional and social media can complement each other to draw attention to abuses of power.
Sociology professor Zeynep Tufekci noted how discussion on Twitter about Ferguson bubbled up all week and then boiled over Wednesday night, then pointed out how quiet it was on Facebook at the same time, making the case that the algorithms that filter online information have significant (and unexamined) consequences regarding what issues get public attention. Sarah Perez of Techcrunch also explained why Ferguson was only rarely trending on Twitter and Facebook on Wednesday.
Before Wednesday night’s arrests and confrontations, Twitter and Instagram also helped give exposure to criticism of media coverage of Ferguson with the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, in which black users showed contrasting pictures of themselves and questioned which one the news media would run. The New York Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution both covered the trend, and Poynter’s team of experts weighed in as well.
A $50 million infusion for BuzzFeed: BuzzFeed took a big step forward beyond listicles this week, getting a $50 million investment from venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz that will fund a major expansion that includes new content sections, a technology incubator, and more funds for its video division BuzzFeed Motion Pictures. Chris Dixon, an Andreessen Horowitz partner who will join BuzzFeed’s board, explained why the firm is making the investment, and The New York Times’ Mike Isaac laid out what BuzzFeed will do with the money, while the Lab’s Caroline O’Donovan went into more detail about its new, more autonomous divisions: Buzz, BuzzFeed News, and BuzzFeed Life.
One aspect of the announcement that caught quite a bit of attention was Dixon’s statement that his firm views BuzzFeed as more of a tech company than a media company. Gawker and New York Observer alum Elizabeth Spiers objected to that description, and tech writer Ben Thompson sifted through the claim, concluding that while BuzzFeed is still primarily a media company, it has a disconnect from traditional media logic and an ability to cheaply scale that make it uniquely valuable.
Recode’s Peter Kafka looked at BuzzFeed’s $850 million valuation and said that if BuzzFeed is a media company, then that number is a huge overvaluation, but if it’s a tech company, it’s a steal. And for everyone saying “$850 million for a bunch of listicles and cat GIFs?!” Fusion’s Felix Salmon felixsalmon/normally-when-some-big-deal-is-announced-in-the-business-world-a-rah-rah-press-release-goes-out-236f5ae86ee4">argued that BuzzFeed is different from other media companies in that it doesn’t sell audiences to advertisers, but instead sells its expertise in creating content that young, mobile audiences love. “The best way to think of BuzzFeed’s various products, then, is probably as a proof of concept: it’s a way to show advertisers that the company is able to reach a large, young, mobile, social audience in a multitude of different ways,” Salmon wrote.
Wired’s Marcus Wohlsen examined what it means for BuzzFeed to be, as Dixon called it, a “full-stack” startup, and investor Om Malik looked at the potential hazards for BuzzFeed, specifically its reliance on Facebook and the continued success of native advertising. The Awl’s Matt Buchanan noted that BuzzFeed is moving even deeper into Facebook and other social networks, creating content that only exists there, rather than on BuzzFeed’s site. And TechCrunch’s Josh Constine said the native ads on which BuzzFeed depends may be a fickle form.
As Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram pointed out, BuzzFeed’s investors are betting that it can scale into a massive media company without losing the agility it has so prized, and Bloomberg Businessweek’s Felix Gillette noted that its cost of production and scale of competition are about to increase just as dramatically as its cash on hand. The New York Times’ Claire Cain Miller explored BuzzFeed’s move toward higher-quality content and the larger accompanying shift online from search to social.
Elsewhere, Mike Shields of The Wall Street Journal looked at the deal’s implications for one of BuzzFeed’s biggest competitors, The Huffington Post, and Forbes’ Eric Jackson made the case that Yahoo should have bought BuzzFeed. Gawker’s J.K. Trotter noticed that BuzzFeed has removed more than 4,000 posts this year, and Slate’s Will Oremus talked to BuzzFeed’s Jonah Peretti about why: The posts didn’t meet its editorial standards for a variety of reasons, and they were created before BuzzFeed saw itself as journalistic. Poynter’s Kelly McBride looked at the ethics of unpublishing in light of the situation.
Gannett’s spinoff and future of print: Gannett became the latest media company to spin its print properties off from its broadcast properties into a separate company last week, announcing a split set to take place next year with the broadcasting unit assuming all of the company’s debt. The Lab’s Ken Doctor, who had suggested just a day before the announcement that Gannett could use such a split, gave several observations on the current wave of breakups, arguing that despite the initial cash infusion for newspaper units, they’ll ultimately result in less of a financial cushion for those properties.
Journalism professor Jeff Jarvis argued that these newspaper companies are being spun off because the business is going to continue to get worse and they’re punting on the work of transforming it. “What these spin-offs signals is that media companies do not have the stomach, patience, capital, or guts to do the hard work that is still needed to finish turning around legacy media,” he wrote. The New York Times’ David Carr painted a similarly depressing picture of the spun-off newspaper industry, but concluded that its decline is no one’s fault in particular. Jarvis countered that the decline of newspapers has indeed been journalists’ fault, and it should prompt not fatalism but renewed action and innovation.
At USA Today, Michael Wolff was more optimistic, seeing some potential for newspapers to rethink what business they’re in and reinvent themselves. And Poynter’s Rick Edmonds said there’s no reason to declare these newspaper spinoffs failures before they even occur, and USA Today’s Rem Rieder said there’s a way forward for newspapers despite print’s decline: Find enough in digital subscriptions and advertising to keep revenue flat after years of declines. The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson added that while there’s no certain model for making money off of news, there are several promising avenues, many of them in digital-native outfits or organizations with substantial private funds behind them.
Gannett also announced it’s restructuring the newsrooms at five of its papers to cut down on resources for editing and design while increasing the emphasis on analytics, as Poynter’s Sam Kirkland reported. The Columbia Journalism Review’s Corey Hutchins talked to an editor of one of the papers about what the changes will mean, and Jim Romenesko rounded up details of the news that journalists have to re-apply for their jobs, as well as the new job descriptions.
Anonymity and abuse in Gawker comments: Writers at the Gawker blog Jezebel went public this week with their complaints about Gawker’s inaction on an anonymous commenter posting pornographic rape GIFs, upsetting both readers and the staff members who have to remove the comments. Jezebel editor-in-chief Jessica Coen told Poynter the staff published its post “to light a fire under management’s collective ass.”
Gawker responded by first disabling all images in comments as a temporary solution, then bringing back its old pending comment system, in which only comments from approved users are immediately visible, and the rest are put in a separate “pending” queue that’s visible only with an extra click. As both Business Insider’s Caroline Moss and the Lab’s Justin Ellis pointed out, the tension here is between Gawker founder Nick Denton’s vision of its commenting platform, Kinja, as an open, collaborative, and anonymous environment and the practicalities of allowing that kind of freedom to Gawker users.
BuzzFeed’s Myles Tanzer talked to Gawker staffers who expressed frustration at the disconnect between Denton’s vision for Kinja and the difficult, time-consuming reality of wading through comments looking for quality material. And PandoDaily’s Paul Carr pointed out the inconsistency between its handling of abusive content that affects its staffers and the content it posts about others.
Reading roundup: A few other stories and discussions that have emerged in the busy last couple of weeks:
— After making a bid for Time Warner earlier this summer, Rupert Murdoch announced his entertainment media company 21st Century Fox was walking away from negotiations with Time Warner, which had been taking a hard line and refusing to negotiate. As CNN’s Brian Stelter reported, media watchers still see the deal as in play eventually, even if it’s no longer seen as inevitable. The Guardian’s Heidi Moore wondered whether we’re seeing the decline of the great media moguls, without anyone to take their place. Meanwhile, News Corp’s profits dropped, but Murdoch continued to express his bullishness on print.
— The New York Times announced that it would now refer to torture by that name, rather than the term “harsh” or “brutal” interrogation techniques. The Freedom of the Press Foundation’s Barry Eisler criticized the paper’s reasoning for finally using the term, and journalism professor Dan Gillmor called for The Times to apologize for referring to it incorrectly for years. NYU’s Jay Rosen analyzed the factors behind The Times’ refusal to use the term for so long and its change of mind.
— In the ongoing battle between Amazon and the book publisher Hachette, more than 900 writers paid for ad in The New York Times siding with Hachette and urging readers to complain to Amazon. Amazon responded with a letter to readers of its own, urging them instead to complain to Hachette. TechCrunch’s John Biggs and The Times’ David Streitfeld criticized Amazon for its misuse of a quote from George Orwell, and writers John Scalzi (two posts), Chuck Wendig, and Matt Wallace picked apart Amazon’s argument. Writer Christopher Wright and Slashgear’s Nate Swanner gave more “a pox on both their houses” analysis.
— Two potentially useful posts: The American Press Institute’s Kevin Loker on the best strategies for using events to generate revenue for news organizations, and journalism professor Dan Kennedy with a guide to dankennedy_nu/blog-like-a-journalist-8a4acac100c0">blogging like a journalist.
— Finally, two thought-provoking pieces: Mat Honan of Wired on what happened when he liked everything on Facebook for two days, and Ethan Zuckerman in The Atlantic on the ad-based model as the Internet’s original sin (along with Jeff Jarvis’ response).
[This review was originally posted at the Nieman Journalism Lab on Aug. 1, 2014.]
This week’s essential reads: The key reads this week are Dylan Byers’ piece on the possible connection between BuzzFeed’s web-based curation style and the risk of plagiarism and David Carr’s piece on war coverage and bearing witness in real time.
Covering war in a social media environment: Much of the news over the past few weeks has taken place in war zones (or near-war zones) with action quickly moving from one crisis to the next. That’s put the journalists covering those stories in some particularly dangerous situations: In Ukraine, journalists have been intimidated, detained, and attacked in alarming numbers over the past month, as The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade cataloged. The Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the abductions and detentions, which are “happening at dizzying speed in eastern Ukraine.” One of those involved a Ukrainian freelancer working for CNN, who was freed several days later.
In Gaza, several journalists were injured in Israeli airstrikes, and one radio station was forced to shut down because its broadcasting equipment was damaged. Gunshots were fired into Al Jazeera’s Gaza bureau, a day after Israeli’s foreign minister reportedly said he would work to shut down Al Jazeera’s operations in Israel. And in Iran — though not a war zone — a Washington Post correspondent was arrested and detained without explanation, prompting the Obama administration to call for his release.
For many news consumers, the bloodshed and mayhem of war has been communicated primarily through social media, with videos, photos, and eyewitness accounts coming from reporters and citizens alike. The New York Times’ David Carr reflected on the nature of bearing of witness to war in a real-time environment, writing that “Bearing witness is the oldest and perhaps most valuable tool in the journalist’s arsenal, but it becomes something different delivered in the crucible of real time, without pause for reflection.” The Times also defended its decisions to run graphic photos of the violence in Gaza and Ukraine, with executive editor Dean Baquet saying, “This is not the time for antiseptic coverage.”
The immediate dissemination of news from unstable and uncertain war zones through social media has made verification a particular challenge. The Guardian explored the tactics Storyful used to confirm information shared online, and PBS MediaShift’s Julie Posetti and the Columbia Journalism Review’s Jihii Jolly both laid out of the basics of the quickly developing discipline of social verification, and Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram outlined some of the most helpful tools for quickly checking out online information.
The real-time reporting of war and the more personal nature of social media have also given rise to new controversies, with two reporters being pulled from Gaza for controversial social media posts. NBC’s Ayman Mohyeldin was pulled from Gaza then briefly reinstated after he witnessed Palestinian boys being killed by Israeli shells, and CNN’s Brian Stelter reported that he was removed after NBC gave the script he wrote about the incident to another reporter to read. CNN had its own correspondent, Diana Magnay, removed from covering the conflict after she referred to Israelis cheering missile strikes as “scum” on Twitter.
Plagiarism and the ethics of writing online: Two news organizations dealt with plagiarism cases this week: In the more serious case, BuzzFeed viral politics editor Benny Johnson was fired after he was caught plagiarizing from dozens of sources, BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith apologized to readers and cataloged the 41 instances of plagiarism that BuzzFeed discovered.
Talking Points Memo’s Tom Kludt talked to the pseudonymous Twitter users who initially exposed Johnson’s plagiarism (after Johnson had called out another writer for plagiarizing him), and Digiday’s Ricardo Bilton talked to ad buyers who weren’t concerned about the incident’s impact on BuzzFeed — “We expect that,” said one. “That’s the medium.”
The other case involved The New York Times’ Carol Vogel, who was caught lifting some text from Wikipedia in an article last week. The Times added an editor’s note to the article and “dealt with” Vogel in some unspecified way.
The two cases sparked a debate as to how serious plagiarism in these contexts. The Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten pooh-poohed the Johnson case, arguing that his was simply “crappy, lazy Internet writing” rather than “real plagiarism,” because he lifted things that were of negligible value to produce content that was of negligible value.
New York’s Joe Coscarelli countered that Weingarten’s argument was less about the propriety of copying than “an outdated rant against the state of internet writing in general.” The Times’ public editor, Margaret Sullivan, stated simply that whether you’re at BuzzFeed or The Times, the rules are the same: Use your own stuff, or attribute and link. Reuters’ Jack Shafer said Weingarten is focused too narrowly on plagiarism’s violation against the creator of the content being copied, when it’s a much greater crime against readers, “who have every right to believe that journalists vouch for the copy they serve,” whether it’s a listicle or something more substantial.
The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple went deeper into Johnson’s plagiarism at BuzzFeed, looking at the sources he borrowed from and how the scandal might influence BuzzFeed. Politico’s Dylan Byers posited the idea that outfits like BuzzFeed, which are built around collecting and pithily displaying content from around the web, are more susceptible to bouts of plagiarism than traditional news organizations. “If the BuzzFeed case feels different, it is because the site’s very business model — Internet ‘curation’ — walks a fine line between aggregation and plagiarism,” he wrote.
Parsing The Times’ numbers: The New York Times released its quarterly financial numbers this week, and the news was mostly negative: Its revenue and profits both dropped. It did pick up 32,000 new digital subscribers, but as Poynter’s Rick Edmonds reported, its new paid-content offerings — led by the NYT Now and NYT Opinion apps — haven’t done as well as expected, serving to confuse some readers and cannibalize subscribers to its existing plans.
At the Lab, Ken Doctor saw the slow uptake of NYT Now as a cautionary lesson for other news organizations hoping to gain subscription revenue from new digital products. The Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum contrasted The Times’ mediocre figures with the Financial Times’ steady growth and suggested that The Times start tweaking its core subscriptions rather than adding new options as revenue drivers. And The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson noted that despite its strong efforts to boost circulation, it just can’t solve the digital advertising problem that plagues its industry.
Meanwhile, Capital New York’s Joe Pompeo reported, based on a reader survey that was recently sent out, that The Times is considering another subscription option, this one in print: A condensed print edition that would be about half the price of the current paper.
Evaluating Fox’s bid for Time Warner: Since news of 21st Century Fox’s bid for Time Warner was reported a few weeks ago, little has occurred publicly on that front. But as The New York Times’ David Carr and Business Insider’s Henry Blodget told CNN, the question of Fox acquiring Time Warner quickly shifted from ‘whether’ to ‘when’ and ‘how much.’ Blodget reported that Fox will take its time in raising its bid and that Time Warner shareholders expect the deal to happen once they can get the price bumped up sufficiently. On the other hand, Time Warner amended its bylaws to remove shareholders’ ability to call a special meeting, buying itself some time against a sale forced by shareholders.
The New York Times’ Richard Sandomir looked at the challenge a Fox-Time Warner acquisition would present for ESPN, with the addition of TBS, TNT, and Bleacher Report to Fox’s portfolio. Journalism professor Dan Kennedy said Rupert Murdoch’s Fox could save Time Warner’s CNN by having it sold to a new owner who would overhaul the lackluster network, while The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade argued that the decline in competition from deals such as this one would be bad news for viewers.
At The Times, Carr noticed that there was one thing conspicuously absent from this rumored merger and the future of media these companies are trying to form: Print. “To the extent that the proposal offered a crystal ball on the future of media, print doesn’t seem as if it will be much a part of it.”
Reading roundup: There were a number of smaller media happenings over the past couple of weeks — here are a few to keep an eye on:
— Forbes Media, which had been owned since its founding in 1917 by the Forbes family, sold a majority stake to the Hong Kong investment company Integrated Whale Media Investments, which valued the company at a reported $475 million. Former owner Steve Forbes and executive Lewis DVorkin talked about what’s next for the company, and both the Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum and journalism professor Jeff Jarvis wondered what Forbes’ click-driven editorial strategy has cost the company in quality and credibility.
— First Look Media, the news venture founded last year by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, announced a shift this week in a blog post by Omidyar. Instead of building a family of “digital magazines” as it had initially intended, it will focus on the two it’s already launched — one built around Glenn Greenwald’s work and another around Matt Taibbi’s — while planning on doubling its staff to 50 and centering its work on more tech-based experimentation with news. Jay Rosen, a consultant to First Look, offered his interpretation of the announcement, as did the Lab’s Justin Ellis and Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram.
— The Washington Post announced that it will launch Storyline, a sister site to Wonkblog, which had been piloted by Ezra Klein, who’s since departed to found Vox. The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone and Poynter’s Benjamin Mullin both gave some details about The Post’s plans: It will center on policy issues, and will be data-driven and topic-oriented.
— The New Yorker relaunched its website last week, a move that includes the addition of a metered paywall. The Guardian’s Hannah Jane Parkinson went through the redesign, and Capital New York’s Nicole Levy and Peter Sterne went deep into what’s at stake with the overhaul.
— E. W. Scripps and Journal Communications announced a deal in which they will merge their broadcast operations and spin off their newspapers into a separate company. Here at the Lab, Joshua Benton explained how the move marks a trend of media companies looking to narrow their portfolios after years of talk of diversification.
[This review was originally posted at the Nieman Journalism Lab on July 18, 2014.]
This week’s essential reads: The key pieces to read this week are David Carr and Ken Doctor on what’s behind the push for big media mergers, John Borthwick on clickbait, sharing, and attention, and David Boardman’s warning to newspaper executives.
Murdoch’s play for Time Warner: Rupert Murdoch’s latest in a long history of big media takeover bids was revealed this when The New York Times reported that his 21st Century Fox made an $80 billion offer for Time Warner that was rejected last month. 21st Century Fox, the entertainment media properties of the former News Corp (Murdoch’s news properties now make up News Corp), would be buying an entertainment company that includes Warner Bros. movies, Turner, and HBO, now shorn of its cable/broadband business and publishing business (which have split off as Time Warner Cable and Time Inc., respectively).
Mashable’s Andy Fixmer, Quartz’s John McDuling, and Bloomberg’s Erik Schatzker and Caitlin McCabe all said HBO is at the center of Fox’s pursuit of Time Warner; it would give Fox one of the world’s premier content properties and, through HBO Go, a major tool to compete with Netflix in the growing streaming video market. Bloomberg said Fox values HBO at $20 billion — a quarter of its total offer for Time Warner. Business Insider’s Jay Yarow argued that Fox’s interest is a bit broader: It wants to gobble up as many valuable TV properties as it can to improve its leverage with TV distributors.
Slate’s Jordan Weissmann said the deal may be as simple as Fox digging deeper into a still very profitable business (TV), and asserted that if Murdoch wants Time Warner, he’ll eventually get it. Ad Age’s Simon Dumenco also made that point, declaring Murdoch “untouchable and unstoppable.” USA Today’s Rem Rieder marveled at how Murdoch is bouncing back from News Corp’s phone-hacking scandal. Still, Business Insider’s Hunter Walker noted that antitrust regulators could stand in the way of a potential deal, and The Wall Street Journal’s Keach Hagey looked at what a sale might mean for the Time Warner property CNN, which would be left out of the deal as an antitrust concession.
Whether it’s to Fox or to someone else, Peter Lauria of BuzzFeed argued that Time Warner will sell eventually, since it likely represents the best value for its shareholders at this point. Capital New York’s Alex Weprin broke down several of the other potential buyers, and Peter Kafka of Recode said it will be bought by a company that wants to make a big bet on the pay TV business. The New York Times’ Jonathan Mahler and Emily Steel analyzed the turnaround at Time Warner that’s made the company so attractive.
The New York Times’ David Carr and the Lab’s Ken Doctor both explained the climate of ever-bigger mergers and consolidations that has begun to swirl again around the media industry. They pointed to a couple of major rationales for these defensive moves — size yields negotiating power, and if you can’t beat ‘em, buy ‘em — and noted that regulators don’t seem to be a big obstacle: “For the most part, the current government has passed on regulating potential monopolies, and as citizens, we have become inured to the consequences of bigness,” Carr wrote.
Finally, USA Today’s Michael Wolff and Financial Review’s Neil Chenoweth looked at two behind-the-scenes players on each side who are helping engineer this possible deal: Time Warner’s Gary Ginsberg, in Wolff’s piece, and Fox’s Chase Carey, in Chenoweth’s.
Going beyond clickbait and its backlash: “Clickbait” has been one of this summer’s ongoing topics of discussion in the media world, and The Daily Beast’s Emily Shire examined the anti-clickbait movement — exemplified by The Onion’s Clickhole and Twitter accounts like @SavedYouAClick — as evidence that people are getting wise to the premise of duping and manipulating readers through unnecessarily coy headlines. Vox’s Nilay Patel said clickbait headlines still work (most of the time) because they’re essentially games for the reader to play, and Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon posited that the main problem with clickbait is not the headlines, but the disappointing content that goes with them. “And yet,” he said, “the blame often falls more heavily on marketing than the people churning out stuff that sucks.”
Betaworks CEO John Borthwick provided some data on the connection between attention and sharing that’s the foundation of most clickbait’s popularity, and found that there are many readers who spend very little time on pages after clicking but share the article anyway, sharing essentially based on the headline alone. But beyond those headline-sharers and the people who read on and are disappointed with the content, there are also a significant number of people who spend substantial time reading an article and are also quite likely to share it. Borthwick urged publishers to spend more time attracting those kinds of readers, and Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram described Borthwick’s findings as two versions of the online world: One noisy, fast and click-driven; and the other deeper, slower, less noticeable, but still widely read and shared.
One of the most prominent sites built around the former model, Upworthy, reported late last week that by far their most viewed, shared, and closely read pieces are not their own editorial content, but their native ads. At Contently, Joe Lazauskas gave a few reasons for Upworthy’s remarkable success with native ads: It likely pays to relentlessly promote those ads on social networks, and the type of blandly feel-good content that makes for the best ads is exactly the same type of content Upworthy’s already producing in its editorial content.
Was SI scooping or suckered?: Sports Illustrated scored the biggest breaking sports news story of the year last Friday when it ran a first-person piece by NBA star LeBron James revealing that he would re-sign with his hometown team, the Cleveland Cavaliers. The essay was written as an as-told-to piece with veteran SI journalist Lee Jenkins. Deadspin, The Wall Street Journal and the Cleveland Plain Dealer all provided some details about how the story came about: Jenkins got wind of James’ decision on Thursday, pitched a first-person piece to his editors at SI, interviewed James and wrote the piece Thursday night, and handed it off to his editors on Friday. Deadspin reported that the idea for a first-person essay was first proposed by James’ camp, but The New York Times reported that it came from Jenkins.
The Times’ Richard Sandomir criticized SI’s strategy, saying the magazine gave up an opportunity to put some journalistic weight behind a big story. Said Sandomir: “the approach cast Sports Illustrated more as a public-relations ally of James than as the strong journalistic standard-bearer it has been for decades.” In an online chat, The Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten echoed the point, calling it an example of a journalistic mindset in which “being first is overvalued and being good is too often beside the point, or financially imprudent.”
Craig Calcaterra of NBC Sports questioned what exactly Sandomir was expecting SI to add to the story, characterizing it as commodity news as opposed to a substantial story crying out for in-depth reporting. Sandomir, he said, is “fetishizing the business of Serious Journalism at the expense of understanding what sports fans actually care about, appreciating how informed sports fans already are and asserting that the reporter’s highest and best function is to get between fans and the news as opposed to delivering it to them.” Poynter’s Sam Kirkland said it’s still possible for SI to break the story this way and do deeper journalism on it as well. (Jenkins was in Cleveland this week reporting a feature on James’ decision.) And Deadspin’s Kevin Draper looked at the other reporters who scrambled to get this scoop.
Reading roundup: A few other pieces to read from this week:
— Industry analyst Alan Mutter pulled together some simple numbers to remind us just how dire the newspaper industry’s situation is, and Temple University’s David Boardman criticized the Newspaper Association of America’s Carolyn Little’s rosy speech and instead urged newspapers to drop to one day a week in print. Little issued a defense of her picture of the industry.
— The U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s public comment period on its proposed “fast lane” plans for Internet providers was supposed to end on Tuesday, but it was postponed until today because a surge of comments from net neutrality supporters overwhelmed its system. The Washington Post’s Brian Fung explained the proposal and backlash, and at The Guardian, Dan Gillmor urged net neutrality advocates to make their voices heard.
— Capital New York’s Joe Pompeo profiled the new Philadelphia-based online local journalism initiative by Washington Post/TBD/Digital First veteran Jim Brady, Brother.ly, and Brady talked with Poynter’s Butch Ward about what he’s learned about local news.
— Finally, Nebraska professor Matt Waite wrote a thoughtful and important piece on the value of doubt in data journalism, with some ideas on how to better incorporate it.
[This review was originally posted at the Nieman Journalism Lab on July 11, 2014.]
This week’s essential reads: The key pieces this week are NYU’s Jay Rosen (in an article and an interview) on Facebook’s legitimacy and control, journalism professor Alberto Cairo on solving data journalism’s current crisis, and Cornell’s Tarleton Gillespie on algorithms, journalism, news judgment, and personalization.
Facebook, online research, and control: A week after Facebook’s experimental study on News Feed content and user emotions initially prompted an uproar, observers continued to talk about its implications for research, social media, and control. A privacy group filed a complaint with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission late last week, and the journal that published the study published a formal “expression of concern.”
Others pushed back against the outrage at Facebook over the study: Microsoft researcher Duncan Watts argued that our emotions are being manipulated all the time by marketers and politicians and said we should insist that companies like Facebook “perform and publish research on the effects of the decisions they’re already making on our behalf.” Likewise, Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici said Facebook’s study was much more innocuous than it’s being made out to be.
Former Facebook data scientist Andrew Ledvina questioned why there was so much outrage about this particular study when Facebook conducts constant experiments on user behavior. The only change Ledvina saw emerging from this episode was not that Facebook would stop doing these types of experiments, but that it would stop making them public. Similarly, Microsoft’s Andrés Monroy-Hernández said the incendiary tone of the discussion surrounding this study makes him more reluctant to share his own research publicly.
Blogger and developer Dave Winer this incident damages Facebook by destroying its users’ illusion of an organically generated News Feed: “Facebook just broke the fourth wall. Of a sudden we see the man behind the curtain. And it’s ugly and arrogant and condescending and all around not a nice feeling.” On the other hand, Gigaom’s Tom Krazit said most users already knew that Facebook manipulates their News Feed, but we don’t know how they’re doing it, so we can no longer consider it a useful source of news.
NYU’s Jay Rosen argued late last week that Facebook has a very “thin” form of legitimacy for its experiments because of its lack of attunement to ethical concerns, and in an interview this week, he warned that Facebook needs to be careful not to derive false confidence from its dominance of the social media market. “‘W222222;">here else are they going to go?” is a long way from trust and loyalty. It is less a durable business model than a statement of power,” he wrote.
From a bigger-picture viewpoint, Stanford professor Michael Bernstein said msbernst/9155cdff659">researchers need to rethink how they apply the principle of informed consent to online environment, and Gigaom founder Om Malik looked at the responsibility that needs to come with the unprecedented level of data and automation that’s involved in modern life.
Improving data journalism with education: A couple of conversations this week converged on two important issues facing the news industry: data journalism and journalism education. Miami journalism professor Alberto Cairo diagnosed the underwhelming output at some of the prominent new data-oriented journalism sites, concluding that “Even if data journalism is by no means a new phenomenon, it has entered the mainstream quite recently, breezed over the peak of inflated expectations, and precipitously sank into a valley of gloom.” Cairo made a set of prescriptions for data journalism, including devoting more time, resources, and careful critical thinking to it. At Gigaom, Derrick Harris added that data journalism could use more influence from data science, especially in finding and developing new datasets. And sociology professor Zeynep Tufekci used this week’s World Cup shocker to look at flaws in statistical prediction models.
In a weeklong series, PBS MediaShift took a deeper look at what journalism schools are doing to meet the growing demand for skilled, critically thinking data journalists. The series included an interview on the state of data journalism with Alex Howard of Columbia’s Tow Center, tips from The Upshot’s Derek Willis on “interviewing” data to understand it and find its stories, a look at how journalism schools are teaching data journalism, and practical suggestions of ways to incorporate data into journalism education.
Elsewhere in journalism education, the American Journalism Review’s Michael King examined enrollment declines at American journalism schools, noting the tricky question of whether these declines are a leading or lagging indicator — something primarily indicative, in other words, of journalism’s last several years or next several years. And David Ryfe, director of the University of Iowa’s journalism school looked at the difficulty of fitting the dozens of skills desired by employers into a relatively small number of journalism courses.
Google raises censorship concerns: One story on Google and censorship that came to a head late last week: In response to a May ruling by a European court, Google began removing pages from certain European search results per requests filed based on irrelevant or false information. By last week, that began including news articles, most notably a BBC column on Merrill Lynch, but also several other articles. In a pair of helpful posts, The Guardian’s Charles Arthur explained the removals in general, and Marketing Land’s Danny Sullivan explained the removals of news articles.
Google reversed its decision to remove several links to Guardian stories as British news organizations criticized Google’s implementation of the law. Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram and The Next Web’s Paul Sawers both posited that Google, which opposed the ruling, is enforcing it in deliberately draconian so as to create a controversy about the censorship it entails. But Danny Sullivan countered that it’s highly unlikely that Google is doing this to sabotage the ruling, since the links it’s removing span much broader than easily outraged media outlets.
Reading roundup: A few other bits and pieces going on during this slow week:
— The U.S. National Security Agency documents leaked by Edward Snowden revealed another finding on surveillance this week: The Washington Post reported that the number of ordinary American Internet users in communications intercepted by the NSA far outnumber the legally targeted foreigners. The Intercept also reported on several prominent Muslim American academics and activists who were monitored by the NSA. The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald talked to Wired about why the story is important, while PandoDaily’s Paul Carr questioned Greenwald’s hesitation in publishing the story.
— The Wall Street Journal celebrated its 125th anniversary this week with an archive looking at how they’ve covered big news events in the past as well as a special report. The Lab’s Joseph Lichterman took a closer look at the Journal’s anniversary offerings, and Capital New York talked to Journal managing editor Gerard Baker. The Atlantic’s Adrienne LaFrance, meanwhile, had a fascinating look at the Journal’s design through the years.
— The Pew Research Center released a study on the declining number of reporters covering U.S. state legislatures and what’s being done to fill the gaps. The Lab’s Joseph Lichterman wrote a good summary.
— This week’s handiest piece: Sarah Marshall’s summary of the tips Johanna Geary, head of news at Twitter UK, gave to British journalists about using Tweetdeck as a reporting tool.
— Finally, the Lab’s Caroline O’Donovan talked to Cornell’s Tarleton Gillespie about a wide range of issues surrounding algorithms, including personalized news, news judgment, and clickbait.