[This review was originally posted at the Nieman Journalism Lab on April 11, 2014.]
This week’s essential reads: If you’ve only got a minute or two, this week’s essential reads are Felix Salmon on the boom in wonk journalism, David Carr with big questions for Comcast and Time Warner Cable about their merger, and Washington Post editor Marty Baron’s reasons for optimism about the future of journalism.
Vox, tech, and wonk journalism: Former Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein launched his explanatory journalism site, Vox, this week, cautioning in an introductory note with co-editors Melissa Bell and Matt Yglesias that it’s still quite unfinished. The Washington Post profiled Klein’s new boss, Vox Media CEO Jim Bankoff, but most of the focus was on Vox’s distinctive tech.
The New York Times centered on Vox Media’s internally built content management system, Chorus, which was a key tool in recruiting Klein. Ad Age looked at Vox’s “card stacks,” the system the site is using to break their explainers into digestible chunks for readers. That includes cards to note how card stacks have been altered for corrections or changing events, as Poynter reported.
Initial reviews were curious but critical. The Columbia Journalism Review’s Greg Marx saw Vox as a welcome test of Klein’s argument that what news needs are more clear and helpful entry points for complex, ongoing stories. Mathew Ingram of Gigaom liked Vox’s clear purpose and “cards” organization format, but expressed concern that it’s going to have to compete with Wikipedia and lacks a personal orientation. The Wire’s Allie Jones said many of the initial cards ”don’t seem to provide any information that you can’t get on Wikipedia or About.com.” PandoDaily’s Nathaniel Mott was also skeptical, referring to the cards as “glorified slideshows” and describing the style as “BuzzFeed written by a college professor.”
Vox’s launch also reignited the discussion about Klein’s departure from the Post after his proposal for an explanatory journalism site there was turned down. The Times article on Vox quoted Klein as saying he was “badly held back” by the technology and the culture at the Post, though it later edited it to refer to newspapers in general, not just the Post. At a conference last weekend, Post editor Marty Baron said Klein had proposed an entirely new news organization separate from the Post, rather than an expansion of his Wonkblog.
Mathew Ingram said Baron’s justification makes decent financial sense, but starting sites like Vox are precisely the bets the Post should be taking in an attempt to survive the disruption of news. Similarly, Reuters’ Felix Salmon said Klein made the right decision by going with a nimbler company and voiced his doubt that the Post is the best place to develop the wonky journalism that’s so popular right now. “In general, the bigger and more entrenched the media company you’re part of, the harder it is to get stuff done,” he wrote.
In another piece for Politico, Salmon explained why analytical journalism like Klein’s and Nate Silver’s is experiencing a boom, and Laurie Penny of the New Statesman questioned why white men like Klein and Silver are being feted as the future of journalism: “These, it turns out, are the kind of ‘outsiders’ the old guard can cope with: outsiders who look almost exactly like them, except younger and cooler.”
Comcast and the competition: Comcast and Time Warner Cable started down the regulatory road toward their proposed merger this week, appearing before a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee that was mostly skeptical about the value for consumers of a merger of the nation’s two largest cable TV and broadband providers. The New York Times’ David Carr asked several critical questions about the merger heading into the committee hearing, noting at one point that because of its size in the broadband market, a combined Comcast/Time Warner “may have an effective veto over the programming and technological innovations of others.”
The two companies also made the case for their merger this week in a filing with the Federal Communications Commission, arguing that they’ve been diligent about trying to improve their service and that they’re trying to defend themselves against the competition of streaming video services like Netflix, Roku, and Apple TV. Variety and Ars Technica gave closer looks at their arguments.
Several other writers picked those arguments apart, particularly Comcast’s claim to be one of many little guys in a giant pool of competitors. The Verge’s Adi Robertson, Recode’s Amy Schatz, and Techdirt’s Mike Masnick all dissected Comcast’s list of competitors, noting that many of those competitors rely on Comcast and Time Warner for distribution of their online streaming services, and that cable providers rarely compete directly with each other because they’ve largely divvied up various geographical areas among themselves. Gigaom’s Stacey Higginbotham also had some critical questions for regulators to ask, and the Daily Dot’s Andrew Couts poked holes in Comcast’s avowed embrace of net neutrality.
More than 50 groups sent a letter to the FCC objecting to the merger, and some conservative groups have joined the fight against it as well, though as BuzzFeed’s Peter Lauria explained, no major TV content providers have opposed the deal. As the Sunlight Foundation’s Palmer Gibbs noted, however, Comcast and Time Warner have been very politically active, with their employees giving millions of dollars to many of the key political figures in the upcoming regulation decisions.
Heartbleed’s quiet leak: Experts discovered a security bug this week, called Heartbleed, which has quietly left a great deal of the web’s encrypted information open to hackers for two years. The best explainers on Heartbleed are by Vox’s Timothy B. Lee, Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram, and NPR’s Jeremy Bowers, but here’s the very quick summary: Heartbleed is an opening in the popular OpenSSL encryption software that could let hackers into information on servers that isn’t even part of the server’s initially encrypted information. Other than changing passwords once a site has patched the leak, there’s not much users can do to protect themselves at this point — most of the work is on web companies’ ends. At Source, Mike Tigas gave some valuable tips to newsrooms on dealing with the bug on their sites.
We don’t know who, if anyone, has taken advantage of Heartbleed — as Charlie Warzel of BuzzFeed noted, the most likely culprit may be the U.S. National Security Agency. The New Yorker’s Rusty Foster went deeper into the roots of the bug, noting that it’s partly a function of an OpenSSL that’s run by a small group of volunteers and relies on an old and more vulnerable programming language (C). “If open-source software is at the heart of the Internet, then we might need to examine it from time to time to make sure it’s not bleeding,” he wrote. Farhad Manjoo of The New York Times also addressed the difficulty of keeping the web’s security up to speed with its growth.
Reading roundup: Several interesting conversations popped up around journalism and tech this week. Here are a few worth following:
— Tech entrepreneur Chris Dixon lamented the dominance of apps over the mobile web, arguing that apps are governed by a rich-get-richer dynamic and subject to the whims of the keepers of the app stores. Tech blogger John Gruber disagreed, saying that whether we’re talking about apps or the mobile web, it’s all the web. Venture capitalist Fred Wilson said the shift to apps has led to less risk-taking in tech entrepreneurship, and blogger Ben Thompson argued that the web still matters for writing. Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram summed up the discussion and emphasized the importance of links.
— Poynter’s Howard Finberg and Lauren Klinger released a report comparing the views of journalists, journalism educators, and students about which skills are important in journalism, finding that educators view technical skills — especially multimedia — as much more important than professionals do. The Lab’s Joshua Benton argued that j-schools have a slightly off-kilter view of skills’ importance as opposed to the industry. Meanwhile, journalism professor Mindy McAdams took a couple of looks at what multimedia journalism skills mean today and what skills are necessary for journalism students to learn.
— Twitter introduced new profiles this week that emphasize photos and look a lot like Facebook’s. PandoDaily’s Nathaniel Mott said the changes are a good thing, as they “showcase a Twitter willing to move beyond its simple, what-you-see-is-what-you-get roots in order to create a more approachable service.”
— Finally, several great reads to look at this weekend: Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark on what it takes to create a new mode of journalism and whether data journalism qualifies, Adrienne LaFrance on rethinking online news archives, News Corp.’s Raju Narisetti with 26 key questions to ask about news organizations’ move to digital, and Washington Post editor Marty Baron on reasons to be optimistic about the future of journalism.
[This review was originally posted at the Nieman Journalism Lab on April 4, 2014.]
This week’s essential reads: If you’re short on time, the key pieces this week are Ken Doctor’s analysis of Project Thunderdome’s shutdown, Joshua Benton’s review of the new NYT Now, and Alex Howard’s interview with The New York Times’ Aron Pilhofer about data journalism.
Thunderdome and the long, hard road for local news: The newspaper chain Digital First Media shut down its ambitious Project Thunderdome this week, a stinging reminder of the difficulties in large-scale digital media innovation within local newspapers. Thunderdome, which was launched three years ago as a digitally savvy and mobile-centric centralized news production site for Digital First’s 75 papers, was shut down as part of larger cuts at the company, with about 50 employees laid off.
Digital First CEO John Paton said some of what Thunderdome did would be discontinued, and some would be distributed among Digital First’s papers. Poynter’s Jill Geisler gave a sense of the mood in the newsroom, and one of Thunderdome’s journalists, Steve Buttry, said the project didn’t fail because “you can’t fail unless you were given a chance to succeed.”
USA Today’s Rem Rieder focused on the schadenfreude that others in the news industry were reportedly feeling over Thunderdome’s demise, based on their perception of Paton as a digital-media showman with more brash style than actual solutions. But the Lab’s Ken Doctor, in the most thorough analysis of the shutdown, argued that while Thunderdome’s demise is a bitter pill for Paton, his overall transformation efforts at Digital First have been impressive: “Paton parlayed a small hand on a way-down-on-the-food-chain (Journal Register Co.) into a major U.S. digital news company.” Likewise, Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram saw the shutdown not as a failure, but simply as an indication of how tough it is to reinvent a newspaper company, and J-Source’s Melanie Coulson praised Digital First for its digital experimentation and called for more.
A few observers tried to pinpoint exactly what sunk Thunderdome. Rick Edmonds of Poynter highlighted the chain’s outdated technology with which the project had to work, exemplified by its widely varying and clunky set of content management systems. Media analyst Alan Mutter focused on Digital First’s owners, the hedge fund investors of Alden Capital Investors. “The objectives of the Digital First investors were the antithesis of the patience – and multimillion-dollar commitment – required in the slog to identify successful interactive publishing models,” Mutter wrote. Journalism professor Dan Kennedy made a similar point while looking at Digital First’s New Haven Register, wondering if local journalism can really be reinvented by a company owned by a hedge fund.
Facebook clamps down on brands: The tech world has been talking for a couple of weeks about reports that Facebook is cutting the amount of reach brands can get with their posts, forcing them to pay if they want to reach more than just a small percentage of their fans. One company, the food delivery service Eat24, complained about the change in an post announcing it planned to delete its Facebook page. Facebook responded with a retort of its own saying that it’s not showing its readers content that they’ve shown they don’t care about, though Recode’s Mike Isaac said Eat24 has a valid point, and The New York Times’ Vindu Goel said its concerns are quietly being echoed by many other, larger companies.
Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram said the change reinforces the distinction between Twitter’s flood of information and Facebook’s carefully controlled stream, and the notion that Facebook isn’t the kind of social network we’ve assumed it was: “It is not an open platform in which content spreads according to its own whims: like a newspaper, Facebook controls what you see and when.”
At Recode, marketing executive Michael Lazerow defended Facebook, arguing that companies are naive to expect free distribution from Facebook forever, and they need to respond by making their posts more relevant and spreadable. On the other side, Dijit Media president Jeremy Toeman argued that when Facebook users like a page, they expect to get that page’s updates. He urged Facebook to disclose to users that they won’t see every update when they like a page and to give them an option to subscribe to all of a page’s updates.
NYT Now launches: NYT Now, The New York Times’ much-anticipated (or at least much-promoted) news digest and aggregation app, launched this week. The Lab’s Ken Doctor analyzed the Times’ business strategy behind the app, looking at who’s going to subscribe at an $8-a-month rate. The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer expressed his excitement at the idea that NYT Now is trying to reward regular readers with a single, contained news package rather than a stream of news to dip in and out of.
The Lab’s Joshua Benton gave the app a mostly positive review, noting that its stories (and story selection) closely resemble the Times’ main product, but its aggregation and voice are a new arena for the paper. “Here’s hoping that the DNA of NYT Now can spread back into the core apps and that it can push harder at bringing an experimental edge to sharing great Times content with the world,” he wrote. Poynter’s Sam Kirkland also noted that NYT Now isn’t emphasizing breaking news and suggested that readers will switch back and forth between NYT Now and the main app.
Reading roundup: A few other stories to catch up on during a relatively slow week:
— The mobile analytics company Flurry published a set of data on use of apps vs. mobile browsers, concluding that the former have left the latter in the dust. Poynter’s Sam Kirkland said the mobile web is still very much alive for news, while BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel said the data help explain Facebook’s recent purchase of WhatsApp.
— Local billionaire Glen Taylor signed a letter of intent on a cash offer to buy the Minneapolis Star Tribune from the two investment firms that currently own most of the paper’s shares. Fellow Minnesotan David Carr of The New York Times reflected on the Star Tribune that was and its prospects with Taylor in charge.
— A few fantastic pieces on data journalism: The Tow Center for Digital Journalism conducted illuminating interviews with The New York Times’ Aron Pilhofer and NPR’s Jeremy Bowers. And at Source, Jeremy Merrill and Sisi Wei offered a very useful guide to getting a job in journalism and coding.
[This review was originally posted at the Nieman Journalism Lab on March 28, 2014.]
This week’s essential reads: If you only have a minute, the most important reads this week are the overview of Pew’s State of the News Media report, Deadspin’s Tim Marchman on the cynicism of the term clickbait, and the Tow Center’s Alexander Howard putting the data journalism discussion in historical context.
Reasons for optimism about the news industry: The Pew Research Journalism Project’s annual smorgasbord of data about the news industry, the State of the News Media report, was released this week, and after several gloomy years, the report had a distinctively optimistic tone this year. The headlining figure, as CNN’s Brian Stelter reported, was Pew’s tally of 5,000 new journalism jobs created at more than 400 digital news startups, in addition to at least $300 million in venture capital into news-related digital media startups in 2013.
Pew’s president, Alan Murray, provided several reasons for optimism from the report, including its findings of increasing news consumption on mobile devices and social media, and Pete Cashmore of Mashable praised the growing efforts to make news more accessible and mobile.
USA Today’s Rem Rieder also expressed his enthusiasm for journalism’s online growth, though he expressed concern about the future of local journalism. The Knight Foundation’s Eric Newton said student journalists are a big part of the new work that’s being done in local journalism and shouldn’t be left out of studies like this. The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi went deeper into local journalism’s long decline, pointing out that “the biggest investments in digital news have gone toward start-up ventures that target broad and borderless audiences, bypassing community news altogether.”
There was plenty of bad news in the report, too, and Digiday’s Lucia Moses gave an overview of some of it: The new revenue is only a sliver of journalism’s total funding, which still remains heavily dependent on advertising. And the 5,000 new jobs are a long way from replacing the jobs that have been lost. Poynter’s Rick Edmonds noted that despite its decline, the newspaper industry still accounts for more than half of the news business’ revenues.
TV news — whether local, cable, or network — earns far less revenue, as Edmonds pointed out. Pew’s numbers were particularly dire for MSNBC, as Erik Wemple of The Washington Post and Dylan Byers of Politico pointed out. The Lab’s Justin Ellis highlighted the year of ownership upheaval in the local TV news industry, as well as the growth of online video. Poynter’s Sam Kirkland noted that that growth isn’t as great as one might expect, though the audience for online news videos is remarkably young. And Patrick Seitz of Investor’s Business Daily detailed the role of Facebook in young people’s news consumption habits.
Debating the merits of chasing traffic: The move toward a more nakedly traffic-driven orientation has been in the works in online news for a long time, but the Advance-owned Oregonian in Portland may have taken it to new levels among traditional news organizations. The alt-weekly Willamette Week reported on internal documents at the paper that require Oregonian reporters to post new articles three times a day and post the first comment on any substantial post. Annual bonuses will be based on performance ratings, which will be determined in large part on web metrics.
The Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum decried the move as a brazen institutionalization of the “hamster wheel” mentality that has overtaken journalism, saying it makes it much more difficult for The Oregonian’s reporters to do good, serious work. “The sad thing about Advance’s digital forced march is that its executives really think they’re getting ahead of the curve. But they’re implementing 2008’s conventional wisdom in 2014, and they’re doing it badly at that,” Chittum wrote. Mathew Ingram of Gigaom agreed that the plan is too pageview-focused and likely to lead to clickbait, but said he liked the focus on engagement, producing lots of regular content, and a variety of posting styles.
The Lab’s Joshua Benton said he’s not so much concerned about the particulars of The Oregonian’s bet on online traffic as the fact that it’s making a bet in the first place. Any bet, he said, is an encouraging departure from the age-old plan of cutting, retrenching around declining print advertising and circulation, and relying on an aging audience.
The New York Times’ David Carr included The Oregonian’s changes as an example of a larger trend toward paying journalists based on the traffic they bring in, a practice that brings a welcome meritocracy to journalistic production but is also alarmingly open to manipulation. Newswhip’s Paul Quigley argued that this trend actually tilts things toward writers’ favor rather than their bosses, because it depends in part on their brands and their networks. Gigaom’s Ingram noted, though, that this obsession will continue as long as advertising (and, by extension, advertisers) are still driving the bus of online revenue.
Lucia Moses of Digiday looked at the range of approaches among online news organizations to giving journalists metrics, and Poynter’s Sam Kirkland noted that there are still lines editors won’t cross in search of traffic. Deadspin’s Tim Marchman railed against the cynicism in the ubiquitous term clickbait, saying it presents a moralistic “false binary between stories that serve the public interest and those cynically presented just because people will read them.”
Facebook jumps into virtual reality: Facebook made another big-dollar, out-of-left-field purchase this week, buying two-year-old startup Oculus Rift, which makes virtual reality headgear, for $2 billion. Recode’s Kara Swisher reported some details on how the deal came together, and Time’s Lev Grossman wrote a good profile on Oculus’ background and what sets it apart.
Virtual reality, of course, wouldn’t seem to be a natural extension of Facebook’s existing platform, so many people have been wondering exactly what the social network has in mind. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg said he plans to start with Oculus’ current ambitions in gaming and then move toward providing a broader range of virtual experiences with friends. Andrew Wallenstein of Variety said, though, that Facebook’s eventually going to end up in the movie business.
Several other observers said Zuckerberg doesn’t really know what Facebook’s going to do with Oculus; he’s simply hedging his bets on the technology of the future. Said venture capitalist Fred Wilson: “The next thing was mobile. Mobile is now the last thing. And all of these big tech companies are looking for the next thing to make sure they don’t miss it.”
Reuters’ Felix Salmon compared Zuckerberg to Warren Buffett, hedging his bets in all kinds of fields against the eventual decline of Facebook as a social media platform. Gigaom founder Om Malik said the interesting realization in all this “billion dollar dart throwing” is that we’re moving toward a glass ceiling for the advertising-based model. Forbes’ Eric Mack argued, meanwhile, that Zuckerberg will have a tough time turning virtual reality into a mainstream technology.
Oculus raised its initial $2.4 million through Kickstarter, and its backers there were not exhilarated at the company’s big payday, but outraged, as The Verge’s Adrianne Jeffries reported. Minecraft creator Markus Persson said he would no longer work with Oculus, and Dean Putney of BoingBoing captured the disappointment of people who thought Oculus could be a “next big thing” that was actually powered by the grassroots, rather than corporations. PandoDaily’s James Robinson said virtual reality just became a monopoly, and other new technologies are likely to follow: “An entire generation of hardware innovation is up for grabs right now, and neither Facebook or Google seem about to close their wallets.”
Net neutrality and streaming video: The net neutrality debate was stoked again late last week by a pair of posts from two of the players with the biggest stakes in the game. Netflix’s Reed Hastings made the argument for stronger net neutrality, saying that Internet service providers are charging content providers for interconnection (like in the deal Netflix made with Comcast last month) just because they can. AT&T’s Jim Cicconi countered that users’ increasing appetite for streaming video (that is, Netflix) has huge costs for ISPs, and that Netflix wants those costs to be borne by all broadband customers, rather than the ones who are streaming the video through Netflix.
Supporters fell in on both sides: BoingBoing’s Cory Doctorow called AT&T’s policies ”extortion,” and the New America Foundation’s Sarah Morris called for strong net neutrality to police the opaque world of interconnection in which the Netflixes and AT&Ts of the world negotiate. On the other side, StreamingMedia’s Dan Rayburn said Netflix isn’t being straightforward about the situation it’s actually in, and Forbes’ Mark Rogowsky said the net neutrality Netflix is calling for wouldn’t solve its problems.
The Verge’s Ben Popper explained Netflix’s deal with Comcast in light of Hastings’ post, and Gigaom’s Janko Roettgers looked at whether Hastings’ tongue-in-cheek proposal that Netflix should become a peer-to-peer network would actually work.
Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal reported that Apple and Comcast are in talks about a deal that would use an Apple set-top box for streaming TV and allow Apple to bypass online data congestion through an interconnectivity arrangement. There was a lot of skepticism about the story, with Variety’s Andrew Wallenstein, Gigaom’s Janko Roettgers, and StreamingMedia’s Dan Rayburn all throwing cold water on it.
Reading roundup: Several other noteworthy stories from this busy week:
— After weeks of hints, The New York Times officially announced two new paid-content options, an $8-a-month app of core Times content called NYT Now and a $45-a-month subscription called Times Premier that includes behind-the-scenes information about the paper. Poynter’s Sam Kirkland has more details on the programs, BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel looked at whether NYT Now will succeed, and Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram offered suggestions for personalizing The Times’ paid content plans.
— Turkey’s government sought to ban Twitter late last week, prompting widespread workarounds by Turkish Twitter users as well as a legal challenge filed by Twitter. One Turkish court overturned the ban on Wednesday, while another one rejected Twitter’s complaint. The government also blocked YouTube on Thursday. Some of the best commentary on the subject has been by Turkish digital sociology professor Zeynep Tufekci, who explained why Turkey is blocking Twitter and what Turks are doing about it.
— The chatter about Nate Silver’s relaunched data journalism site FiveThirtyEight continued this week, and while much of it come from an ongoing slap-fight between Silver and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, some of it was also quite thought-provoking. The Tow Center’s Alexander Howard gave some historical context to some of the backlash against data journalism, Om Malik gave some advice to Silver on dealing with criticism, the Columbia Journalism Review’s Tanveer Ali called for better understanding of narrative at FiveThirtyEight, and Adam Tinworth offered a defense of data journalism.
— The New York Times reported that the Obama administration is proposing an end to the U.S. National Security Agency’s systematic collection of Americans’ bulk phone records, allowing it access to phone companies’ data only with a specific court order. The Volokh Conspiracy’s Stewart Baker compared Obama’s plan to Congress’ proposed overhaul, and The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald examined the tough spot the new plan may put pro-NSA Democrats in.
— Finally, tech blogger Ben Thompson wrote a thoughtful post on the well-trod topic of traditional and future business models for news, and the Lab’s Joshua Benton added some of his thoughts on what might be ahead.
[This review was originally posted at the Nieman Journalism Lab on March 21, 2014.]
This week’s essential reads: Only have a minute? The key pieces this week are Nate Silver’s introductory data journalism manifesto for FiveThirtyEight, New York’s Benjamin Wallace-Wells on the enormous expectations for Silver, and BuzzFeed’s Shani O. Hilton and sociology professor Zeynep Tufekci on the roots of newsroom diversity problems.
High expectations for FiveThirtyEight: Nate Silver relaunched his data-driven blog, FiveThirtyEight, this week under the auspices of ESPN as a full-blown data journalism site covering sports, politics, economics, science, and culture with a masthead of about 20. Silver introduced the new site with a manifesto for his style of data journalism, outlining a four-step process of collection, organization, explanation, and generalization and critiquing traditional journalism for its poor job of approaching anecdotes and data, particularly on the latter two steps.
Silver’s manifesto and his brand of data journalism received some swift blowback. The New Republic’s Marc Tracy faulted Silver for focusing too heavily on outcomes, arguing that “Silver’s outcome-intensive approach risks obscuring the processes and the personalities, the ideas and the ideologies, which in politics matter also.” His colleague at The New Republic, Leon Wieseltier, wrote a more sweeping condemnation of Silver’s approach, defending opinions and the beliefs that lie behind them and criticizing Silver’s claims to neutrality.
Likewise, The Week’s Ryan Cooper also expressed skepticism about Silver’s professed neutrality, claiming that his true ideological commitment is contrarianism. Financial journalist Matt Stoller combed through Silver’s old writings on the financial crisis to find an ideology that values expert opinion and action over mass political movement. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman chastised Silver and FiveThirtyEight for trying to let data speak for itself rather than examining and testing their own assumptions about it. More broadly, Quartz’s Allison Schrager encouraged data journalists to use data simply, carefully, and with appropriate context.
Much of the site’s initial output came under scrutiny as well. Economist Tyler Cowen said its articles are in an awkward in-between space: “too superficial for smart and informed readers, yet on topics which are too abstruse for the more casual readers.” Its early pieces on health news and climate change came under fire from Knight Science Journalism and ThinkProgress, respectively.
In a perceptive piece, New York’s Benjamin Wallace-Wells suggested that the reason Silver (along with his peers in new news ventures, Vox’s Ezra Klein and First Look’s Glenn Greenwald) is being judged so harshly is that his site is seen within professional journalism as an experiment in reclaiming some of its expertise from the morass of mindless punditry. “The hope invested in these projects is that as the industry shrank, perhaps, at the very least, what was left might become smarter. The profession has retreated, but maybe it has retreated to higher ground.”
Others examined the practical side of the new FiveThirtyEight — whether its data-heavy journalism can appeal to a large enough audience to sustain its newly increased size. The Guardian’s James Ball and Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram both explored this question, and TechCrunch’s Gregory Ferenstein called it the central one in FiveThirtyEight’s success: “Silver’s experiment isn’t a test of whether data journalism can work; it’s a test of how nerdy the Internet’s news audience is.” Ben Thompson saw the site as an example of the high-quality content online that’s replaced the average local news content that used to make up our media diets.
Networks, culture, and journalism’s diversity problems: Just before its launch, FiveThirtyEight, as well as Vox and First Look Media’s The Intercept, also took heat for a different type of shortcoming — their lack of diversity. Columbia journalism professor and former Guardian digital editor Emily Bell criticized the sites last week for replicating traditional journalism’s white male-dominated power structure.
This week, Sara Morrison got a response from The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald indicating his efforts to add more diversity and his regrets at not having had more at launch. Greenwald and First Look editor Eric Bates talked about the value of going outside their established networks for diverse hires and held up Recode as an example of a startup with a remarkably diverse staff in a field — tech journalism — dominated by white men.
BuzzFeed’s Shani O. Hilton argued that building a diverse staff that goes beyond single representatives of each group is quite difficult, even if you’re earnestly trying, because the networks used to draw new hires are so limited. “The journos of color and women aren’t networking with white dudes doing the hiring because it isn’t in their DNA,” Hilton wrote. She encouraged both editors and job-seekers to think outside their networks and put aside their pride in order to enhance diversity.
Digital First’s Mandy Jenkins also pinpointed the network problem, noting that many jobs are filled via networks before they’re even posted and urging news organizations to post their jobs early in the process to draw diverse candidates outside their networks. The National Association of Black Journalists also offered some useful tips for finding and attracting talented minority journalists.
Sociology professor Zeynep Tufekci said the problem (and solution) goes beyond networks to the culture that the tech world builds up around itself. Tufekci explained how the tech and news worlds, despite seeing themselves as outsiders from the larger macho culture, can create their own exclusionary male culture without realizing it. Bell revisited and reflected on the variety of responses to her initial piece, reiterating her point that the diversity debate is still very much worth having.
How public are tweets?: BuzzFeed’s Jessica Testa rather unwittingly prompted an interesting discussion on the public-ness of Twitter and social media journalism ethics with a post last week collecting responses on Twitter to a question about what people were wearing when they were sexually assaulted. Testa received permission from each of the people whose tweets she posted, but not from Christine Fox, who posted the question and retweeted the responses.
At Global Voices, Jillian C. York summarized the criticism of Testa’s post and the debate that followed, which centered on how public content on Twitter should be considered and what obligation journalists might have before republishing that content anywhere else. Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan issued a forceful defense of Twitter’s public-ness, and Poynter’s Kelly McBride was skeptical of Fox’s objection to using the story without her permission, questioning, “Because you pose a question that provokes an interesting answer, does that give an ethical claim to control the story that emerges?” (McBride also followed up with lessons learned through a factual error she made in the post.)
The Daily Dot’s Kate Knibbs said that while Twitter is indeed public, the decision to republish content there is still subject to the same standards of compassion and decency that should govern our lives everywhere else. Alex Howard of TechRepublic sounded a similar note: “Just because tweets are public doesn’t mean journalists with a huge platform should automatically amplify them, particularly if doing so doesn’t serve a newsworthy purpose or serve the public interest–and if the updates touch upon a sensitive subject, as these did.” Blogger Jamie Nesbitt Golden said the problem with BuzzFeed’s piece wasn’t so much the permission factor, but addressing the issue insensitively and lazily.
ReadWrite’s Selena Larson and Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici both looked at Twitter’s role in determining the expectations of public-ness and privacy on its network, both noting that the company has played things very hands-off, leaving a great deal of ambiguity. As Bercovici said, Twitter can’t declare its network public without alienating a core group of its users, and it can’t publicly affirm the privacy of its tweets without slowing down conversation around it and frustrating journalists.
Reading roundup: A few other stories worth taking a look at from this week:
— Los Angeles Times journalist Ken Schwencke used an algorithm that he programmed called Quakebot to write a story on the earthquake that hit the L.A. area early Monday morning. The Wire’s Eric Levenson and Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon talked to Schwencke about Quakebot. Ryan Calo of Forbes looked at the legal aspects of bot reporters.
— The American Press Institute published a study on how Americans consume news, and The Associated Press reported on it as encouraging evidence of consumers’ desire for meatier news, while The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza saw an appetite for quick headlines and little else. The Lab’s Justin Ellis looked at a few other trends revolving around topics, news cycles, and trust.
— A few notes on the continued fallout from Newsweek’s troubled bitcoin cover story: Dorian Satoshi Nakamoto, the man Newsweek identified as the creator of bitcoin, issued a statement denying the claim and saying he’d hired a lawyer. Reuters’ Felix Salmon annotated the statement, and law professor Eugene Volokh looked at the legal case for any potential suit. The Daily Dot’s Ben Branstetter saw the episode as an example of the emptiness of “meet the man behind X” stories in the Internet age.
— A few final pieces to take a look at: New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan launched AnonyWatch, “an effort to point out some of the more regrettable examples of anonymous quotations in The Times,” the American Journalism Review’s Mary Clare Fischer looked at news organizations’ reluctance to give out metrics information, and here at the Lab, Center for Investigative Reporting fellow Lindsay Green-Barber wrote about efforts to measure impact in investigative journalism.
[This review was originally posted at the Nieman Journalism Lab on March 14, 2014.]
This week’s essential reads: Only have a minute? The essential pieces this week are Felix Salmon and Jay Rosen on Newsweek’s Bitcoin story, Emily Bell on diversity in new news organizations, and Chartbeat CEO Tony Haile with surprising web readership data.
Newsweek and showing your work: The cover story of Newsweek’s return to print was supposed to be a bombshell revelation of the identity of Bitcoin’s mysterious creator Satoshi Nakamoto, but it’s been unraveling ever since it was published late last week. The man Newsweek identified as Bitcoin’s creator, Dorian Satoshi Nakamoto of California, denied involvement with Bitcoin to The Associated Press, and the story’s details were widely questioned.
After publication, we got some more details about the forensic analysis that led Newsweek’s Leah McGrath Goodman to Nakamoto and the interview she conducted with him. Newsweek issued a statement standing by its story, and its editor-in-chief, Jim Impoco, appeared to both revel in and express outrage at the criticism the story was receiving.
The story was picked apart, paragraph by paragraph, by several people, including former Grantland editor Jay Caspian Kang and Priceonomics’ Rohin Dhar. The Guardian’s Michael Wolff chastised readers and commentators for being so shocked at the flimsiness of Newsweek’s story, saying that much of that outrage was predicated on the false premise that this is the Newsweek we’ve always known. “The new Newsweek is hoping to pass itself off as the old and real Newsweek, but, really, that is less its fault than the fault of the gullible,” he said.
The sharpest commentary on the story came from Reuters’ Felix Salmon, who wrote a pair of posts — the first breaking down Newsweek’s evidence and concluding that it should have presented its story as a thesis rather than a scoop, and the second with Goodman’s description of her reporting techniques and suggestions of how Newsweek should better engage its critics.
NYU’s Jay Rosen highlighted a few of Goodman’s statements to Salmon appealing to Newsweek’s reputation and referring to evidence she hasn’t made public. “Sorry, that was 25 years ago. Today: Show your work. Don’t tell us how much work went into it. You publish your story, you know it’s going to come under attack, you prepare for battle and when the time is right you release the evidence you have,” Rosen wrote. The Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum also expanded on Salmon’s posts, pointing out the increased accountability for news organizations.
Diversity in personal franchise sites: The three most prominent of the new wave of personal franchise sites each made announcements this week, and came under some criticism for lack of diversity as well. Ex-Washington Post journalist Ezra Klein’s project for Vox Media will be called simply Vox, and revealed a bit about how it’s going to approach explanatory journalism on all types of subjects. PandoDaily’s David Holmes looked at the current market for news explainers and how Vox might push the genre forward, and Gigaom’s Laura Hazard Owen discussed why Vox could become essential reading for people trying to catch up on current events.
Nate Silver’s data journalism site, FiveThirtyEight, will relaunch on Monday and will be housed with fellow ESPN projects Grantland and ESPN Films in a new unit called Exit 31. He gave details of its new mission in a Q&A with New York magazine. Meanwhile, The New York Times explained the purpose of its data-oriented replacement for FiveThirtyEight, which will be called The Upshot, and the Columbia Journalism Review looked at the future of Klein’s former Wonkblog at the Post.
And The Intercept, the subsite of First Look Media centered on Glenn Greenwald’s work and surveillance issues surrounding the Edward Snowden documents, hired Gawker editor John Cook as its new editor, as well as two new writers.
But former Guardian editor Emily Bell criticized these new well funded startups for hiring staff and leadership that’s overwhelmingly male (and white, too). For being hailed as a new vanguard of journalism, Bell said, these projects look a lot like the old guard. “Remaking journalism in its own image, only with better hair and tighter clothes, is not a revolution, or even an evolution. It is a repackaging of the status quo with a very nice clubhouse attached.” FiveThirtyEight’s Silver responded that his site doesn’t have a “bro-y” clubhouse mentality and tries to make the best hires possible from an applicant pool that’s 85% male.
Snowden speaks: The news stemming from Edward Snowden’s leaked U.S. National Security Agency documents continues to flow — this week’s biggest story came from The Intercept, which reported that the NSA and the British spying unit GCHQ are using automated tools to install malware onto computers, including programs that pose as Facebook servers to smuggle out files and email spam that installs malware to secretly record users with their computers’ microphones and webcams. The New York Times also reported on decade-old secret court rulings that dramatically expanded the U.S.’ ability to share information obtained from spying on its own citizens.
As stories from Snowden’s documents have dominated the news over the past year, Snowden will also be at the center of the Pulitzer Prizes when they’re decided next month. As Politico’s Dylan Byers reported, the Pulitzer board will consider teams from The Guardian and The Washington Post for their reporting on the Snowden documents, and a decision either way will likely be read as a political statement — perceived timidity on one hand or a repudiation of numerous government officials on the other.
Snowden addressed a crowd at SXSW this week via video from Russia, defending his leaks, criticizing the U.S.’ surveillance practices, and urging tech companies to tighten their security and be more discriminate in their data collection. Barton Gellman, the Washington Post reporter who has reported extensively on the documents, also spoke at SXSW, calling for more widespread encryption and security technology.
Reading roundup: A few other stories that popped up this week:
— The World Wide Web turned 25 this week, and its creator, Tim Berners-Lee, called for a digital bill of rights protecting its freedom, openness, and neutrality. He spoke in particular about his concern over net neutrality and also gave an Ask Me Anything on Reddit on the topic. Cory Doctorow of BoingBoing also urged Berners-Lee to reconsider his support for digital rights management technology in web browsers.
— Chartbeat CEO Tony Haile wrote an illuminating article at Time drawing some surprising conclusions from web tracking data, including that what people share doesn’t correlate with how long they spend reading it and native ads don’t get nearly the engagement that un-sponsored content gets. Recode’s Peter Kafka looked at the implications for native advertising, and journalism professor Jeff Jarvis examined ways to measure web use better.
— The New York Times previewed its new NYT Now app at SXSW this week, giving a glimpse of its cheaper, more simplified version of its main app. Times public editor Margaret Sullivan gave some of the details of the app and the paper’s goal behind it (including the nearly 20 editorial staffers working on it), and Mashable gave some more information on the app.
— The BBC launched a redesigned version of its iPlayer and announced it’s planning to launch online-only channels. It was also reported to be considering scrapping the license fee that funds it through licenses on TVs in the U.K. in favor of a subscription plan, though it denied that report.
— Finally, Stuart Dredge at The Guardian wrote a smart piece on the ascendant gatekeeping role of algorithms in determining what news reaches us and how.