[This review was originally posted at the Nieman Journalism Lab on May 10, 2013.]
Kurtz’s rare accountability: Media critic Howard Kurtz’s status was pretty well settled by the end of last week after his disastrously erroneous column earlier in the week — he was fired by The Daily Beast, but still in good standing as host of CNN’s “Reliable Sources.” Kurtz allowed himself to face a 2-on-1 grilling by NPR’s David Folkenflik and Politico’s Dylan Byers, summarized well at Mediaite.
Hardly anyone watched it, but a number of media observers found the Kurtz’s apology (he called his work “sloppy and inexcusable”) and interview significant — Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon offered a good rundown of some of their opinions. Several of them still had lingering questions after the episode: Sharon Waxman of The Wrap was unimpressed with what she saw as a thin response to questions, writing, “Merely repeating an apology and stressing one’s sincerity is not a ticket back to play on the journalism field.” Variety’s Brian Lowry found it jarring to see Kurtz immediately return to his perch as the media’s ethical cop, and The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple criticized him for refusing to apologize when his error was first found out.
The interview also addressed another aspect of Kurtz’s story — his role at the Daily Download, a little-known website which he mentioned and appeared on often. Before and after his firing, Daily Beast staffers voiced concerns that he was devoting too much energy to the site. The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone said Kurtz downplayed his role at the site in the interview, in which he said he’s only a contributor. The Washington Post’s Wemple examined Daily Download founder Lauren Ashburn’s increasingly ubiquitous role on CNN, and both Calderone and j-prof Dan Kennedy questioned the Knight Foundation’s decision to award the site a grant in 2011.
Other saw something noble in Kurtz’s show on Sunday. Several commented on just how remarkable and rare it was to see a critic and pundit willingly subject himself to such scrutiny: J-prof Jeff Jarvis hoped it would become an example for journalists who make high-profile mistakes, and Eric Deggans of the Tampa Bay Times suggested that “as social media and the online world have made our errors more visible than ever, such directness just might make the difference in gaining and maintaining the public’s trust for the future.”
Salon’s Alex Pareene also marveled at the rarity of Kurtz’s questioning, but also contended that the extent of the consequences Kurtz will ultimately face is mere embarrassment, thanks to his elite status. Still, Time’s James Poniewozik saw the fact that Kurtz faced any sort of consequences as surprising, as he wished for other pundits to be held to similar public scrutiny when they get things wrong.
Politico tries a paywall: Politico, one of the most influential non-legacy news orgs in the U.S., joined the paywall brigade this week with its announcement that it would test a metered pay plan for its site. Politico will test the plan out on readers in six states and outside the U.S. (sorry about that, Iowa, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming), experimenting with various prices and meter limits.
The announcement emphasized that Politico’s leaders aren’t sold on the paywall model, but want to try it out because they believe their audiences are more likely to pay than they had previously thought. They also said it’s “highly unlikely” they’d try out a paywall in Washington, D.C., where their advertising-and-traffic-based model is working well. As The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple noted, Politico also ventured into sponsored content on its homepage for the first time this week.
Elsewhere in paywalls, the Lab’s Justin Ellis reported on tweaks The Dallas Morning News is exploring its (currently relatively hard) paywall — possibly a metered model, or time-limited access. He also gave some details of how The Boston Globe used its free/paid two-site strategy to cover last month’s Boston Marathon bombing. And blogger Andrew Sullivan provided another update on his pioneering pay model, reporting that he’s expecting to fall short of his $900,000 annual goal and is brainstorming about new sources of income to add.
Big guns line up against Kochs: The campaign to keep the conservative billionaire Koch brothers from buying the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and other Tribune Co. newspapers has building over the last couple of weeks, and it came to a head this week. As The New York Times reported, 10 public employee unions sent a letter to the company’s largest shareholder, Oaktree Capital Management, threatening to press to withdraw Oaktree’s pension fund assets if the deal went through. The two top leaders of California’s legislature also objected to the sale.
The Guardian reported that more than 250,000 people have signed a petition, organized by the Courage Campaign and the liberal blog Daily Kos, to urge Oaktree not to sell to the Kochs. Public sentiment hasn’t been voiced nearly as strongly in Chicago, where only a couple dozen people turned out to protest Thursday in front of the Tribune’s offices, as Crain’s Chicago Business observed.
A number of conservatives, of course, saw the outrage over the Kochs’ potential ownership as myopic concern over a newspaper that hasn’t played it straight for quite some time: Syndicated columnist Cal Thomas and the Washington Times’ Dorian Davis questioned what exactly constitutes objective coverage for those objecting to the Kochs. Zócalo’s Joe Mathews said that while he doesn’t support the Kochs, he thinks their ownership of the Times could be positive for the city, as it either provides a check against the city’s establishment or implodes and prompts L.A.’s most ambitious journalists to create better alternatives.
Reading roundup: A few other stories going on during this slow week in media:
— News Corp. posted good results in its quarterly figures this week, though Capital New York’s Joe Pompeo said the numbers also emphasized why News Corp. is headed for a corporate split (helpfully diagrammed by Quartz’s David Yanofsky) later this year. Meanwhile, its New York Post is attempting to reduce 10% of its staff through buyouts, and News Corp. shareholders continued to call for Rupert Murdoch to resign.
— The Royal Charter that had been proposed to set up a stronger regulatory body for the U.K. press has been tabled while politicians talk to newspaper editors about their alternative proposals for the plan. The plans saw a breakthrough a few days later when the papers agreed to drop their right to veto appointments to the new commission.
— Gittip’s Chad Whitacre made some waves this week by requiring that journalists’ interviews with him be live-streamed and posted on YouTube. He blogged about the experience and the nature of collaborative journalism, and paidContent’s Mathew Ingram wondered why more journalists don’t open up the interview process to the public. Meanwhile, Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark delineated the difference between journalistic transparency and translucence.
— A few great data journalism resources: PBS MediaShift often useful summaries from two data journalism events, one from Italy and the other from West Virginia. And j-prof and PolitiFact vet Matt Waite wrote a thoughtful post on turning stories into data, not just data into stories.
— Finally, Texas j-prof Robert Jensen issued a thought-provoking call for a prophetic, apocalyptic journalism to fit our apocalyptic times.
[This review was originally posted at the Nieman Journalism Lab on May 3, 2013.]
Newspapers’ digital subscriptions jump: Newspapers’ biannual circulation reports came out this week, and there were a couple of ways to read them. The New York Times went the glass-half-full route, emphasizing that digital subscriptions are up, now accounting for 20% of total circulation figures. Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici went glass-half-empty, pointing out that overall circulation is down, meaning that “publishers seem to be shedding print subscribers faster than they can replace them with readers of online, mobile or replica editions.”
The big news among individual papers was that The New York Times passed up USA Today as the second-largest newspaper in the U.S., behind The Wall Street Journal. Ad Age reported that the Times’ jump in digital subscribers since its paywall was introduced two years ago has come mostly from new digital subscribers, not print subscribers who added digital subscriptions. 10,000 Words’ Lauren Hockenson pointed out the slowdown of the Times’ paywall growth, though recently paywalled blogger Andrew Sullivan compared the Times’ situation favorably to the free (for the time being) Washington Post.
Despite its continued drop in circulation, USA Today’s publisher, Larry Kramer, sent out a cheerful memo published by Jim Romenesko that noted that it’s relying on a different model — free and ad-based — than its competitors, which doesn’t give it the digital subscriptions to match up against theirs. J-prof Dan Kennedy also broke down the difference digital numbers are making among the Boston papers.
Mathew Ingram of paidContent, meanwhile, called BS on the whole exercise, pointing out that circulation figures allow newspapers to count someone who reads the paper in print, on the web, and on a tablet as three different readers. With numbers so inflated and open to interpretation, Ingram said, “The bottom line is that no one really knows what the ‘real’ readership numbers are for newspapers.” Media analyst Alan Mutter echoed his point, arguing that newspapers’ fuzzy digital circulation numbers are masking a collapse in print subscriptions over the past several years.
More pushback against the Kochs: The news that the conservative billionaire Koch brothers are talking about buying the Tribune Co.’s newspapers (which include the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times) came to the fore last week, and opposition to the move continues to bubble up. Kathleen Miles of The Huffington Post reported that in a show of hands at a recent meeting there, about half of the LA Times newsroom said they’d quit if the Kochs bought the paper. The Times also reported on three LA city councilmen who threatened to pull city pension money from the investment firms who currently own the paper if they sell to the Kochs.
The Newspaper Guild-CWA called for the Times to only sell to a buyer that will commit to preserving the paper’s objectivity, while locals in south Florida have circulated an online petition against Koch ownership of a Tribune paper there. At the Times, David Horsey urged LA residents to rise against Koch ownership there. Craig Aaron of the media reform group Free Press called on readers of Tribune Co. papers to do the same across the country, but said the best (though extremely unlikely) solution would be breaking up the chain in favor of local ownership.
Forbes’ Daniel Fisher wondered why the Kochs might think the deal might work well from a business perspective (it won’t), while at USA Today, Michael Wolff did the same with their potential for political influence. Those papers’ influence would be limited to their cities, Wolff said, none of whom seem to be clamoring for a loud conservative media voice. “Other than a few editorials tilting to their views, it is hard to imagine how they get a new conservative national voice to rise from Los Angeles, Chicago, Hartford and Baltimore — or in Spanish,” he wrote. Jack Shafer of Reuters offered a similar caution to the Kochs, while also contending that they’re not the hard-right loons they’re being painted as.
Elsewhere, Michael Calderone of The Huffington Post gave some background on the Kochs’ dealings with the media — they generally refuse to talk until after an article about them is published, then complain loudly afterward. And Texas grad student Brian Baresch looked at some of the history of newspaper ownership driven by conservative ideology.
Daily Beast fires Kurtz: Howard Kurtz, longtime Washington Post media critic and one of the web’s most prominent media writers, was fired yesterday by The Daily Beast. There were a couple of possible causes — one more immediate and another more general. Kurtz wrote an erroneous column earlier this week that was critical of Jason Collins, the NBA player who announced Monday he was gay. Kurtz accused Collins of hiding the fact that he used to be engaged to a woman, but Collins actually revealed that in the very Sports Illustrated column in which he made his announcement. The Daily Beast retracted the column Thursday morning and fired him later that day.
The other factor came in the form of a report by The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone on Kurtz’s heavy involvement with a little-known website called The Daily Download, which is increasingly the subject of his tweets and a publishing venue for his perspectives on media. Kurtz is on the board of the site but told Calderone he isn’t paid, so Calderone said his extensive work there is raising eyebrows at The Daily Beast.
Alex Pareene of Salon tied the two together, arguing that while his main flaw previously had been his blandness and subservience, this error was evidence that he’s spreading himself too thin. The question, then, was what role both played in his firing: Calderone reported that the Collins error was a last straw in a series of grievances, and hinted that Kurtz’s role at The Daily Download may be greater than what he has said publicly. The Washington Post and The New York Times both quoted a (very similar-sounding!) anonymous Daily Beast source who said the firing wasn’t just a reaction to the Collins story but was over problems that had accrued over time, and that Kurtz has had too many distractions from his work there.
Stopping hacking on Twitter: A week after its hack of the Associated Press’ Twitter account, the Syrian Electronic Army hacked 11 Twitter accounts for the Guardian over the weekend, getting control of them through phishing emails. Twitter responded by sending a memo to journalists regarding security that, as Marketing Pilgrim’s Frank Reed wrote, didn’t exactly inspire confidence: As BuzzFeed’s John Herrman noted, Twitter is actually telling journalists “to stay off the internet on the computers they use for Twitter.”
At the Investigative News Network, Amy Schmitz Weiss had some good tips for journalists to keep their accounts and CMSes secure. Meanwhile, Twitter posted a job listing for a “head of news and journalism” to better manage its relationships with journalists.
Reading roundup: A much quieter week this week than the last few, but still several interesting items worth noting:
— Politico owner Robert Allbritton sent a memo to the site’s staff announcing that he’s exploring selling his TV stations, though he was emphatic that he wouldn’t be selling Politico, which The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone posted with some background. The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple wondered whether Politico is truly as profitable as Allbritton asserts.
— Yahoo announced six new original web shows and a variety of TV parternships, which, as Ad Age’s Michael Learmonth argued, left the distinct message that it’s still a media company. Its proposed purchase of the French video-sharing site Dailymotion, meanwhile, was shot down by the French government.
— Two interesting conversations that developed this week: The New Republic’s Marc Tracy declared the death of blogs, and blogger Andrew Sullivan said it’s more likely magazines that are dying. And Northwestern journalism student Katie Zhu urged j-schools to rethink their approach to data and computer science, and journalist/developer Derek Willis chimed in with his own call for reform.
— Twitter expanded its self-serve ad platform, which was launched last year and had been invite-only, to all businesses in the U.S. TechCrunch’s Josh Constine explained what it might mean for Twitter and for advertisers.
— Two thoughtful pieces to read through this weekend: Legendary sociologist Herb Gans argued that public opinion polls don’t actually measure public opinion, and The New Republic’s Jeffrey Rosen looked at the Internet giants’ control over online speech.