This Week in Review: Facebook and online control, and educating stronger data journalists

[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.


17. July 2014 by Mark
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This Week in Review: Questions on Facebook’s experiment, and a knockout blow to Aereo

[This review was originally posted at the Nieman Journalism Lab on July 3, 2014.

This week’s essential reads: The key pieces from the past couple of weeks are Sebastian Deterding on the ethics of Facebook’s experiment, the Columbia Journalism Review’s Michael Meyer on Jeff Bezos’ plan for The Washington Post, and Nick Davies’ sweeping review of News Corp.’s phone hacking scandal and British tabloid journalism culture.

The review has been off the last two weeks, so this week’s review covers the past couple of weeks.

Facebook’s ethically dubious experiment: Facebook was under fire again this week for collecting data from its users without their knowledge, this time in conjunction with Cornell University professors for an experiment on the influence of Facebook’s News Feed on its users’ emotions. The study, which was published in May, involved skewing what nearly 700,000 users saw for a week in their News Feeds with more positive or negative words and then measuring the positivity and negativity in their own posts.

The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer has a good explanation of the procedural and ethical details behind the study: Cornell’s institutional review board, which reviews all research the university does involving human subjects, wasn’t involved until after the experiment was finished. And as Forbes’ Kashmir Hill reported, the statement in Facebook’s terms of service that it can use its users’ data for research wasn’t added until after the study was conducted. It’s not clear what review the study did get — in another Hill article, Facebook said it conducted an “internal review” of the study. The Atlantic’s Adrienne LaFrance also reported on the misgivings of the study’s editor as well as her reasons for approving it.

Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram put together a good summary of the criticism and defenses of the study’s ethics from people within and outside Facebook. British regulators said they’re investigating Facebook on the study, and Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg apologized on the company’s behalf — not for the study itself, but for communicating it poorly. One of the study’s authors, Facebook data scientist Adam Kramer, defended the study’s design while apologizing for “any anxiety it caused” and noting that Facebook’s internal review processes have improved since the study was conducted.

Numerous writers condemned Facebook’s callousness in running the study, including Mike Masnick of Techdirt, James Poniewozik of Time, Jordan Ellenberg of Slate, and Alex Wilhelm of Techcrunch. Wired’s Katie Collins argued that the study reminds us that “Facebook as a company trades in information, not people,” and both Charles Arthur of The Guardian and David Holmes of PandoDaily warned that the study indicates Facebook’s immense power and its willingness to use that power for ignoble ends.

Several researchers published defenses of Facebook: The University of Texas’ Tal Yarkoni argued that concerns about Facebook manipulating its users’ experience are overblown because the News Feed is an entirely artificial environment, the site of constant manipulation. Northeastern’s Brian Keegan argued that “every A/B test is a psych experiment.” And in a more measured post, Microsoft researcher danah boyd said that too much of the criticism has narrowly focused on Facebook because it provided a concrete point on which to focus their anxiety about big data.

Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci pushed back against those defenses, arguing that the concern about manipulation is a legitimate one: it is clear that the powerful have increasingly more ways to engineer the public,” she wrote. “That, to me, is a scarier and more important question than whether or not such research gets published.” Design researcher Sebastian Deterding had the most thorough ethical breakdown of the study, explaining the clash of opinions as a collision between understandings of the study as academic research and as social media A/B testing. At The Atlantic, Sara Watson said the controversy centers on the question of whether data science can consider itself a science.

Sociologist Janet Vertesi said this study points up the larger issue of increasing corporate funding of academic research. Microsoft researcher Kate Crawford called for future experimental studies to be made opt-in, and at Wired, Evan Selinger and Woodrow Hertzog urged the development of a “People’s Terms of Service Agreement.”

A big court win for broadcast: Aereo, a startup that allowed users to pay to stream over-the-air television by renting tiny antennas, lost its case in the U.S. Supreme Court last week in a big victory for broadcasters. In its majority decision, the court stated that Aereo was not so much an equipment provider (as the company claimed) as a cable system that transmitted copyrighted content. Cable carriers have to pay retransmission fees for the over-the-air networks they broadcast, which Aereo was trying to avoid. Aereo suspended its service in the wake of the decision while it determines if it can find a way to continue, while its streaming-TV competitors began to move in on its spot in the market.

Techdirt’s Mike Masnick, Public Knowledge attorney John Bergmayer, and Notre Dame law professor Mark McKenna all critiqued the legal foundations of the decision, concluding that its vague definition of why Aereo was substantially like a cable system provides little guidance for future cases and leaves the door open for a raft of legal challenges and differing conclusions. At The Guardian, Julian Sanchez argued that if future courts don’t care much about technological differences between Aereo and cable systems, the ruling’s precedent could endanger a whole range of cloud-based services, and Vox’s Timothy B. Lee made a similar point about the perilous future of cloud storage. Gigaom’s Derrick Harris said the impact on cloud services won’t be as severe as feared, but DVR could be challenged.

Fox has already used the Aereo decision to support its case against a streaming-TV service by Dish, and Variety’s Ted Johnson looked more closely at several possible outcomes from the ruling: Increasing TV bills and retransmission fees, more timidity among startups, and a broader legal definition of what constitutes a “public performance.” Forbes’ Sarah Jeong said we’ll never know the innovative startups we’ve lost as a result of this ruling.

Recode’s Peter Kafka said that while the decision helps the TV industry in the short run, it could hamper its development in the long run, since a legal Aereo would have pushed it to innovate more aggressively in light of its inevitable disruption. Instead, he said, “they’ll be sticking with lucrative business as usual for now. Pretty sure we’ve seen this show before.” Michael Learmonth of the International Business Times made a similar point. At the Columbia Journalism Review, Sarah Laskow said local TV news may have avoided catastrophe with the ruling, since a decision in Aereo’s favor may have eventually meant reduced retransmission fee revenue or even a move by the networks to pay TV.

Resolution and continued questions in hacking case: After at least three years at the center of the British media spotlight, News Corp.’s phone hacking scandal reached something resembling a denouement last week, when the trial of two of its principal figures concluded with the acquittal of Rebekah Brooks and the conviction of her deputy, Andy Coulson, on a conspiracy charge. Brooks, the former head of Rupert Murdoch’s British newspaper holdings, proclaimed herself “vindicated” by her acquittal amid speculation News Corp. might deploy her to Australia. Coulson, the former editor of the now-defunct News Corp. tabloid News of the World, was hired as Prime Minister David Cameron’s spokesman in 2010, a move for which Cameron apologized last week.

News Corp.’s trouble is certainly not over, though. Scotland Yard informed Murdoch it wants to interview him in their investigation into the phone-hacking case, and in the U.S., the FBI is still investigating whether anyone from the company may have broken American law. The Daily Beast’s Peter Jukes reported that the FBI has 80,000 emails from News Corp.’s New York servers, and the Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum said that while it will take quite a bit of firepower to go after Murdoch, his potential influence is being substantially diminished.

At USA Today, Michael Wolff noted how Murdoch was distanced from Brooks’ and Coulson’s trial, and The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta wondered whether the British tabloid press will be chastened by the embarrassment that the trial was for their industry. At The Guardian, Suzanne Moore said the scandal exposed the coziness between British journalists and politicians, and The Economist said it diminished the political importance of the British press.

The Telegraph argued that the trial was an underwhelming spectacle that ultimately showed there isn’t a conspiracy among the press against the public, but in a scathing review of the scandal and the trial, The Guardian’s Nick Davies said that despite the not-guilty verdicts, the News Corp. newspaper empire’s corruption and coarsening of British public culture was on full display. The Independent’s Cahal Milmo and James Musick also reviewed News of the World’s behavior in the scandal, emphasizing its willingness to cut ethical corners in order to land scoops.

The Guardian also expressed its hope that the era in which the British tabloid insisted that there was no right to privacy had ended. “In its place should come respect for the universal right to privacy, honoured by all those who wield power – a mighty news company no less than the state itself,” the editorial stated. The Guardian’s media columnist, Roy Greenslade, criticized the British press for its shoddy coverage of the case.

Egypt jails three journalists: Three Al Jazeera English journalists who had been arrested in Egypt in December were sentenced last week to seven to 10 years in prison on dubious terrorism-related charges after a surreal and chaotic trial. The Guardian had a vivid account of the verdict, while The New York Times focused on the response by the U.S. government.

Journalists around the world rallied to the jailed trio’s cause, including protests by hundreds of journalists in London. The Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the verdict as a politicized result with no connection to the law, asserting that “Egypt cannot be allowed to normalize its international relationships so long as it continues to jail journalists.” Despite the pressure from numerous Western governments, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi said he wouldn’t interfere with the court’s decision.

Reading roundup: A few of the other stories and discussions that have merited some attention over the past couple of weeks:

— Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon reported that The New York Times will close more than half of its blogs, including its aggregative news blog The Lede, as part of a long move away from blogs at the paper. Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram expressed concern that The Times will lose some of the innovative drive that came with the blogs, though Times public editor Margaret Sullivan said moving away from blogs could be a good thing for The Times to encourage continual experimentation, as long as its journalists can integrate what they’ve learned from them into the rest of their work. Blogging pioneer Dave Winer said The Times’ blogs were never truly blogs because they were edited and impersonal, while PandoDaily’s David Holmes countered that we shouldn’t worry about what’s blogging and what’s not.

— SCOTUSblog, one of the top sources of U.S. Supreme Court news and analysis, had its appeal for a congressional press pass from the Senate Daily Press Gallery denied last week based on concerns about it independence from the law practice of its publisher, Tom Goldstein. Goldstein wrote a defense of his site’s credentialing case, one echoed by Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall and Techdirt’s Mike Masnick. The Columbia Journalism Review reviewed the history of SCOTUSblog’s application to the Senate press gallery to critique the gallery’s decision. SCOTUSblog also got support from the Newspaper Guild-CWA.

— Upworthy released the source code for its preferred metric, attention minutes, which focuses on time spent on a site rather than number of visits or shares. BuzzFeed explained what’s in it for Upworthy, and Digiday’s Ricardo Bilton, the Columbia Journalism Review’s Fiona Lowenstein, and Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram all looked at what other publishers think of using attention as a primary metric.

— Finally, the Columbia Journalism Review went deep into Jeff Bezos’ efforts to restore The Washington Post’s global ambition. It’s a lengthy, well-reported look at some important changes underway there.


10. July 2014 by Mark
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This Week in Review: Time Inc. tries to survive on its own, and the global shift to mobile news

[This review was originally posted at the Nieman Journalism Lab on June 13, 2014.]

This week’s essential reads: The most important pieces to read this week are the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s online news consumption studyKen Doctor on Time Inc.’s strategy, and The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal on method journalism.

Magazine survival on the web: Time Inc. completed its split from its parent company, Time Warner, at the end of last week, and the occasion was generally an ominous one for the U.S.’ largest magazine publisher. While Time Warner’s stock rose after the move, Time Inc.’s dropped 4.6% in its first morning trading as a standalone magazine company.

With no lucrative media properties elsewhere in the company to prop it up, Time Inc. faces an uphill journey to financial viability, to say the least. An Agence France Presse article laid out the basic case for pessimism about Time Inc. — and the vote of no confidence that its split means for the magazine industry as a whole. But Bloomberg’s Edmund Lee noted some reasons for optimism: Time Inc. will be able to reinvest its profits rather than sending them up to Time Warner, and several other print-based media companies, like the recently spun-off News Corp., have been up recently.

The New York Times’ David Carr and Ravi Somaiya gave some more details on the difficulties of Time Inc.’s situation, the circumstances that led to the merger, and reported that the company is expected to cut 25% of editorial costs in the next few months. The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson outlined the advertising conundrum in which Time Inc. and other legacy publishers find themselves: Advertising attention and revenue is plummeting in print, but the attention online and in mobile is too scattershot and fleeting to bring in big money right now. “My bet is that small, niche, and premium digital journalism survives with high CPMs and light costs, while big, broad, and everything-for-everyone journalism struggles with low CPMs and heavy ambitions,” Thompson concluded.

So Time Inc. needs to go beyond magazines and move into fresh, robust digital offerings. But, of course, Time already knows this — the question is how. The Lab’s Ken Doctor offered several suggestions: Move deeper into less competitive niches, go from reading to doing, go mobile-friendly and visual, and target TV and web video for disruption. Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram echoed some of those ideas, urging Time Inc. to undertake a complete rethink of its culture, platforms, and business model.

Mobile news consumption around the world: Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism released its annual study on digital news consumption around the world, with findings that centered on the continued shift toward consuming news on smartphones, through quick, small-scale news “snacking.” In his summary of the report, The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade noted that mainstream news media in some countries are doing much better than others in retaining market share in this environment, and that the market is being more deeply segmented through the generational divide in the use of smartphones.

The BBC emphasized the good news for traditional news organizations, pointing out that they remain the dominant news sources in the UK, while also stating that “There’s a new class of press baron, Facebook Superfriends or Twitterati, who are increasingly playing a role in driving the news agenda.”

The Lab’s Joseph Lichterman looked more closely at the study’s data on mobile news consumption, highlighting the findings that people use fewer news sources on mobile and prefer text to video overall, though very few of them pay for news in any form. (Also at the Lab, Joshua Benton wrote about the challenges in engaging the growing number of mobile news users.)

And British journalism professor Richard Sambrook examined the study’s finding that most users said they trust organizations with traditional, objectivity-based reporters more than ones that practice alternative forms. “Audiences appear more attached to the traditional norms of balanced and impartial news than some might suppose,” he said. “The question going forward is how well that sits among the growing range of digital services seeking to establish themselves by adopting a point of view to maximise impact.”

Sorting through the Register’s decline: After the Orange County Register announced widespread cuts and buyouts last week, dozens of staffers have been lining up for the buyouts, with the rest bracing for layoffs when the round of buyouts ends. The cuts are expected to wipe out all of staff positions the Register added in its daring print expansion over the past two years, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The paper’s owner, Aaron Kushner of Freedom Communications, was resolute in his insistence to Register staff that the paper was not dying; OC Weekly has more details from Kushner’s Q&A with staff, as well as a quote from an anonymous Register staffer saying that ”He’s lost the newsroom. No one has any faith in him at all. People want to get the hell out while they can.”

The Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum looked at the minimal margin for error built into the Register’s financial plans and said the flaws in the its strategy are becoming apparent: Even if revenue is up, it’s not enough to support the massive investment in staff and geographical expansion, and the Register has neglected the digital side of its operation. “The bet on better journalism was always the key to success, not the emphasis on print itself,” he wrote.

Reading roundup: A few other stories to keep an eye on this week:

— A few notes on Vox and explanatory journalism: Vox executive Michael Lovitt talked about how the site was built and launched in just nine weeks, and the Lab’s Joshua Benton marveled at how quickly they did it. Vox’s Melissa Bell explained why the site is still using a homepage, despite the homepage’s widely discussed decline. The Economist looked at why explanatory sites are becoming more popular, and the Columbia Journalism Review’s Corey Hutchins called for more Vox-style explaining in local news.

— The Center for Public Interest Journalism at Temple University in Philadelphia shut down its nonprofit news site AxisPhilly late last week, but will launch a new news venture called run by Washington Post, TBD, and Digital First veteran Jim Brady. Here’s the article on the move from Technically Philly, and announcements from AxisPhilly and Temple.

— BuzzFeed’s Jonah Peretti gave a mammoth, 22,000-word interview to Fusion’s Felix Salmon, and fortunately, the Lab’s Caroline O’Donovan and Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram rounded up the most interesting pieces of it for you.

— Finally, The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal wrote about the spate of new sites that are devoted a particular method, rather than a topic or subject area. “It seems absurd to say that we need some more publications that are about something,” Madrigal concluded. “But that’s where we’re at.”


02. July 2014 by Mark
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This Week in Review: A setback for reporter privilege, and a new New York Times opinion app

[This review was originally posted at the Nieman Journalism Lab on June 6, 2014.]

This week’s essential reads: The key pieces to read this week are The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer on the NYT Opinion app, Alexander Howard’s report on data-driven journalism, and Spencer Ackerman and Trevor Timm at The Guardian on the Edward Snowden documents a year later.

James Risen’s case hits a wall: New York Times reporter James Risen’s long legal battle against being forced to reveal the name of a confidential source in legal testimony reached a dead-end in the courts this week. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal of a federal ruling against him, leaving the matter up to the Department of Justice to resolve.

As The Times reported, it’s now up to the Justice Department to determine whether it wants to compel him to testify — and jail him if he refuses. The Obama administration has sent mixed signals: In its brief on the case, it said reporters have no privilege to refuse to testify about confidential sources, but Attorney General Eric Holder reportedly told journalists last week that no reporter doing his or her job will go to jail.

Risen vowed to continue to fight, but as The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple noted, he’s already been fighting for six years, and even if the government pulls up short of forcing jail time now, it still may leave a real chilling effect on the press. Wemple also gave some background on the legal case, as did Fortune’s Roger Parloff, who argued for the Supreme Court to take the case.

USA Today’s Rem Rieder expressed his hope that Risen’s setback would spur Congress to pass a shield law protecting journalists from testifying. And late last week, ABC News’ Mike Levine revealed that he had been subpoenaed by the government to reveal a confidential source in 2011 when he worked for Fox News, but the Justice Department dropped the fight after just more than a year. The New York Times added some background on Levine’s case and the shield law fight.

The plan behind NYT Opinion: The New York Times launched its second specialized subscription app (after NYT Now this spring) this week: A new opinion-only app called NYT Opinion. It’ll cost $6 per four weeks, and the app will include two main streams: One of all The Times’ columnists and op-ed pieces, and the other called Op-Talk which will offer a selection of opinion from around the web chosen by Times editors. Between the Op-Talk feature and NYT Now’s aggregative approach, as TechCrunch’s Ingrid Lunden noted, The Times seems to be trying to position itself as an aggregator, but it in a way that separates its own content from the web’s.

The app is the first of The Times’ new digital subscription options to focus on a particular content type, but it’s not the first time The Times has charged specifically for its opinion content: From 2005 to 2007, it put its opinion content behind a paywall called TimesSelect. The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer examined the differences between this effort and that one (it’s not a hard paywall — that’s the big one), and wondered who this app is intended for. The answer from The Times was that it’s for people who are already up on the news, but are particularly interested in The Times’ op-ed content.

Meyer wondered if NYT Opinion could be compared to Slate’s membership program Slate Plus, with both banking on a long-standing reputation for compelling opinions as the once-exploding blogosphere starts to get gobbled up by established media outlets. “Maybe there’s an opening now for readers to support the institutions—and the voices—they come back to. NYT Opinion provides just that,” he wrote.

The Awl’s Matt Buchanan said that as The Times gets unbundled in app form, it’s worth questioning whether each chunk can stand on its own as well as they all did as a whole. Writer and designer Craig Mod, meanwhile, gave NYT Now an enthusiastic review, and media analyst Steve Outing wondered what would happen if The Times cut its print edition.

A set of Apple announcements: Apple made a slew of product announcements this week in its keynote at its annual developers’ conference. If you want to know all about all of them, you can dive into the couple hundred posts pulled together on Techmeme, but here’s a quick rundown: Apple unveiled a new iOS (iOS 8) for its mobile devices, a new operating system for its desktops (OS X Yosemite), a new programming language (Swift), a new file-sharing system (iCloud Drive), a new smart home framework (HomeKit), a new health API for developers (HealthKit), and a revamped messaging system.

A few of the more substantive posts coming out of that set of announcements: Fast Company’s Chris Dannen looked at Swift’s move toward the more popular scripting languages of the web like JavaScript and Python, and The Verge’s Ben Popper wrote about the idea that this shift will draw a larger pool of iOS developers. The Atlantic’s Megan Garber looked at HomeKit as Apple’s attempt to standardize the world of objects as it moves into “the Internet of things,” and TechCrunch’s Ingrid Lunden pointed out the increasing centrality of search for Apple and the simultaneous crowding out of Google in its products.

Southern California newspaper setback: Just two months after it launched a new daily paper in Los Angeles, Freedom Communications, the owner of the Orange County Register and Los Angeles Register, announced a range of cuts this week, including a merger of the Long Beach Register, which it launched last year, with its L.A. paper, mandatory two-week furloughs, buyouts intended to cut 100 jobs, and a 25% drop in print news space.

In a typically authoritative analysis, the Lab’s Ken Doctor described the changes as “a big red flag, screaming we’re running out of money really soon, following numerous months of yellow flags.” Journalism professor Dan Kennedy said that the signs don’t look good for the strategy of Freedom owner Aaron Kushner, and his pockets aren’t as deep as other recent news investors, like The Boston Globe’s John Henry, to ride out the rough patches of local newspaper experimentation. USA Today’s Rem Rieder commended Kushner for trying his bold plan, but said the odds of its success are getting longer.

Reading roundup: There was quite a few other interesting developments and conversations happening this week. Here’s a quick rundown:

— A year after Edward Snowden released his trove of documents on U.S. National Security Agency surveillance, The Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman took stock of where the issue stands and Trevor Timm of the Freedom of the Press Foundation looked at four ways Snowden’s act changed the landscape of surveillance and cybersecurity. The Guardian launched a leaking platform for whistleblowers called SecureDrop, and Microsoft called on the U.S. government to end bulk data collection.

— The American Prospect announced last week that it’s shifting back to its roots as a quarterly policy journal, scaling back its digital operation and laying off or losing most of its staff. Vox’s Ezra Klein, an American Prospect alum, reflected on the outsized influence the Prospect had on online policy news and commentary, and The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg looked at the difficulty of being an incubator for online journalism as the Prospect was.

— Two fantastic resources on data and journalism were published in the past week: The Tow Center’s Alexander Howard’s extensive report (summary and PDF) on how data-driven journalism is done, and Microsoft researcher Kate Crawford on the anxieties of big data.

— A couple of other interesting studies released this week: The Tow Center published a study on the use of user-generated content in global TV and online news, and a group of organizations led by the Digital Media Law Project released a study examining who gets press credentials (and who doesn’t) and why. You can read pieces on the study at the Columbia Journalism Review and here at the Lab.

— Finally, two fascinating peeks behind the curtain at NPR: Melody Kramer described at Source how she and Wright Bryan developed a data analytics dashboard for NPR journalists, and Brian Boyer explained how the NPR visuals team works.


12. June 2014 by Mark
Categories: this week | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Making sense of research: Has campaign journalism changed on Twitter?

This is the second in a very occasional series of posts explaining my academic research for non-academic audiences. Check out the first post for the rationale behind the series, and if anything seems wrong or doesn’t make sense, let me know and I’ll try to answer the best I can.

The study:

Tweeting conventions: Political journalists’ use of Twitter to cover the 2012 presidential campaign, by Regina G. Lawrence, Logan Molyneux, Mark Coddington, and Avery Holton. Journalism Studies. (It’s paywalled, but I’ll send you a PDF copy if you email at markcoddington at gmail dot com.)

What were you trying to find out?

The idea for this study came from Regina Lawrence, a professor at the University of Texas (where I’m a Ph.D. student) who’s been studying how political journalists do their job for a couple of decades. As frantic and spastic as political journalism (and especially campaign journalism) may seem at times, it’s actually one of the most stable and settled forms of journalism we have in the U.S. The idiosyncrasies of political journalism were first nailed down in a definitive way in the early 1970s, and have been the subject of countless exposés and jeremiads since then — most famously, in journalism, in Timothy Crouse’s classic on the 1972 campaign, “The Boys on the Bus,” and in academia, in Thomas Patterson’s early 1990s critique of the campaign process, “Out of Order.” And frankly, they haven’t changed much since then.

You’re probably familiar with how campaign journalism works and why it doesn’t work very well. Heck, you’ve probably ranted about it a few (or a few hundred) times yourself. But just to spell out exactly what we’re all talking (and ranting) about, here are a few of the very well-defined traits that have made American campaign journalism so easy to loathe for the past few decades:

  • Objectivity: It’s ostensibly built around the idea that journalists can and should separate their opinions and values from the facts on which they’re reporting. But objectivity often turns out to just mean a “he said, she said” style of reporting that refuses to do the work to evaluate competing claims and instead leaves them to us to scratch our heads over. It’s meant to undergird a certain rigor in reporting, but on the campaign trail, it often means journalists pass on campaigns’ claims without basic fact-checking.
  • Lack of transparency: Objectivity does leave some wiggle room: Reporters often work within it to write more interpretively about how campaigns are trying to woo and manipulate voters (more on this in the next point). But the candidates’ attempts to manipulate and negotiate with reporters themselves have historically been off-limits (though this is changing a bit). What’s still an unmentioned issue among most reporters is their own influence in how campaigns are run — part of what Jay Rosen calls “the production of innocence.” Journalists are a key part of setting the rules of political game, but we don’t hear much — certainly not from them — about their own role.
  • Horse-race journalism: Journalists’ preference for reporting on strategy and gamesmanship rather than issues and substance is one of best-documented aspects of their campaign coverage. This style allows them to write incisively about the campaign while avoid charges of partisanship, but despite this show of independence, it can end up deeply influencing the trajectory of the campaign. It also leaves voters ill-informed about the voting decision they’re making.
  • Insider journalism: Partly because of the grueling and insular environment of campaign reporting that Crouse documented, it’s been especially prone to insider-ism — a relatively bounded group of journalists talking to itself and to an even more tightly bounded set of sources from within and around the campaigns, and using this very narrow range of perspectives to gauge the conventional wisdom about the campaign. The result is a form of journalism and opinion that seems very removed from the concerns and viewpoints of people outside this bubble, and can be very easily debunked.

So that’s campaign journalism as we’ve known it. But this is a pretty old model of political journalism, one that’s rooted in what Dan Hallin called the “high modernism” of American journalism — an era in the late 20th century when traditional journalism was powerful, prosperous, stable, and pretty much got to dominate the public sphere. But all of that has changed: Professional journalism’s stability and authority have been rocked by a variety of forces — economic, social, political, and technological. The one we wanted to look most closely at was the environment for politics on Twitter, which could potentially challenge each one of these conventions of campaign journalism:

  • Objectivity: Giving your opinions on things seems to be a core function of Twitter — if you’re not sharing any of your opinions, you look like you don’t know how to use it, or at the very least, everyone thinks you’re pretty boring. So the norms of Twitter would seem to work against the careful, studied objectivity of traditional journalism.
  • Lack of transparency: Here we run into another of Twitter’s key uses (for better or worse): Sharing the mundane details of your day-to-day life. To the extent that those details involve reporters’ work, that’s an opportunity for a level of transparency we haven’t seen before.
  • Horse-race journalism: Here, the difference on Twitter might be more indirect. The public has repeatedly said in surveys that it prefers substantive issues to strategy coverage, so if social media users resemble the public in that respect and if they voice those preferences to journalists and if those journalists are listening and responding, then we might see some reduction in horse-race journalism there.
  • Insider journalism: It’s easy to see how this might change on Twitter, which opens the door for so many people outside the traditional media/political arena to have a voice, gain a following, and earn the attention of a small sliver of the American public. If that sliver includes political journalists, it could go a long way toward helping them open their reporting beyond the usual insiders.

In light of this potential, our overarching question was a pretty simple one: Do these classic attributes of campaign journalism still hold in the Twitter environment, or does something about them change?

So what’d you do?

We used a custom-built program based on Twitter’s API to gather political journalists’ tweets during the 2012 presidential campaign, then systematically analyzed a sample of them manually for a variety of characteristics that could indicate these journalistic practices.

We started by gathering a sample of 430 political journalists and commentators to collect tweets from. We identified a range of news organizations on a variety of platforms — 19 national news organizations, both traditional (New York Times, CBS, CNN, NPR) and nontraditional (BuzzFeed, Slate, Politico), and 76 other local news organizations in battleground states based on campaign spending amounts. We used a database of media professionals to find any staffers with politics or campaigns listed as part of their job description or coverage area, then found their professional Twitter accounts.

We collected all of their tweets between the start of the conventions in August 2012 through Election Day, but for this study we only used the period during both parties’ conventions. We wanted a focused, bounded sample from a point when nearly all political media attention would be trained on the same political events, which would help minimize irrelevant tweets and extraneous variance in the journalists’ situations, allow us to more efficiently and directly compare groups within the sample. We collected about 39,000 tweets during the conventions, and once we sampled a random subset of those tweets we ended up with 1,629 tweets to analyze, with the non-political ones being excluded from the main analysis.

We then did some quantitative content analysis, using five different people to go through each tweet manually and code it for several characteristics that we thought could help measure some of the dimensions we described earlier: Statements of opinions or personal identity and fact-checking for objectivity; talk about the journalists’ work for transparency; discussion of candidate strategy, characteristics, and voting blocs (as opposed to issues) for horse-race journalism; and linking to and retweeting insider and outsider sources and seeking information from users for insider journalism.

One other note: I was the third author out of four on this paper, which in this case means I led the content analysis and chipped in on revisions of the review of literature and discussion of results.

What’d you find out?

The TL;DR version: Journalists showed some willingness to deviate a bit from their traditional norms regarding objectivity, transparency, and horse-race journalism. But despite Twitter’s potential to dramatically broaden the political conversation, they’re still as resolutely insular as ever.

We’ll start with this chart, which should give you a basic overview of the tweeting patterns we found (click to enlarge):

Post chart image

  • Objectivity: Of the tweets we analyzed, 29% contained a statement of opinion, which we defined as using evaluative language or offering unattributed commentary beyond the facts of an issue. That’s a pretty high number, especially since we pitched the tweets that weren’t about the journalists’ professional lives (i.e., work or politics). A sizable minority of our sample was made up of commentators rather than reporters, yet when we just included reporters, opinion was still at 24%. Interestingly, national reporters were significantly more likely to include opinions than local reporters, and not surprisingly, those in cable news were significantly more opinionated than those in broadcast news.
  • Transparency: The amount of talk about journalism was higher than we expected, too: 15% of the tweets contained some sort of information or comment about journalists doing their daily work. Those tweets tended not to include information about the rest of the campaign, whether horse-race or policy. Now, these daily-detail tweets probably fall more reliably into the category of “tedious navel-gazing” than any meaningful form of transparency. But they’re more than what we were getting before, which was pretty much zero.
  • Horse-race journalism: This was, in our minds at least, the strangest finding. Only 2% of the tweets had a horse-race element, and only 5% mentioned a voting bloc. A bit more — 10% — mentioned a candidate characteristics (these were often paired with statements of opinion). But even more tweets than any of these (14%) mentioned a policy issue. This trend — more policy, less strategy — is the exact reverse of what’s been found over and over again in campaign journalism. So maybe there’s a bit more space for policy news and discussion on Twitter in the midst of campaigns than we thought. On the other hand, there may be methodological issues here: We had to define horse-race (whether a tweet mentioned a candidate’s position in polls or fundraising) and campaign strategy (mentioning a voting bloc) pretty narrowly in order to achieve reliability between coders. So there may be more horse-race talk that our study wasn’t able to pick up.
  • Insider journalism: The results here weren’t surprising, but they were still dismal. Of the links in journalists’ tweets, 90% were to professional news outlets (46% to the journalist’s own work), with only 10% going anywhere else. Of the journalists’ retweets, 82% were other journalists, while 7% were what we defined as political insiders (candidates, campaign staff, consultants, interest groups), and just 11% were from anyone outside those two groups. Journalists also requested information from their followers in just 2% of all tweets.

Based on this study, political journalists on Twitter are loosening the traditional bounds of objectivity and horse-race journalism and even, to an extent, showing some transparency. And that’s a meaningful development, something for which journalists deserve some commendation. But their conversation is a performative one, rather than something that’s truly interactional. They’re talking with fellow journalists, with the rest of us simply watching their conversation; to the extent that we try to enter it, our efforts are generally futile. In other words, campaign journalism is still made almost exclusively by a set of boys on the proverbial bus, except the rest of us are now pressing our faces to the windows, straining to hear and be heard. We can pick up the loudest bits and pieces of their conversation, and they, it seems, can barely hear us at all.


09. June 2014 by Mark
Categories: political journalism, research, social media | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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