This week in media musings: More Murdoch fallout, and Dallas tears down that wall
After taking Thanksgiving week off, we’ve got two weeks to catch up on, instead of just one. And while that first week was relatively slow, this week has been a pretty eventful one, both in terms of media happenings and in important thoughts about journalism.
— Almost a month after Rupert Murdoch first said he plans on removing News Corp.’s sites from Google, that declaration (and its aftermath) are still the top item of discussion in journalism/new media circles. The story got another boost just before Thanksgiving when word spread that News Corp. was in talks with Microsoft about creating an exclusive search deal with Bing, Microsoft’s search engine. (Yup, exactly as Cory Doctorow predicted.)
Much pondering ensued from just about every corner of the Internet, but here’s the most important stuff: On Tuesday, Murdoch gave attendees at an FTC conference the rationale behind his plans, during which he bashed online news aggregators and also said he’s against a U.S. government subsidy for news, but wants them to rewrite copyright law to stop aggregators. Arianna Huffington, the most prominent of those aggregators, followed him up at the conference with a speech that 1) noted that News Corp. sites do quite a bit of aggregating themselves, 2) defended the free-content model, and 3) extolled the virtues of citizen journalism.
Meanwhile, one of Murdoch’s top execs, Dow Jones CEO Eric Hinton, gave a speech in India that amounted to: “All these new-fangled future-of-media ideas might be great, but they’re not going to make any money.” Google CEO Eric Schmidt responded to the hubbub with an op-ed in Murdoch’s own Wall Street Journal that amounted to: “Why can’t we be friends?” Oh yeah, and then a Microsoft exec told the Financial Times they’re not planning on paying any news organizations to leave Google in the first place. Clear as mud?
A few of the smarter pieces of commentary on the whole ordeal: Search engine guru Danny Sullivan and new media entrepreneur Umair Haque explain why a News Corp.-Bing deal wouldn’t work. As usual, Ken Doctor has some really sharp questions on the issue. And Sullivan also prompted an interesting discussion on whether infrequent visitors to news sites through Google News are worth anything. Sullivan and Jeff Jarvis say yes, and news orgs are blowing an opportunity; Steve Yelvington says no, not really.
— If the last four paragraphs have you feeling overwhelmed, reset for a while with two beautiful elegies for journalism as we knew it, focusing on two cities on either side of the country. In an essay for Harper’s, Richard Rodriguez examines the importance of local news orgs providing a sense of place through a look at the history and decline of San Francisco and its two longtime papers, the Chronicle and the Examiner. (Official/incomplete version here; illicit/full version here.)
And New York Times media columnist David Carr gives a picture of the collapse of the traditional media model (with a helping of hope for the future) by looking through the eyes of the young go-getters who flood New York’s media landscape. Both essays are lyrically written, and both highly insightful.
— The Dallas Morning News, one of the nation’s best newspapers only a decade ago, internally announced a reorganization plan this week in which some news section editors will report to sales managers, now called “general managers.” From the memo, this looks like one of the biggest breaches of the long-standing wall between news and advertising we’ve seen at a major traditional American news organization. The memo’s writer, Editor Bob Mong, its publisher, and other editors have backpedaled from that idea over the past few days, saying it’s not really much of a change from what a lot of other traditional news orgs are doing and won’t affect the integrity of the paper’s reporting.
A bit surprisingly, the commentary on the move from media and journalism thinkers has been cautiously optimistic. Alan Mutter thinks the news folks’ tenacity could rub off on the ad side, Canadian j-prof Mark Hamilton thinks the collaboration could help fund better reporting, and the Nieman Journalism Lab’s Jim Barnett says this may simply be a case of traditional news catching up to the online world.
I wish I could share their optimism, but there are far too many question marks for me to be anything but concerned about this deal. I don’t think the news/advertising wall should be sacrosanct (as Barnett notes, online news does fine without a wall), but there’s a huge difference between journalists working with someone who’s spent their entire career in advertising and working for that person. And there’s also a big difference between that superior being a seldom-seen, corner-office publisher and a hands-on immediate supervisor. But it’s not impossible for this to work well; a lot of it depends on how well these sales managers mesh with the news folks, and how well they understand the need to keep their hands off editorial judgment when it counts.
— A weird, weird incident involving Tiger Woods, Elin Nordegren, an SUV, a golf club, extramarital affairs and the Florida Highway Patrol transfixed much of the media world for about a week. Just about every columnist in America took the opportunity to write about celebrity, privacy, the 24-hour news cycle and tabloid journalism. Not much of it was very interesting. Two exceptions: Time media critic James Poniewozik wrote a sly critique of the traditional media’s ambivalence about covering tawdry stories like this, and St. Petersburg Times media critic Eric Deggans expressed his concerns about those media outlets outsourcing celebrity stories to organizations whose ethics they wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole.
— After months of leadup, the cable company Comcast agreed this week to buy a majority of the media empire that is NBC Universal from General Electric. A few quick takes on various angles of this deal: The New York Times’ Brian Stelter looks at the Internet/TV divide and reviews Comcast’s new news holdings, paidContent’s Rafat Ali says the deal’s not about digital media, and the Times’ Richard Sandomir and former ESPN.com writer Dan Shanoff say this deal gives ESPN a legitimate competitor in sports media.
— Two great journalism school discussion-starters during the past two weeks: Steve Buttry offers some comprehensive advice for journalism schools on how to overhaul their curriculum for the 21st century (Buttry covers it well here — it’s worth a read), and tech pioneer Dave Winer makes the case for a semester of journalism education for everyone, framed as “How to be a citizen in the 21st century.” Wonderful idea.
— Before we’re done, there’s some nifty statistics and graphs that are worth a look. Slate tech columnist Farhad Manjoo marvels at Facebook’s relentless growth, The Awl has a magnificently depressing graph of magazine revenue, and Steve Yelvington and Damon Kiesow graph news sites’ users and wonder where a paywall is supposed to go. Enjoy.