This Week in Review: Newsweek on the block, Twitter as a journalistic system, and more paywall rumblings

[This review was originally posted at the Nieman Journalism Lab on May 7, 2010.]

Has Newsweek’s time come?: This week was a relatively quiet one until Wednesday, when The Washington Post Co. announced that it’s trying to sell Newsweek, which it’s owned since 1961. A possible sale doesn’t always signal the demise of a news organization, but in this case, as the folks at The Wall Street Journal’s All Things Digital noted, this move was the equivalent of “hastily scrawling out a ‘Going Out of Business–Name Your Price’ sign and plastering it on the front window.” The New York Times has the details, including a j-prof’s pronouncement that “the era of mass is over, in some respect.”

PaidContent’s Staci Kramer talked to Washington Post Co. chairman Don Graham, who boiled Newsweek’s profitability problems to one telling statistic: Newsweek’s staff split its time about evenly between print and digital last year, but print brought in $160 million in revenue, while the digital side drew $8 million. Newsweek’s digital operation was good, Graham said — just not good enough to stand out from the hundreds of other news sites out there. Still, he was confident the Post would find a buyer (though he hasn’t talked with anyone seriously), and that Newsweek and newsweeklies in general would live on.

Newsweek editor Jon Meacham talked to the New York Observer, saying he’s going to see if he can save the magazine, possibly by rounding up bidders to buy it. Meacham’s conversation with Jon Stewart the day the news broke was laced with both optimism and gallows humor, and New York magazine examined Meacham’s decision to try to make Newsweek the American equivalent of The Economist.

In a well-written piece, The New York Times’ David Carr summed up two bits of conventional wisdom about Newsweek’s downfall: The economics of weekly publishing simply aren’t feasible anymore, and the Washington Post Co.’s Slate, with its snarky, knowing tone, has taken Newsweek’s place. MarketWatch’s Jon Friedman suggested that the Post combine the two. Slate’s Jack Shafer said it wasn’t the Internet that killed Newsweek, but instead an ongoing game of musical chairs that someone had to lose. (Slate and Time, for example, seem to be doing just fine, thanks.) Meanwhile, Derek Powazek, who’s edited several web magazines, gave his recipe for newsweekly success in the digital age.

The next question, of course, is who will buy Newsweek. News business analyst Ken Doctor examined two possibilities: TV-based news orgs like ABC, CBS and NBC looking for a print distribution point, and “firebrand owners” like media moguls Mort Zuckerman or Marty Peretz. Either way, Doctor said, Newsweek will probably be all but extinct before long. Poynter’s Rick EdmondsMedia Alley and Mediaite all throw out some combination of Zuckerman, Meacham, Bloomberg and Rupert Murdoch. as possibilities.

Committing journalism with Twitter: Many of Twitter’s users have understood and used it as a medium for breaking, spreading and consuming news for quite a while now, but some research presented within the past week adds some backbone to that idea. Four Korean researchers collected all of Twitter’s data over a month’s time last year and released their research on it — the first quantitative study of the entire Twitterverse.

What they found, according to PC World, was that both the structure of Twitter (with its asymmetrical following system, creating a world with some incredibly influential users and many other more peripheral ones) and its messages (85 percent are about news) give it more of a resemblance to a news medium than to its fellow social networks online.

MIT’s Technology Review zeroed in on two particularly interesting findings illustrating the breadth of this new news system: First, two-thirds of Twitter users aren’t followed by anyone that they follow, meaning they use it for information consumption rather than social connections. Second, despite the wide disparity between the Twitter “stars” and typical users, anyone’s tweet still has the possibility of reaching a wide audience, thanks to the usefulness of the retweet function. “Individual users have the power to dictate which information is important and should spread by the form of retweet,” the researchers wrote. “In a way we are witnessing the emergence of collective intelligence.”

Also this week, Canadian j-prof Alfred Hermida put forward his argument in an academic paper for Twitter as an “ambient form of journalism” — a medium in which the former news audience creates, disseminates and discusses news, performing acts of journalism that were once performed only by professionals. In a more technical paper, Alex Burns delved into the definition of “ambient journalism,” especially as it relates to Twitter. Here at the Lab, Megan Garber also looked at the way news organizations in several countries are using Twitter and other social media for news.

The paid-content beat goes on: A few quiet indicators this week of the move toward news paywalls: Rupert Murdoch said News Corp. will be announcing their paywall plans in a few weeks. Those plans apparently include anchoring a consortium of paid-content systems across various media companies, using technology that powers the Wall Street Journal’s paywall, the Los Angeles Times reported. Meanwhile, the number of publications that Journalism Online’s execs say they’re working with on paywall plans has increased to 1,400, including the sizable MediaNews chain of newspapers.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s new publisher/CEO, Mike Klingensmith, talked to MinnPost about his plans for a new metered-model system (like what The New York Times announced in January), and from the sound of it, he’s looking at charging primarily for local news — the paper already charges for some of its Minnesota Vikings coverage — and wants to allow traffic from links to come in fairly uninhibited. A decision on the specific plans sound like they’re at least a year off, though.

Advertising Age’s Nat Ives also took a look at paywalls for smaller newspapers (here’s the link, but Ives’ article is also under a paywall). Ken Doctor says that for smaller papers, a paywall may be a good short-term wait-and-see strategy, but papers still have to be proactive about ensuring long-term growth.

The pros and cons of Facebook’s spread: There wasn’t a lot of news involving Facebook this week, but the grumblings about its privacy issues rolled on. The New York Times used Facebook’s latest (relatively minor, it seems) privacy glitch to give another overview about those concerns, and TechNewsWorld pegged their overview to a Consumer Reports survey about Facebook information sharing that was released this week.

Social media guru Robert Scoble wrote a depressing piece about why Facebook’s disregard for privacy can’t be regulated, concluding that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg “just played chicken with our privacy and it sure looks like he won.” New media expert Jeff Jarvis suggested that Facebook turn their bad privacy PR into a service for users (with some help from their ubiquity), offering them a simpler way to see what’s being written about them across the web and manage their online reputation.

The New York Times’ digital chief Martin Nisenholtz, was pretty impressed by Facebook’s spread across the web, giving a sharp analysis of the importance of engagement and identity to publishers online. Those are things that Facebook has mastered, he said, but news organizations haven’t, and that’s a shame when the Times’ most valuable asset is “our audience as knowledgeable participants in the life our web site.”

Reading roundup: This week, I’ve got two news items and a few other good ideas to chew on.

— EBay founder Pierre Omidyar launched his new local news site, Honolulu Civil Beat, this week. It’s being run by John Temple, who was at the helm of the Rocky Mountain News when it shut down. The biggest distinctive of this project: It’s almost entirely behind a paywall. PaidContent and NPR both have the details.

— The Audit Bureau of Circulations reported the most recent set of newspaper numbers a couple of weeks ago, and here at the Lab, newspaper vet Martin Langeveld punched a few holes in the Newspaper Association of America’s declaration that the results are the sign of a turnaround. And after the announcement of the first quarter’s newspaper profit numbers, the Lab’s Ken Doctor explained why newspapers aren’t going to be investment those profits in much-needed innovation.

— Publish2′s Greg Linch put together a great case for incorporating more of a computational mindset into journalism, identifying several common elements between journalism and programming and urging the two groups to work more closely together. English professor Kim Pearson followed that post up with some proposals for ways to integrate computational thinking into curriculums.

— We’ve been hearing a lot about online comments over the past few weeks, and Poynter’s Mallary Jean Tenore took a close look at the ways several news organizations are working to improve them.

— I’ll close with two simple but thoughtful pieces on online media, one from the production standpoint, and the other looking at consumption. First social media entrepreneur and blogger Ben Elowitz gave a fine summary of the way the definition of quality has changed in online media versus traditional publishing, and Slate’s William Saletan had some helpful tips to make your media consumption broader, deeper and altogether smarter. It’s hard work, but it’s necessary, Saletan said: “In the electronic echo chamber, it’s easier than ever to shut out what you don’t want to hear. Nobody will make you open the door and venture out. You’ll have to do that yourself.”

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17. June 2010 by Mark
Categories: this week | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 comment

  • Brian

    Twitter is a huge application with a number of amazing uses that can be applied to business. Palo Alto has written a practical guide to how to safely allow twitter to be used in the workplace while still protecting the security of your business. The white paper http://bit.ly/9G1Z3A is really interesting and will allow you to understand that there is utility to Twitter and that it can be an excellent medium for business.