This Week in Review: Google’s news crusade, lackluster iPad news apps, and what went wrong at Newsweek
[This review was originally posted at the Nieman Journalism Lab on May 14, 2010.]
Google’s attempt to save the news: There weren’t a whole lot of newsy events around journalism to report this week, so we’ll start off with the most significant think piece: James Fallows’ opus in The Atlantic on Google’s efforts to come to the news industry’s aid.
Fallows, a veteran journalist and media critic, spent the last year talking to Google engineers and execs about their relationship with the news media, and he came out remarkably optimistic. In a 9,000-word piece, Fallows examines the news industry’s struggles from Google’s perspective, outlines their principles for a way forward — distribution, engagement and monetization — and briefly highlights five of their recent news-oriented projects: Living Stories, Fast Flip, YouTube Direct, online display ads and paid-content logistics. He concludes by noting a few of Google’s paradoxical stances, which he calls “major and encouraging developments” for the news business:
“The organization that dominates the online-advertising world says that much more online-ad money can be flowing to news organizations. The company whose standard price to consumers is zero says that subscribers can and will pay for news. The name that has symbolized disruption of established media says it sees direct self-interest in helping the struggling journalism business.”
Reaction on the piece for future-of-journalism folks ran the gamut, from “absolute must-read” endorsements to groans at the article’s years-old concepts. And in a way, both sides are right: To those closely following the journalism-in-tradition scene, there’s really no news in this piece. The Google officials’ perspectives on why the news is broken and what needs to be done about it are familiar enough to have become conventional wisdom among people thinking about journalism and technology. (Fallows even acknowledges this in a few spots.) But at the same time, Fallows summarizes that relatively new conventional wisdom in a comprehensive, readable way, making the piece a brilliant primer on where the news on the web stands right now. For the insider, this is ho-hum stuff; for everyone else, this is an ideal introduction to the subject.
Journalism prof and digital media expert Jeff Jarvis, who’s written his own book on Google, is in the ‘must-read’ camp, citing Fallows’ impressions as evidence that Google is a friend to the news business. Jason Fry and All Things Digital’s Peter Kafka are more skeptical, questioning Google’s ability to actually turn the industry around.
Fry notes that publishers are unorganized and tentative, making industry-wide solutions difficult to implement, and Kafka says that even with Google’s help, online ads aren’t likely to be valuable enough to support substantive newsgathering. The Awl’s Choire Sicha makes a similar point, while using Google’s statistics to point out the folly of news organizations’ editorial cuts over the past few years.
Mediocre reviews for iPad apps: It’s been a month and a half now since the iPad was released, and we’re starting to get beyond the “first impressions” phase of the reviews of news organizations’ iPad apps. News business guru Alan Mutter combed through the reviews and ratings at Apple’s app store to evaluate the 10 most popular news apps, and found that apps by European outlets and broadcasters are most well-liked, and pay apps aren’t too popular.
If you want to succeed on the iPad, he said, you have to go beyond the look and feel of your legacy product and offer some more value, especially if you’re going to charge: “Consumers are smart enough to tell when a publisher slaps a premium price on recycled print or web content – and they won’t go for it.”
Usability expert Jakob Nielsen took a more thorough look at iPad apps, releasing a 93-page report on a few dozen apps from media companies and elsewhere. His summary is pretty illuminating: He found that designers have tried to outdo themselves with clever interaction techniques, leading to a whole lot of confusion about how to navigate apps. (New York Times designer Alexis Lloyd disagreed with Nielsen’s emphasis on simplicity, arguing that experimentation is more important right now.) Nielsen also concluded, like Mutter, that designers are relying too much on a print-based concept revolving around the “next article” idea, which he argued doesn’t make sense on mobile media.
After fiddling around with the iPad for a few weeks, the Lab’s Jason Fry discovered that the iPad’s killer app may not be its apps at all, but instead its lightning-fast, easy-to-use browser. That might put news orgs in an awkward spot, Fry wrote, after hanging their hats on apps: They still can’t compete with their own (free) websites on the iPad.
Dissecting Newsweek’s downfall: Commentary continued to roll in on last week’s news that The Washington Post Co. will try to sell Newsweek, starting with a column by Newsweek’s editor, Jon Meacham. He defended the magazine against its doomsayers, pointed out that it hasn’t closed and arguing that if the economic climate were better, it would be profitable.
He also made a case for Newsweek’s continued existence, saying it “means something to the country” and represents an opportunity to bring a large number of otherwise fragmented Americans together to focus on common topics. The magazine’s task now, he wrote, was to find a business model to sustain that role. (Journalism prof Jay Rosen was not impressed.)
Others continued to chime in with their opinions about why Newsweek failed: Blogging pioneer Dave Winer said it was a lack of innovation stemming from a corporate mindset, and Harvard Business Review writer (and former Newsweek staffer) Dan McGinn said the demise of U.S. News & World Report as a rival hurt, too.
Forbes’ Trevor Butterworth and blogger Greg Satell both hit on a different idea: There was no there there. Butterworth made a striking comparison of the amount of content in an issue of Newsweek and the Economist, and Satell compared Newsweek with Foreign Affairs and the Atlantic, two magazines whose upscale readership Meacham has coveted. “The notion that offering a magazine consisting mainly of one-page opinion pieces would attract a better quality audience than reporting flies in the face of any apparent media reality,” Satell wrote.
Meanwhile, the discussion of possible buyers began to build. Yahoo’s Michael Calderone shot down media moguls Rupert Murdoch, Philip Anschutz and Carlos Slim Helu as options and raised the possibility of a bid by Michael Bloomberg. A few days later, The New York Observer revealed that Thomson Reuters and Politico owner Allbritton Communications were interested, and The Wall Street Journal reported that Univision owner and billionaire investor Haim Saban is interested, too.
Facebook privacy fury builds: An update on the ongoing consternation over Facebook’s latest privacy breach: IBM developer Matt McKeon and The New York Times’ Guilbert Gates provided striking visual depictions of Facebook’s advances against privacy and the hoops its users have to jump through to maintain it. Facebook (sort of) answered users’ privacy questions at The New York Times and held an internal meeting about privacy Thursday.
But the cries about privacy violations continue unabated. GigaOm’s Liz Gannes said Facebook’s Times Q&A wasn’t sufficiently conciliatory, and All Facebook called for Instant Personalization to become opt-in, rather than opt-out. Others went further, quitting Facebook and calling for an open alternative. Four NYU students were happy to oblige them, becoming almost literally an overnight sensation and raising $100,000 this week for a decentralized Facebook alternative called Diaspora* on the back of a New York Times profile and plenty of tech-blog hype.
Jeff Jarvis offered a smart analysis of why Facebook is rubbing so many people the wrong way: It’s confusing the public sphere (the type of public we usually think of when we think of the word “public”) with the “publics” we create for ourselves when we build networks of our friends and family on Facebook.
Jarvis explains the difference well: “When I blog something, I am publishing it to the world for anyone and everyone to see: the more the better, is the assumption. But when I put something on Facebook my assumption had been that I was sharing it just with the public I created and control there. That public is private.“
Reading roundup: A few quick hits on pieces you should make sure to catch this week:
— The Wall Street Journal is one of the first newspapers to try to do some significant location-based news innovation with Foursquare, and the Lab’s Megan Garber has a good overview of what they have going.
— The Huffington Post turned five this week, and The Columbia Journalism Review put together five reflections on its impact to mark the occasion. CJR also published a lengthy examination of the state of nonprofit investigative journalism, focusing on California Watch and The Center for Public Integrity.
— Columbia professor Michael Schudson, who co-authored a major study of the state of journalism published last fall, talked some more about several aspects of “the new news ecosystem” in a Q&A with The Common Review.
— Finally, a piece I missed last week: Longtime Salon writer Scott Rosenberg gave a speech at a Stanford conference that thoughtfully delineates a 21st-century definition of journalism. Here’s the one-sentence version: “You’re doing journalism when you’re delivering an accurate and timely account of some event to some public.”