This Week in Review: Newsweek’s new owner, WikiLeaks and context, and Tumblr’s media trendiness
[This review was originally posted at the Nieman Journalism Lab on Aug. 6, 2010.]
A newbie owner for Newsweek: This week was a big one for Newsweek: After being on the block since May, it was sold to Sidney Harman, a 92-year-old audio equipment mogul who’s married to a Democratic congresswoman and owns no other media properties. The price: $1, plus the responsibility for Newsweek’s liabilities, estimated at about $70 million. The magazine’s editor, Jon Meacham, is leaving with the sale, though he told Yahoo’s Michael Calderone that he had decided in June to leave when Newsweek was sold, no matter who the new owners were. Harman’s age and background and the low sale price made for quite a few biting jokes about the sale on Twitter, dutifully chronicled for us by Slate’s Jack Shafer.
Harman didn’t help himself out much by telling The New York Times he doesn’t have a plan for Newsweek. In a pair of sharp articles, The Daily Beast painted a grim picture of what exactly Harman’s getting himself into: The magazine’s revenue dropped 38 percent from 2007 to 2009, and it’s losing money in all of its core areas. The Beast noted that with no other media properties, Harman doesn’t have the synergy potential that the magazine’s previous owners, The Washington Post Co., said Newsweek would need. So why was he chosen? Apparently, he genuinely cares about the publication, and he’s planning the least number of layoffs. (That, and the other bidders weren’t too attractive, either.) PaidContent reported that his primary goal is to bring the magazine back to stability while he sets up a succession plan.
Everybody has ideas of what Harman should do with his newest plaything: MarketWatch’s Jon Friedman wants to see Newsweek drop the opinion-and-analysis approach that it’s been aping from The Economist, as do several of the observers Politico talked to. (DailyFinance’s Jeff Bercovici just wants Harman to make it a little less excruciatingly dull to read.) Two other Politico sources — new media guru Jeff Jarvis and former Newsweek Tumblr wizard Mark Coatney — want to see Newsweek shift away from a print focus and figure out how to be vital on the web. Media consultant Ken Doctor proposes pushing forward on tablet editions, multimedia and interacting with readers online as the future of the magazine. Jarvis also has some pieces of advice for magazines in general, urging to them to resist the iPad’s siren song and get local, among other things.
Poynter’s Rick Edmonds has the most intriguing idea for a new Newsweek — going nonprofit. That would likely require refining its editorial mission to a narrower focus on national and international affairs, with the pop culture analysis getting cut out, Edmonds says, but he believes Harman might actually be considering a nonprofit approach. Ken Doctor suggests that with Harman’s statements about the relative unimportance of turning a profit from the magazine, he’s already blurring the lines between a for-profit and nonprofit organization.
Meanwhile, others were busy speculating about who might be the editor to lead Newsweek into its next incarnation. Names thrown out included Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria, Newsweek.com editor Mark Miller, Slate Group editor Jacob Weisberg, and former Time editor and CNN CEO Walter Isaacson, though Isaacson has taken himself out of consideration.
WikiLeaks and the need for context: WikiLeaks continued to see fallout from its unprecedented leak of 92,000 documents about the war in Afghanistan two weekends ago, with more cries for it to be shut down and its founder, Julian Assange, arrested, largely because its leak revealed the names of numerous Afghan informants to the U.S. Assange expressed regret for those disclosures, and WikiLeaks said it’s even asking for the Pentagon’s help in identifying and redacting names of informants in its next document dump, though the Pentagon said they haven’t heard from WikiLeaks yet. Not that the U.S. government hasn’t been trying to make contact — it demanded the documents be returned(!), and agents detained a WikiLeaks researcher at customs and then tried to talk with him again at a hacking conference this week. An Australian TV station gave a fascinating inside look at Assange’s life on the run, and Slate’s Jack Shafer contrasted Assange’s approach to leaking sensitive documents with the more government-friendly tack of traditional media outlets. WikiLeaks also had some news to report on the business-model side: It will begin collecting online micropayment donations through Flattr.
The ongoing discussion around WikiLeaks this week centered on what to do with the data it released. The Tyndall Report provided a thorough roundup of how TV news organizations responded to the leak, and several others pinned the rather ho-hum public reaction to the documents’ contents on a lack of context provided by news organizations. Former Salon editor Scott Rosenberg said the leak provides a new opportunity to shed an antiquated scoop-based definition of news and bring the reality of the war home to people. In a smart post musing on the structure of the modern news story, the Lab’s Megan Garber proposed an outlet dedicated solely to follow-up journalism, arguing that one of the biggest challenges in modern journalism is giving a sense of continuity to long-running stories. “What results is a flattening: the stories of our day, big and small, silly and significant, are leveled to the same plane, occupying the same space, essentially, in the wobbly little IKEA bookshelf that is the modular news bundle,” she wrote in a follow-up post.
Mashable also examined (in nifty infographic form!) how WikiLeaks changes the whistleblower-journalist relationship, while NPR wondered whether WikiLeaks is on the source or journalist side of equation. And PBS’ Idea Lab had something handy for news orgs: A guide to helping them think about how to handle large-scale document releases.
Tumblr trends upward: The social blogging service Tumblr got the New York Times profile treatment this week, as the paper focused on its growing popularity among news organizations who are trying to jump on it as the next big social media trend — a form of communication somewhere between Twitter and blogging. The article noted that several prominent media brands have Tumblr accounts, though many of them aren’t doing much with theirs. Over at Mediaite, Anthony De Rosa, who runs the Tumblr account for the sports blog network SB Nation, said we can expect to see still more media outlets jump on the Tumblr bandwagon, especially because it rewards smart media companies who have a distinctive voice.
New York’s Nitasha Tiku tried to douse the hype, arguing that Mark Coatney’s often-mentioned Tumblr success for Newsweek “wasn’t thanks to the distribution channel on Tumblr, it was his irreverent, conversational style — and that will be difficult for the fresh-faced interns that old-media publications don’t pay to run their Tumblrs.” And Gawker gave us a graded rundown of traditional news orgs’ Tumblr accounts.
Two Internet freedom scares: From The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times this week came two stories that have had many people concerned about issues of freedom and the web. First, the Journal ran a series on the alarming amount of your online data and behavior that companies track on behalf of advertisers. Cluetrain Manifesto co-author Doc Searls argued that while the long-held ideal of intensely personal advertising is getting closer to reality, “the advertising business is going to crash up against a harsh fact: ‘consumers’ are real people, and most real people are creeped out by this stuff.” Jeff Jarvis was much less moved by the Journal’s reporting, mocking it as scaremongering that tells us nothing new. Salon’s Dan Gillmor fell closer to Searls’ outrage than to Jarvis’ nonchalance, and media consultant Judy Sims said this series is a window into a complex future for display advertising, one that media executives need to become familiar with in a hurry.
Second, the Times unleashed an avalanche of commentary in the tech world with a report that Google and Verizon are moving toward an agreement that would allow companies to pay to get their content to web users more quickly, which would effectively end the passionately held open-Internet principle known as net neutrality. The FCC quickly suspended its closed-door net neutrality meetings, and despite denials from Google and Verizon (which Wired picked apart), a whole lot of whither-the-Internet concernensued. I’m not going to dig too deeply into this story here (I’d rather wait until we have something concrete to opine about), but here are the best quick guides to what this might mean: J-prof Dan Kennedy, Salon’s Dan Gillmor and ProPublica’s Marian Wang.
Reading roundup: Just a couple of quick items this week:
— Thanks to Poynter, we got glimpses of a couple of softer paid-content options being tried out by GlobalPost and The Spokesman-Review of Spokane, Washington, that might be sprouting up soon elsewhere, too. The Lab’s Megan Garber profiled one of the new companies offering that type of porous paywall, MediaPass, and All Things Digital’s Peter Kafka sifted through survey results to try to divine what The New York Times’ paywall might look like.
— Google’s social media platform Google Wave officially died this week, a little more than a year after it was born. Tech pioneer Dave Winer looked at why it never took off and drew a few lessons, too.
— Finally, the Lab’s Jonathan Stray took a look at some very cool things that The Guardian is doing with data journalism using free web-based tools. It’s a great case study in a blossoming area of journalism.