This Week in Review: TBD takes off, Demand Media’s profit-less past, and Google’s open-web backlash
[This review was originally posted at the Nieman Journalism Lab on Aug. 13, 2010.]
TBD takes off: One of the most anticipated new news organizations in journalism’s recent history launched this week in the form of TBD, a site owned by Allbritton Communications (the folks behind Politico) covering local news in Washington, D.C. As The Huffington Post’s Jack Mirkinson wrote, TBD is “something of a canary in the coal mine” of the future of journalism, being the protoype of a locally focused, community-driven, online-only news model whose effectiveness everyone’s eager to gauge. For the basics of the project, here are two local profiles from DCist and the more skeptical Washington Post, a paidContent interview with Robert Allbritton, and a Poynter chat with TBD’s Jim Brady and Steve Buttry.
After TBD gave its media preview last Friday, quite a few people listed plenty of reasons to keep an eye on the site: Ken Doctor liked the “out of the box” nature of TBD’s pro-am/social/mobile/multimedia efforts; Jeff Jarvis liked the collaborative, link-centric philosophy; the Lab’s Laura McGann called attention to TBD’s interactivity and collaboration through local blogs and social media; and Kevin Anderson was impressed by the project’s commitment to profitability. Several TBD analyses focused particularly on TBD’s interactive and collaborative news efforts, with Journalism Lives, Mashable and Poynter providing good area-by-area breakdowns. Mark Potts, who’s starting up a similar blog-network effort, Growthspur, wrote a thoughtful piece about the importance of TBD’s own network of local blogs: “TBD is without doubt the biggest, most ambitious effort yet to create a new paradigm for local news coverage of a major metropolitan area,” he wrote.
Poynter’s Steve Myers also touched on an distinct aspect of TBD’s operation — it also includes an Allbritton-owned all-news local cable channel that will be branded TBD TV. He examined how a web-TV converged newsroom operates, and Cory Bergman of Lost Remote (a local TV and hyperlocal news veteran himself) wondered if we might see more TV-local online news partnerships. Here at the Lab, Ken Doctor took a detailed look at the economics of TBD’s web-TV synergy, centering on its pioneering broadcast and online advertising hybrid. Meanwhile, David Rothman had some detailed advice for TBD’s competitors.
The site officially launched Monday, and the initial reviews were mostly positive. Rothman and Suzanne Yada had the most detailed ones; both were impressed by the site’s presentation and several of its features, though both were concerned about how much local news content the site would actually be able to produce. PaidContent’s Staci Kramer liked the smooth design, too, but wanted to see more out of the site’s locally personalized features. The New York Times’ David Carr (“extremely functional … kind of ugly”) and Mediaite’s Michael Triplett (“off to a good start,” despite “thin and D.C.-centric” content) also offered quicker reviews. The most thoughtful review belongs to Lost Remote’s Bergman, who noted that while many of the ideas are old, their implementation is new.“This is the first time that a local media group — especially in the TV space — has wrapped these ideas together and aggressively launched them with an investment to back it up,” he wrote.
Demand Media’s profit-less past: Demand Media, the new-media lightning rod du jour, filed for an IPO last Friday, giving us the first detailed financial look inside the private company. Several sites took cracks at sifting through the numbers for significant bits, but two pieces stood out: One, Demand Media has yet to make a profit, losing $22 million this year; and two, 26 percent of its revenue comes from cost-per-click advertising deals with Yahoo.
That’s a pretty sizable chunk of Demand Media’s income, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram examined one of the company’s reported risk factors — that Google could use its own search expertise to create a search-driven content company to compete with Demand. Ingram pointed out that Google already has a patent for a process that identifies “underserved” search content. All Things Digital noted that Demand’s heavy reliance on Google “could torpedo the company” if Google changes its search formula or changes its contract with Demand, but it also countered that every web publisher is dependent on Google.
Then there’s the whole matter of profitability. The Wall Street Journal’s Scott Austin contrasted the numbers in Demand’s filing with its executives’ numerous past descriptions of the company as profitable, as a reminder that “no one outside the company can verify a start-up’s financial claims.” Slate’s James Ledbetter also noticed an inexplicably large and sudden drop in Quantcast traffic to Demand’s sites a few weeks ago and wondered what was behind it. Meanwhile, the Journal also profiled Demand Media’s efforts to court big-time advertisers on the web.
A proposal to carve up the open web: A week after reports emerged that Google and Verizon were near a deal that would more or less mark the end of net neutrality, the two companies came forward this week not with a deal, but with a policy proposal. As for whether that would mark the end of net neutrality, well, it depends on who you ask. Google and Verizon called their plan a “proposal for an open Internet,” and their CEOs co-authored a Washington Post op-ed arguing that their proposal “empowers an informed consumer, ensures the robust growth of the open Internet and provides incentives to strengthen the networks that carry Internet traffic.” The proposal has quite a few moving parts, but it essentially prohibits Internet service providers from discriminating against or prioritizing “lawful Internet content,” while excepting wireless networks and some unspecified future services from that regulation.
The tech blog Engadget broke down the proposal, noting that would set something close to the status quo into formal policy, rendering the U.S. Federal Communications Commission powerless to change policy as the Internet changes. Most of the web was quite a bit harsher in its judgment, calling it an open attack on net neutrality by excluding its fastest part, wireless. CNET and The New York Times put together good summaries of the backlash, but here are some of the most to-the-point examples: Free Press’ Craig Aaron (“one massive loophole that sets the stage for the corporate takeover of the Internet”), the Electronic Freedom Foundation (it limits net neutrality to “lawful” content, leaving “lawful” to be defined) Siva Vaidhyanathan (it gives Verizon control of the most exciting parts of the web) Public Knowledge’s John Bergmayer (it divides the Internet into several public and non-public parts) Ars Technica (its rules “will become meaningless as 4G sweeps the country”) Salon’s Dan Gillmor (“a Trojan Horse for a modern age”) Susan Crawford (future services is “a giant, enormous, science-fiction-quality loophole”) and Harvard professor Jonathan Zittrain (makes way for “an impenetrable web of contracts and fees”).
Noted Google watcher Jeff Jarvis had the most colorful response, illustrating the proposal’s potential danger to the open web by presenting a future scenario with two Internets, the old “Internet” with everything pre-2010 and the new “Schminternet,” with everything mobile and post-2010. “Mobile is the internet,” he wrote. “Mobile will very soon become a meaningless word when — well, if telcos allow it, that is — we are connected everywhere all the time.” Meanwhile, Wired gets credit for the most fun phrase — “carrier-humping, net neutrality surrender monkey” — in its explanation of how Google got to that point.
Reading Roundup: A few final items to send you off for the weekend:
— Mashable’s Vadim Lavrusik has a smart overview of the shift toward personalized, socially driven news distribution, with a suggestion for a credibility and trust index to help sort through it all.
— Facebook has launched a media page and is pushing for more collaboration with media companies. PBS MediaShift’s Mark Glaser has an informative Q&A with Justin Osofsky, head of Facebook’s media partnership team.
— Google engineering intern Lyn Headley has written the first of a series of posts explaining the rationale behind his new Rapid News Awards. It’s a short, thoughtful take on aggregation, accountability and transparency.
— Finally, some (possibly) positive news: Spot.Us’ David Cohn takes a look at the data and notes that the wave of job cuts at America’s newspapers has largely subsided. Cohn wonders if it means newspapers are bouncing back, or if they’ve just cut down to the bone. I fear it’s more of the latter.