This Week in Review: WikiLeaks’ new journalism order, a paywall’s purpose, and a future for Flipboard
[This review was originally posted at the Nieman Journalism Lab on July 30, 2010.]
WikiLeaks, data journalism and radical transparency: I’ll be covering two weeks in this review because of the Lab’s time off last week, but there really was only one story this week: WikiLeaks’ release of The War Logs, a set of 90,000 documents on the war in Afghanistan. There are about 32 angles to this story and I’ll try to hit most of them, but if you’re pressed for time, the essential reads on the situation are Steve Myers, C.W. Anderson, Clint Hendler and Janine Wedel and Linda Keenan.
WikiLeaks released the documents on its site on Sunday, cooperating with three news organizations — The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel — to allow them to produce special reports on the documents as they were released. The Nation’s Greg Mitchell ably rounded up commentary on the documents’ political implications (one tidbit from the documents for newsies: Evidence of the U.S. military paying Afghan journalists to write favorable stories), as the White House slammed the leaks and the Times for running them, and the Times defended its decision in the press and to its readers.
The comparison that immediately came to many people’s minds was the publication of the Pentagon Papers on the Vietnam War in 1971, and two Washington Post articles examined the connection. (The Wall Street Journal took a look at both cases‘ First Amendment angles, too.) But several people, most notably ProPublica’s Richard Tofel and Slate’s Fred Kaplan, quickly countered that the War Logs don’t come close to the Pentagon Papers’ historical impact. They led a collective yawn that emerged from numerous political observers after the documents’ publication, with ho-hums coming from Foreign Policy, Mother Jones, the Washington Post, and even the op-ed page of the Times itself. Slate media critic Jack Shafer suggested ways WikiLeaks could have planned its leak better to avoid such ennui.
But plenty of other folks found a lot that was interesting about the entire situation. (That, of course, is why I’m writing about it.) The Columbia Journalism Review’s Joel Meares argued that the military pundits dismissing the War Logs as old news are forgetting that this information is still putting an often-forgotten war back squarely in the public’s consciousness. But the most fascinating angle of this story to many of us future-of-news nerds was that this leak represents the entry of an entirely new kind of editorial process into mainstream news. That’s what the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal sensed early on, and several others sussed out as the week moved along. The Times’ David Carr called WikiLeaks’ quasi-publisher role both a new kind of hybrid journalism and an affirmation of the need for traditional reporting to provide context. Poynter’s Steve Myers made some astute observations about this new kind of journalism, including the rise of the source advocate and WikiLeaks’ trading information for credibility. NYU j-prof Jay Rosen noted thatWikiLeaks is the first “stateless news organization,” able to shed light on the secrets of the powerful because of freedom provided not by law, but by the web.
Both John McQuaid and Slate’s Anne Applebaum emphasized the need for data to be, as McQuaid put it, “marshaled in service to a story, an argument,” with McQuaid citing that as reason for excitement about journalism and Applebaum calling it a case for traditional reporting. Here at the Lab, CUNY j-prof C.W. Anderson put a lot this discussion into perspective with two perceptive postson WikiLeaks as the coming-out party for data journalism. He described its value well: “In these recent stories, its not the presence of something new, but the ability to tease a pattern out of a lot of little things we already know that’s the big deal.”
As for WikiLeaks itself, the Columbia Journalism Review’s Clint Hendler provided a fascinating account of how its scoop ended up in three of the world’s major newspapers, including differences in WikiLeaks’ and the papers’ characterization of WikiLeaks’ involvement, which might help explain its public post-publication falling-out with the Times. The Times profiled WikiLeaks and its enigmatic founder, Julian Assange, and several others trained their criticism on WikiLeaks itself — specifically, on the group’s insistence on radical transparency from others but extreme secrecy from itself. The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz said WikiLeaks is “a global power unto itself,” not subject to any checks and balances, and former military reporter Jamie McIntyre called WikiLeaks “anti-privacy terrorists.”
Several others were skeptical of Assange’s motives and secrecy, and Slate’s Farhad Manjoo wondered how we could square public trust with such a commitment to anonymity. In a smart Huffington Post analysis of that issue, Janine Wedel and Linda Keenan presented this new type of news organization as a natural consequence of the new cultural architecture (the “adhocracy,” as they call it) of the web: “These technologies lend themselves to new forms of power and influence that are neither bureaucratic nor centralized in traditional ways, nor are they generally responsive to traditional means of accountability.”
Keeping readers out with a paywall: The Times and Sunday Times of London put up their online paywall earlier this month, the first of Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers to set off on his paid-content mission (though some other properties, like The Wall Street Journal, have long charged for online access). Last week, we got some preliminary figures indicating how life behind the wall is going so far: Former Times media reporter Dan Sabbagh said that 150,000 of the Times’ online readers (12 percent of its pre-wall visitors) had registered for free trials during the paywall’s first two weeks, with 15,000 signing on as paying subscribers and 12,500 subscribing to the iPad app. PaidContent also noted that the Times’ overall web traffic is down about 67 percent, adding that the Times will probably tout these types of numbers as a success.
The Guardian did its own math and found that the Times’ online readership is actually down about 90 percent — exactly in line with what the paper’s leaders and industry analysts were expecting. Everyone noted that this is exactly what Murdoch and the Times wanted out of their paywall — to cut down on drive-by readers and wring more revenue out of the core of loyal ones. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram explained that rationale well, then ripped it apart, calling it “fundamentally a resignation from the open web” because it keeps readers from sharing (or marketing) it with others. SEOmoz’s Tom Critchlow looked at the Times’ paywall interface and gave it a tepid review.
Meanwhile, another British newspaper that charges for online access, the Financial Times, is boasting strong growth in online revenue. The FT’s CEO, John Ridding, credited the paper’s metered paid-content system and offered a moral argument for paid access online, drawing on Time founder Henry Luce’s idea that an exclusively advertising-reliant model weakens the bond between a publication and its readers.
Flipboard and the future of mobile media: In just four months, we’ve already seen quite a few attention-grabbing iPad apps, but probably none have gotten techies’ hearts racing quite like Flipboard, which was launched last week amid an ocean of hype. As Mashable explained, Flipboard combines social media and news sources of the user’s choosing to create what’s essentially a socially edited magazine for the iPad. The app got rave reviews from tech titans like Robert Scoble and ReadWriteWeb, which helped build up enough demand that it spent most of its first few post-release days crashed from being over capacity.
Jen McFadden marveled at Flipboard’s potential for mobile advertising, given its ability to merge the rich advertising experience of the iPad with the targeted advertising possibilities through social media, though Martin Belam wondered whether the app might end up being “yet another layer of disintermediation that took away some of my abilities to understand how and when my content was being used, or to monetise my work.” Tech pioneer Dave Winer saw Flipboard as one half of a brilliant innovation for mobile media and challenged Flipboard to encourage developers to create the other half.
At the tech blog Gizmodo, Joel Johnson broke in to ask a pertinent question: Is Flipboard legal? The app scrapes content directly from other sites, rather than through RSS, like the Pulse Reader. Flipboard’s defense is that it only offers previews (if you want to read the whole thing, you have to click on “Read on Web”), but Johnson delved into some of the less black-and-white scenarios and legal issues, too. (Flipboard, for example, takes full images, and though it is free for now, its executives plan to sell their own ads around the content under revenue-sharing agreements.) Stowe Boyd took those questions a step further and looked at possible challenges down the road from social media providers like Facebook.
A new perspective on content farms: Few people had heard of the term “content farms” about a year ago, but by now there are few issues that get blood boiling in future-of-journalism circles quite like that one. PBS MediaShift’s eight-part series on content farms, published starting last week, is an ideal resource to catch you up on what those companies are, why people are so worked up about them, and what they might mean for journalism. (MediaShift defines “content farm” as a company that produces online content on a massive scale; I, like Jay Rosen, would define it more narrowly, based on algorithm- and revenue-driven editing.)
The series includes an overview of some of the major players on the online content scene, pictures of what writing for and training at a content farm is like, and two posts on the world of large-scale hyperlocal news. It also features an interesting defense of content farms by Dorian Benkoil, who argues that large-scale online content creators are merely disrupting an inefficient, expensive industry (traditional media) that was ripe for a kick in the pants.
Demand Media’s Jeremy Reed responded to the series with a note to the company’s writers that “You are not a nameless, faceless, soul-less group of people on a ‘farm.’ We are not a robotic organization that’s only concerned about numbers and data. We are a media company. We work together to tell stories,” and Yahoo Media’s Jimmy Pitaro defended the algorithm-as-editor model in an interview with Forbes. Outspoken content-farm critic Jason Fry softened his views, too, urging news organizations to learn from their algorithm-driven approach and let their audiences play a greater role in determining their coverage.
Reading roundup: A few developments and ideas to take a look at before the weekend:
— We’ve written about the FTC’s upcoming report on journalism and public policy earlier this summer, and Google added its own comments to the public record last week, urging the FTC to move away from “protectionist barriers.” Google-watcher Jeff Jarvis gave the statement a hearty amen, and the Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby chimed in against a government subsidy for journalism.
— Former equity analyst Henry Blodget celebrated The Business Insider’s third birthday with a very pessimistic forecast of The New York Times’ future, and, by extension, the traditional media’s as well. Meanwhile, Judy Sims targeted a failure to focus on ROI as a cause of newspapers’ demise.
— The Columbia Journalism Review devoted a feature to the rise of private news, in which news organizations are devoted to a niche topic for an intentionally limited audience.