This Week in Review: Egypt’s media lessons, The Daily’s detractors, and Apple’s strike against e-books

[This review was originally posted at the Nieman Journalism Lab on Feb. 4, 2011.]

Al Jazeera, the network, and social activism: For the last week, the eyes of the world have been riveted to the ongoing protests in Egypt, and not surprisingly, the news media themselves have been a big part of that story, too. Many of them have been attacked by President Hosni Mubarak’s lackeys, but the crisis has also been a breeding ground for innovative journalism techniques. Mashable put together a roundup of the ways journalists have used Twitter, Facebook, streaming video, Tumblr, and Audioboo, and the Lab highlighted reporting efforts on Facebookcuration by Sulia, and explainers by Mother Jones. Google and Twitter also created Speak to Tweet to allow Egyptians cut off from the Internet to communicate.

But the organization that has shined the brightest over the past 10 days is unquestionably Al Jazeera. The Qatar-based TV network has dominated web viewing, and has used web audio updates and Creative Commons to get information out quickly to as many people as possible.

Al Jazeera also faced stiff censorship efforts from the Egyptian government, which stripped its Egyptian license and shut down its Cairo bureau, then later stole some of its camera equipment. Through it all, the broadcaster kept up live coverage that online and offline, was considered the most comprehensive of any news organization. As Lost Remote’s Cory Bergman pointed, Al Jazeera’s coverage showed the continued power of compelling live video in a multimedia world.

Salon’s Alex Pareene called Al Jazeera’s coverage an indictment on the U.S.’ cable networks, and CUNY j-prof Jeff Jarvis and others urged cable companies to carry Al Jazeera English. Tech pioneer Doc Searls used the moment as a call for a more open form of cable TV: “The message cable should be getting is not just ‘carry Al Jazeera,’ but ‘normalize to the Internet.’ Open the pipes. Give us à la carte choices. Let us get and pay for what we want, not just what gets force-fed in bundles.”

The protests also served as fresh fuel for an ongoing debate about the role of social media in social change and global political activism. Several critics — including Wired’s David Kravets, The New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell, and SUNY Oswego prof Ulises Mejias— downplayed the role of social media tools such as Twitter in protests like Egypt’s. Others, though, countered with a relatively unified theme: It’s not really about the media tools per se, but about the decentralized, hyperconnected network in which they are bound up. J-profs Jeremy Littau and Robert Hernandez, along with GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, wrote the most thoughtful versions of this theme, and they’re all worth checking out.

Tepid reviews for The Daily: Within the bubble of media geeks, one story dominated the others this week: On Wednesday, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. released The Daily, the first daily updated news publication produced specifically for the iPad. If you can’t get enough coverage of The Daily, go check out Mediagazer’s smorgasbord of links. I’ll try to offer you a digestible (but still a bit overwhelming, I’ll admit) summary of what people are saying about it.

Leading up to Wednesday’s launch, Poynter’s Damon Kiesow found many of the people who are working for the heretofore secretive publication, and media analyst Alan Mutter and All Things Digital’s Peter Kafka examined the reasons why it might or might not take off. Once the app was released Wednesday afternoon, the reviews came pouring in.

First, the good: The first impressions of most of the digital experts polled by Poynter were positive, with several praising its visual design and one calling it “what I’ve always hoped newspapers would do with their tablet editions.” PaidContent’s Staci Cramer was generally complimentary, and The Guardian’s Ian Betteridge gave it a (not terribly enthusiastic) “buy.”

Most of the initial reviews, though, were not so kind. Much of the ‘meh’ was directed at lackluster content, as reviewer after reviewer expressed similar sentiments: “a general-interest publication that is not generally interesting” (The Columbia Journalism Review); “Murdoch’s reinvention of journalism looks a lot like the one before it” (Macworld); “fairly humdrum day-old stories that you might read in, well…a regular old printed newspaper” (Mathew Ingram); “little [of Murdoch's money], it appears, has been invested in editorial talent” (Mashable); “the Etch A Sketch edition of Us Magazine” (Alan Mutter); “barely brings digital journalism into the late 20th century, much less the 21st” (Mark Potts).

The bulk of that criticism seemed to be built on two foundational questions, asked by the Lab’s Joshua Benton, which The Daily has apparently yet to answer convincingly: “Who is The Daily trying to reach? What problem is it trying to solve?” TechCrunch (and several of the above reviewers) asked similar questions, and GigaOM’s Darrell Etherington attempted an answer, arguing that it’s not for the obsessively-Twitter-checking news junkies, but iPad users struggling to adjust to life after newspapers.

A few other issues surrounding The Daily that drew attention: One was its separation from the web by virtue of its place within the proprietary iTunes Store and iPad, as well as the complete lack of links in or out. (That hasn’t stopped an authorized daily index of links to the web versions of articles from springing up, though.) Salon alum Scott Rosenberg and j-prof Dan Kennedy led the charge against the walled garden, while the Lab’s Megan Garber pointed out the draconian anti-aggregation language on The Daily’s AP content, and Justin Ellis wondered how user engagement will work in that closed environment.

Then there were the economics of the publication: Media analyst Ken Doctor had two good sets of questions about what it will take for The Daily to financially succeed (the latter is more number-crunchy). Jeff Jarvis also looked at some possible numbers, and media consultant Amy Gahran chastised Murdoch for investing so much money in the venture. Gahran also looked at the hazards of dealing with Apple, and paidContent’s Staci Kramer noted that Murdoch wants Apple to lower its share of the subscription revenue. And on the News Corp. front, Slate’s Jack Shafer wrote about the role Murdoch’s impatience will play in its fate, and Subhub’s Evan Radowski gave us a history lesson on News Corp. initiatives like this one.

Apple strikes against e-publishers: In its ongoing tightening of App Store access and regulations, Apple made a significant move this week by rejecting a Sony iPhone app that would have allowed users to buy e-books from the Sony Reader Store. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram did a great job of putting the decision in the context of Apple’s past moves, explaining why they make good business sense: “What’s the point of controlling a platform like the iPhone and the iPad if you can’t force people to pay you a carrying charge for hosting their content and connecting them with their customers?”

But others (even at GigaOM) were more skeptical. Jason Kincaid of TechCrunch said the decision underscores the downside of closed content platforms, and posited that it’s the first shot in a war between Apple and Amazon’s Kindle, and Slate’s Farhad Manjoo urged Amazon to pull its Kindle app out of the App Store. In another widely expected move along the same lines, Apple also told publishers that within two months, any app that doesn’t take payments through its iTunes Store would be rejected.

AOL follows Demand’s content-farming path: We talked last week about Demand Media’s explosive IPO and Google’s intention to make content farms harder to find in searches, and we have a couple of updates to those issues this week. First, Seamus McCauley of Virtual Economics explained why he’s skeptical about Demand’s true valuation, not to mention its accounting methods. And while Google’s algorithm limiting content farms is not yet live, search engine startup Blekko has banned many content farm domains, including Demand’s eHow, from its search results. Meanwhile, the debate over Demand continued, with Adotas’ Gavin Dunaway and MinnPost’s John Reinan delivering this week’s broadsides against the company.

AOL hasn’t been talked about as a content farm too much as of yet, but that may change after Business Insider’s publication this week of a leaked internal document called “The AOL Way,” which reads a lot like the textbook content farm strategy guide. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram and Fortune’s Dan Mitchell blasted the plan, with Ingram asserting that “the chasing of eyeballs and pageviews is a game of constantly diminishing returns.” Martin Bryant of The Next Web, on the other hand, said AOL’s model is not a misguided, diabolical plan, but “an inevitable, turbo-powered evolution of what’s happened in the media industry for many years.”

Reading roundup: A few things to check out this weekend while you’re most likely snowed in somewhere:

— This week’s WikiLeaks update: Julian Assange sat down with 60 Minutes for an interview (there’s also a video on what it took to make that happen), WikiLeaks was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, The Guardian’s Alan Rusbridger gave his own account about working with WikiLeaks, and NYU’s Adam Penenberg made the case for Assange as a journalist. Reuters also profiled the new WikiLeaks spinoff OpenLeaks.

— A few paid-content notes: The New York Times isn’t releasing details of its paywall plan just yet, but it is fixing technological glitches with the system right now, while Media Week reported that some industry analysts are skeptical of its chances. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News announced they’ll start offering an e-edition to paying subscribers.

— GigaOM founder Om Malik wrote a simple but insightful guide to creating a successful consumer Internet service, focusing on three elements: A clear purpose, ease of use, and fun.

— Harvard prof David Weinberger has a short, thought-provoking post offering a 21st-century update on Marshall McLuhan’s famous “The medium is the message” aphorism: “We are the medium.” It’s a simple idea, but it has some potentially profound implications, a few of which Weinberger begins to flesh out.

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18. February 2011 by Mark
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