This Week in Review: TBD gets the axe, deciphering Apple’s new rules, and empowering more news sources

[This review was originally posted at the Nieman Journalism Lab on Feb. 25, 2011.]

The short, happy-ish life of TBD: Just six months after it launched and two weeks after a reorganization was announced, the Washington, D.C., local news site was effectively shuttered this week, when its corporate parent, Allbritton Communications (it’s owned by Robert Allbritton and includes Politico), cut all of its jobs, leaving only an arts and entertainment operation within the website of Allbritton’s WJLA-TV.

TBD had been seen many as a bellwether in online-only local news, as Poynter’s Mallary Jean Tenore documented in her historical roundup of links about the site, so it was quite a shock and a disappointment to many future-of-newsies that it was closed so quickly. The response — aptly compiled by TBDer Jeff Sonderman — was largely sympathetic to TBD’s staff (former TBD manager Jim Brady even wrote a pitch to prospective employers on behalf of the newly laid off community engagement team). Many observers on Twitter (and Terry Heaton on his blogpointed squarely at Allbritton for the site’s demise, with The Batavian’s Howard Owens drawing out a short, thoughtful lesson: “Legacy managers will nearly always sabotage innovation. Wall of separation necessary between innovators and legacy.”

Blogger Mike Clark pointed out that TBD’s traffic was beating each of the other D.C. TV news sites and growing as well. The Washington Post reported that while traffic wasn’t a problem, turning it into revenue was — though the fact that TBD’s ads were handled by WJLA staffers might have contributed to that.

Mallary Jean Tenore wrote an insightful article talking to some TBD folks about whether their company gave them a chance to fail. Lehigh j-prof Jeremy Littau was unequivocal on the subject“Some of us have been talking today on Twitter about whether TBD failed. Nonsense. TBD wasn’t given enough time to fail.”

While CUNY j-prof Jeff Jarvis lamented that “TBD will be painted as a failure of local news online when it’s a failure of its company, nothing more,” others saw some larger implications for other online local news projects. Media analyst Alan Mutter concluded that TBD’s plight is “further evidence that hyperlocal journalism is more hype than hope for the news business,” and Poynter’s Rick Edmonds gave six business lessons for similar projects from TBD’s struggles. Journal Register Co. CEO John Paton ripped Edmonds’ analysis, arguing that Allbritton “can’t pretend to have seriously tried the hyperlocal business space after a six-month experiment it derailed half-way in.”

Applying Apple’s new rules: Publishers’ consternation over Apple’s new subscription plan for mobile devices continued this week, with Frederic Filloux at Monday Note laying out many publishers’ frustrations with Apple’s proposal. The New York Times’ David Carr and The Guardian’s Josh Halliday both covered publishers’ Apple subscription conundrum, and one expert told Carr, “If you are a publisher, it puts things into a tailspin: The business model you have been working with for many years just lost 30 percent off the top.”

At paidContent, James McQuivey made the case for a lower revenue share for Apple, and Dan Gillmor wondered whether publishers will stand up to Apple. The company may also be facing scrutiny from the U.S. Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission for possible antitrust violations, The Wall Street Journal reported.

The fresh issue regarding Apple’s subscription policy this week, though, was the distinction between publishing apps and more service-oriented apps. The topic came to the fore when the folks from Readability, an app that allows users to read articles in an advertising-free environment, wrote an open letter ripping Apple for rejecting their app, saying their new policy “smacks of greed.” Ars Technica’s Chris Foresman and Apple blogger John Gruber noted, though, that Readability’s 30%-off-the-top business model is a lot like Apple’s.

Then Apple’s Steve Jobs sent a short, cryptic email to a developer saying that Apple’s new policy applies only to publishing apps, not service apps. This, of course, raised the question, in TechCrunch’s words, ”What’s a publishing app?” That’s a very complex question, and as Instapaper founder Marco Arment wrote, one that will be difficult for Apple to answer consistently. Arment also briefly noted that Jobs’ statement seems to contradict the language of Apple’s new guidelines.

Giving voice to new sources of news: This month’s Carnival of Journalism, posted late last week, focused on ways to increase the number of news sources. It’s a broad question, and it drew a broad variety of answers, which were ably summarized by Courtney Shove. I’m not going to try to duplicate her work here, but I do want to highlight a few of the themes that showed up.

David Cohn, the Carnival’s organizer, gave a great big-picture perspective to the issue, putting it in the context of power and the web. Kim Bui and Dan Fenster defended the community-driven vision for news, with Bui calling journalists to go further: “Let’s admit it, we’ve never trusted the public.” There were several calls for journalists to include more underrepresented voices, with reports and ideas like a refugee news initiativedigital news busyouth journalism projects, and initiatives for youth in foreign-language families.

The J-Lab’s Jan Schaffer gave 10 good ideas to the cause, and Drury j-prof Jonathan Groves and Gannett’s Ryan Sholin shared their ideas for local citizen news projects, while TheUpTake’s Jason Barnett endorsed a new citizen-journalism app called iBreakNews.

Three bloggers, however, objected to the Carnival’s premise in the first place. Daniel Bachhuber of CUNY argued that improving journalism doesn’t necessarily mean adding more sources, recommending instead that “Instead of increasing the number of news sources, we should focus on producing durable data and the equivalent tools for remixing it.” Lauren Rabaino warned against news oversaturation, and the University of Colorado’s Steve Outing said that more than new sources, we need better filters and hubs for them.

Blogging’s continued evolution: The “blogging is dead” argument has popped up from time to time, and it was revived again this week in the form of a New York Times story about how young people are leaving blogs for social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. Several people countered the argument, led by GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, who said that blogging isn’t declining, but is instead evolving into more of a continuum that includes microblogging services like Twitter, traditional blog formats like WordPress, and the hybrid that is Tumblr. He and WordPress founding developer Matt Mullenweg shared the same view — that “people of all ages are becoming more and more comfortable publishing online,” no matter the form.

Scott Rosenberg, who’s written a history of blogging, looked at statistics to make the point, noting that 14% of online adults keep a blog, a number he called astounding, even if it starts to decline. “As the online population becomes closer to universal, that is an extraordinary thing: One in ten people writing in public. Our civilization has never seen anything like it.” In addition, Reuters’ Anthony DeRosa argued that longer-form blogging has always been a pursuit of older Internet users.

Reading roundup: I’ve got a few ongoing stories to update you on, and a sampling of an unusually rich week in thoughtful pieces.

— A couple of sites took a peek at Gawker’s traffic statistics to try to determine the effectiveness of its recent redesign. TechCrunch saw an ugly picture; Business Insider was cautiously optimistic based on the same data. Gawker disputed TechCrunch’s numbers, and Terry Heaton tried to sort through the claims.

— A couple of Middle East/North Africa protest notes: The New York Times told us about the response to Egypt’s Internet blackout and the role of mobile technology in documenting the protests. And Amy Gahran of the Knight Digital Media Center gave some lessons from the incredible Twitter journalism of NPR’s Andy Carvin.

— The Daily is coming to Android tablets this spring, and its free trial run has been extended beyond the initial two weeks.

— Matt DeRienzo of the Journal Register Co. wrote about an intriguing idea for a news org/j-school merger.

— Alan Mutter made the case for ending federal funding for public journalism.

— At 10,000 Words, Lauren Rabaino had some awesome things news organizations can learn from tech startups, including thinking of news as software and embracing transparency.

— And here at the Lab, Northwestern prof Pablo Boczkowski gave some quick thoughts on how we tend to associate online news with work, and what that means. He sheds some light about an under-considered aspect of news — the social environments in which we consume it.

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16. March 2011 by Mark
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