This Week in Review: Design and the Times, Google+ growing pains, and the extinction of the mogul

[This review was originally posted at the Nieman Journalism Lab on July 29, 2011.]

Debating the Times’ paywall and design: In its quarterly earnings call late last week, the New York Times gave the clearest picture yet of how its new online pay plan is working. As usual, it turned out to be something of a Rorschach test: BNET’s Erik Sherman called the numbers evidence that the paywall isn’t protecting the Times’ print subscriptions, as it was intended to. On the other hand, the Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum argued that the Times’ big digital subscription figure (224,000) “proves that, contra the naysayers, readers will pay good money for quality news.” The Times’ paywall adds an important digital revenue stream, he said, while also letting in enough casual readers to keep the value of digital advertising up.

The most thorough defense of the Times, though, came from New York magazine’s Seth Mnookin: “The Times has taken a do-or-die stand for hard-core, boots-on-the-ground journalism, for earnest civic purpose, for the primacy of content creators over aggregators, and has brought itself back from the precipice.”BNET’s Jim Edwards said it’s premature for Mnookin to say the Times is back, but Reuters’ Felix Salmon, a former Times paywall skeptic, agreed with Mnookin that the paywall is working, saying he’s glad the Times has shown a porous paywall can work.

The other Times-related item is firmly in the hypothetical realm, but it generated at least as much conversation as the real-world pay plan. Last week, web designer Andy Rutledge critiqued the Times’ online design and proposed his own version, emphasizing headlines, time stamps, authors, and separating news from opinion.

The response wasn’t particularly positive. The redesign was generally trashed on Twitter, with a typical sentiment expressed by 10,000 Words’ Lauren Rabaino: “It’s hard to take seriously a design that completely ignores the constraints of a typical newspaper.” One of the most comprehensive responses came from Guardian developer Martin Belam, who pointed out things like faces, article summaries, and points of social connection that Rutledge was missing.

The Lab’s Joshua Benton argued that Rutledge’s redesign doesn’t acknowledge that “the problems of large-scale information architecture for news sites are really hard problems.” Meanwhile, Belgian developer Stijn Debrouwere went the other direction, asking for more unrealistic mockups like this one to help us brainstorm what news sites could look like. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram said the problem with the Times’ site is that it’s designed as if readers are interested in everything the paper produces, which is almost never the case. And Paul Scrivens said both Rutledge and the Times should look outside the news industry for design cues.

Google+ growing pains: Google+ continues to grow at a ridiculous pace — far faster than either Facebook or Twitter, as Idealab’s Bill Gross pointed out — and as Simon Dumenco of Ad Age argued, the platform represents a social media do-over for a lot of users. It’s still generating dissent, though, with much of it stemming from Google+’s policy toward business pages. As Google’s Christian Oestlien wrote late last week, the company is working on a business profile template that will be up in the next few months, but they’re deleting business pages (including news organization pages) in the meantime.

A few companies will get trial pages before they’re available to everyone, and others have found workarounds — the tech blog Mashable managed to keep all its followers by simply changing its page name to the name of its CEO, Pete Cashmore. That got other members of the tech press worked up, including Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan, who urged Google to restore the deleted pages and let businesses create pages normally. TechCrunch’s MG Siegler said Google is essentially creating its own version of Twitter’s Suggested User List, and Mathew Ingram of GigaOM made the case for why this is a big deal.

Elsewhere in the world of Google+, Mathew Ingram wrote about the issues it’s dealing with regarding anonymity, and the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal is experimenting with a daily news roundup on his personal page there. The Next Web’s Martin Bryant examined Google+’s usefulness as a news tool, concluding that while it has potential, it needs a bigger, broader user base to start to really challenge Twitter and Facebook.

The end of media moguls?: The News Corp. phone hacking scandal shifted down a gear this week, but there were still a few developments to report. The News of the World hacking victims also reportedly included the mother of an 8-year-old murder victim, and two former employees testified that they had told James Murdoch that the hacking was widespread, contradicting what Murdoch had told Parliament last week. Other News Corp. veterans challenged the picture Rupert Murdoch painted of himself as a largely hands-off newspaper boss.

The New York Times’ David Carr wrote that James Murdoch is done, and that Rupert has finally been revealed as vulnerable. CUNY j-prof Jeff Jarvis was more emphatic, calling Murdoch the last media mogul: “The mogul is extinct. The kind of big media institution he built will follow him. Lovely chaos will follow. It’s called democracy.” The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple took a quick look at what a post-Murdoch world might look like.

A couple of other News Corp.-related avenues to chase down: Dean Starkman of the Columbia Journalism Review argued that a scandal like News of the World’s won’t happen in the U.S., and News Corp.’s newest property, the tablet publication The Daily, appears to be floundering, according to a New York Observer feature, though a new version was released last week.

Reading roundup: There wasn’t a whole lot to take in this week, but here’s a quick sampling:

— The FCC is releasing a series of studies on media ownership, one of the newest of which suggested that media cross-ownership (ownership of multiple media outlets within a single market) doesn’t hurt local news, and may actually help it.

— Wisconsin j-prof Stephen Ward made a thoughtful case for redefining objectivity in the digital age.

— Particularly for the Twitter skeptics and writing teachers out there, Poynter’s Mallary Jean Tenore put together a great post outlining the ways Twitter has made her a better writer.

— Finally, I’ve been trying to cover this piecemeal discussion here, but the AP’s Jonathan Stray did a much better job of summarizing the recent conversation about the changing structure of news stories with a fantastic reading list. Now that you’re done with this link-fest, be sure to give that one a look-through, too.

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13. August 2011 by Mark
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