This Week in Review: A unique paywall plan in Boston, and ethics at TechCrunch and the Times
[This review was originally posted at the Nieman Journalism Lab on Sept. 16, 2011.]
Paid and free, side by side: The Boston Globe became the latest news organization to institute an online paywall this week, but it did so in an unprecedented way that should be interesting to watch: The newspaper created a separate paid site, BostonGlobe.com, to run alongside its existing free site, Boston.com. PaidContent has the pertinent details: A single price ($3.99 a week), and Boston.com gets most of the breaking news and sports, while BostonGlobe.com gets most of the newspaper content. The Lab’s Justin Ellis, meanwhile, has a look at the lab that designed it all.
As the Globe told Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman, the two sites were designed with two different types of readers in mind: One who has a deep appreciation for in-depth journalism and likes to read stories start-to-finish, and another who reads news casually and briefly and may be more concerned about entertainment or basic information than journalism per se.
The first thing that caught many people’s attention was new site’s design — simple, clean, and understated. Tech blogger John Gruber gave it a thumbs-up, and news design guru Mario Garcia called it “probably the most significant new website design in a long time.” The Lab’s Joshua Benton identified the biggest reasons it looks so clean: Far fewer links and ads.
Benton (in the most comprehensive post on the new site) also emphasized a less noticeable but equally important aspect of BostonGlobe.com’s design: It adjusts to fit just about any browser size, which eliminates the need for mobile apps, making life easier for programmers and, as j-prof Dan Kennedy noted at the Lab, a way around the cut of app fees required by Apple and others. If the Globe’s people “have figured out a way not to share their hard-earned revenues with gatekeepers such as Apple and Amazon, then they will have truly performed a service for the news business — and for journalism,” Kennedy said.
Of course, the Globe could launch the most brilliantly conceived news site on the web, but it won’t be a success unless enough people pay for it. Poynter’s Sonderman (like Kennedy) was skeptical of their ability to do that, though as the Atlantic’s Rebecca Rosen pointed out, the Globe’s plan may be aimed as much at retaining print subscribers as making money off the web. The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple wondered if readers will find enough at BostonGlobe.com that’s not at Boston.com to make the site worth their money.
The TechCrunch conflict and changing ethical standards: Last week’s flap between AOL and TechCrunch over the tech site’s ethical conflicts came to an official resolution on Monday, when TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington parted ways with AOL, the site’s owner. But its full effects are going to be rippling for quite a while: Gawker’s Ryan Tate called the fiasco a black eye for everyone involved, but especially AOL, which had approved Arrington’s investments in some of the companies he covers just a few months ago. Fellow media mogul Barry Diller also ripped AOL’s handling of the situation.
At the Guardian, Dan Gillmor said that while he doesn’t trust TechCrunch much personally, it’s the audience’s job to sort out their trust with the help of transparency, rather than traditional journalism’s strictures. Others placed more of the blame on TechCrunch: Former Newsweek tech editor Dan Lyons said TechCrunch’s people should have expected this type of scenario when they sold to a big corporation, and media analyst Frederic Filloux said TechCrunch is a perfect example of the blogosphere’s vulnerability to unchecked conflicts of interest.
There was more fuel for those kinds of ethical concerns this week, as the winning company at TechCrunch’s annual Disrupt competition was one that Arrington invests in. But Arrington had an ethical accusation of his own to make at the conference, pointing out that the New York Times invests in a tech venture capital fund which has put $3.5 million into GigaOM, a TechCrunch competitor. Poynter’s Steve Myers detailed the Times’ run-ins between the companies it invests in and the ones it covers (and its spotty disclosure about those connections), concluding that even if the conflict is less direct than in blogging, it’s still worth examining more closely.
As it plunged further into its battle with TechCrunch late last week, AOL was also reported to be talking with Yahoo, which recently fired its CEO, about a merger between the two Internet giants. All Things Digital’s Kara Swisher said there’s no way the deal would actually happen, and Wired’s Tim Carmody called it a “spectacularly crazy idea” and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram agreed, while Business Insider reminded us that they said a year ago that AOL and Yahoo should merge.
Meanwhile, the New York Times’ David Carr homed in on the core problem that both companies are facing: The fact that people want information online from niche sites, not giant general-news portals. “As news surges on the Web, giant ocean liners like AOL and Yahoo are being outmaneuvered by the speedboats zipping around them, relatively small sites that have passionate audiences and sharply focused information,” he wrote.
Facebook opens to subscribers: It hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention as some of its other moves, but Facebook took another step in Twitter’s direction this week by introducing the Subscribe Button, which allows users to see other people’s (and groups’) status updates without friending or becoming a fan of them.
As GeekWire’s Monica Guzman and many others noted, Facebook’s “subscribe” looks a heck of a lot like Twitter’s “follow.” When asked about similar Google+ features at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference, a Facebook exec said it wasn’t a response to Google+.
Guzman said Facebook is putting down deeper roots by going beyond the limits of reciprocal friendship, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingrampinpointed the reason why this could end up being a massive change for Facebook: It’s beginning to move Facebook from a symmetrical network to an asymmetrical one, which could fundamentally transform its dynamics. Still, Ingram said Twitter is much better oriented toward being an information network than Facebook is, even with a “Subscribe” button.
The change could have particularly interesting implications for journalists, as Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman explained in his brief outline of the feature. As he noted, it may eliminate the need for separate Facebook profiles and pages for journalists, and while Lost Remote’s Cory Bergman said that should be a welcome change for journalists who were trying to manage both, he noted that shows and organizations may want to stick with pages.
News Corp.’s scandal widens: An update on the ongoing scandal enveloping News Corp.: A group of U.S. banks and investment funds that own shares in News Corp. expanded a lawsuit to include allegations of stealing, hacking, and anti-competitive behavior by two of the company’s U.S. subsidiaries — an advertiser and a satellite TV hardware manufacturer. As the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple noted, these are old cases, but they’re getting fresh attention, and that’s how scandals gain momentum.
James Murdoch, the son of News Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch, was also recalled to testify again before members of Britain’s Parliament later this fall, facing new questions about the breadth of News Corp.’s phone hacking scandal. The Wall Street Journal examined the scandal’s impact on the elder Murdoch’s succession plan for the conglomerate, especially as it involves James. The company’s executives also announced this week that they’ve found tens of thousands of documents that could shed more light on the phone hacking cases.
Reading roundup: Here’s what else went on this week:
— The biggest news story this week, of course, is actually 10 years old: Here’s a look at how newspapers marked the anniversary of 9/11, how news orgs used digital technology to tell the story, and a reflection on how 9/11 changed the media landscape.
— At an academic conference last weekend, Illinois j-prof Robert McChesney repeated his call for public funding for journalism. Here are a couple of good summaries of his talk from fellow j-profs Axel Bruns and Alfred Hermida.
— Finally, here’s a relatively short but insightful two-part interview between two digital media luminaries, Henry Jenkins and Dan Gillmor, about media literacy, citizen journalism and Gillmor’s latest book. Should make for a quick, thought-provoking weekend read.