This Week in Review: Closing in on News Corp.’s Sun, and a privacy crisis for mobile apps
[This review was originally posted at the Nieman Journalism Lab on February 17, 2012.]
News Corp.’s problems spread to the Sun: The ongoing phone hacking scandal at News Corp., which took down News of the World last summer, is now threatening to swallow the company’s other British tabloid: The Sun. Five of its top journalists were arrested last weekend as part of an investigation into bribing public officials, which News Corp.’s internal investigation is reported to have determined amounts to more than 10,000 pounds per year, with officials essentially on retainer.
That investigation generated some controversy itself when it handed over details of Sun journalists’ sources to the police, though it said it redacted the information heavily and didn’t pass on documentation of standard journalistic source interaction. Journalists at News Corp.’s three British newspapers — the Sun, the Times, and the Sunday Times — were livid, and prepared for a legal challenge by hiring a top human rights attorney who promptly ripped the decision to hand over sources in a Times column.
Others joined in the criticism: Britain’s National Union of Journalists and the Sun’s competitor, the Daily Mail, blasted News Corp.’s investigative committee, with the latter saying it “should hang its head in shame.” And Ryan Chittum of the Columbia Journalism Review was concerned about the precedent set by having police riffling through millions of newspaper emails, though he and British j-prof Roy Greenslade defended the police’s stern treatment of Sun journalists in their arrests.
So what does Rupert Murdoch do now? At the Guardian, Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff urged him to give the company “something of a noble death” — sell the Sun, and use the proceeds to establish a trust for the Times and Sunday Times. Ad Age’s Simon Dumenco suggested News Corp. will simply shut the Sun down, saying that like News of the World, it’s been reduced to merely a “repository of evidence that [needs] to be destroyed.” Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici argued that it’s only a matter of time before one of the two happens, especially since dropping its newspapers would help News Corp.’s bottom line.
News Corp. could still be facing plenty of trouble in the U.S., too. The FBI is investigating the company for bribing foreign officials, and the Guardian reported its executives could be prosecuted for being “willfully blind” about their company’s wrongdoing. The company has gathered a massive legal team to fight potential charges. Joe Pompeo of Capital New York didn’t see U.S. charges as likely, but said the multi-front battle News Corp. is fighting is taking a devastating toll on the company as it drags on.
Path, privacy, and reforming tech journalism: What started last week as one tech startup’s privacy faux pas had by this week turned into a full-blown debacle for privacy on mobile devices, when we learned that the address books in smartphones are available for free to developers, often without the owner’s knowledge. Path, the photo-sharing and messaging app, was the first company outed for taking and storing the data after it was discovered last week by developer Arun Thampi.
The company received a wave of criticism and apologized, but soon the names of other companies — big companies — that were doing essentially the same thing trickled out. VentureBeat reported that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Foursquare, Yelp, and Gowalla were doing it, and the Verge also laid out exactly who’s taking address books and how. Twitter owned up to the practice, acknowledging to the Los Angeles Times that it stores email addresses and phone numbers (though not names) for 18 months from the address books of users who turn on its Find My Friends app.
On Wednesday morning, a U.S. Congressional committee sent a letter to Apple wondering why the company wasn’t doing more to protect its iPhone users’ privacy — and voila! Within minutes, Apple announced it would be doing more to ensure that app developers can’t access users’ address books without their permission (something was already in its developer guidelines). Google announced later that day it would be taking similar measures with its Android platform.
As PandoDaily’s Greg Kumparak wrote, this was a common practice that was simply understood among developers to be just fine, even though it was against Apple’s guidelines. Now that it’s been called out very publicly as not being just fine at all, developers need to figure out where to go from here. Kumparak reminded developers that address book data isn’t theirs to begin with, and Om Malik of GigaOM urged them to consider the moral imperative, rather than just what’s allowed. Developer Matt Gemmell showed how to use app address book data without violating users’ privacy.
A bizarre quasi-journalistic side-story rose out of this issue after the New York Times’ Nick Bilton complained of the alarming obliviousness that Path and Silicon Valley in general show toward the seriousness of user privacy and security. Both Michael Arrington and MG Siegler, former TechCrunch-ers whose CrunchFund invests in Path, ripped Bilton’s post, with Siegler turning it into a diatribe against the vapidity in tech blogging resulting from an out-of-control preoccupation with speed and page views.
Of the many responses to Siegler’s piece, Newsweek tech editor Dan Lyons’ was the most severe, as he described TechCrunch and several other tech blogs as a racket to extract “investment” out of venture capitalists in exchange for good press about their startups. (If you want to go all the way down the rabbit hole, you can read Arrington and Siegler’s rebuttals.)
Frederic Lardinois of Silicon Filter said both the pageview-chasing and VC coziness are serious problems within tech journalism, but there are still plenty of tech outfits staying above the fray and doing solid work. And ReadWriteWeb’s Scott Fulton urged tech bloggers to step outside the tech-journalism bubble and refocus on what journalism is: “Journalism is not about being an expert in twenty different things. It’s about being interested in all of them, knowing how to ask questions, and how to elicit information from the answers.”
AP goes on the copyright offensive: Another skirmish in the long war between traditional news organizations and online aggregators began this week, as the AP sued Meltwater News, a Norwegian company that helps businesses track mentions of themselves in media sources through a searchable database. The AP alleges that Meltwater uses its content without paying for licensing fees, allowing it to create a cheaper service that directly takes subscribers from the AP, as an AP attorney told the Guardian. The attorney also told paidContent that the AP hopes that controversial “hot news doctrine,” which gives publishers legal rights over the dissemination of news they break, will be applied to this case.
According to the AP’s article on the suit, the AP is distinguishing between Meltwater and online aggregators because Meltwater charges a fee and keeps a five-year database of AP stories (aggregators do neither of these). But GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram said this case could still very well apply to online aggregators and represents a “fundamentally futile” approach to online content.
News sites lag in advertising: Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism released a study this week that painted a really depressing picture of advertising at top news websites. Among the major findings: In-house ads are the most common kind of ads on news websites, very few news sites do any targeted advertising based on users’ online behavior, and very few do work with any ads other than static banner ads, either.
PaidContent’s Jeff Roberts pointed out that most news orgs are at a major disadvantage when it comes to selling digital ads in that they weren’t raised on it like tech companies have been, and thus need to constantly play catch-up when it comes to strategies and software. And Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici chastised print-based news orgs for using so much of their digital advertising space to promote their print product, saying, “it’s hard to see how publishers are ever going to persuade marketers to spend real money on their websites as long as those advertisers can see those publishers treating their own web inventory as next to worthless.”
Reading roundup: A couple of other interesting stories this week, plus some pieces to look at over the weekend:
— It’s been a rough couple of months for PolitiFact. This week, it ruled Sen. Marco Rubio’s statement that a majority of Americans are conservative “mostly true” because a plurality of Americans are conservative. The decision got ripped by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple, Politico’s Dylan Byers, the American Journalism Review’s Rem Rieder, and j-prof Jay Rosen. They also fact-checked a statement from “Glee,” which was…odd.
— Another media organization under fire lately has been the Philadelphia Media Network, the parent company of the Inquirer and Daily News. The papers were put on the block a few weeks back, and may be sold to a group led by former Philly mayor and Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell. This week, the company announced layoffs and buyouts, and over the past two weeks, both WHYY and the New York Times have reported that executives have interfered with stories about the sale. Former Daily News reporter Buzz Bissinger lamented the papers’ future.
— A couple of pieces on online content that are a worth a read: Reuters’ Felix Salmon expressed his skepticism about the widespread viability of longform articles online, and here at the Lab, j-prof Dan Kennedy reported on the comment conundrum at Connecticut’s New Haven Independent and why it matter for other news sites.