[This review was originally posted at the Nieman Journalism Lab on Aug. 16, 2013.]
Reading Bezos' tea leaves
: A week and a half after Amazon's Jeff Bezos announced he was buying The Washington Post, we still don't know any more about what he plans to do with the paper. A few people mined his past, however, for clues to what kind of owner he'd be. The Post published its big profile
of Bezos, and the Columbia Journalism Review's Dean Starkman examined
a Fast Company profile of Bezos' work at Amazon, pointing to his long effort to circumvent tax obligations as an indication that's the wrong guy for The Post.
NYU j-prof Jay Rosen raised the alarm
that Bezos won't defend free information, tying him to NSA leaker Edward Snowden's case and noting in particular Amazon's kicking WikiLeaks off its servers in response to government pressure in 2010. "That’s not answering the bell for freedom of information. That’s doing what the surveillance state requires, and relying on a legalism to justify it."
The week brought a couple of reflections on the Graham era of ownership at The Post and the paper's glory days in decades past, from Post veterans Peter Perl
and Henry Allen
. Several other ideas about the move's significance also emerged: The New York Times' Ross Douthat pinned The Post's decline
on the rise of Politico as the premier news organization covering Washington politics and followed up on that point in a blog post
. Former Politico writer Steve Friess argued
that The Post shouldn't try to be like Politico, and Douthat countered
that he's not saying the paper should have followed the Politico model, but simply to invest more deeply in politics as a core area.
Media analyst Alan Mutter examined the trend
of mergers and acquisitions in newspapers, noting that Bezos' overpay for The Post not withstanding, the sale prices for these papers is slumping badly. The New York Times noted the trend
of tech luminaries, such as Bezos, Craigslist's Craig Newmark, and Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, lending a hand to traditional media outlets. And Poynter's Rick Edmonds concluded
that "the era of the public newspaper company is winding down." And next, many people are turning their attention to The New York Times, as The Times itself noted
Bezos is getting plenty of unsolicited advice about what to do with The Post once he takes over: Install top Post digital officer Vijay Ravindran as publisher (Reuters' Jack Shafer
), shrink the newsroom (Forbes' Tim Worstall
), shut down the print edition (GigaOM's Mathew Ingram
), keep the paywall around (Post columnist Robert Samuelson
), reinvent classifieds (Tim Carmody and Dave Pell
), and fire conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin (former Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton
Snowden, the NSA, and tech stuck in the middle
: NSA leaker Edward Snowden didn't make any news directly this week, but his leaks continued to generate discussion, centering this week on a New York Times Magazine feature on Laura Poitras
, the filmmaker who worked with Snowden to release his information. The Times also published a short interview
with Snowden alongside the article, and Gawker's Adrian Chen highlighted
the email encryption Poitras and The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald encountered in the piece.
President Obama gave a press conference
last Friday responding to Snowden's leaks, where he promised an "independent" review of surveillance policies that may be run
by the director of national intelligence. The press conference prompted defenses of Snowden by The Washington Post's Ezra Klein
and the Freedom of the Press Foundation's Trevor Timm
, who both said he's prompted the kind of democratic discussion about surveillance that Obama says is necessary.
The other Snowden-related piece of news was particularly ominous: Lavabit, the email privacy service reportedly used by Snowden, abruptly shut down
late last week with a cryptic email
from its founder, Ladar Levison, suggesting that he was shutting Lavabit down rather than comply with the U.S. government's demands to hand over its users' data (possibly passwords
). He concluded that letter with the admonition that "I would _strongly_ recommend against anyone trusting their private data to a company with physical ties to the United States,"
and told Forbes' Kashmir Hill
we might not use email at all if we knew what he knew about it.
Another encryption service, Silent Circle, also shut down after seeing "the writing on the wall"
with Lavabit's shutdown, though it said it hadn't received any orders from the government. Alex Hern of The Guardian provided some more context
to the decisions, saying they mark the death of secure cloud computing.
The Guardian's Greenwald noted
that the perception that U.S. tech companies' security can't be trusted will hurt their financial prospects, and expressed his encouragement at their growing defiance of the government. The Atlantic's Bruce Schneier urged those companies to fight harder
and characterized the government's actions toward them as essentially the wartime practice of commandeering: "But now it's happening in peacetime. Vast swaths of the Internet are being commandeered to support this surveillance state."
The Chronicle's paywall reversal
: After a couple of years of American newspapers adding online paywalls virtually every week, we saw a surprising reversal this week, as the San Francisco Chronicle announced
that it was dismantling its paywall less than five months after it was launched. The Chronicle's pay plan was a two-site model, with a free SFGate.com
and a paid SFChronicle.com
, and according to SF Weekly's Joe Eskenazi
, the two sites are sticking around and SFChronicle will continue to be paid, though all its stories will be available for free on SFGate. SFist's Jay Barmann noted
that many of the paper's writers have been finding ways to make their content available for free for a while now.
GigaOM's Mathew Ingram questioned
whether the Chronicle's move was the start of a trend of paywall rollbacks, and evidence quickly came in supporting that idea, as D magazine reported
that the Dallas Morning News will drop its across-the-board paywall and instead launch a premium site for subscribers. Meanwhile, one big new paywall is going up, as the Toronto Star's paywall kicks in this week
Patch and hyperlocal's viability
: AOL CEO Tim Armstrong confirmed
last Friday that the company will be laying off hundreds of employees of the hyperlocal network Patch this week (he also fired an executive mid-conference call
for taking pictures, for which he apologized
). Ad sales are reportedly down across the network
as Patch staffers await the bad news.
USA Today's Rem Rieder characterized Patch
as the latest in a litany of failed hyperlocal news initiatives, arguing that there still isn't a workable business model for it. Several people responded that the problem isn't with hyperlocal news as a whole; it's that hyperlocal doesn't scale and can't be implemented top-down. Howard Owens of the New York local news site The Batavian made the point most cogently
, and Ad Age's Alex Kantrowitz
and j-prof Dan Kennedy
: A few of the other stories worth checking out this week:
— The launch of Al Jazeera America is a few days away, and the channel is working to get Time Warner Cable
to pick it up. USA Today published a feature
on the network, focusing on whether it can win over American viewers. Maclean's interviewed
Al Jazeera America anchor Ali Velshi and the launch, and tech pioneer Doc Searls drew attention
to the fact that Al Jazeera is killing its online live stream in the U.S.
— U.S. Army Pfc. Bradley Manning apologized
during his sentencing hearing for the "unintended consequences" of his leaks to WikiLeaks, saying he was sorry they hurt the U.S. The Freedom of the Press Foundation's Rainey Reitman said no apology was necessary
, as the leaks didn't hurt the U.S.
— Three interesting pieces on data journalism: In a talk at a statistical convention, new ESPN hire Nate Silver gave 11 useful principles
on dealing with statistics for journalists, British j-prof Andy Dickinson questioned
whether data journalism helps democracy, and Poynter's Anna Li looked at some journalistic cases
that involve design thinking.
— Finally, former Guardian and BBC journalist Kevin Anderson argued
that news organizations made a mistake by merging their print and online operations, pointing to Clark Gilbert's Deseret Morning News as a better alternative.