[This review was originally posted at the Nieman Journalism Lab on Feb. 7, 2014.]
Facebook as viral gatekeeper
: Facebook launched its newsier app, Paper, this week, and other than the makers of the sketching app Paper
, pretty much everyone seemed impressed. TechCrunch's Josh Constine said it appears Facebook has designed Paper to supersede its own main app
, and several reviews concluded that it does indeed blow the Facebook app away. The Verge's Ellis Hamburger explained
why he's already replaced his Facebook app with Paper, and Time's Harry McCracken said Paper — Facebook "rethought for a small screen, with 2014 aesthetics" — could be the app that gives Facebook its mobile breakthrough
Rachel Metz of Technology Review
and Lauren Hockenson of Gigaom
both emphasized the newsiness of Paper's content and design. Hockensen noted that while the app seems to be designed for the minority of users who use Facebook only for news, "the dirty secret remains that Paper is probably the ideal experience for everyone, filtering the noise in a way the desktop and mobile fail to do." The Atlantic's Robinson Meyer said Paper represents a change in direction
from the Twitterization of Facebook — it's slower, more stable, and a bit less stream-like.
Wired's Kyle Vanhemert looked at the way Paper is part of Facebook's effort to improve the quality of the content people post there
. With its slicker layout and more sophisticated publishing interface, "posting stuff to Paper will cease to feel like anything resembling 'updating Facebook' at all, and more like putting out a news article."
The New York Times' piece on Paper
focused on its potential role in aiding Facebook's increasing dominance in driving traffic and what goes viral and what dies. Recode's Peter Kafka highlighted data from BuzzFeed
that shows how Facebook has pulled away from Google as its top traffic driver, and The Atlantic's Robinson Meyer noted
that publishers may be steering toward social optimization rather than search optimization because Google is getting better at providing many commonly sought answers itself.
Reuters' Felix Salmon broke down the formula
behind Facebook-driven virality, concluding that Facebook is sure to close that curiosity-gap clickbait loophole through which Upworthy is running straight to the bank. "Facebook is the monster in the publishing room: a traffic firehose which can be turned on or off at Mark Zuckerberg’s whim," he wrote. Mathew Ingram of Gigaom similarly cautioned sites
like Upworthy and BuzzFeed that Facebook may turn on them just as Google shut off the flow to content farms.
NSA hacking, and Greenwald accused
: There were a handful of new developments over the past week in the ongoing U.S. National Security Agency surveillance story: First, the tech companies released their first reports
since their deal with the U.S. government giving a broad idea of how many requests they've gotten to turn over user information. Over the first half of 2013, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Yahoo handed over data on at least 59,000 users
to the NSA.
In addition, NBC News reported
based on documents leaked by Edward Snowden that Britain's spy unit Government Communications Headquarters has been going after the hacktivist groups Anonymous and Lulzsec using some of those groups' same hacking tactics, though in the process they've disrupted other web users who have no connection to hacking or Anonymous. At Wired, anthropologist Gabriella Coleman decried GCHQ's actions
as a "shotgun approach to justice that sprays its punishment over thousands of people who are engaged in their democratic right to protest simply because a small handful of people committed digital vandalism."
Slate's Joshua Kopstein pointed out the hypocrisy
in GCHQ's actions as well.
And in a U.S. Congressional hearing, Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, accused Glenn Greenwald of illegally selling stolen material
by getting paid to write freelance stories on the Snowden documents. Greenwald, who was with The Guardian when he broke the Snowden story and is now starting up First Look Media, countered
that he's not selling the documents, but simply working on stories about the documents with freelance contracts, just like any other freelance writer reporting on national security would.
The Washington Post's Paul Farhi briefly explored the legal case
, noting that the U.S. government has never actually tried a journalist for something like what Rogers is suggesting. A few others condemned Rogers' comments as pure intimidation: Techdirt's Mike Masnick called Rogers' comments
"an attempt to create chilling effects and to protect his friends in the intelligence community" and Rem Rieder of USA Today said they were
"a blatant attempt to intimidate journalists by criminalizing their actions." Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic looked at why Greenwald is being perceived differently
from other journalists and argued that whether or not we agree with his style or political aims, Greenwald is the face of journalists' First Amendment protections in the U.S. right now.
Also in Snowden-related press freedom, The Guardian released video
of their destruction of the hard copies of the Snowden files last summer under government compulsion and explained that incident more fully, and Amitai Etzioni at The Atlantic critiqued Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger's defense
of his paper's handling of the Snowden documents.
Defining news' personal-franchise model
: Two new individually driven news organizations are continuing to take shape: Ezra Klein lured three more former Washington Post colleagues
to his new explanatory journalism venture at Vox Media, and New York magazine's Benjamin Wallace profiled Klein
and gave some more details about his philosophy of using the permanence of the web and the openness of digital publishing to build his new site through a combination of breaking-news blurbs and static, Wikipedia-type explainers.
The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf listed some of the questions
he'll be keeping an eye on as Klein's site develops, including the role of narrative storytelling and whether it will develop context-oriented software it can sell to other news organizations. The Lab's Joshua Benton wondered
if Klein's site might have a search strategy built around the idea that "we’re going to build answers to questions more complex than what Google can answer."
Meanwhile, former NPR social media guru Andy Carvin announced
that he's joining First Look Media, the new organization owned by eBay co-founder Pierre Omidyar and built around a group of journalists led by Glenn Greenwald. Carvin talked to Gigaom's Mathew Ingram
about his excitement at being part of a news organization being built from scratch, as well as his goal of carrying his open, crowdsourced form of social journalism there. A few days earlier, The Washington Post's Erik Wemple expressed some skepticism
of First Look's developing non-hierarchical editorial structure.
NYU's Jay Rosen attempted to define
this emerging model of personal franchise-based journalism exemplified by Klein's venture (though First Look, of which Rosen is an adviser, wasn't on his list of examples) and explain its rise. Among several factors, he called this the next step in the rationalization of blogging: "This is blogging, regularized and made into a sustainable business."
The Guardian's Emily Bell explored
how this entrepreneurial spirit came to infect professional journalists, while Michael Wolff at USA Today said these ventures are operating more on blind hope in journalism
than solid business principles.
: Several other stories were worth following this week:
— Egyptian authorities finally issued formal charges
against 20 journalists, including three Al Jazeera journalists who were arrested in late December and have been held in prison since then. Al Jazeera, which employs nine of the 20, ripped the charges
, and the Obama administration urged the government to release them
. The government also released a video
of two of the journalists in an attempt to portray them as part of a terrorist cell. The Columbia Journalism Review has a good summary of the case
and why it has journalists and press freedom advocates concerned.
— A few weeks after a court ruling struck down the U.S. Federal Communications Commission's net neutrality protections, Verizon is facing accusations that it's slowing traffic
to Netflix and Amazon Web Services. Verizon denied the charge
, though critics such as Free Press
and Public Knowledge
were unconvinced. Meanwhile, a pair of bills were introduced in Congress
to keep a net neutrality status quo until the FCC resolves the issue, and President Obama pledged his continued support
of net neutrality. The New York Times' Nick Bilton explained where things stand
— Twitter's first quarterly report revealed that its revenue beat expectations, but its stock price still dropped after it also revealed that its user growth is relatively flat and its engagement metrics are actually down. In short, as Quartz put it
, Twitter's getting more money from less-engaged users. Forbes explained
how Twitter's going to try to jump-start its user growth.
— Poynter's Rick Edmonds reported
that Gannett is hinting at a concern with its new paywall plan — its circulation revenue dipped a bit, suggesting that the circulation gain from its paywalls may have been a one-time event. The Lab's Joshua Benton argued
that the paywall isn't a long-term solution to the problem of the decline of print, and the Columbia Journalism Review's Ryan Chittum said you have to invest in journalism
to make your print-centric paywalls work.
— Finally, two interesting pieces worth a read: Two ex-BBC News execs made the case in The Guardian
that the new digital news environment is making 24-hour TV news channels obsolete, and here at the Lab, journalism professor Nikki Usher looked at how the Des Moines Register is using its newsroom space
as a metaphor for its digital ambitions.