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This Week in Review: Google’s new features, what to do with the iPad, and Facebook’s rise as a news reader

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

A gaggle of Google news items: Unlike the past several weeks with their paywall and iPad revelations, this week wasn’t dominated by one giant future-of-media story. But there were quite a few incremental happenings that proved to be interesting, and several of them involved Google. We’ll start with those.

— The Google story that could prove to be the biggest over the long term actually happened last week, in the midst of our iPad euphoria: Google unveiled a beta form of Social Search, which allows you to search your “social circle” in addition to the standard results served up for you by Google’s magic algorithm. (CNN has some more details.) I’m a bit surprised at how little chatter this rollout is getting (then again, given the timing, probably not), but tech pioneer Dave Winer loves the idea — not so much for its sociality but because it “puts all social services on the same open playing field”; you decide how important your contacts from Twitter or Facebook are, not Google’s algorithm.

— Also late last week, several media folks got some extended time with Google execs at Davos. Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger posted his summary, focusing largely on Google’s faceoff with China. “What Would Google Do?” author Jeff Jarvis posted his summary, with lots of Google minutiae. (Jeff Sonderman also further summarized Jarvis’ summary.) Among the notable points from Jarvis: Google is “working on making news as compelling as possible” and CEO Eric Schmidt gets in a slam on the iPad in passing.

— Another Google feature was launched this week: Starring on Google News stories. The stars let you highlight stories (that’s story clusters, not individual articles) to save and return to them later. Two major tech blogs, ReadWriteWeb and TechCrunch, gave the feature their seal of approval, with ReadWriteWeb pointing to this development as the first of many ways Google can personalize its algorithm when it comes to news. It’s an intriguing concept, though woefully lacking in functionality at this point, as TechCrunch notes: I can’t even star individual stories to highlight or organize coverage of a particular issue. I sure hope at least that feature is coming.

Also in the Google-and-news department: Google economist Hal Varian expressed skepticism about news paywalls, arguing that reading news for many is a worktime distraction. And two Google folks, including Google News creator Krishna Bharat, give bunches of interesting details about Google News in a MediaShift interview, including some conciliatory words for publishers.

— Meanwhile billionaire tech entrepreneur Mark Cuban officially jumped on the Google-News-is-evil train, calling Google a “vampire” and urging news organizations not to index their content there. Not surprisingly, this wasn’t well-received in media-futurist circles: GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, a former newspaperman himself, said Cuban and his anti-Google comrade, Rupert Murdoch, ignore the growing search traffic at news sites. Several other bloggers noted that Cuban has expressed a desire in the past to invest in other news aggregators and currently invests in Mahalo, which does some Google News-esque “sucking” of its own.

— Finally, after not carrying AP stories since December, Google struck some sort of quasi-deal that allows it to host AP content — but it’s still choosing not to do so. Search engine guru Danny Sullivan wonders what it might mean, given the AP and Google’s icy relations. Oh yeah, and Google demoed some ideas of what a Chrome OS tablet — read: iPad competitor — might look like.

What the iPad will do (and what to do with it): Commentary continued to trickle out this week about Apple’s newly announced iPad, with much of talk shifting from the device’s particulars to its implications on technology and how news organizations should develop for it.

Three most essential pieces all make similar points: Former McClatchy exec Howard Weaver likens the iPad to the newspaper in its physical simplicity and thinks it “will enrich human beings by removing technological barriers.” In incredibly thoughtful posts, software developers Steven Frank and Fraser Speirs take a programming-oriented tack, arguing that the iPad simplifies computing, bringing it home for normal (non-geek) people.

Frank compares it to an automatic transmission vs. the traditional manual one, and Speirs says it frees people from tedious tasks like “formatting the margins, installing the printer driver, uploading the document, finishing the PowerPoint slides, running the software update or reinstalling the OS” to do the real work of living life. In another interesting debate, interaction designer Sarah G. Mitchell argues that without multitasking or a camera (maybe?), the iPad is an antisocial device, and developer Edd Dumbill counters that it’s “real-life social” — made for passing around with friends and family.

Plenty of folks have ideas about what news organizations should do with the iPad: Poynter’s Bill Mitchell and news designer Joe Zeff both propose that newspapers and magazines could partially or totally subsidize iPads with subscriptions. Fortune’s Philip Elmer-DeWitt says that wouldn’t work, and Zeff gives a rebuttal. Publish2′s Ryan Sholin has an idea for a newsstand app for the iPad, and Frederic Filloux at The Monday Note has a great picture of what the iPad experience could look like by next year if news orgs act quickly.

And of course, Robert Niles of The Online Journalism Review and BusinessWeek’s Rich Jaroslovsky remind us what several others said (rightly, I think) last week: The iPad is what content producers make of it.

Facebook as a news reader: Last Friday, Facebook encouraged its users to make their own personalized news channel by creating a list of all the news outlets of which they’ve become a fan. The tech blog ReadWriteWeb — which has been remarkably perceptive on the implications of Facebook’s statements lately — noted that while a Facebook news feed couldn’t hold up to a news junkie’s RSS feed, it has the potential to become a “world-changing subscription platform” for mainstream users because of its ubiquity, sociality and accessibility. (He makes a pretty compelling case.)

Then came the numbers from Hitwise to back ReadWriteWeb up: Facebook was the No. 4 source of visits to news sites last week, behind only Google, Yahoo and MSN. It also accounts for more than double the amount of news media traffic as Google News and more than 300 times that of the web’s largest RSS program, Google Reader. ReadWriteWeb’s Marshall Kirkpatrick responded with a note that most news-site traffic still comes through search, and offered a challenge to Facebook to “encourage its giant nation of users to add subscriptions to diverse news sources to their news feeds of updates from friends and family.”

This week in (somewhat) depressing journalism statistics: Starting with the most cringe-inducing: Rick Edmonds of Poynter calculates that newspaper classified revenue is down 70 percent in the last decade. He does see one bright spot, though: Revenue from paid obituaries remains strong. Yup, people are still dying, and their families are still using the newspaper to tell people about it. In the magazine world, Advertising Age found that publishers are still reporting further declines in newsstand sales, though not as steep as last year.

In the world of web statistics, a Pew study found that blogging is steady among adults and significantly down among teens. In other words, “Blogging is for old people.” Of course, social media use was way up for both teens and adults.

A paywall step, and some suggestions: Steven Brill’s new Journalism Online paid-content service has its first newspaper, The Intelligencer Journal-Lancaster New Era in Pennsylvania. In reporting the news, The New York Times noted that the folks behind both groups were trying to lower expectations for the service. The news business expert Alan Mutter didn’t interpret the news well, concluding that “newspapers lost their last chance to hang together when it became clear yesterday that the wheels seemingly have come off Journalism Online.”

In a comically profane post, Silicon Valley veteran Dave McClure makes the strangely persuasive argument that the fundamental business model of the web is about to switch from cost-per-click ads to subscriptions and transactions, and that because people have trouble remembering passwords, they’ll login and pay through Gmail, iTunes or Facebook. (Mathew Ingram says McClure’s got a point.) Crowdfunding advocate David Cohn proposes a crowdfunded twist on micropayments at news sites.

Reading roundup: Two interesting discussions, and then three quick thought-provoking pieces. First, here at the Lab, future Minnesota j-prof Seth Lewis asks for input about what the journalism school of the future should look like, adding that he believes its core value should be adaptability. Citizen journalism pioneer Dan Gillmor gave a remarkably thorough, well-thought-out picture of his ideal j-school. His piece and Steve Buttry’s proposal in November are must-reads if you’re thinking about media education or involved in j-school.

Second, the discussion about objectivity in journalism continues to smolder several weeks after it was triggered by journalists’ behavior in Haiti. This week, two broadsides against objectivity — one by Publish2′s Paul Korr calling it pathological, and another by former foreign correspondent Chris Hedges saying it “killed the news.” Both arguments are certainly strident ones, but thoughtful and worth considering.

Finally, two interesting concepts: At the Huffington Post, MTV’s Maya Baratz calls for newspapers to think of themselves as apps, commanding them to “Be fruitful and multiply. Elsewhere.” And at the National Sports Journalism Center, former Wall Street Journal journalist Jason Fry has a sharp piece on long-form journalism, including a dirty little secret (“most of it doesn’t work in any medium”) and giving some tips to make it work anyway.

                                   
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