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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

This Week in Review: The Times’ blogs behind the wall, paid news on the iPad, and a new local news co-op

[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 meter for the Times’ blogs: Plenty of stuff happened at the intersection of journalism and new media this week, and for whatever reason, a lot of it had something to do with The New York Times. We’ll start with the most in-depth piece of information from the Times itself: A 35-minute Q&A session with the three executives most responsible for the Times’ coming paywall (or, more specifically and as they prefer to call it, a metered model) at last Friday’s paidContent 2010 conference. No bombshells were dropped — paidContent has a short summary to go with the video — but it did provide the best glimpse yet into the Times’ thinking behind and approach to their paywall plans.

The Times execs said they believe the paper can maintain its reach despite the meter while adding another valuable source of revenue. Meghan Keane of Econsultancy was skeptical about those plans, saying that the metered model could turn the Times into a niche newspaper.

Reuters’ Felix Salmon started one of the more perplexing exchanges of the session (starting at about 18:10 on the video) when he asked whether the Times would put blogs behind its paywall. The initial response, from publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., was “stay tuned,” followed shortly, from digital chief Martin Nisenholtz, by “our intention is to keep blogs behind the wall.” A Times spokeswoman clarified the statements later (yes, blogs would be part of the metered model), and Salmon blogged about his concern with the Times’ execs’ response. He was not the only one who thought this might not be a good idea.

My take: Salmon has some valid concerns, and, piggybacking off of the ideas he wrote after the paywall’s initial announcement, even the Times’ most regular online readers will be quite hesitant to use their limited meter counts on, say, two-paragraph blog posts on the economics of valet parking. Times blogs like Freakonomics and Bits are a huge part of their cachet on the web, and including them in the meter could do them significant damage.

The iPad and paid content: We also saw another aspect of the Times’ paid-content plans at a conference in Australia, where Marc Frons, the paper’s chief technology officer, talked about the Times’ in-progress iPad app. Frederic Filloux, another one of the conference’s speakers, provided a useful summary of publishers’ attitudes and concerns about creating apps for the iPad, including their expectation that Apple will provide some sort of news store built on the iTunes framework.

Two media vets offered a word of caution to news organizations excited about the iPad’s possibilities for gaining revenue for news: Kara Swisher of The Wall Street Journal’s All Things Digital blog said that “with their hands on none of the key technology and innovation levers online … media giants continue to be without even a pair sticks to rub together to make digital fire.” And citizen journalism pioneer Dan Gillmor wondered whether news orgs “should get in bed with a company that makes unilateral and non-transparent decisions” like the ones Apple’s been making for years.

For those following the future of paid news content, we have a few other new data points to consider: The stats-heavy sports publication The Sporting News will begin charging for its daily digital edition, and a small daily newspaper in Washington State says the first year of their paywall has been a tentative success, with less effect on traffic than expected. Also, Alistair Bruce of Microsoft has a thorough breakdown of who’s charging for what online in a slideshow posted last week. It’s a wonderful resource you’ll want to keep for future reference.

NYT, NYU team up on local journalism: The Times also had one of the week’s big future-of-journalism announcements — a partnership with New York University to create and run a news site devoted to New York’s East Village, where NYU has several buildings. NYU professor Jay Rosen has all the details you’ll need, including who’s providing what. (NYT: publishing platform, editorial oversight, data sources, inspiration. NYU: editor’s salary, student and faculty labor, offices.)

The partnership raised a few media-critic eyebrows, mostly over the issue of the Times using free (to them, at least) student labor after buying out and laying off 100 paid reporters. The Awl, BNETThe New York Observer, and Econsultancy all have short but acerbic reactions making just that point, with The Awl making a quick note about the professionalization of journalism and BNET speculating about the profit margins the Times will make off of this project.

Innocence, objectivity and reality in journalism: Jay Rosen kicked off some conversation in another corner of the future-of-journalism discussion this week, bringing his influential PressThink blog out of a 10-month hiatus with a post on a theme he’s been pushing hard on Twitter over the past year: Political journalists’ efforts to appear innocent in their reporting at the expense of the truth.

Rosen seizes on a line in a lengthy Times Tea Party feature on “a narrative of impending tyranny” and wonders why the Times wouldn’t tell us whether that narrative was grounded in reality. Journalistic behavior like this, Rosen says, is grounded in the desire to appear innocent, “meaning a determination not to be implicated, enlisted, or seen by the public as involved.” That drive for innocence leads savviness to supplant reality in political journalism, Rosen said.

The argument’s been made before, by Rosen and others such as James Fallows, and Joey Baker sums it up well in a post building off of Rosen’s. But Rosen’s post drew a bit of criticism — in his comments, from the left (Mother Jones), from the libertarian right (Reason), and from tech blogger Stephen Baker. The general strain running through these responses was the idea that the Times’ readers are smart enough to determine the veracity of the claims being made in the article. (Rosen calls that a dodge.) The whole discussion is a fresh, thoughtful iteration of the long-running debate over objectivity in news coverage.

Where do reporting and aggregation fit?: We got some particularly valuable data and discussion on one of journalism’s central conversations right now — how reporting will work in a new ecosystem of news. Here at the Lab, Jonathan Stray examined how that new landscape looked in one story about charges of Chinese schools’ connections to hacks into Google. He has a fairly thorough summary of the results, headlined by the finding that just 13 of the 121 versions of the story on Google News involved original reporting. “When I think of how much human effort when into re-writing those hundred other unique stories that contained no original reporting, I cringe,” Stray writes. “That’s a huge amount of journalistic effort that could have gone into reporting other deserving stories. Why are we doing this?”

Also at the Lab, CUNY professor C.W. Anderson spun off of Stray’s study with his own musings on the definition and meaning of original reporting and aggregation. He concludes that aggregation/curation/filtering isn’t quite original reporting, but it does provide journalistic value that should be taken into consideration.

Two other interesting pieces on the related subjects of citizen journalism and hyperlocal journalism: PR/tech blogger Darren Barefoot raises concerns about citizen journalism’s ability to do investigative journalism, and J-Lab’s Jan Schaffer makes a strong case for the importance of entrepreneurs and citizen journalists in the new system of news.

Reading roundup: I’ve got two news developments and two thoughtful pieces for you. First, BusinessWeek reported on AOL’s efforts to build “the newsroom of the future,” a model largely driven by traffic and advertising data, not unlike the controversial Demand Media model, only with full-time journalists.

Editors Weblog raises some questions about such an openly traffic-driven setup, and media/tech watcher Tom Foremski says AOL should be focusing on creating smart news analysis. Social media guru Chris Brogan likes the arrangement, noting that there’s a difference between journalism and publishing.

The second news item is ABC News’ announcement that they’re looking to cut 300 to 400 of its 1,400 positions and move toward a more streamlined operation built around “one-man band” digital journalists. The best examinations of what this means for ABC and TV journalism are at the Los Angeles Times and the Poynter Institute.

The first thoughtful piece is theoretical: CUNY professor Jeff Jarvis’ overview of the evolution of the media’s “spheres of discovery,” from brands to algorithms to human links to predictive creation. It’s a good big-picture look at where new media stand and where they might be going.

The second is more practical: In a Q&A, Howard Owens of the award-winning upstate New York hyperlocal startup The Batavian gives an illuminating glimpse into life in hyperlocal journalism. He touches on everything from advertising to work hours to digital equipment. Building off of Owens’ comments of the personal nature of online news, Jason Fry muses about the uphill battle that news faces to win our attention online. But if that battle is won, Fry says, the loyalty and engagement is so much greater online: “I chose this. I’m investing in it. This doesn’t work and wastes my investment — next. This does work and rewards my investment — I’m staying.”

                                   
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Justin Ellis    April 23, 2014
“It feels like it’s a really nourishing and optimistic time to have conversations with publishers and to rethink how media should look online.”