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May 28, 2010, 8:30 a.m.

This Week in Review: Facebook’s privacy tweak, old and new media’s links, and the AP’s new challenger

[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]

Facebook simplifies privacy control: After about a month of loud, sustained criticism, Facebook bowed to public pressure and instituted some changes Wednesday to users’ privacy settings. The default status of most of the data on Facebook — that is, public — hasn’t changed, but the social networking site did make it easier for users to determine and control their various privacy settings. For some social media critics, the tweaks were enough to close the book on this whole privacy brouhaha, but others weren’t so satisfied with Facebook. Here at the Lab, Megan Garber seized on the theme of “control” in Facebook’s announcement, arguing that the company is acknowledging that online sharing is as much individual and self-interested as it is communal and selfless.

Before rolling out those changes, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg penned a Washington Post op-ed that served as a defense of Facebook’s privacy policy masquerading as an apology. “If we give people control over what they share, they will want to share more. If people share more, the world will become more open and connected,” he wrote. The reaction was swift and negative: It was called “long on propaganda and short on news,” “disingenuous” and “missing the point” by several media and tech critics.

Their comments were part of continued attacks on Facebook’s privacy stance that began to shift from “Facebook is evil” to “So what do we do now?” Facebook’s new, more private rivals escalated their efforts to provide an alternative, while social media researcher danah boyd argued that leaving Facebook would be futile and instead urged users to “challenge Facebook to live up to a higher standard.” Several legal and web thinkers also discussed whether the government should regulate Facebook’s privacy policies, and the Harvard Business Review’s Bruce Nussbaum made the case that Facebook has alienated the generational principles of its primary user base of millennials. (Mathew Ingram of GigaOm disagreed.)

But amid all that, Facebook — or at least the sharing of personal information — got another defender: The prominent tech thinker Steven Johnson. In a thoughtful essay for Time, he used the example of media critic Jeff Jarvis’ public bout with prostate cancer to argue that living in public has its virtues, too. “We have to learn how to break with that most elemental of parental commandments: Don’t talk to strangers,” Johnson wrote. “It turns out that strangers have a lot to give us that’s worthwhile, and we to them.” Of course, Johnson argues, being public or private is for the first time a decision, and it requires a new kind of literacy to go with it.

Paywalls and the links between old and new media: The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism released a study examining the way several big news topics were discussed across several online news platforms, and as usual, it’s a whole lot of discoveries to sift through. Among the headlines that Pew pointed out in its summary: Twitter users share more technology news than other platforms, the traditional press may be underemphasizing international news, blogs and the press have different news agendas, and Twitter is less tied to traditional media than blogs. (Mashable has another good roundup, focusing on the differences between the traditional media and the blogosphere.)

The study did take some heat online: TBD’s Steve Buttry took issue with the assertion that most original reporting comes from traditional journalists, and the Knight Digital Media Center’s Amy Gahran dug into the study’s methodology and argued that Pew selected from a list of blogs predisposed to discuss what the traditional media is reporting, and that Pew’s definition of news is shaped by circular reasoning.

Gahran was looking at what turned out to be the most attention-grabbing statistic from the study: That 99 percent of the stories blogs link to are produced by the mainstream media, and more than 80 percent come from just four news outlets — the BBC, CNN, The New York Times and the Washington Post. DailyFinance media columnist Jeff Bercovici used that statistic to caution that the Times may be giving up a valuable place as one of the top drivers of online news discussion by implementing its paywall next year, while The Big Money’s Marion Maneker countered that bloggers’ links don’t equal influence, and the Times is more interested in revenue anyway. Reuters’ Felix Salmon echoed that warning, adding that if the Times is truly keeping the doors to its site open to bloggers, it should be trumpeting that as loudly as possible. And wouldn’t you know it — the next day the Times did just that, reiterating that links to their site from blogs won’t count against the limit of free visits.

Meanwhile, Rupert Murdoch’s British newspaper the Times and Sunday Times unveiled plans for its soon-to-be-erected paywall, including the fact that all of the sites’ articles will be blocked from all search engines. The Times and New York Times’ paywalls were almost tailor-made for being contrasted, and that’s exactly what the Lab’s Jason Fry did, using them as examples of an open vs. closed paradigm regarding paid content.

A challenger to the AP’s model: We found out about a fascinating news innovation this week at the TechCrunch Disrupt Conference, where the online news sharing company Publish2 revealed News Exchange, its new content-sharing service for publishers. Essentially, News Exchange is a way for media outlets, both online-only and traditional, to send and receive stories to each other for publication while retaining control of what they share and with whom.

If that sounds like a free, open version of The Associated Press, it’s because that’s exactly what Publish2 sees it as. At the conference, Publish2’s Scott Karp came out against The Associated Press with both guns blazing, calling it “a big enemy of newspapers” and “an obsolete, inefficient monopoly ripe for destruction.” Publish2’s goal, he said, is to “Craigslist the AP.” (In a blog post, Publish2’s Ryan Sholin went into some more detail about why and how; in a Mashable post, Vadim Lavrusik looked closer at how the service will work and what it’s missing right now.)

Publish2’s bold idea was met with mixed reactions among both the tech and media crowds: A few of TechCrunch’s panelists wondered whether print publications were worth building a business around, but they were impressed enough to advance it to the final round of the conference’s startup competition anyhow. NYU j-prof Jay Rosen called it “an extension into print of ‘do what you do best and link to the rest,'” and CUNY j-prof C.W. Anderson said he was thrilled to watch Publish2 take on an irrational system but concerned that the tangle of CMS’s could trip it up. But media consultant Mark Potts noted that much of what the AP transmits is news it reports and produces, something Publish2 isn’t going to try to do. It’s rare that we see such a bold, explicit attempt to take down such an established news organization, so this will doubtless be a project to keep a close eye on.

A disappointing iPad app and an open-web debate: A couple of iPad-related developments and debates this week: While publishers cautiously awaited the iPad’s international release this week, Wired magazine released its iPad app this week — an eagerly awaited app in tech circles. The app is $5 per month, significantly more than the $10 per year that the magazine charges subscribers. Gizmodo Australia’s John Herrman called it “unequivocally, the best magazine for the iPad,” but still wasn’t entirely impressed. It’s too expensive, takes up too much space, and doesn’t deliver the reinvention of the magazine that we were expecting, he said. Lost Remote’s Steve Safran was harsher — calling it a magazine dropped into an app. “Simply taking your existing magazine and sticking in some video does not make it a more attractive offering; it makes it a website from 2003,” he said.

The New York Times Magazine’s Virginia Heffernan ruffled a few feathers this week with a short essay on “The Death of the Open Web,” in which she compared the move into the carefully controlled environs of Apple’s products like the iPhone and iPad to white flight. Web writers Stowe Boyd and Tim Maly refuted Heffernan’s argument, pointing primarily to the iPhone and iPad’s browser and arguing that it keeps the door open to virtually everything the web has to offer. And blogging pioneer Dave Winer said the phrase “death of the open web” is rendered meaningless by the fact that it can’t be verified. In a final quick iPad note, the journalism and programming site Hacks/Hackers hosted a conference in which attendees built an impressive 12 iPad apps in 30 hours.

Reading roundup: This week, we’ve got two news items and a handful of other thoughtful or helpful pieces to take a look at.

— The Bay Citizen, a nonprofit local news site based in San Francisco, launched this week. The San Francisco Bay Guardian took a look at the challenges in front of the Bay Citizen, Poynter used it as a lens to view four trends among news startups, and the Chicago Reader examined the Chicago News Cooperative, another nonprofit news startup that also provides stories to The New York Times. The Lab’s Laura McGann also gave some tips for launching a news site the right way.

— Forbes bought the personal publishing site True/Slant, whose founder, Lewis Dvorkin, is a former Forbes staffer. Dvorkin explained his decision to sell, and Felix Salmon expressed his skepticism about True/Slant’s future.

— Longtime journalists Tom Foremski and Caitlin Kelly both wrote thoughtful posts on what happens when pageviews become a high priority within news organizations. They’re not optimistic.

— Two pieces to bookmark for future reference: Mashable has a thorough but digestible overview of five ways to make money off of news online, and TBD’s Steve Buttry gives some fantastic tips for landing a job in digital journalism.

— Finally, NewsCred’s Shafqat Islam has a wonderful guide to creating effective topic pages for news. This one should be a must-read for any news org looking seriously at context-driven news online.

POSTED     May 28, 2010, 8:30 a.m.
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