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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: Apple’s subscription plan, the exodus from objectivity, and startup guides galore

[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]

Is Apple giving publishers a raw deal?: The San Jose Mercury News’ report that Apple is moving toward a newspaper and magazine subscription plan via its App Store didn’t immediately generate much talk when it was published last week, but the story picked up quite a bit of steam this week. Bloomberg and The Wall Street Journal both confirmed the story over the weekend, reporting that Apple may introduce the service early next year along with a new iPad. The service, they said, will be similar to Apple’s iBook store, and Bloomberg reported that it will be separate from the App Store.

Those reports were met with near-universal skepticism — not of their accuracy, but of Apple’s motivations and trustworthiness within such a venture. Former journalist Steve Yelvington sounded the alarm most clearly: “Journalists and publishers, Apple is not your friend.” It’s a corporation, Yelvington said, and like all corporations, it will do anything — including ripping you apart — to pursue its own self-interest.

Several other observers fleshed out some of the details of Yelvington’s concern: EMarketer’s Paul Verna compared the situation to Apple’s treatment of the music industry with iTunes, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram and TechCrunch’s MG Siegler wondered whether publishers would balk at giving up data about their subscribers to Apple or at Apple’s reported plans to take a 30% share of subscription revenue. Ingram predicted that publishers would play ball with Apple, but warned that they might wind up “sitting in a corner counting their digital pennies, while Apple builds the business that they should have built themselves.” Dovetailing with their worries was another story of Apple’s control over news content on its platform, as Network World reported that Apple was threatening to remove Newsday’s iPad app over a (quite innocuous) commercial by the newspaper that Apple allegedly found offensive.

Media analyst Ken Doctor broke down publishers’ potential reactions to Apple’s initiative, looking at the plan’s appeal to them (“It offers a do-over, the chance to redraw the pay/free lines of the open web”) and their possible responses (accept, negotiate with Apple, or look into “anti-competitive inquiries”). In a post at the Lab, Doctor also took a quick look at Apple’s potential subscription revenue through this arrangement, an amount he said could be “mind-bending.”

All Things Digital’s Peter Kafka noted one indicator that publishers are in serious need of a subscription service on the iPad, pointing out that Time Inc.’s Sports Illustrated can’t pay for the designers to make its iPad app viewable in two directions because, according to its digital head, it doesn’t have the money without an iPad subscription program. Gizmodo’s Matt Buchanan used the same situation to explain why iPad subscriptions would be so critical for publishers and readers.

A coup for journalism with a point of view: It hasn’t been unusual over the past year to read about big-name journalists jumping from legacy-media organizations to web-journalism outfits, but two of those moves this week seemed to mark a tipping point for a lot of the observers of the future-of-journalism world. Both were made by The Huffington Post, as it nabbed longtime Newsweek correspondent Howard Fineman and top New York Times business writer Peter Goodman.

The Wrap’s Dylan Stableford looked at what Fineman’s departure means for Newsweek (he’s one of at least 10 Newsweek editorial staffers to leave since the magazine’s sale was announced last month), but what got most people talking was Goodman’s explanation of why he was leaving: “It’s a chance to write with a point of view,” he said. “With the dysfunctional political system, old conventional notions of fairness make it hard to tell readers directly what’s going on. This is a chance for me to explore solutions in my economic reporting.”

That kind of reporting (as opposed to, as Goodman called it, “laundering my own views” by getting someone from a thinktank to express them in an article) is exactly what many new-media folks have been advocating, and hearing someone from The New York Times express it so clearly felt to them like a turning point. The tone of centrist detachment of mainstream journalism “has become a liability in keeping newsroom talent,” declared NYU professor Jay Rosen on Twitter. Others echoed that thought: Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan extolled the virtues of being “able to call bullshit bullshit,” and former Salon editor Scott Rosenberg said legacy news orgs like The Times need to find a way to allow its reporters more freedom to voice their perspective while maintaining their standards. Salon’s Dan Gillmor agreed with Rosenberg on the centrality of human voice within journalism and noted that this exodus to new media is also a sign of those sites’ financial strength.

Former McClatchy exec Howard Weaver countered that while transparency and clear voice is preferable to traditional “objectivity,” freeing traditional journalists isn’t as simple as just spilling their biases. Advocacy journalism is not just giving an opinion, he said, it’s a “disciplined, ethical posture that tries to build truth out of evidence, regardless of the outcome.”

Getting journalism startups off the ground: If you’re interested in the journalism startup scene — for-profit or nonprofit — you got a gold mine of observations and insights this week. Over at PBS’ Idea Lab, Brad Flora, founder of the Chicago blog network Windy Citizen, examined five mistakes that kill local news blogs. Here’s how he summed his advice up: “You are not starting a blog, you are launching a small business. You are no different from the guy opening a bar up the road. … You need to know something about blogging and social media, yes, but what you really need to bone up on is what it takes to run a small business.” The post has some fantastic comments, including a great set of advice from The Batavian’s Howard Owens. On his own blog, Owens also gave some pretty thorough tips on developing advertising revenue at a local news startup.

On the nonprofit side, the Knight Citizen News Network went even deeper into startup how-to, providing a comprehensive 12-step guide to launching a nonprofit news organization. It may be the single best resource on the web for the practical work of starting a nonprofit news site. Voice of San Diego is one of the most successful examples of those sites, and its CEO, Scott Lewis told the story of his organization and the flame-out of the for-profit San Diego News Network as an example of the importance of what he calls “revenue promiscuity.”

David Cohn, founder of another nonprofit news startup, Spot.Us, also looked at six new journalism startups, leading off with Kommons, a question-answering site built around Twitter and co-founded by NYU Local founder Cody Brown. Rachel Sklar of Mediaite gave it a glowing review, describing it as “a community that seeks smart, conversation-furthering answers prompted by smart, probing questions — publicly.” She also said it sneakily lures users into giving it free content, though Brown responded that anyone who’s ever asked you to interview has been trying to do the same thing — only without giving you any control over how your words get used. (Kommons isn’t being sneaky, he said. You know you’re not getting paid going in.)

Three more future-oriented j-school programs: After last week’s discussion about the role of journalism schools in innovation, news of new j-school projects continued to roll in this week. City University of New York announced it’s expanding its graduate course in entrepreneurial journalism into the United States’ first master’s degree in that area. New-media guru Jeff Jarvis, who will direct the program, wrote that he wants CUNY to lead a movement to combine journalism and entrepreneurship skills at schools across the country.

Two nationwide news organizations are also developing new programs in partnership with j-schools: Journalism.co.uk reported that CNN is working on a mentoring initiative with journalism students called iReport University and has signed up City University London, and AOL announced that its large-scale hyperlocal project, Patch, is teaming up with 13 U.S. j-schools for a program called PatchU that will give students college credit for working on a local Patch site under the supervision of a Patch editor. Of course, using college students is a nice way to get content for cheap, something Ken Doctor noted as he also wondered what the extent of Patch’s mentoring would be.

Reading roundup: As always, there’s plenty of good stuff to get to. Here’s a quick glance:

— Former Washington Post executive editor Len Downie gave a lecture in the U.K. Wednesday night that was, for the most part, a pretty standard rundown of what the U.S. journalism ecosystem looks like from a traditional-media perspective. What got the headlines, though, was Downie’s dismissal of online aggregators as “parasites living off journalism produced by others.” Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan gave it an eye-roll, and Terry Heaton pushed back at Downie, too. Earlier in the week, media analyst Frederic Filloux broke down the differences between the good guys and bad guys in online aggregation.

— The New York Times published an interesting story on the social news site Digg and its redesign to move some power out of the hands of its cadre of “power” users. The Next Web noted that Digg’s traffic has been dropping pretty significantly, and Drury University j-prof Jonathan Groves wondered whether Digg is still relevant.

— A couple of hyperlocal tidbits: A new Missouri j-school survey found that community news site users are more satisfied with those sites than their local mainstream media counterparts, and Poynter’s Rick Edmonds posited that speed is less important than news orgs might think with hyperlocal news.

— Finally, a couple of follow-ups to Dean Starkman’s critique of the journalism “hamster wheel” last week: Here at the Lab, Nikki Usher looked at five ways newsrooms can encourage creativity despite increasing demands, and in a very smart response to Starkman, Reuters’ Felix Salmon argued that one of the biggest keys to finding meaning in an information-saturated online journalism landscape is teaching journalists to do more critical reading and curating.

                                   
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Justin Ellis    July 18, 2014
With $3.5 million in grant funding and an eye for collaboration, the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX aim to bring deep investigations to radio and podcasting.
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  • George Wedding

    FYI: Here is a comment I left at the Washington Post Web site regarding the choice between a news-industry subscription service or an Apple, Inc. subscription service:

    Will this [proposed Washington Post/New York Times/Gannet subscription service] project take as long to produce as the newspaper industry’s various news tablet projects, which still haven’t produced a viable publishing platform after years of work? In fact, the moment the Apple iPad was released, all the old projects under way instantly became obsolete.

    In my view, Old World print publishers and news executives simply don’t have the vision, graphics expertise or software engineering talent to make this happen. The industry also doesn’t have the deep pockets needed either. After all, newspaper publishers are notoriously cheap.

    Good luck with that.

    Publishing executives may not trust Apple, but consumers do. Apple’s iOS devices are incredibly elegant and convenient to use. No matter what independent solution is devised, I want the option of a reliable, Apple-operated subscription system to ensure my media operates as a cross-platform iOS App, a desktop Mac App and/or as an App for my 58-inch HDTV that will be attached to a Mac mini and AppleTV. I want my subscriptions viewable on all household devices (used by a husband, wife and kids). And I want Apple-quality design, not a daily newspaper-quality design.

    Oh, and one more thing, I’m not sure I trust the publishing industry with my account info. After all, it was magazine publishers who let fly-by-night, third-party fulfillment houses screw up magazine subscriptions for years, which in turn, led to a generation of U.S. Postal Service junk mail and poor customer service with accounts. Why should we trust the publishing industry now?