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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: J-schools as R&D labs, a big news consumption shift, and what becomes of RSS

[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]

Entrepreneurship and old-school skills in j-school: We found out in February that New York University and the New York Times would be collaborating on a news site focused on Manhattan’s East Village, and this week the site went live. Journalism.co.uk has some of the details of the project: Most of its content will be produced by NYU students in a hyperlocal journalism class, though their goal is to have half of it eventually produced by community members. NYU professor Jay Rosen, an adviser on the project, got into a few more of the site’s particulars, describing its Virtual Assignment Desk, which allows local residents to pitch stories via a new WordPress editing plugin.

Rosen’s caution that “it is going to take a while for The Local East Village to find any kind of stride” notwithstanding, the site got a few early reviews. The Village Voice’s Foster Kamer started by calling the site the Times’ “hyperlocal slave labor experiment” and concluded by officially “declaring war” on it. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, on the other hand, was encouraged by NYU’s effort to give students serious entrepreneurial skills, as opposed to just churning out “typists and videographers.”

NYU’s project was part of the discussion about the role of journalism schools this week, though. PBS’ MediaShift wrapped up an 11-post series on j-school, which included an interview with Rosen about the journalism as R&D lab and a post comparing and contrasting the tacks being taken by NYU, Jeff Jarvis’ program at the City University of New York and Columbia University. (Unlike the other two, Columbia is taking a decidedly research-oriented route.) Meanwhile, Tony Rogers, a Philadelphia-area j-prof, wrote two articles (one of them a couple of weeks ago) at About.com quoting several professors wondering whether journalism schools have moved too far toward technological skills at the expense of meat-and-potatoes journalism skills.

They weren’t the only ones: Both Teresa Schmedding of the American Copy Editors Society and Iowa State j-school director Michael Bugeja also criticized what they called a move away from the core of journalism in the country’s j-schools. “I expect to teach new hires InDesign, Quark or Twitter, MySpace, FB and how to use whatever the app of the week is, but I don’t expect to teach you what who, what, where, when, why and how means,” Schmedding wrote. TBD’s Steve Buttry countered those arguments with a post asserting that journalists need to know more about disruptive technology and what it’s doing to their future industry. “Far too many journalists and journalism school graduates know next to nothing about the business of journalism and that status quo is indefensible,” said Buttry.

A turning point in news consumption: Like most every Pew survey, the biennial study released this week by the Pew Center for the People & the Press is a veritable cornucopia of information on how people are consuming news. Tom Rosenstiel of Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism has some fascinating musings of the study’s headline finding: People aren’t necessarily ditching old platforms for news, but are augmenting them with new uses of emerging technology. Rosenstiel sees this as a turning point in news consumption, brought about by more tech-savvy news orgs, faster Internet connections, and increasing new media literacy. Several others — Mathew Ingram of GigaOM, Joe Pompeo of Business Insider, Chas Edwards of Digg — agreed that this development is a welcome one.

The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz and paidContent’s Staci Kramer have quick summaries of the study’s key statistics, and DailyFinance’s Jeff Bercovici pointed out one particularly portentous milestone: For the first time, the web has eclipsed newspapers as a news source. (But, as Collective Talent noted, we still love our TV news.) Lost Remote’s Cory Bergman took a closer look at news consumption via social media, and j-prof W. Joseph Campbell examined the other side of the coin — the people who are going without news.

The Pew Internet & American Life Project also released an interesting study this week looking at “apps culture,” which essentially didn’t exist two years ago. Beyond the Book interviewed the project’s director, Lee Rainie, about the study, and the Lab gave us five applications for news orgs from the study: Turns out news apps are popular, people will pay for apps, and they consume apps in small doses.

Did social media kill RSS and press releases?: Ask.com announced last Friday that it would shut down Bloglines, the RSS reader it bought in 2005, citing a slowdown in RSS usage as Twitter and Facebook increase their domination of real-time information flow. “The writing is on the wall,” wrote Ask’s president, Doug Leeds. PaidContent’s Joseph Tarkatoff used the news as a peg for the assertion that the RSS reader is dead, noting that traffic is down for Bloglines and Google Reader, and that Google Reader, the web’s most popular RSS reader, is being positioned as more of a social sharing site.

Tech writer Jeff Nolan agreed, arguing that RSS has value as a back-end application but not as a primary news-consumption tool: “RSS has diminishing importance because of what it doesn’t enable for the people who create content… any monetization of content, brand control, traffic funneling, and audience acquisition,” he wrote. Business Insider Henry Blodget joined in declaring RSS readers toast, blaming Twitter and Facebook for their demise. Numerous people jumped in to defend RSS, led by Dave Winer, who helped invent the tool about a decade ago. Winer argued that RSS “forms the pipes through which news flows” and suggested reinventing the technology as a real-time feed with a centralized, non-commercial subscription service.

Tech writer Robert Scoble responded that while the RSS technology might be central to the web, RSS reading behavior is dying. The future is in Twitter and Facebook, he said. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram and media consultant Terry Heaton also defended RSS, with Ingram articulating its place alongside Twitter’s real-time flow and Heaton arguing that media companies just need to realize its value as its utility spreads across the web.

RSS wasn’t the only media element declared dead this week; Advertising Age’s Simon Dumenco also announced the expiration of the press release, replaced by the “real-time spin of Facebook and Twitter. PR blogger Jeremy Pepper and j-prof Kathy Gill pushed back with cases for the press release’s continued use.

Twitter’s media-company move: Lots of interesting social media stuff this week; I’ll start with Twitter. The company began rolling out its new main-page design, which gives it a lot of the functions that its independently developed clients have. Twitter execs said the move indicated Twitter’s status as a more consumptive platform, where the bulk of the value comes from reading, rather than writing — something All Things Digital’s Peter Kafka tagged as a fundamental shift for the company: “Twitter is a media company: It gives you cool stuff to look at, you pay attention to what it shows you, and it rents out some of your attention to advertisers.”

GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram and venture capitalist David Pakman agreed, with Pakman noting that while Google, Facebook and Twitter all operate platform, users deal overwhelmingly with the company itself — something that’s very valuable for advertisers. The Lab’s Megan Garber also wrote a smart post on the effect of Twitter’s makeover on journalism and information. The new Twitter, Garber writes, moves tweets closer to news articles and inches its own status from news platform closer to a broadcast news platform. Ex-Twitter employee Alex Payne and Ingram (who must have had a busy week) took the opportunity to argue that Twitter as a platform needs to decentralize.

On to Facebook: The New Yorker released a lengthy profile of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and while not everyone was crazy about it (The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal thought it was boring and unrevealing), it gave the opportunity for one of the people quoted in it — Expert Labs director Anil Dash — to deliver his own thoughtful take on the whole Facebook/privacy debate. Dash isn’t that interested in privacy; what he is worried about is “this company advocating for a pretty radical social change to be inflicted on half a billion people without those people’s engagement, and often, effectively, without their consent.”

Elsewhere around social media and news: Mashable’s Vadim Lavrusik wrote a fantastic overview of what news organizations are beginning to do with social media, and we got closer looks at PBS NewsHour, DCist and TBD in particular.

Reading roundup: Plenty of stuff worth reading this week. Let’s get to it.

— Last week’s discussion on online traffic and metrics spilled over into this week, as the Lab’s Nikki Usher and C.W. Anderson discussed the effects of journalists’ use of web metrics and the American Journalism Review’s Paul Farhi looked at the same issue (from a more skeptical perspective). The Columbia Journalism Review’s Dean Starkman had the read of the week on the topic (or any topic, really), talking about what the constant churn of news in search of new eyeballs is doing to journalism. All of these pieces are really worth your time.

— The San Jose Mercury News reported that Apple is developing a plan for newspaper subscriptions through its App Store that would allow the company to take a 30 percent cut of all the newspaper subscriptions it sells and 40 percent of their advertising revenue. The Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum was skeptical of the report, but Ken Doctor had nine good questions on the issue while we find out whether there’s anything to it.

— Another British Rupert Murdoch paper, News of the World, is going behind a paywall in October. PaidContent was skeptical, but Paul Bradshaw said it’ll do better than Murdoch’s other newly paywalled British paper, The Times.

— The Atlantic published a very cool excerpt from a book on video games as journalism by three Georgia Tech academics. I’m guessing you’ll be hearing a lot more about this in the next couple of years.

— Rafat Ali, who founded paidContent gave a kind of depressing interview to Poynter on his exit from the news-about-the-news industry. “I think there’s just too much talk about it, and to some extent it is just an echo chamber, people talking to each other. There’s more talk about the talk than actual action.” Well, shoot, I’d better find a different hobby. (Seriously, though, he’s right — demos, not memos.)

— Finally, a wonderful web literacy tool from Scott Rosenberg: A step-by-step guide to gauge the credibility of anything on the web. Read it, save it, use it.

                                   
What to read next
Leonhardt
Caroline O'Donovan    April 23, 2014
“Is there a way to take some of the knowledge that people at The New York Times already have that ends up on the cutting room floor, and put it in front of readers?”