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Sept. 3, 2010, 10 a.m.

This Week in Review: USA Today gets a mobile makeover, Twitter and trust, and a paywall’s ad struggles

[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]

Cuts and big changes for two papers: In the past week, two American newspapers have announced major reorganizations that, depending on who you read, were either cold corporate downsizing or fresh attempts at journalism innovation. First, late last week, Gannett‘s USA Today announced that it would undergo the most sweeping change in its 28-year history, transforming “into a multi-media company” as opposed to a newspaper — and laying off 130 of its 1,500 employees in the process. The Associated Press and paidContent have pretty good explanations of what the changes entail, and thanks to the feisty Gannett Blog, we have the slide presentation Gannett execs made to USA Today’s staff.

Though there are some dots to be connected, those slides are the best illustration of what Gannett is trying to do: Push USA Today further into web content, breaking news and especially mobile content (by far its fastest-growing area) in order to justify a simultaneous move deeper into mobile and online advertising. The paper is hoping to become faster on breaking news, with a web-first mindset, fewer editors, and a strategy that focuses on flooding coverage on breaking stories and then coming back later for deeper features.

Gannett Blog’s Jim Hopkins, a longtime critic of the company, wasn’t thrilled about this move, either, pointing out the lack of newsroom experience in some of its key executives and saying that Gannett touted almost the exact same strategy four years ago, to little effect. He did say a few days later, though, that Gannett’s plans to encourage more collaboration among staffers — by flattening the “silos” of the News, Sports, Money, and Life sections — are long overdue.

News media analyst Ken Doctor was much more charitable, seeing in USA Today’s overhaul echoes of the new “digital first” mentalities at the Journal Register Co. and TBD. The best way to see this, Doctor said, is to “mark another day in which a publisher is acting on the plain truths of the marketplace and of the audiences, and trying to reinvent itself.” Newspaper Death Watch’s Paul Gillin called USA Today’s transformation a bellwether for news organizations and said its harmony between news and advertising is a bitter but necessary pill for traditionalists to swallow. And media consultant Mario Garcia said USA Today’s audience-driven approach is the key to survival in a multimedia environment.

The other newspaper to announce an overhaul was the Deseret News of Salt Lake City, a for-profit paper published by the Mormon Church. The paper is laying off 43 percent of its staff, though you wouldn’t know it from the News’ own article on the changes. In a pair of posts, Ken Doctor looked at the change in philosophy that’s accompanying the cuts — an attempt to become the worldwide Mormon newspaper of sorts, along with pro-am and local news efforts and a news-broadcast collaboration — and liked what he found. News business expert Alan Mutter examined the prospects for a slashed, print-and-broadcast newsroom and came out less optimistic.

A Twitter stunt gone awry: Twitter devotees are used to seeing untrue rumors and scoops occasionally get reported there (as Jeff Goldblum can attest), but this week may have been the first time a false Twitter report was knowingly started by a member of the traditional media as a stunt. Fed up with the more-breathless-than-usual Twitter rumor-reporting that’s been going on in the sports media this summer, Washington Post sports reporter Mike Wise decided to start a false rumor about the length of an NFL quarterback’s suspension to make a point about the unreliability of reporting on Twitter.

The stunt bombed; Wise admitted the hoax an hour later and was suspended for a month by the Post the next day. Such an ill-advised prank isn’t really news in itself, but it did spur a bit of interesting commentary on Twitter and breaking news. Numerous people argued that Wise’s hoax betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of Twitter as a news medium — one that many others probably share. Even after the episode, Wise maintained that it showed that nobody checks facts or sourcing on breaking stories on Twitter.

Quite a few observers disagreed for a variety of reasons. Barry Petchesky of Gawker’s sports blog Deadspin said the whole incident actually disproved Wise’s thesis: The false story didn’t gain much traction, and the media outlets that did report the story credited Wise until it could be confirmed independently, just the way the system is supposed to work.

But the primary objection was that, as Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan, Slate’s Tom Scocca, and several others all argued, to the extent that Wise was trusted, it was because of the credibility that people give to The Washington Post — a traditional news organization — rather than Twitter itself. As TBD’s Steve Buttry pointed out, people would have run with this story if Wise had planted it in the Post itself or on its website; what makes Twitter any different? DCist’s Aaron Morrissey put the point well: Wise falsely “assumed that there weren’t levels of authenticity to Twitter, which, just like any other social construct on Earth, features some people who are reputable concerning whatever and others who aren’t.”

Rupert’s paywall runs into obstacles: Two months after the online paywall went up at Rupert Murdoch’s Times of London, The Independent (a competitor of The Times) reported this week that with a vastly reduced audience to sell to, advertisers are fleeing the site. In the article, various British news industry analysts also said The Times is killing its online brand and not adding any of the sort of value that’s necessary to justify charging for news. Stateside, too, Lost Remote’s Steve Safran saw the news as “mounting evidence that putting up a paywall is bad for business.”

It should be noted, though, that according to those analysts, The Times’ paywall is “more about gathering consumer information than selling content” — News Corp.’s primary intent may be getting detailed, personalized information on Times readers and using it to sell them other products within its media empire, including its BSkyB satellite TV. Francois Nel ran some possible numbers and determined that even with its relatively small audience (15,000 subscribers, plus day-pass users), News Corp. could be making more money with its paywall than without.

On the other hand, a new study reported by paidContent estimated that online subscribers to The Times and Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal are worth only a quarter of their print counterparts. Getting rid of the print product, the study posited, wouldn’t even make up for the loss of income from those subscribers. The Press Gazette’s Dominic Ponsford detailed more of the research firm’s report — a rather depressing one for newspaper execs.

Google and the AP play nice: A quiet news development worth noting: Google and The Associated Press renewed their licensing agreement that allows Google (including, especially, Google News) to host AP content. The deal was announced on Google’s side via a one-paragraph post, and on the AP’s side through a short press release, and then a much more extensive article by its technology writer Michael Liedtke. The extension is significant because the two sides have had a consistently fractious relationship — their first agreement began in 2006 after the AP threatened to sue Google for aggregating its articles, AP executives have criticized news aggregators for misappropriating content, and the AP’s material briefly stopped appearing on Google News late last year.

The Lab’s Megan Garber noted that this new agreement might go beyond another truce and mark a change in the way the companies relate: “Us-versus-them becoming let’s-work-together.” Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan provided plenty of background, surmising that AP has learned its lesson that Google News can live on just fine without them.

Reading roundup: This week was an especially rich one for all sorts of web-journalism punditry. Here’s a sampling:

— The American Journalism Review’s Barb Palser tried to throw some cold water on the hyperlocal news movement, using some Pew stats to argue that people don’t go online for neighborhood news as much as we might think. (That use of statistics led to a frustrated response by Michele McLellan.) And the Online Journalism Review’s Robert Niles added his skepticism to the discussion surrounding Patch and large-scale hyperlocal news.

— NYU j-prof Jay Rosen can be a polarizing figure, but there are few media observers who are better at pulling thoughtful insights out of the often mystifying world that is journalism-in-transition. We got three particularly thought-provoking tidbits from him this week: A sharp interview with The Economist about the American press; a lecture at a French j-school about the changing dynamic between “the audience” and “the public,” with tips for new students; and a video clip from the Journal Register Co.’s ideaLab on news production and innovation.

— We spent some time this summer talking about the merits (and drawbacks) of links, so consider this a worthy addendum: Scott Rosenberg, who recently chronicled the history of blogging, issued a three-part defense of the link this week. A great examination of one of the fundamental features of the web.

— Finally, two cool reads, one practical and the other theoretical. The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal listed five lessons from the publication of Longshot, the hyperspeed-produced magazine formerly known as 48HRS, and here at the Lab, Cornell scholar Joshua Braun talked about the way TV news organizations maintain the “stage management” of broadcast in their online efforts. “They continue to control what remains backstage and what goes front-stage,” he told Megan Garber in a Q&A, giving comment moderation as one example. “That’s not unique to the news, either. But it’s an interesting preservation of the way the media’s worked for a long time.”

POSTED     Sept. 3, 2010, 10 a.m.
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