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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: Hard news’ online value, a small but successful paywall, and the war on WikiLeaks

[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]

The value of hard news online: Perfect Market, a company that works on monetizing news online, released a study this week detailing the value of this summer’s most valuable stories. The study included an interesting finding: The fluffy, celebrity-driven stories that generate so much traffic for news sites are actually less valuable to advertisers than relevant hard news. The key to this finding, The New York Times reported, is that news stories that actually affect people are easier to sell contextual advertising around — and that kind of advertising is much more valuable than standard banner ads.

As Advertising Age pointed out, a lot of this goes back to keyword ads and particularly Google AdSense; a lot of, say, mortgage lenders and immigration lawyers are doing keyword advertising, and they want to advertise around subjects that deal with those issues. In other words, stories that actually mean something to readers are likely to mean something to advertisers too.

But the relationship isn’t quite that simple, said GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram. Advertisers don’t just want to advertise on pages about serious subjects; they want to advertise on pages about serious subjects that are getting loads of pageviews — and you get those pageviews by also writing about the Lindsey Lohans of the world. SEOmoz’s Rand Fishkin had a few lingering questions about the study, and the Lab’s Megan Garber took the study as a cue that news organizations need to work harder on “making their ads contextually relevant to their content.”

The Times Co.’s paywall surprise: The New York Times Co. released its third-quarter earnings statement (your summary: print down, digital up, overall meh), and the Awl’s Choire Sicha put together a telling graph that shows how The Times has scaled down its operation while maintaining at least a small profit. Digital advertising now accounts for more than a quarter of The Times’ advertising revenue, which has to be an relatively encouraging sign for the company.

Times Co. CEO Janet Robinson talked briefly and vaguely about the company’s paid-content efforts, led by The Times’ own planned paywall and the Boston Globe’s two-site plan. But what made a few headlines was the fact that the company’s small Massachusetts paper, The Telegram & Gazette, actually saw its number of unique visitors increase after installing a paywall in August. Peter Kafka of All Things Digital checked the numbers out with comScore and offered a few possible reasons for the bump (maybe a few Google- or Facebook-friendly stories, or a seasonal traffic boost).

The Next Web’s Chad Catacchio pushed back against Kafka’s amazement, pointing out that the website remains free to print subscribers, which, he says, probably make up the majority of the people interested in visiting the site of a fairly small community paper like that one. Catacchio called the Times Co.’s touting of the paper’s numbers a tactic to counter the skepticism about The Times’ paywall, when in reality, he said, “this is completely apples and oranges.”

WikiLeaks vs. the world: The international leaking organization WikiLeaks has kept a relatively low profile since it dropped 92,000 pages of documents on the war in Afghanistan in July, but Spencer Ackerman wrote at Wired that WikiLeaks is getting ready to release as many as 400,000 pages of documents on the Iraq War as soon as next week, as two other Wired reporters looked at WikiLeaks’ internal conflict and the ongoing “scheduled maintenance” of its site. WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange responded by blasting Wired via Twitter, and Wired issued a defense.

One of the primary criticisms of WikiLeaks after their Afghanistan release was that they were putting the lives of American informants and intelligence agents at risk by revealing some of their identities. But late last week, we found out about an August memo by Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledging that no U.S. intelligence sources were compromised by the July leak. Salon’s Glenn Greenwald documented the numerous times government officials and others in the media asserted exactly the opposite.

Greenwald asserted that part of the reason for the government’s rhetoric is its fear of damage that could be caused by WikiLeaks future leaks, and sure enough, it’s already urging news organizations not to publish information from WikiLeaks’ Iraq documents. At The Link, Nadim Kobeissi wrote an interesting account of the battle over WikiLeaks so far, characterizing it as a struggle between the free, open ethos of the web and the highly structured, hierarchical nature of the U.S. government. “No nation has ever fought, or even imagined, a war with a nation that has no homeland and a people with no identity,” Kobeissi said.

Third-party plans at Yahoo and snafus at Facebook: An interesting development that didn’t get a whole lot of press this week: The Wall Street Journal reported that Yahoo will soon launch Y Connect, a tool like Facebook Connect that will put widgets on sites across the web that allow users to log in and interact at the sites under their Yahoo ID. PaidContent’s Joseph Tarkatoff noted that Y Connect’s success will depend largely on who it can convince to participate (The Huffington Post is in so far).

The Wall Street Journal also reported another story about social media and third parties this week that got quite a bit more play, when it revealed that many of the most popular apps on Facebook are transmitting identifying information to advertisers without users’ knowledge. Search Engine Land’s Barry Schwartz found the juxtaposition of the two stories funny, and while the tech world was abuzz, Michael Arrington of TechCrunch gave the report the “Move on, nothing to see here” treatment.

An unplanned jump from NPR to Fox News: Another week, another prominent member of the news media fired for foot-in-mouth remarks: NPR commentator Juan Williams lost his job for saying on Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor that he gets nervous when he sees Muslims in traditional dress on airplanes. Within 24 hours of being fired, though, Williams had a full-time gig (and a pay raise) at Fox News. Williams has gotten into hot water with NPR before for statements he’s made on Fox News, which led some to conclude that this was more about Fox News than that particular statement.

NPR CEO Vivian Schiller explained why Williams was booted (he engaged in non-fact-based punditry and expressed views he wouldn’t express on NPR as a journalist, she said), but, of course, not everybody was pleased with the decision or its rationale. (Here’s Williams’ own take on the situation, and a blow-by-blow of the whole thing from NPR.) Much of the discussion was pretty politically oriented — New York’s Daily Intel has a pretty good summary of the various perspectives — but there were several who weren’t pleased with the firing along media-related lines, including the American Journalism Review’s Rem Rieder, The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg and the Columbia Journalism Review’s Joel Meares. NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard disapproved not of the firing per se, but of the way it went down, and The New York Times’ Brian Stelter also used the episode as an object lesson in the differences between traditional and point-of-view journalism.

Two other media critics, Will Bunch of the Philadelphia Daily News and James Rainey of the Lost Angeles Times, both criticized the firing on the grounds that NPR has imposed too strict of a standard for a journalist — and especially for someone paid to express his opinion. Bunch wrote a thoughtful post on NPR retreating into the “dank temple of objectivity,” and Rainey wondered how this standard would be enforced: “How does one distinguish between the permissible ‘fact-based analysis’ and the currently verboten ‘punditry and speculation?’”

Newsweek and The Daily Beast’s deal dies: With rumors swirling of a merger between Newsweek and the online aggregator The Daily Beast, we were all ready to start calling the magazine TinaWeek or NewsBeast last weekend. But by Tuesday, The Wall Street Journal had reported that the talks were off. There were some conflicting reports about who broke off talks; the Beast’s Tina Brown said she got cold feet, but new Newsweek owner Sidney Harman said both parties backed off. (Turns out it was former GE exec Jack Welch, an adviser on the negotiations, who threw ice water on the thing.)

Business Insider’s Joe Pompeo gave word of continued staff shuffling, and Zeke Turner of The New York Observer reported on the frosty relations between Newsweek staffers and Harman, as well as their disappointment that Brown wouldn’t be coming to “just blow it up.” The Wrap’s Dylan Stableford wondered what Newsweek’s succession plan for the 92-year-old Harman is. If Newsweek does fall apart, Slate media critic Jack Shafer said, that wouldn’t be good news for its chief competitor, Time.

Reading roundup: We’ve got several larger stories that would have been standalone items in a less busy week, so we’ll start with those.

— As Gawker first reported, The Huffington Post folded its year-old Investigative Fund into the Center for Public Integrity, the deans of nonprofit investigative journalism. As Gawker pointed out, a lot of the fund’s problems likely stemmed from the fact that it was having trouble getting its nonprofit tax status because it was only able to supply stories to its own site. The Knight Foundation, which recently gave the fund $1.7 million, handed it an additional $250,000 to complete the merger.

— Nielsen released a study on iPad users with several interesting findings, including that books, TV and movies are popular content on it compared with the iPhone; nearly half of tablet owners describe themselves as early adopters; and one-third of iPad owners have not downloaded an app. Also in tablet news, News Corp. delayed its iPad news aggregation app plans, and publishers might be worried about selling ads on a smaller set of tablet screens than the iPad.

— From the so-depressing-but-we-can’t-stop-watching department: The Tribune Co.’s woes continue to snowball, with innovation chief Lee Abrams resigning late last week and CEO Randy Michaels set to resign late this week. Abrams issued a lengthy self-defense, and Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass defended his paper, too.

— J-prof Jay Rosen proposed what he calls the “100 percent solution”  — innovating in news trying to cover 100 percent of something. Paul Bradshaw liked the idea and began to build on it.

— It’s not a new debate at all, but it’s an interesting rehashing nonetheless: Jeff Novich called Ground Report and citizen journalism useless tools that can never do what real journalism does. Megan Taylor and Spot.Us’ David Cohn disagreed, strongly.

— Finally, former Los Angeles Times intern Michelle Minkoff wrote a great post about the data projects she worked on there and need to collaborate around news as data. As TBD’s Steve Buttry wrote, “Each of the 5 W’s could just as easily be a field in a database. … Databases give news content more lasting value, by providing context and relationships.”

                                   
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Ben Smith says it will be a guide through the noise of news in social media, and that journalists should realize they’re “part of a collaborative project with other news outlets.”