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Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

This Week in Review: An objectivity object lesson, a paywall is panned, and finding the blogger’s voice

[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]

Olbermann and objectivity: Another week, another journalist or pundit disciplined for violating a news organization’s codes against appearances of bias: This week (actually, late last week) it was Keith Olbermann, liberal anchor and commentator for the cable news channel MSNBC, suspended for donating money to Democratic congressional candidates, in violation of NBC News policy. Olbermann issued an apology (though, as Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici noted, it was laced with animus toward MSNBC), and returned to the air Tuesday. There were several pertinent peripheral bits to this story — Olbermann was reportedly suspended for his refusal to apologize on air, it’s unclear whether NBC News’ rules have actually applied to MSNBC, numerous other journalists have done just what Olbermann did — but that’s the gist of it.

By now, we’ve all figured out what happens next: Scores of commentators weighed in on the appropriateness (or lack thereof) of Olbermann’s suspension and NBC’s ban on political contributions. The primary arguments boiled down to the ones expressed by Poynter’s Bob Steele and NYU’s Jay Rosen in this Los Angeles Times piece: On one side, donating to candidates means journalists are acting as political activists, which corrodes their role as fair, independent reporters in the public interest. On the other, being transparent is a better way for journalists to establish trust with audiences than putting on a mask of objectivity.

Generally falling in the first camp are fellow MSNBC host Rachel Maddow (“We’re a news operation. The rules around here are part of how you know that.”), Northeastern j-prof Dan Kennedy (though he tempered his criticism of Olbermann in a second post), and The New York Times’ David Carr (“Why merely annotate events when you can tilt the playing field?”). The Columbia Journalism Review was somewhere in the middle, saying Olbermann shouldn’t be above the rules, but wondering if those rules need to change.

There were plenty of voices in the second camp, including the American Journalism Review’s Rem RiederMichael Kinsley at Politico, and Lehigh j-prof Jeremy Littau all arguing for transparency.

Slate media critic Jack Shafer used the flap to urge MSNBC to let Olbermann and Maddow fly free as well-reported, openly partisan shows in the vein of respected liberal and conservative political journals. Jay Rosen took the opportunity to explain his phrase “the view from nowhere,” which tweaks traditional journalism’s efforts to “advertise the viewlessness of the news producer” as a means of gaining trust. He advocates transparency instead, and Terry Heaton provided statistics showing that the majority of young adults don’t mind journalists’ bias, as long as they’re upfront about it.

On The Media’s Brooke Gladstone summed up the issue well: “Ultimately, it’s the reporting that matters, reporting that is undistorted by attempts to appear objective, reporting that calls a lie a lie right after the lie, not in a box labeled “analysis,” reporting that doesn’t distort truth by treating unequal arguments equally.”

Commodify your paywall: We talked quite a bit last week about the new numbers on the paywall at Rupert Murdoch’s Times of London, and new items in that discussion kept popping up this week. The Times released a few more details (flattering ones, naturally) about its post-paywall web audience. Among the most interesting figures is that the percentage of U.K.-based visitors to The Times’ site has more than doubled since February, rising to 75 percent. Post-paywall visitors are also visiting the website more frequently and are wealthier, according to News Corp.

Of course, the overall number of visitors is still way down, and the plan continued to draw heat. In a wide-ranging interview on Australian radio, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger expressed surprise at the fact that The Times’ print circulation dropped as their print-protectionist paywall went up. That, he said, “suggests to me that we overlook the degree to which the digital forms of our journalism act as a kind of sort of marketing device for the newspapers.” ResourceWebs’ Evan Britton gave five reasons why news paywalls won’t work, and Kachingle founder Cynthia Typaldos argued that future news paywalls will be tapping into a limited pool of people willing to pay for news on the web, squeezing each other out of the same small market.

Clay Shirky used The Times’ paywall as a basis for some smart thoughts about why newspaper paywalls don’t work in general. The Times’ paywall represents old thinking, Shirky wrote (and the standard argument against it has been around just as long), but The Times’ paywall feels differently because it’s being taken as a “referendum on the future.” Shirky said The Times is turning itself into a newsletter, without making any fundamental modifications to its product or the basic economics of the web. “Paywalls do indeed help newspapers escape commodification, but only by ejecting the readers who think of the product as a commodity. This is, invariably, most of them,” he wrote.

A conversation about blogging, voice, and ego: A singularly insightful conversation about blogging was sparked this week by Marc Ambinder, who wrote a thoughtful goodbye post at his long-running blog at The Atlantic. In it, Ambinder parsed out differences between good print journalism (ego-free, reliant on the unadorned facts for authority) and blogging (ego-intensive, requires the writer to inject himself into the narrative). With the switch from blogging to traditional reporting, Ambinder said, ”I will no longer be compelled to turn every piece of prose into a personal, conclusive argument, to try and fit it into a coherent framework that belongs to a web-based personality called ‘Marc Ambinder’ that people read because it’s ‘Marc Ambinder,’ rather than because it’s good or interesting.”

The folks at the fantastically written blog Snarkmarket used the post as a launching point for their own thoughts about the nature of blogging. Matt Thompson countered that Ambinder was reducing an incredibly diverse form into a single set of characteristics, taking particular exception to Ambinder’s ego dichotomy. Tim Carmody mused on blogging, voice, and authorship; and Robin Sloan defended Ambinder’s decision to leave the “Thunderdome of criticism” that is political blogging. If you care at all about blogging or writing for the web in general, make sure to give all four posts a thorough read.

TBD’s (possible) content/aggregation conflict: The new Washington-based local news site TBD has been very closely watched since it was launched in August, and it hit its first big bump in the road late last week, as founding general manager Jim Brady resigned in quite a surprising move. In a memo to TBD employees, TBD owner Robert Allbritton (who also launched Politico) said Brady left because of “stylistic differences” with Allbritton. Despite the falling-out, Brady, a washingtonpost.com veteran, spoke highly of where TBD is headed in an email to staff and a few tweets.

But the immediate questions centered on the nature of those differences between Allbritton and Brady. FishbowlDC reported and Business Insider’s Henry Blodget inferred from Allbritton’s memo that the conflict came down to an original-content-centric model (Allbritton) and a more aggregation-based model (Brady). Brady declared his affirmation of both pieces — he told Poynter’s Steve Myers he’s pro-original content and the conflict wasn’t old media/new media, but didn’t go into many more details — but that didn’t keep Blodget from taking the aggregation side: The web, he said, “has turned aggregation into a form of content–and a very valuable one at that.” Lost Remote’s Cory Bergman, meanwhile, noted that while creating content is expensive, Allbritton’s made the necessary investments and made it profitable before with Politico.

A new iPad app and competitor: There were two substantive pieces of tablet-related news this week: First, The Washington Post released its iPad app, accompanying its launch with a fun ad most everyone seemed to enjoy. Poynter’s Damon Kiesow wrote a quick summary of the app, which got a decent review from The Post’s Rob Pegoraro. For you design geeks, Sarah Sampsel wrote two good posts about the app design process.

The other tablet tidbit was the release of Samsung’s Galaxy Tab, which runs on Google’s Android system. Kiesow rounded up a few of the initial reviews from All Things Digital (a real iPad competitor, though the iPad is better), The New York Times (beautiful with some frustrations), Wired (more convenient than the iPad, but has stability problems) and Gizmodo (“a grab bag of neglect, good intentions and poor execution”). Kiesow also added a few initial impressions of the Galaxy’s implications for publishers, predicting that as it takes off, it will put pressure on publishers to move to HTML5 mobile websites, rather than developing native apps.

In other tablet news, MediaWeek looked at the excitement the iPad is generating within the media industry, but ESPN exec John Skipper isn’t buying the hype, telling MarketWatch’s Jon Friedman, ”Whenever a new platform comes up, people want to take the old platform and transport it to the new platform.” It didn’t work on the Internet, Skipper said, it won’t work on the iPad either.

Reading roundup: More thoughtful stuff about news and the web was written this week than most normal people have time to get to. Here’s a sample:

— First, two pieces of news: First, word broke last night that Newsweek and The Daily Beast will be undergoing a 50-50 merger, with the Beast’s Tina Brown taking over editorship of the new news org. The initial news accounts started to roll out late last night and into this morning at The New York Times, Washington Post, and NPR, who posted an interview with Brown. Obviously, this is a big, big story, and I’m sure I’ll have much more commentary on it next week.

— Second, U.S. News & World Report announced last week that it’s dropping its regular print edition and going essentially online-only, only printing single-topic special issues for newsstand sales. The best analysis on the move was at Advertising Age.

— Two great pieces on journalism’s collaborative future: Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger in essay form, and UBC j-prof Alfred Hermida in audio and slide form.

— Poynter published an essay by NYU professor Clay Shirky on “the shock of inclusion” in journalism and the obsolescence of the term “consumer.” Techdirt’s Mike Masnick added a few quick thoughts of his own.

— Two cool posts on data journalism — an overview on its rise by The Columbia Journalism Review’s Janet Paskin, and a list of great tools by Michelle Minkoff.

— Finally, two long thinkpieces on Facebook that, quite honestly, I haven’t gotten to read yet — one by Zadie Smith at The New York Review of Books, and the other by The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal. I’m going to spend some time with them this weekend, and I have a feeling you probably should, too.

Olbermann photo by Kirsten used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
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?”