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Nov. 19, 2010, 10 a.m.

This Week in Review: The future of NewsBeast, Facebook Messages, and Yahoo doubles down on content

[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]

An unpopular marriage: As I briefly noted in last week’s review, the big story this week was, not surprisingly, Newsweek‘s merger with Tina Brown and Barry Diller’s website The Daily Beast. The New York Observer, which broke the story, had most of the newsy details — merged websites under The Daily Beast, unspecified layoffs to come, etc. — as well as the story of how the deal went down.

The Daily Beast’s own Howard Kurtz had some notes on what the new organization would look like, led by Brown’s assertion that whatever the new Newsweek will be, it won’t be the newsmagazine format. As The New York Times’ Evelyn Rusli observed, the key asset in this deal may not be either property but instead Brown, one of the U.S.’ most prominent magazine editors. The Wall Street Journal had more notes on Brown, and Slate’s Jack Shafer dished out some advice for her.

Just about the only media figure who voiced any sort of excitement about the deal was Arianna Huffington; most other responses ranged from indifference to revulsion. The New York Times’ David Carr laid his derision on thick, saying the deal “marries two properties that have almost nothing in common other than the fact that they both lose lots of money.” NYU professor Clay Shirky called it a farcical reprise of the AOL-Time Warner bomb. TechCrunch’s Erick Schonfeld warned the two companies not to combine their brands (and it appears they won’t, except online).

The Wall Street Journal summed up the doubters’ concerns well with a list of four reasons for concern: Joint ventures are tough, media joint ventures are tougher, it’s headed by strong-willed personalities, and it’s a merger of two companies that are losing money. The last point gained the most traction, building on media reports (which Scott Rosenberg questioned) that have Newsweek on pace to lose $20 million this year and The Daily Beast on track to lose $10 million (though it was supposedly expected to turn a profit within two years). Business Insider’s Henry Blodget joined the Journal in wondering how they’d make money together, and Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici asked a good question: If your media venture is on track to profitability, why would you want to tie yourself to a business that’s gone nowhere but down?

There were a couple of possible answers: First, as The New York Times reported, the Beast’s Diller has developed a sudden affinity for print publications. Also, Mediaite’s Colby Hall noted that with as much content as the Beast produces, Newsweek’s costs could drop pretty quickly, and Advertising Age said advertisers could be attracted by simple novelty of the new organization.

The other big piece of the deal is the fact that it will likely mean the death of Newsweek.com, despite the fact that has a far larger audience than The Daily Beast. The website’s staff members are nervously awaiting their fate, but in the meantime took to Tumblr to mount a defense of Newsweek.com, praising its work while saying it has “always remained an ugly stepchild to its print grandparents, who were too busy burning money to notice.” Former Newsweek.com staffer Mark Coatney chimed in, wondering what would happen to Newsweek’s SEO and content deals without its own site. Reuters’ Felix Salmon also agreed, saying the shutdown only makes sense as a power grab by Brown. But Advertising Age and GigaOM defended the move, saying the Beast’s traffic is more valuable than Newsweek’s.

Don’t call it an email killer: Facebook made a big announcement this week, unveiling its new quasi-email, quasi-chat message system, Facebook Messages. (Want to know what it looks like? Search Engine Land has you covered.) The message we heard repeatedly from Facebook was that Messages is not a rival to email services like Google’s Gmail. And why was that? Well, because it spent most of the weekend being hyped as a “Gmail killer.” And the reason it’s such a threat to email, said Charlene Li and ReadWriteWeb, is precisely because it’s a lot more than email: It’s the convergence of chat, email and text messaging; archived communications by friend; and a “social inbox.” The gadget blog Gizmodo said we’ll be giving up traditional email for it because we’re all already using Facebook’s interface and because it should be able to sort what’s important from what’s not.

But another Gawker blog, Lifehacker, said we shouldn’t give up email for Facebook Messages, because it’s meant to work with email, not like email. In addition, anything you say there can’t be moved elsewhere. Others were also skeptical, for a variety of reasons: Silicon Alley Insider’s Matt Rosoff and the Houston Chronicle Dwight Silverman said this isn’t unified communications, but just another way to get hardcore users to spend more time on Facebook. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram argued that many people won’t use it as an email supplement if it doesn’t connect to their existing email accounts. The Guardian talked to an analyst who said Facebook can’t handle the task of using all of its data to optimize social messaging. Then there’s the privacy issue: Salon’s Dan Gillmor said we should be uncomfortable about putting all of our communications into the hands of a single company, especially Facebook.

There were three other thoughtful perspectives on what Facebook Messages means that stood out: Om Malik of GigaOM saw Messages as a critical step for Facebook in helping us stay in touch with our most intimate friends, as opposed to the more distant “second-order” friends it’s been specializing in. And though he was off about the shape Messages would take, Nick O’Neill of All Facebook aptly placed Messages within a long-running battle between Facebook and Google for online authority.

Finally, in a post at the Lab, Ken Doctor called for news organizations to embrace the philosophy behind Facebook Messages: “It’s about simplification, about interconnection, about consolidation.” Meanwhile, in other much-less-covered email-related news: AOL announced it’s relaunching its own email service, a story TechCrunch rather comically broke last Friday.

Yahoo goes deeper into original content: Yahoo dived deeper into the original-content pool this week with two moves: First, it added three new blogs to its seven-month-old The Upshot, building a network of originally reported news blogs. The new sites will focus on politics, national news, and media. CNN noted that the new group is being headed by a veteran of Talking Points Memo and quoted Yahoo News head Mark Walker as describing it as Yahoo’s biggest original-content push yet: “Pure aggregation will only get you so far, even if you’re really good at it.”

Yahoo also completed its integration of Associated Content, the content farm it bought in May, by relaunching it as the Yahoo Contributor Network. Through the network, Yahoo plans to post at least 2,000 articles of search engine-friendly content a day, paying its 400,000 contributors a small fee upfront, followed by bonused based on pageviews. Kara Swisher of All Things Digital was skeptical of the plan.

Some eye-opening iPad stats: We got a few more pieces of data on iPad use in the past week, including some quick, interesting stats from The Wall Street Journal showing that iPad use jumps in the evening, while computer use drops. (Smartphone is relatively steady throughout the day.) This seems to correlate with what many have suspected about the iPad — that it’s being used as more of a leisure device than phones or computers.

Business Insider had quite a few more fascinating stats from its survey of iPad owners, finding, among other things, that most iPad owners are using their iPads more than when they first got the device, 30% are using it as their primary computer, they’re spending as much time with it as they are their laptops, and about equal numbers of people use the browser and apps to read news. Poynter’s Damon Kiesow isn’t reading much into the data, but he did find it surprising that about a third are reading news primarily on apps, considering how few news orgs have them out right now. That’s good news for major media outlets, he said, though it doesn’t mean much for the little guys.

Meanwhile, News Corp.’s James Murdoch said he thinks news apps for mobile devices like the iPad cannibalize newspaper sales, something Reuters’ Felix Salmon wasn’t sure about, and Poynter’s Kiesow wasn’t buying without seeing some data. News Corp., by the way, is reported to be close to launching its much-talked-about tablet news publication, and The Economist dropped its own iPad app this week.

Google News’ crediting experiment: One cool little story worth highlighting: Google News announced it’s introducing two tags for articles that will help indicate which articles were the first to report a story and which articles are essentially the same story on different sites. It’s an experiment, as the Lab’s Megan Garber noted, in finding out how willing news organizations are to give online credit where credit is due. As Search Engine Land’s Matt McGee pointed out, they’re based on the honor system, so there’s nothing to stop spammers (or legit news organizations) from misusing the tags. CUNY j-prof C.W. Anderson wondered if the tags might provide some new research opportunities for scholars.

Reading roundup: Here’s everything else worth taking a look at before you hit the weekend:

— Over at the National Sports Journalism Center, Jason Fry has written a wonderful column on the importance of the link to sports journalism, and it goes for all journalism as well. Elsewhere, Terry Heaton wrote about the value of the link in online advertising, a notion The Batavian’s Howard Owens took issue with.

— A few paid-content tidbits: Connecticut’s Valley Independent Sentinel is the latest local newspaper to make use of Journalism Online’s Press+ paid-content system, The Times of London is partnering with a mobile broadband provider for a free-access offer at its website, and two new-media companies are working on an online news “EZ Pass.”

— A couple pieces from last week I missed: Mashable’s Vadim Lavrusik and Eastern Illinois j-prof Bryan Murley both urged j-schools to push some more boundaries in their teaching of news and technology.

— Weekly fuel for the pessimists among us: Poynter’s Rick Edmonds on the signs that newspapers are still failing financially, and the nonprofit news site The Washington Independent announced it’s closing up shop.

— And in the food-for-thought category: Jonathan Stray on the real value of social news, and CUNY j-prof C.W. Anderson at the Lab on journalism and online community. “We can’t will authentic community into being. It sort of sneaks up on us. And just as quickly — as soon as we turn our heads — it’s gone.”

POSTED     Nov. 19, 2010, 10 a.m.
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