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Jan. 28, 2011, 10:30 a.m.

This Week in Review: WikiLeaks’ new rivals, Ongo’s aggregation play, and Demand Media makes a splash

Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news.

Playing WikiLeaks Whack-a-Mole: Ever since WikiLeaks broke through into the public’s consciousness last summer, observers have been predicting that its functions would be replicated by other organizations, both within and outside traditional journalism. We’ve seen signs of that for a couple of months, but the movement toward leakiness got a few big boosts this week with the launch of a leak submission system by Al Jazeera and the news that The New York Times is considering one of its own.

Al Jazeera started off with the release of the Palestine Papers, and the Palestinian Authority responded by blocking the new site. The Times’ executive editor, Bill Keller, said his paper’s looking at something along the lines of Al Jazeera’s system, and a group from the CUNY Graduate School is also launching Localeaks, which allows leakers to submit leaks to any one of more than 1,400 local newspapers in the U.S. Meanwhile, WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange told the Associated Press that he’s up to 20 media partners and is hoping to triple that number in the next few months.

A couple of writers weighed in with thoughtful takes on these developments: Mathew Ingram of GigaOM suggested that leakers might still prefer WikiLeaks because it allows them freedom from relying on only one organization’s view of the documents, since WikiLeaks works with numerous competing news outlets. In a particularly insightful piece, Raffa Khatchadourian of The New Yorker expounded on the strengths and weaknesses of the traditional media alternative to WikiLeaks, focusing on the two organizations’ ties to societal conventions: “accountability limits the Times, but it also offers it protections—protections that WikiLeaks at the moment does not enjoy because, among other things, there is not enough public consensus on what it is and stands for.”

That chasm between the culture of the Times and WikiLeaks was vividly manifested this week with the Times’ publication of an essay by Keller about his paper’s dealings with WikiLeaks, painting a less-than-flattering picture of Assange. (The Daily Beast and Yahoo News have good summaries of the piece.) WikiLeaks denounced the article, and Gawker’s John Cook found Keller’s insults off-putting, especially given the service Assange has done his paper. Cook also pointed out the degree to which the Times worked with the U.S. State Department in releasing the cables, a practice that’s probably quite at odds with Assange’s theory of radical transparency.

Ongo’s paid aggregation plan: Few topics are hotter in the future-of-news world than aggregation, except perhaps for the ongoing quest to find a way to make money off of news online. So when a startup combines both, like Ongo is doing, people are going to pay attention. The service, launched this week by eBay/Skype/PayPal alum Alex Kazim, offers aggregated news from several major news outlets for fees starting at $6.99 a month. Kazim told paidContent that he’s targeting users who graze among numerous news sites and value a sharp user experience more highly than the content itself.

The instant reviews weren’t exactly enthusiastic. Mashable’s Lauren Indvik said that Ongo’s slim selection of news outlets will likely leave users getting only a fraction of their daily news via Ongo — something they may not be willing to pay for. (Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson of the Financial Times made a similar argument.) Zee Kane of The Next Web said Flipboard, Feedly and Google Reader all provide similar services, and they’re all cheaper and better. Lost Remote’s Cory Bergman compared Ongo with Hulu’s model, but noted that Hulu’s product (entertainment TV) is scarcer and more highly demanded than Ongo’s product (online news).

GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram had the harshest criticism, arguing that no one who knows how to use RSS will have any reason to use Ongo. “Ongo seems like yet another Hail Mary pass aimed at trying to rewind the clock and impose scarcity on media content, and one that will likely fail just as quickly as others have,” he wrote.

But there is one group of people who have quite a bit of faith in Ongo — newspaper executives, particularly those from The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Gannett, all of whom have invested in the company. The Times, of course, is planning an online paid-content plan of its own, which The Wall Street Journal reported it will begin rolling out next month. According to the Journal, the Times’ current plan has an iPad/web bundle costing more than twice as much as a website subscription alone, leading Reuters’ Felix Salmon to wonder why the Times seems to be planning on pushing readers away from its iPad app.

Wall Street’s warm welcome for Demand Media: Demand Media, the most prominent of the “content farms” that have drawn so much criticism over the past year or so, had an extraordinarily successful initial public offering on Wall Street this week, with first-day trading pushing its valuation to $1.5 billion Wednesday — higher than The New York Times Co. itself. That had to sting quite a bit for the Times, especially considering that, as Rafat Ali reported and The Wall Street Journal confirmed, the Times had almost bought Demand a few years back.

Demand’s trading was driven by a lot of enthusiasm — exemplified by Keith Richman at Advertising Age — about the efficiency and profitability of its business model, but its detractors are still loud, too. Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici mocked some ridiculous Demand articles and found that one was plagiarized, and The Columbia Journalism Review’s Lauren Kirchner told journalists why they should care: Demand is “a company that works every day to lower the standards of online content, that devalues the skills of reporting and writing, and that removes any incentive for original thought in exchange for quantity and speed.”

Someone else who signaled its displeasure with companies like Demand this week: Google, on whom much of Demand’s business model rests. In a blog post, Google’s Matt Cutts explained the shift in the company’s antispam efforts toward a content-farm crackdown. Lauren Kirchner called spammers “tapeworms” for Google, but at Business Insider, Ben Elowitz argued that Google and Demand have a mutual (and mutually destructive) advertising-based relationship. Demand’s Richard Rosenblatt, meanwhile, insisted that Cutts’ post wasn’t about Demand, and that the two companies have a healthy, “synergistic” relationship.

Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan imagined what a Demand Media edition of The New York Times’ website might look like, then urged news companies to both news coverage and “answers coverage” like the content farms — only a bit smarter.

Olbermann’s exit: When MSNBC pundit Keith Olbermann ended his eight-year run hosting Countdown on Friday, it wasn’t entirely unexpected — MSNBC suspended Olbermann in November for his contributions to Democratic candidates, touching off a simmering debate about objectivity and journalism. As The New York Times reported, Olbermann’s exit was weeks in the making. Though its exact cause wasn’t clear, Yahoo’s Michael Calderone threw out a few possible reasons why Olbermann might have left.

In the wake of his departure, there was a bit of talk about Olbermann’s place within the past decade of journalism: Lehigh j-prof Jeremy Littau said Olbermann’s angry voice didn’t fit the times anymore, though the Philadelphia Daily News’ Will Bunch made a similar point in a more positive vein, suggesting Olbermann left because he had accomplished his mission giving voice to the appalled journalist and citizen. And Dave Winer urged Olbermann to now go directly to his audience, using the web to circumvent the traditional he just left.

Apple’s subscription struggle: Apple’s clampdown on publishers’ hopes for subscriptions for the iPhone and iPad continues to ripple through the media world. French analyst Frederic Filloux has a fantastic breakdown of the situation, explaining why publishers (especially smaller ones) are so upset and why they could take their app development elsewhere. ReadWriteWeb’s Richard MacManus said the subscription plans would be good for consumers and publishers, but cautioned that it would put much of the business under Apple’s control.

A few individual publishers’ iPad developments: PaidContent gave us details of The Guardian’s evolving plans for an iPad app, new publisher Nomad Editions launched four tablet-only magazines, and oh yeah, apparently Rupert Murdoch’s coming out with some daily tablet-based news publication next week.

Reading roundup: A lot of big stories this week, so I’ll go light on the ephemera:

— Last week’s conversation (summarized nicely by David Cohn) about journalism education spilled over into this week. Tech pioneer Dave Winer provided this week’s big idea with a great post on educating the “journo-programmer” (published in condensed form at the Lab). Among his ideas: Teach aggregation, get away from the hackathon model, and just start doing it. PBS MediaShift profiled a innovative journalism program with which Winer is affiliated — Jay Rosen’s Studio 20 at NYU.

— On the media literacy front, Paul Bradshaw, a j-prof at City University London and Birmingham City University, wrote a fantastic guide to verifying information online, focusing on content, context, and code.

— And in case you were wondering just what the heck is going on with the web right now, uh, The Oatmeal has you more than covered.

POSTED     Jan. 28, 2011, 10:30 a.m.
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