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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: AOL’s big HuffPo buy, converging media in Egypt, and waiting on The Daily

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

AOL scoops up Arianna: The week’s biggest media story was broken just a couple of hours after the Super Bowl on Sunday, when Kara Swisher of All Things D reported that AOL would buy The Huffington Post for $315 million (here’s video of her interview with Arianna Huffington and AOL CEO Tim Armstrong). Swisher’s post and this New York Times article provide just about all the background information you should need on the deal, along with The Huffington Post’s press release and Huffington’s column on the acquisition.

The deal was seen by many as a bold one — a “fourth-quarter Hail Mary pass,” as The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta wrote — and reaction on the web (also summed up well by GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram) was decidedly mixed. The thumbs-ups came from a eclectic mix of critics: Henry Blodget of Business Insider called it a smart risk, Reuters’ Felix Salmon and All Things D’s Peter Kafka said the two companies’ needs fit each other well, with AOL getting a clear editorial voice (Salmon) and a “content-making machine” (Kafka). CUNY j-prof Jeff Jarvis said what AOL will find most valuable in HuffPo will not be content, but “a new cultural understanding of media that is built around the value of curation, the power of peers, the link economy, passion as an asset, and celebrity as a currency.”

There were also plenty of people who shook (or at least scratched) their heads at the deal, including many of HuffPo’s own readers and writers. Shira Ovide of The Wall Street Journal called it AOL’s admission that its content strategy isn’t working, and industry analyst Alan Mutter said AOL overpaid. The Guardian’s Jemima Kiss blasted the move as “soullessly commercial,” and Salon vet Scott Rosenberg contended that Huffington’s once-distinctive brand will dissolve into AOL’s bland corporatism. PaidContent’s David KaplanDan Lyons, and Om Malik of GigaOM both pointed to advertising struggles, with Malik arguing that AOL has “not yet come to terms with the futility of chasing page views.”

A few themes came up repeatedly in commentary about the two companies; one was HuffPo’s expertise in that notorious (some would say dark) art known as search engine optimization. Salon’s Alex Pareene declared the new organization “the single largest SEO-gaming operation ever created” and the LA Times’ James Rainey explained the appeal that the Post’s SEO skills bring. Slate’s Farhad Manjoo (who wins this week’s award for best lead) made the case that AOL/HuffPo’s SEO-heavy strategy is risky in the long-term because “they won’t be able to fool the computers forever.” (Capital New York’s Tom McGeveran made a similar point.) HuffPo’s new AOL corporate empire-mate, Paul Carr of TechCrunch, reaffirmed his hatred for HuffPo’s SEO tactics but said the deal could still be a good one for AOL.

The second theme was the fact that the Post doesn’t pay most of its writers, a strategy that Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times likened to “a galley rowed by slaves and commanded by pirates.” Dan Gillmor’s tone was a bit milder, but he, too, urged Huffington to start paying her most productive bloggers, and Northeastern j-prof Dan Kennedy wondered whether bloggers might be less willing to go unpaid under a mega-corporation like AOL — a sentiment HuffPo contributor Douglas Rushkoff echoed, but HuffPo reporter Jason Linkins didn’t share. Reason’s Matt Welch defended Huffington against Rutten’s charges, and Time’s James Poniewozik said it’s possible AOL/HuffPo could be signaling a move toward more expensive, quality content.

A few miscellaneous pieces of sharp commentary: GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram said AOL needs HuffPo to help its other online content initatives figure out how the Internet works, and media analyst Ken Doctor saw AOL/HuffPo as a potential free alternative to Rupert Murdoch’s steadily building paid-content empire. There were also plenty of posts about what the political viewpoint of the new organization would be, and while I haven’t waded into that discussion, I do think HuffPo reporter Peter Goodman’s manifesto on the left-right-center paradigm of journalism is well worth your time.

Changing coverage of a changing world: As the protests in Egypt have continued, so has the conversation about its media-related implications, and just as in last week, much of the talk centered on Al Jazeera. The New York Times examined the network’s influence on the protests, as well as its efforts to gain more access to American viewers. Throughout the past two weeks, as the Lab’s Justin Ellis and Twitter’s Robin Sloan pointed out, Al Jazeera has been using social media to distribute its news to American audiences. Meanwhile, Sheila Carapico at Foreign Policy argued that Al Jazeera and other TV networks can’t give us a full picture of what’s going on in Egypt.

There’s been other fantastic journalism arising from the Egyptian protests, including the work of NPR’s Andy Carvin to curate news and voices of the conflict on Twitter. In an illuminating interview with The Atlantic, Carvin argued that curation — the process of capturing the most elements of a story from various sources and passing them along — has always been a part of journalism. In a more academic piece at the Lab, USC grad student Nikki Usher explained how the protests are expanding the idea of a media event, with social media, webstreams, and the mainstream media “all working together to create a much larger, more nuanced picture of the live broadcasting of history.”

The debate over social media’s role in revolutions continued to roil, with several more writers responding to Malcolm Gladwell’s brief New Yorker post arguing that the role Twitter & Co. in social activism like the Egyptian protests is overrated. UT-Dallas prof David Parry, The Awl’s Maria Bustillos, new media exec Rex Hammock, UMBC prof Zeynep Tufekci, and web philosopher David Weinberger all weighed in with their rejoinders to Gladwell, in a discussion that Washington grad student Deen Freelon has mapped out far more expertly than I could.

Speeding up The Daily: The negative buzz around The Daily that began last week continued to pile up this week, leading to, among other things, a “We’re listening” blog post by the new “tablet newspaper.” One of the issues that drew criticism was The Daily’s long load time, as John Gruber of Daring Fireball compared it unfavorably to Flipboard, and paidContent’s Staci Kramer explained her own loading glitches. Both Gruber and Kramer argued that while it seem minor, load time is a big deal to users, and The New York Times’ Nick Bilton made a similar point: By being too slow and bulky, digital magazines like The Daily “almost defeat one of their main intended purposes, the promise of instant access to content and information.”

The reviews kept pouring in as well, led by an insightful critique of The Daily’s design by Stephen Coles at Fonts In Use. The primary criticism continued in the same vein as last week: The Daily’s content just doesn’t cut it. John Gapper of the Financial Times and Skip Ferderber of Crosscut made the point this week, and Poynter’s Damon Kiesow noted that new content is tough to find. Paul Davis of Shareable also chimed in with a criticism of The Daily’s shortcomings with limited sharing options.

But there were a few who were generally impressed with The Daily’s first week, including MinnPost’s John Dreinan and industry analyst Alan Mutter, who liked its concise storytelling, multimedia integration and interactive advertising. Damon Kiesow and The Columbia Journalism Review’s Lauren Kirchner both looked to other media efforts for lessons for The Daily — Kiesow to various other iPad apps, and Kirchner to the mid-1990s debut of Slate and Salon.

Gawker evolves the blog: We’ve been hearing about it since November, and this week Gawker officially launched its redesign, which reflects to a more magazine-style emphasis from a purer blog format. The Lab’s Megan Garber captured what the move means particularly in terms of Gawker’s advertising strategy, explaining how it’s appropriated parts of the TV and magazine models to capitalize on its brand as a whole: “It’s moved, it seems, beyond simply selling its readers to advertisers. Now, it is simply selling itself.”

Former Gawker Media contributor Latoya Peterson pointed to the outrage by Gawker blogs’ readers and used it to argue that Gawker’s new, more controlled design is subverting the fast-posting, skim-friendly style it helped make a blogging standard. Rex Sorgatz was also skeptical of the change, asserting that the redesign would have to be rolled back or reworked within months and challenging anyone to bet him otherwise — a wager that was taken up by Gawker chief Nick Denton himself, using pageviews as the determining factor.

A takeover of TBD: TBD, a online local news operation based in Washington, D.C., debuted last August to much fanfare, but it took a major hit when the Washington Post reported that its owner Robert Allbritton (who also owns Politico) would have his local TV station WJLA take it over. TBD editor-in-chief Erik Wemple told the Lab’s Megan Garber that the move wouldn’t be as bad as it appeared, but it was still widely interpreted as “a retreat from the original vision of TBD,” in the Post’s words. Jim Brady, the site’s former general manager, called it “not good news,” and NYU j-prof Jay Rosen summed it up as “the TV guys won.”

In the wake of the news, several observers expressed their frustration: Media consultant Mark Potts ripped Allbritton for not allowing the site breathing room to innovate, and media analyst Janet Coats held it up as an example of old media’s resistance to change. Terry Heaton and Lost Remote’s Cory Bergman used the episode to talk about the tensions involved when TV stations are affiliated with online media efforts.

Reading roundup: There’s still quite a bit to get to, but I’ll run through it quickly:

—  Re: Wikileaks: New York Times executive editor Bill Keller edged toward defining WikiLeaks as something a lot like journalism, The Nation’s Greg Mitchell explained why the mainstream media is skeptical of WikiLeaks, the Personal Democracy Forum’s Micah Sifry and NYU prof Clay Shirky gave some reasons for WikiLeaks’ revolutionary nature, and at The Guardian, Evgeny Morozov argued that WikiLeaks can’t continue much longer in its current form.

— Yahoo announced a move toward more personal content, particularly tablet-based. The New York Times explained why.

— At the National Sports Journalism Center, Jason Fry wrote a wonderful piece talking about how much less valuable scoops have become in a commoditized news world, and what journalists should do as a result. Craig Calcaterra of the baseball blog Hardball Talk expanded on the idea, offering a vision for the role of bloggers and reporters in a commodity-news environment.

— Two pieces to chew on this weekend, one short and one long: Dave Winer’s plea to news organizations to join their communities online, and The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik’s musings on the Internet and our interior lives.

                                   
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Mark Coddington    July 18, 2014
Plus: Debating SI’s LeBron James scoop, a warning for the newspaper industry, and the rest of the week’s media and journalism must-reads.
  • http://markandrewphotographer.com Rhode Island Wedding Photographer

    Seeing AOL buy the Huffington Post shows the complete irrelevance of AOL

  • http://www.merriamassociates.com Lisa Merriam

    Gawker’s redesign makes strategic sense as the creepy congressman story proves. Ask the haters a year from now if they would change back and then they will REALLY squawk. http://merriamassociates.com/2011/02/how-half-naked-congressman-saves-gawker-brand/