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Feb. 18, 2011, 10 a.m.

This Week in Review: Paying up with Apple and Google, Twitter and activism, free labor for HuffPo

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

Apple lays down its terms: Publishers have been quite anxiously awaiting word from Apple about the particulars of its subscription plan for mobile devices, including the iPad; they got it this week, but it wasn’t what a lot of them were hoping for. The New York Times summarized publishers’ initial reaction with a few of the basic details — Apple gets a 30-percent cut, owns subscriber data (whether to send data to publishers is up to the subscriber), and publishers’ options for subscription services outside Apple are limited.

The Lab’s Josh Benton aptly laid out some of the primary implications for news organizations: Apple is setting itself up as toll-taker on the new news highway and putting a heavy incentive on converting print readers to tablet readers, but not putting restrictions on browser access within its devices. Media analyst Ken Doctor offered two astute takes on what Apple’s proposal will entail; we’ll call them glass-half-full and glass-half-empty.

Most of the reaction to Apple’s deal, however, was overwhelmingly negative. Media consultant Alan Mutter pointed out a couple of gotchas for publishers; Dan Gillmor called Apple’s policy stunningly arrogant, and the publishers that sign up for it “insane, or desperate”; ITworld’s Ryan Faas accused it of “gouging content producers”; Gizmodo’s Matt Buchanan dubbed it “evil”; developer Ryan Carson urged users to fight Apple’s  “extortion”; and the Wall Street Journal raised possible antitrust issues.

The beef that most of these critics have with Apple is not so much the 30-percent cut (though that’s part of it) as it is Apple’s restrictions on publishers’ alternative subscription methods. Apple is requiring that publishers that want to have a non-App Store subscription method can’t charge less than their Apple-sanctioned route, and can’t show app users how to access it, either. This means that, as Buchanan states, “Effectively, all easy roads to getting content on the iPad now run through Apple.” (Plus, as TechCrunch’s Erick Schonfeld noted, those terms could easily become even worse once Apple has publishers and readers hooked.)

Of course, the system looks a bit different from the consumer’s perspective — it may be the most user-friendly subscription system ever, argued MG Siegler of TechCrunch. (Publishers, of course, disagreed about that.) As GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram pointed out, this may come down to how much publishers think it’s worth to have Apple handle their mobile sales for them.

We got some mixed early signs about how publishers might answer that question. PaidContent reported on publishers who felt Apple’s terms could have been much worse, and Poynter’s Damon Kiesow talked to publishers who plan to offer multiple options. Popular Science became the first magazine to jump on board and Wired is following suit ASAP, but Time Inc. pre-emptively struck deals with Apple’s competitors, and another publishers’ group threatened to take its business elsewhere.

One Pass to rule them all?: As if to underscore that point, Google announced its own One Pass digital paid-content system the next day. Unlike Apple, Google will keep about 10 percent of publishers’ revenue and allow publishers to own their subscribers’ data, according to Advertising Age. Much of the commentary about Google’s plan positioned it in opposition to Apple’s proposal: The Wall Street Journal described it as a fired salvo at Apple; search guru John Battelle summed it up as “Hey Apple, we’ve got a better way;” Alan Mutter detailed the ways Google’s plan “trumps” Apple’s; and others from The Next Web, mocoNews, and Fast Company compared the two proposals.

But several others — particularly the Lab’s Josh Benton and Poynter’s Rick Edmonds — explained that while it might seem natural to compare Google’s system to Apple’s given the timing of their announcements, Google One Pass is focused far more on web access than app access, making the paid-content company Journalism Online a more direct competitor than Apple. Journalism Online’s Gordon Crovitz made the case to paidContent for his company over Google, highlighting its flexibility, and paidContent also noted that newspaper chain MediaGeneral is trying out both systems at different papers.

A couple of other notes on Google’s plan: TechCrunch’s MG Siegler argued that Google’s agreement to allow publishers ownership of subscribers’ data is at least as big of a deal to publishers as the revenue split, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram ripped One Pass, saying that as long as its clients’ content is on the open web without the exceptional user experience of the best apps, it’s just “a warmed-over content paywall.”

Parsing out the “social media and revolutions” debate: Despite having been declared “over” early this week by The Daily’s editor-in-chief, the protests in Egypt continued to dominate conversation, including in future-of-news circles. Via The New York Times, we got a glimpse into how Egyptian officials were able to shut down their country’s Internet and how Facebook is wrestling with its role in the protests. NPR’s Andy Carvin continued to earn plaudits (from The New York Times and PR exec Katie Delahaye), and the Lab’s Megan Garber looked at the way Carvin spontaneously launched a personalized Twitter pledge drive.

But the bulk of the discussion revolved around the same discussion that’s been on slow burn for the past few weeks: What role does social media play in social activism? Washington grad student Deen Freelon has once again produced a fantastic synopsis of what we know and what we have yet to learn in this arena, so consider this a supplement to his post.

The parade of articles arguing that Twitter doesn’t cause revolutions continued at a steady pace this week, prompting NYU j-prof Jay Rosen to profile the Twitter-debunking article as a genre, concluding that the argument  — along with the glib social media triumphalism it’s refuting — is a cheap detour around thoughtfully considering the complex issues involved in social change. Several others built on Rosen’s point: Aaron Bady delved deeper into the social media-debunking article’s function; CUNY j-profs Jeff Jarvis and C.W. Anderson focused on protecting those technological tools and opined on the difference between academic and popular discourse on cause-and-effect, respectively.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t substantive things to say about social media’s role in recent protests, of course. POLIS’ Charlie Beckett noted that newly adopted technologies (such as mobile phones) have helped create a more “networkable” power structure in the Middle East, and NDN’s Sam duPont looked at social media’s role as an organizing tool, news source, and public sphere in Egypt.

To pay or not to pay: With a few exceptions (Frederic Filloux’s short, fierce takedown of The Huffington Post as a “digital sand castle” is well worth a read), the second week of commentary on AOL’s purchase of The Huffington Post centered on the question of whether HuffPo’s thousands of unpaid contributors should start getting paychecks for their work.

At The New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight blog, Nate Silver attempted to calculate the worth of a typical HuffPo post, concluding that they follow a classic power law relationship and that most of them aren’t worth much. The New York Observer’s Ben Popper said Silver is undervaluing HuffPo’s contributors, and Gannett’s Ryan Sholin made the point that having those posts within a single platform is worth more than the posts themselves.

Most of the grist for this week’s conversation, though, came from Silver’s Times colleague, David Carr, who used HuffPo as an entree into some observations about creating online content for others for free through platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Quora. Paul Gillin of Newspaper Death Watch built on Carr and Silver’s analyses to make the case that in the face of devalued online content, demand for higher-quality material might bring us out of the basement of online pay.

Several others countered Carr with similar points: Web thinker Stowe Boyd, British j-prof Paul Bradshaw and HuffPo’s own Nico Pitney said that HuffPo bloggers have eminently legitimate non-monetary reasons for writing there; GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram pointed out that The Times’ op-ed system isn’t much different from HuffPo’s; and Jeff Jarvis said news folks should be thinking more about value than content.

Reading roundup: Some interesting bits and pieces to round out the week:

— Google unveiled the latest tool in its effort to fight content farms this week — an extension to its browser, Chrome, that allows users to block any site they choose from Google search results. TechCrunch called it “crowdsourcing” Google’s content farm detection, and Gizmodo said that it allows for the arresting possibility of “an Internet that never disagrees with you.”

— A few miscellaneous items regarding The Daily: Slate’s chairman, Jacob Weisberg, ripped it (“It’s just a bad version of a newspaper in electronic form with a very condescending view of the audience”); Scott Rosenberg wondered what’ll happen to its archives; and the publication updated its glitch-ridden app.

— A couple of great data journalism resources: Poynter’s Steve Myers broke down the difficulties in integrating data journalism into the newsroom, and ProPublica’s Dan Nguyen wrote a wonderful post encouraging journalists to get started with data analysis.

— The second blogging Carnival of Journalism, focusing on increasing the number of news sources within communities, began going up over the past day or so, so keep an eye out for those posts. I’ll have a roundup here next week.

— If you want a 30,000-foot summary of what’s happening on the leading edge of news right now, you really can’t do much better than Josh Benton’s speech to the Canadian Journalism Foundation posted here at the Lab. It’s a fantastic primer, no matter how initiated you already are.

POSTED     Feb. 18, 2011, 10 a.m.
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