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A conversation with David Rose, little magazine veteran and publisher of Lapham’s Quarterly
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March 4, 2011, 11 a.m.

This Week in Review: Google’s content farm crackdown, Facebook’s new comments, more TBD lessons

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

Google’s surgical strike against content farms: Two weeks after launching its site-blocking Chrome extension, Google made the central move in its fight against content farms by changing its algorithm to de-emphasize them in search results. The New York Times put the change in context, explaining the content farm phenomenon and its connection to Google. Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan explained that Google is saying the changes only affect “scrapers” (sites that pull content from other sources), but that they’re actually aimed at content farms, too. And GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram talked about why Google may be reluctant to publicly target content farms — because they run a lot of Google advertising.

A few early returns were good: TechCrunch approved of the change, and The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal ran a test search comparing the old and new algorithms, finding that the information from the new one was “much, much better.” Demand Media, the most prominent of the content farms, said it wasn’t affected overall by the new formula, though, as Henry Blodget of Business Insider noted, it’s probably trying to wean itself off of Google reliance anyway.

In fact, it appears Demand Media is telling the truth: Aaron Hall of SEO Book used Sistrix’s data to point out that many of Demand Media’s competitors were among the sites hardest hit by the change, while one of Demand’s largest brands, eHow, actually got a boost. Hall implies that politics have played a role, and while there’s nothing concrete suggesting that, the way the changes spared eHow does seem…odd.

There’s also bound to be plenty of collateral damage from the algorithmic shift, and Wired looked at one Mac blog that’s been nailed by the new formula (its Googlejuice was restored after Wired talked to Google about it). Danny Sullivan reported that Google hasn’t made any significant changes to its new algorithm since rolling it out last week, though there are outlets to contact Google if you feel your site has been unfairly hurt.

Elsewhere in the conversation about search, Columbia Journalism Review’s Karen Stabiner gave an overview of the debate about search engine optimization: The anti-SEO crowd, led by the Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten, worries that the SEO mindset will privilege the powerful and eventually kill off creativity in favor of numbingly literal language. The SEO evangelists, on the other hand, say it’s just encouraging honesty and straightforwardness, something it’s difficult to object to.

Facebook extends comments’ reach: Facebook continued its integration with media content across the web this week with the launch of an updated comments system. Essentially, users can simultaneously post their comments on both a site and on Facebook, with subsequent comments under that thread posted to the site straight from Facebook. PBS MediaShift’s Mark Glaser talked to Facebook’s Justin Osofsky about the ins and outs of the new system, and ReadWriteWeb noted that it has fewer features than the commenting update Facebook previewed last fall.

TechCrunch’s Erick Schonfeld identified the two aspects of the updated system that will be most attractive to publishers. First, it requires commenters to use their real names, thus theoretically cutting down on trolls and spammers (this part, of course, has been available to publishers through Facebook commenting for a while). Second — and this is the new one — it extends the reach of a post, spreading into more Facebook news feeds and making it easier for more people to join in the conversation. This particularly excited Lehigh j-prof Jeremy Littau, who said it could create “a virtuous circle between community and content sharing.”

There are downsides as well, and while media analyst Alan Mutter was optimistic about the social potential of the new system, he also pointed out that it will give Facebook even more information about its users, which it won’t be sharing with publishers. As GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram noted, it’s the same tradeoff publishers have been dealing with regarding Facebook for several years now: Does the value of tapping into Facebook’s social potential outweigh the price of handing over commenting to a notoriously controlling company?

TBD’s lessons — more startup, less ad reliance: TBD in its original form may have died last week, but the six-month-old Washington local news site continued to stimulate conversation this week. Its station posted an ad for a new manager to head the site, and TBD’s former manager, Jim Brady, talked with Columbia Journalism Review about the site’s model, framing the conflict there as not TV vs. web, but startup vs. legacy: “I think if we could do TBD with a pure startup mentality, and if we could fund it more with a V.C. or an angel kind of way, and if we didn’t have the legacy side to work with, then I think it would actually have a better chance to succeed.”

Others posited similar reasons for TBD’s demise: Web journalist Jane Stevens talked about a few causes centered on a lack of corporate commitment, and in The Guardian Emily Bell pinpointed TBD’s inability to have its own ad sales team (an explanation with which Brady concurred).

The debate over hyperlocal journalism, stirred by Alan Mutter last week, continued to simmer, with Robert Washburn of The Canadian Journalism Project defending it and Paul Gillin of Newspaper Death Watch saying we need to look at non-advertising-based business models for it, a point media consultant Dan Conover also made in more in-depth form at Xark. Ohio j-prof Bill Reader, meanwhile, said TBD failed because it didn’t define its community well enough, but TBDer Steve Buttry objected to that argument.

Amid all the analyses of what went wrong at TBD, Mandy Jenkins, the social media producer there, took stock of what went right, noting four things other news orgs can take away from its tenure: organizational openness, self-promotion, opening info beyond the newsroom, and hiring for mindset over pedigree.

iPad, part deux: Apple made a few headlines by launching iPad 2, which is apparently kind of like the iPad, only it’s the second edition. I’ll entrust you to the care of Techmeme for all the details about the product itself and focus instead on what it means for publishers and the larger world of media. The Lab’s Joshua Benton pointed out two implications in particular — the mounting evidence of an e-book explosion and the iPad’s increasing usefulness for reporting.

Damon Kiesow of Poynter examined the latter point in some detail, looking at the iPad 2’s specs from a content creation perspective. And Cory Bergman of Lost Remote looked at the device’s increased video capability and predicted that it would help fuel a surge in multi-platform video consumption and production.

Elsewhere in mobile media, tech blogger John Gruber defended Apple’s app subscription program by breaking down the arguments against it one by one. The Lab’s Joshua Benton said that while Apple obviously isn’t a charity and the financial difficulties of publishers aren’t its problem, the arrangement still isn’t ideal. Both posts are among the sharpest takes on the issue I’ve read, so they’re worth taking time to read through.

Reading roundup: What to read this weekend while firming up South by Southwest plans:

— In non-commenting Facebook news, Mashable’s Vadim Lavrusik put together a great overview of the varied role of Facebook in journalism. And in non-Facebook commenting news, Los Angeles Times media reporter James Rainey made the case for requiring commenters to use their real names, while Mediaite’s Alex Alvarez defended anonymous commenting.

— Here at the Lab, Lois Beckett wrote two fascinating posts based on a talk by The New York Times’ Gerry Marzorati — one on the future of long-form journalism, and the other on the Times’ planned paywall. Two other thought-provoking pieces published here this week: One by Joshua Benton on language and viral content, and another by three data journalists on news organizations creating value out of the trust placed in them.

— Amy Gahran wrote three awesome primers on mobile media — one on mobile apps, another on the current mobile landscape,  and one on mobile media and PR.

— Knight fellow Jeremy Adam Smith shared results from a survey on how meaningful journalism is being funded. It’s a gold mine of statistics and information about the state of the journalism ecosystem.

— It’s a pretty well-worn discussion, but Frederic Filloux’s analysis of why incremental change isn’t enough to rescue the newspaper industry is as succinct a summary of the current situation as I’ve seen. Even if you’ve heard it all, his piece is a good refresher.

POSTED     March 4, 2011, 11 a.m.
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A conversation with David Rose, little magazine veteran and publisher of Lapham’s Quarterly
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