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March 18, 2011, noon

This Week in Review: The Times’ pay plan unveiled, a SXSW primer, and a closer look at NPR’s foes

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

First reactions to The Times’ paid-content plans: Yesterday The New York Times rolled out the online paid-content plans they’ve been talking about for a little more than a year. You get 20 articles a month for free (besides the ones you get to through Google and social media), and after that it’s going to cost you anywhere from $15 to $35 per four weeks, depending on what devices you want to access it on. Print subscribers will get it all for free. (Yup, as the Lab’s Josh Benton and Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici pointed out, that means there are print plans with online access that are cheaper than the online-only ones.) Subscriptions will sold, among other places, in Apple’s iTunes store. Here’s The Times’ letter to readers and news article, as well as the Lab’s glimpse at the paywall and a good paidContent FAQ.

Now for the reaction and analysis: If you only have time for a few pieces, make them Ken Doctor, Steve Outing, and Felix Salmon. If you want a quick sampler platter of opinions, you can’t do any better than the Lab’s roundup of 11 experts’ thoughts.

There was no consensus of initial opinion about the plan; many supporters spoke up quickly, including The Times’ own media critic, David Carr, and The Daily Beast’s Howard Kurtz. Poynter newspaper analyst Rick Edmonds broke down the ways it met all the initial criteria of a sound paywall plan, and British j-prof Paul Bradshaw called it “the most mature, intelligent, and commercially sensible paywall model yet,” praising its respect for distribution and online engagement. At the Columbia Journalism Review, Ryan Chittum said it looked good, and Lauren Kirchner issued a rejoinder to the “information wants to be free” crowd.

The Times’ detractors were quick to speak up, too. Media analyst Steve Outing laid out most of the basic objections: The prices are too high, people will turn away when they hit the 20-article limit, and the differentiation by device doesn’t make sense. (TechCrunch’s Erick Schonfeld harped on the latter point, too.) Reuters’ Felix Salmon chimed in by saying that the price point is high enough that a lot of regular readers won’t subscribe (meaning the plan won’t bring in much revenue anyway), and that the Times is discouraging use of its iPad.

At BoingBoing, Cory Doctorow said most users will find the metering system frustrating, leading them to find other ways to read The Times or just not read it at all. Techdirt’s Mike Masnick made a similar point, adding that The Times isn’t adding any value with the plan. That was tech pioneer Dave Winer’s main beef: “They’re not offering anything to readers other than the Times’ survival, and they’re not even explicit about that.”

Plenty of commentary didn’t fall into either the “pro” or “con” camp, of course. Here at the Lab, Ken Doctor provided the definitive economic analysis of the plan, breaking down the seven tests it must pass to be successful. Then there was the issue of getting around the paywall (or, as Doctor more accurately called it, the fence): Business Insider told us how to do it via Google, and TechCrunch pontificated on the social media loophole that will develop in addition to the current Google one. Media consultant Steve Yelvington downplayed that factor: “It’s not supposed to be a bank vault, people. It’s a polite request for payment.”

Another obvious next question is whether this could be applied to other news organizations. Meranda Watling of 10,000 Words compared the plan with those of The Wall Street Journal and Newsday, but Amy Gahran of the Knight Digital Media Center gave other newspapers a stern “don’t try this at home.”

Breaking down an old debate at SXSW: Just as they do every March, geeks descended on Austin, Texas, last weekend for the South by Southwest Interactive Festival, and as usual, there was plenty of journalism-related stuff to chew on, even for those of us who didn’t attend. The session that seemed to get the most traction online was NYU professor Jay Rosen’s psychological analysis of the tension between bloggers and journalists — which is perhaps a bit surprising for a battle that Rosen himself declared “over” six years ago.

Rosen’s whole talk is worth a read, but here’s the gist of it: For journalists, bloggers are the idealized face of all the ideological and professional stresses they deal with, and for bloggers, the conflict helps keep them on the “outside” of the system, allowing them to maintain their innocence and rhetorical power. Snarkmarket’s Matt Thompson and Tim Carmody liveblogged their analysis of the talk, and The Guardian summarized it. Michele McLellan of the Knight Digital Media Center ripped blogger-hating journalists for fighting an outdated war, but Melissa Bell of the Washington Post called Rosen’s characterization of objectivity misleading.

There were plenty of other panels worth reading about, too, including NYU prof Clay Shirky’s timely talk on social media and revolution, in which he said that governments routinely overestimate our access to information and underestimate our access to each other. (The Guardian had a short summary, and Poynter’s Julie Moos put together a blow-by-blow in Storify.)

There were also a couple of panels on the value of gaming, particularly in news, as well as sessions on building trust online, using social media to evade censorship, the future of public media, iPad news apps, and SEO tips from Google and Bing. Poynter’s Steve Myers pulled together a dozen journalists for an overview of the conference in terms of building community, and an Economist blogger tied this year’s SXSW to last year’s with a sharp post questioning the story as the basic unit of journalism.

A critical eye on NPR’s antagonists: The damage to NPR from James O’Keefe’s hidden-camera exposé was already done last week, but the scrutiny of the tape itself didn’t begin in earnest until the weekend — kicked off by, of all places, Glenn Beck’s website, The Blaze. (Time’s James Poniewozik’s breakdown is also worth a read.) The site’s skepticism of the video’s editing was picked up by NPR media reporter David Folkenflik, who examined the issue in a broadcast report. NPR’s spokeswoman called the video “inappropriately edited,” but said the executive in the tape had still made “egregious statements.”

Whatever O’Keefe’s ethics, Poynter’s Steve Myers said, there’s plenty he understands about today’s media environment that we can learn from: Investigative journalism is in demand, raw media communicates “reality,” and soundbites and reducing opponents’ logic to absurdities trump context in the online media world.

Meanwhile, the House of Representatives voted yesterday to cut off NPR’s federal funding, which outraged public-media advocates like Free Press. The change in leadership at NPR prompted others to look at the health and direction of the organization overall: The New York Times’ David Carr examined NPR’s success in light of the public-funding argument, and Poynter’s Mallary Jean Tenore laid out the four biggest challenges for NPR’s next CEO. The Lab’s Nikki Usher looked overseas for public media comparisons, and the Columbia Journalism Review talked to Jonathan Holmes of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation about the public media situation there.

A snapshot of the state of journalism: Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism released its annual State of the Media report this week, summarizing last year as a good one for journalism. The big headline that most media outlets took away from the study was that for the first time, online news consumption has surpassed newspaper use. There were plenty of other nuggets from the study, though, covering a variety of news media.

The study outlined the state of the newspaper industry, touching on all the major themes from circulation to advertising to digital paid-content efforts. One of the authors of that part of the study, Poynter’s Rick Edmonds, summarized the trends he found interesting.

It also included a look at the economics of startup community journalism, with discussion of nonprofits, ad-based sites, and the Patch model. (Author Michele McLellan summarized her main points here.) The researchers also reported on a survey on mobile news use, and Amy Gahran of the Knight Digital Media Center and Damon Kiesow of Poynter highlighted some of the opportunities for news organizations in its results.

A couple of other tidbits from the study: Search Engine Land’s Vanessa Fox focused on revenue from advertising, subscriptions, and mobile apps, and j-prof Alfred Hermida pointed out the difference between the news agendas of Twitter, blogs and the mainstream media.

Twitter tells developers to hold off: Twitter made waves in the tech world late last week when they posted a note telling developers not to develop any more Twitter clients, saying they’d like to do it themselves, ostensibly for consistency’s sake. (Mashable has a great explanation of the issue.) Most of the initial reaction was not enthusiastic: Salon’s Dan Gillmor said the note was a reminder that we need other options for our online platforms that aren’t controlled by a single company, and Dave Winer said it reinforces the fact the open web is the best place to develop.

Mathew Ingram of GigaOM and developer Fred Oliveira both urged Twitter to rethink its decision, noting that third-party apps like Tweetdeck and Tweetie spurred much of Twitter’s initial growth. And ReadWriteWeb’s Marshall Kirkpatrick saw this as a hint at where Twitter is headed culturally: “If you thought Twitter was a place for outlaws, for free thinkers, for innovators – you need to tuck in your shirt, cut your hair and get a clue.”

Others, however, defended Twitter: Social media marketer Jesse Stay said he wishes Twitter had done this a while ago, and developer Rob Diana argued that Twitter has finally given developers a solid sense of direction while still giving them some freedom.

Reading roundup: A few notes to digest while your bracket goes up in flames:

— The big news story of the past week has been the earthquake, tsunami and their aftermath in Japan. There wasn’t a whole lot written about it from a media perspective, but there were a couple of insightful posts. Doc Searls looked at coverage and concluded that the web is subsuming TV and radio, and Jeff Jarvis asked for separate Twitter hashtags for breaking news event witnesses.

— A few leftover AOL/Huffington Post items: GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram looked at why AOL is desperate for some successful content initiatives, Arianna Huffington talked SEO, TechCrunch broke down the journalism/churnalism tension at AOL, and The New York Times’ Bill Keller issued a non-apology followup to his Huffington-bashing essay last week.

— A couple of stray items from the commenting discussion of the last couple of weeks: Via O’Reilly Radar, statistics showing the integration of Facebook Comments led to fewer comments at TechCrunch, and a defense of anonymous commenting from Paul O’Flaherty.

— Finally, the Lab has the transcript of an interesting talk Northwestern prof Pablo Boczkowski gave about the gap between what news consumers want and what they get, with a thoughtful response from the Lab’s Josh Benton. Enjoy.

POSTED     March 18, 2011, noon
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