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April 15, 2011, 10 a.m.

This Week in Review: HuffPo sued over pay, early NYT pay plan results, and finding devotion on Facebook

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

Are HuffPo bloggers being exploited?: Arianna Huffington spent last week axing many of AOL’s paid writers, and this week she heard from a few of the unpaid ones in the form of a class-action lawsuit filed by Huffington Post bloggers, led by longtime HuffPo blogger Jonathan Tasini. The Washington Post explained Tasini’s claims that HuffPo had breached its contract with bloggers by failing to come through the “implied promise” of compensation, and that it was “unjustly enriched” by the unpaid bloggers’ contributions.  PaidContent, meanwhile, said this suit isn’t much like Tasini’s earlier suit against The New York Times.

Reaction to the suit online was virtually universal: Most everyone agreed that this suit is a non-starter. Huffington herself did the best job of bringing together the various suit slams, arguing, like many of them, that the exposure that HuffPo provides is plenty of compensation for its bloggers: “People blog on HuffPost for free for the same reason they go on cable TV shows every night for free: either because they are passionate about their ideas or because they have something to promote and want exposure to large and multiple audiences.”

Many of the critiques of the suit make similar points, so I’ll just hit the highlights. Mike Masnick of TechDirt put the sharpest point on it: “You, of your own free will, agree to contribute work for free. Then, you file a lawsuit complaining that this is depressing the market for your work? And you expect anyone to take you seriously?” Business Insider’s Glynnis MacNicol and Slate’s Jack Shafer also made the argument well, with MacNicol speaking from experience as a HuffPo blogger and Shafer noting that Tasini was happy with his arrangement until he saw some money could be had. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram compared blogging for HuffPo to writing open-source software, and Gawker’s John Cook noted that Tasini doesn’t pay bloggers at his own site.

Others extended Tasini’s logic to more absurd conclusions: Conservative legal blogger Eugene Volokh said if Tasini were right, he’d be exploiting his commenters, and CUNY j-prof Jeff Jarvis extended the same analogy to Wikipedians and Little League coaches. PR professional Simon Owens saw a dangerous precedent for other sites with free contributors. John Bethune of B2B Memes wrote, tongue-in-cheek, that perhaps Huffington owes all of us some money for making her site valuable by reading it over the years.

Still, Huffington’s way obviously isn’t the only one: Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici talked to the New York Times about why they pay their (non-public figure) op-ed contributors. And a few other notes about Huffington’s ongoing AOL revamp — Advertising Age’s Michael Learmonth on AOL’s new aggregation-heavy strategy, Patch is hiring as the new model is extended to its sites, and Bercovici’s account of the grievances of the newly laid-off “freelancers.”

Some unclear data on the Times’ pay plan: It’s only been a couple of weeks since the New York Times put up its metered pay system, but we got our first glimpse at its effect on the Times’ traffic this week with some numbers from Heather Dougherty at Hitwise. Compared with the 12 days before the system went into place, the Times’ unique visitors down between 5% and 15% per day and its page views down 11% to 30%. PaidContent’s Joseph Tarkatoff has a few good bits of analysis of the figures.

Those numbers fell in that ambiguous no man’s land between success and failure, allowing both supporters and skeptics of the plan to claim them as confirmation. Nate Silver of the Times’ FiveThirtyEight called the data “very promising” if it holds, and Business Insider’s Noah Davis noted that the Times’ dropoff was smaller than Gawker’s post-redesign decline. On the other side, Mathew Ingram of GigaOM said that 15% is a high number of its readers for the Times to lose, suggesting that even the threat of a paywall has been enough to deter them from visiting. Likewise, Mike Masnick of Techdirt called it “an awful lot of potential ad revenue lost.”

Others were less willing to make pronouncements: VentureBeat’s Anthony Ha called the change “only natural” but said it could be dangerous if it continues. Both he and Chris O’Shea of FishbowlNY said it’s too early to determine anything meaningful yet, though. Media analyst Ken Doctor, meanwhile, took a closer look at the Times’ subscription sponsorship deal with the carmaker Lincoln.

Elsewhere in the world of online news paywalls, paidContent’s Robert Andrews reported on the UK government’s ongoing efforts to make walled-off material available for free through libraries, and Mashable’s Meghan Peters explored the ways paywalls are affecting news orgs’ social media strategies.

Identifying devoted fans through Facebook: Facebook launched a new “Journalists on Facebook” page last week and is hiring Mashable’s Vadim Lavrusik to work with journalists as part of an effort to draw attention to its possible utility for news organizations. Josh Constine of Inside Facebook argued this week that while the journalism world seems to be particularly enamored with Twitter right now, Facebook’s richer content options could pay off more in the long run, though they might require more effort than Twitter does.

The New Yorker tried out one of those Facebook-centric strategies in a novel way this week by making a Jonathan Franzen story available online only to people who “liked” Conde Nast on Facebook. The magazine’s spokeswoman, Alexa Cassanos, told Poynter’s Damon Kiesow the “like-wall” was not an effort to boost its Facebook fan count, but to find people who are fans of long-form journalism on a deeper level. Rather than a pile of casually interested fans, Cassanos said, “We would much rather have a few thousand fans who really enjoy the content and stick with it.”

On the Twitter side of things, former CEO Evan Williams wrote a thoughtful post trying to untangle the thicket of online identity by organizing it into a framework of categories he developed with Twitter CTO Greg Pass: Authentication, representation, communication, personalization, and reputation. (I should note that while the framework was developed at Twitter, it was thought up with the whole web in mind.) Tech conference organizer Eric Norlin tweaked Williams’ categories and suggested breaking it down by the specificity with which things are associated with us.

Web thinker Stowe Boyd, meanwhile, critiqued it as being too tools- or marketing-centric while ignoring the more philosophical aspects of online identity, like publicy and context. Mathew Ingram of GigaOM concurred with him, saying that a transactional idea of identity misses the larger, messier aspects of how we define ourselves online, offering the failure of Google Buzz as an example.

Reading roundup: Lots of little bits and pieces this week to go with our continued fixation on AOL and the New York Times. Here’s a quick tour:

— I’m a bit surprised it didn’t generate more buzz, but WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange made his first public appearance since his December arrest last weekend, defending WikiLeaks’ accountability at a British debate, and taking questions via Skype at a UC-Berkeley conference.

— A couple of interesting items regarding linking: Reuters’ Anthony DeRosa wondered why traditional media orgs don’t link out more, and USC’s Robert Niles talked to Maryland j-prof Ronald Yaros about a study he led that found that explanatory links work best in news stories — provided they’re placed inside explanatory text.

— According to Poynter’s Damon Kiesow, we got a surprising entry in the iPad news app field this week: Bing.

— Finally, two thoughtful pieces — one from British journalist Kevin Anderson on the need to rethink what exactly newspapers do, and an interview by the Lab’s C.W. Anderson with the Reuters Institute’s David Levy and Danish j-prof Rasmus Kleis Nielsen on the need to take the future-of-news conversation beyond the U.S.

POSTED     April 15, 2011, 10 a.m.
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