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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: The Times’ changing of the guard, the news article’s future, and PBS is attacked

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

The Times’ new top dog: There’s no question what the top story is this week: For the first time in eight years, the U.S.’ most prominent news organization, The New York Times, will have a new executive editor. And for the first time ever, that editor will be a woman. The Times announced yesterday that Bill Keller will be stepping down from the job to be a columnist, and managing editor Jill Abramson will move into the top spot, with former Los Angeles Times editor Dean Baquet taking her current position. To hear the Daily Beast’s Howard Kurtz tell it, the timing of the move was a surprise, but Abramson’s appointment was not.

So who is Jill Abramson, and what does her appointment mean for the future of digital news at the Times? This New York magazine profile from last year and Adweek backgrounder give a good basic picture — she’s a former Wall Street Journal investigative reporter who’s been at the Times for 14 years, came up through the Washington bureau, and is known as a blunt, critical editor.

As for her webbiness, the Lab’s Joshua Benton looked briefly through her history to find signs of a generally positive attitude toward digital media (she spent five months immersing herself in the Times’ digital side last year). Poynter found some 2010 quotes in which Abramson was pro-multiplatform news and anti-citizen journalism. Abramson also talked to Ad Age about breaking down a print-based newsroom publishing culture and about her commitment to the Times’ paywall.

We also learned that Abramson doesn’t plan to continue Keller’s feud with Arianna Huffington, and has a “fervent belief” in narrative nonfiction writing. And she got the seal of approval from former Times social media editor Jennifer Preston, who tweeted: “For all of you wondering about Jill Abramson and the Web? Jill gets it. And she’s fearless. We’re lucky.”

Then, of course, there’s Keller. In various interviews, he talked about why he left now — because he wanted to hand the job off when things were going well, and he wanted to make sure the paywall was instituted and the newsroom integrated first. (New York’s Gabriel Sherman gave a more behind-the-scenes account, with the news that the Times’ media reporters told Keller they weren’t happy about his anti-new media columns.)

He also said the job switched from being mostly about journalism to being mostly about business, and talked about how brutal it was to go through the recession at the Times. The American Journalism Review’s Rem Rieder praised his ability to keep the Times in relatively good shape through such a tough stretch, and Emily Bell, formerly of the Guardian, said he presided over an impressive run for Times digital journalism.

As for what’s next, Reuters’ Felix Salmon said one of Abramson’s primary tasks will be making the Times a more transparent place, and Abramson told Howard Kurtz that one of her top priorities will be keeping top talent from leaving for places like the Huffington Post. Poynter’s Jill Geisler said her promotion could help push other newsrooms to move women into positions of leadership.

How necessary is the news article?: This week’s most interesting discussion grew out of last week’s devastating tornado in Joplin, Missouri — specifically, New York Times writer Brian Stelter’s reporting of the story from Joplin on Twitter. On his blog, Stelter gave a blow-by-blow of his reporting there, concluding, “I think my best reporting was on Twitter.” GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram praised Stelter’s work as evidence that the Times is becoming more open to the open web, and Rowan j-prof Mark Berkey-Gerard talked about why it made a great example for journalism students.

CUNY j-prof Jeff Jarvis used Stelter’s Twitter reporting to argue that the article is no longer the core journalistic product, but a byproduct of the journalistic process. “When digital comes first and print last, then the article is something you need to put together to fill the paper; it’s not the goal of the entire process,” he wrote. “The process is the goal of the process: keeping the public constantly informed.”

The Sacramento Press’ Ben Ilfeld took the point further, calling the article an “antiquated by product not of good journalism, but a quickly fading era.” And Jonathan Glick of Sulia said the article is being divorced into quick, mobile-friendly news nuggets and analytical, long-form journalism.

Mathew Ingram tweaked Jarvis’ argument, saying that while Twitter is critical in the reporting process, it hardly renders articles unnecessary. (Jarvis responded by asserting that Ingram was mischaracterizing his argument.) South Carolina j-prof Doug Fisher tried to reconcile the two positions, pointing out that what journalists call a news “story” isn’t really one: Instead, it’s a “factoid exposition that tries to impose structure on often unstructured events.” And Jarvis looked for a different name for “long-form journalism” — something that doesn’t imply that length equals intelligence.

Hackers target PBS: When various corporations and government entities tightened the screws on WikiLeaks last December, the loose online activism collective Anonymous descended on those groups’ sites with a series of attacks. This week, a different online group turned their attacks toward a news organization for the first time in defense of WikiLeaks. The new group, which calls itself LulzSec, hacked the PBS website last weekend in response to a Frontline documentary on WikiLeaks, publishing thousands of passwords and posting a fake story on the PBS homepage about Tupac being found alive. Then, a couple of days later, LulzSec hacked PBS’ site again.

PBS NewsHour found ways to get their news out without their website, posting to Tumblr and talking to viewers on Facebook. Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman used the opportunity to provide a helpful list of tips for news organizations on preparing for a potential hack.

One of LulzSec’s members talked to Parmy Olson of Forbes about the attack, saying that while they certainly weren’t pleased by the documentary, their primary goal was entertainment. That’s not how it was seen at PBS, though. The New York Times’ Brian Stelter reported that the attacks were perceived at PBS as “attempts to chill independent journalism.” “This is what repressive governments do,” Frontline executive producer David Fanning told him. “This is what people who don’t want information out in the world do — they try to shut the presses.” NewsHour reporter Judy Woodruff expressed a similar sentiment in a column on PBS’ (since restored) site.

An iPad dissenter: Magazine publishers have been among the most eager media organizations to jump onto the iPad, but one publisher, Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner, pushed back against that enthusiasm this week. Wenner said tablet editions aren’t particularly useful for magazine readers, and not cost-effective for publishers, either. It’ll be a generation or two before the shift from to tablets is decisive, he said. Wenner advised publishers to be attuned to changes in technology, but cautioned that “to rush to throw away your magazine business and move it on the iPad is just sheer insanity and insecurity and fear.”

Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici ridiculed Wenner’s statements, recounting his history of web aversion and the way it’s hurt his magazine. Advertising Age’s Nat Ives, who conducted the Wenner interview, pointed out elsewhere that magazine readers’ demographics aren’t exactly improving.

Elsewhere in the world of the iPad: Fox News and the San Francisco Chronicle launched their apps, the New York Times offered a steep iPad discount for some people already getting free web subscriptions, and Nomad Editions is working on at least seven more new iPad-based magazines. But a Nielsen Norman Group study found that many iPad app designers are confusing users by requiring gestures that are too subtle, resulting in apps that can be tougher to use than the organization’s own website.

Web filters and broadening our horizons: One other thought-provoking conversation worth noting: It started last week with a New York Times column by MoveOn.org’s Eli Pariser, who argued that while the modern digital media environment has broken down the old system of traditional-media gatekeepers, it’s set up a new set of gatekeepers in its place — not people this time, but code.

Cory Doctorow of BoingBoing reviewed the book on which Pariser’s column was based, and while he agreed with some of Pariser’s premises, he countered that Pariser underestimates the power of our personally controlled filtering devices to put a check on some of the online manipulation he describes. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, on the other hand, argued that our problem is not having too many filters, but not having enough. Information overload, he said, is a greater danger right now than hyper-personalization.

At Snarkmarket, Tim Carmody said that what Pariser’s concerned about is not so much narrowing of opinions as narrowing of interests. That’s a new-media incarnation of an old problem, he said, and the web has the ability to help solve it too: “we’re often unaware of what’s happening in the next room, where there is frequently plenty of useful stuff that we could port into our own special areas of interest. We need to make sure we’re taking advantage of the web’s built-in ability to move laterally.”

Reading roundup: A few smaller items to keep an eye on this week:

— A couple of leftovers from the discussion on Twitter over the past few weeks: The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal on Twitter’s oral culture, media consultant Frederic Filloux on why Bill Keller’s criticism of Twitter (and Twitter for itself, for that matter) doesn’t carry much weight, and the Lab’s Megan Garber with a fantastic post on why discourse on Twitter is so difficult to classify.

— Two pieces with some great tips on engagement: Mallary Jean Tenore of Poynter with some doable steps for journalists, and the Journal Register Co.’s Steve Buttry with advice on local engagement on Twitter.

— Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt always makes headlines when he gives public interviews like he did at the All Things Digital conference this week, and the Lab’s Joshua Benton focused on one aspect that could be of particular interest to news organizations: Google’s efforts to answer your questions before you even get to the search stage.

— Two great pieces to leave you with: The always-thoughtful Jonathan Stray threw out a few ideas on developing collaborative systems for investigative journalism, and Toronto Star vet Judy Sims shared a speech she gave with nine principles for newspapers to follow to adapt to the abundant-media era.

                                   
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