Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news.
Murdoch’s damage-control efforts: As News Corp.’s hacking scandal continues to metastasize, it can be difficult to keep up with all the background, angles, and implications. The best one-stop source is Mallary Jean Tenore’s explainer for Poynter, and I’ll try to update you on all the developments of the past week.
The big event came on Tuesday, when Rupert Murdoch, his son James, and his former British chief Rebekah Brooks answered questions from Parliament about the scandal. The Guardian gave a great, quick rundown of what happened there, and the general theme was Murdoch’s professed lack of knowledge of the illegal activity at his News of the World tabloid. That’s what the Daily Beast’s Howard Kurtz took away from it, and Slate’s Jack Shafer noted that while the Murdochs kept playing the victim card, they wouldn’t say who exactly victimized them. That was all part of a calculated PR and legal defense, outlined by Nick Davies of the Guardian.
While many people obviously found the idea of a blissfully ignorant Murdoch family hard to believe, Reuters’ Felix Salmon said their strategy was effective enough. Still, the scandal has led to some probing questions about the culture that the Murdochs have created at News Corp. The New York Times’ David Carr documented a history of illegal and anticompetitive behavior in the company’s American arm, and Poynter’s Steve Myers called this a corporate corruption story in the Enron vein. In the Guardian, NYU prof Jay Rosen asserted that “News Corp is not a news company at all, but a global media empire that employs its newspapers — and in the US, Fox News — as a lobbying arm.”
The episode also has implications beyond News Corp. itself: Media consultant Alan Mutter said it weakens the already damaged trust Americans have in the media, and the New York Times reported that media consolidation opponents are hoping it provides an opportunity to re-examine the problems in modern media ownership. Here at the Lab, Ken Doctor wrote about why media concentration could be an issue on the rise in the U.S., and the Online Journalism Review’s Robert Niles said that’s why he’s rooting for News Corp. to fail.
So what’s next for News Corp.? The long-term future of both Rupert and James Murdoch at the company was in question this week, though Rupert assured Parliament he’d be sticking around. Felix Salmon speculated that the whole company could be in play if things go sour, and CUNY j-prof Jeff Jarvis looked at one possible scenario resulting in a News Corp. news and publishing sell-off. Ken Doctor, meanwhile, said News Corp. might end up becoming a more American company as a result of the scandal.
Murdoch still has his defenders, though the most vocal of them at this point (aside from the New York Observer) are media outlets owned by Murdoch himself. Perhaps the most full-throated of those defenses came in the Wall Street Journal, which ran numerous opinion pieces, including one equating the hacking with WikiLeaks and an editorial lashing out at Murdoch’s critics. PaidContent’s Staci Kramer said the Journal would have been better off spiking the editorial, and the Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum argued that the Journal’s characterization of investigative reporting as ideologically motivated tells us a lot about the “intellectual bankruptcy” of the Journal’s editorial page itself.
Even before the editorial, the New York Times’ Joe Nocera said the whole paper had been “Fox-ified” — turned shallow and ideological — by Murdoch’s influence. Ryan Chittum countered that the paper has declined under Murdoch, but it’s far from hopeless, and Journal staffers also defended themselves against the “Foxification” charge. Meanwhile, a Pew study found that the actual Fox News Channel is covering the scandal far less than its rivals, and the Guardian continued to earn praise for its coverage of the story, with editor Alan Rusbridger describing in Newsweek how they did it.
Should nonprofit news be more objective?: Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism released a study this week examining the growing group of nonprofit news organizations, evaluating them specifically for ideological nature and transparency. The study found that of the several dozen new nonprofit sites covering state and national news it looked at, about half are clearly ideological. Poynter’s Rick Edmonds wrote a good, quick summary, noting in particular that several of the most ideological sites offered no clue to their orientation in their names, and that the most productive sites tended to be the least ideological ones.
The Lab’s Joshua Benton inferred the study’s implicit message — the new nonprofit news isn’t objective, can’t be fully trusted, and especially not to replace newspapers. Benton pushed back against those conclusions, arguing that the new sites aren’t meant to replace newspapers, and that their lack of objectivity doesn’t keep them from being useful to society.
The Columbia Journalism Review’s Greg Marx was a bit more pointed in his response, picking apart some of its examples and particularly the implicit conclusion that Benton identified: “The PEJ report is suffused throughout with a sense that it’s the obligation of the new non-profits to reincarnate as best they can the status quo ante … But it’s worth remembering that, in many times and many places, the status quo ante wasn’t all that good.”
Scribd to see if news will Float: Over the past year or so, we’ve seen several new attempts to charge for news online by aggregating news from a variety of news outlets, with services like Ongo and News.me. This week, the document-sharing site Scribd launched its own entry into that space with Float, a mobile reading app that allows users to read subscribers from a variety of sources — what it calls a “Netflix for news.” Float launched a free version this week, but will introduce its paid subscription service this fall.
Float has a social media-oriented aspect and an Instapaper-like reading list, but as TechCrunch described, its main feature is its ability to present any type of page, from books to blogs to news articles, in the same uniform, easily browseable format. GigaOM’s Colleen Taylor found the fluid presentation remarkable, but wondered if Float could get a critical mass of news sites to make it worth paying for. PaidContent’s David Kaplan said that Float works like a hybrid between Instapaper and Pulse, but that it could try to sell publishers on the idea of picking up browsing readers, rather than devoted subscribers.
Meanwhile, another traditional media outlet moved forward with an online paid-content strategy: Time introduced a plan that allows readers to subscribe to a bundle of the magazine’s print publication, mobile/tablet apps, and web version. As All Things D’s Peter Kafka reported, that also includes shutting off magazine articles on the web from nonsubscribers, though most of the web content should remain free. David Kaplan of paidContent said while it’s always an uphill battle to get readers to pay for news online, magazine publishers are aided by the fact that they’re becoming more unified in charging for their tablet editions.
Big Google+ possibilities: As Google+ continues to grow, tech writers continue to think bigger about what it could end up being. O’Reilly Radar’s Edd Dumbill said Google+ could be the program that connects people across the entirety of the web, just as search does for information. “Google+ is the rapidly growing seed of a web-wide social backbone, and the catalyst for the ultimate uniting of the social graph,” he wrote. Tim Carmody of Wired argued that Google+ is also part of the ramp-up to the coming “Cloud Wars” between Google and Microsoft.
We’re starting to see more possibilities for Google+ and journalism, too: Mashable provided a list of ways journalists can use the service, and 10,000 Words put together a guide to Google+ and breaking news. Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman said Google+ can teach news organizations some lessons about innovation and developing new products. Unfortunately, Google is removing many company/brand accounts from the service right now, including the innovative BreakingNews and KOMU-TV accounts.
Reading roundup: Here’s what else we talked about this week:
— The Columbia Journalism published online its feature on the Journal Register Co. from earlier this summer, while the Lab’s Martin Langeveld gave some smart analysis on what Alden Global Capital’s purchase of the newspaper chain last week might mean for the company’s media consolidation plans.
— Yesterday would have marked the 100th birthday of our best-known media theorist, Marshall McLuhan, and the Lab celebrated with some fantastic essays on his legacy by Megan Garber and Maria Bustillos. At the Guardian, Douglas Coupland wrote about why McLuhan still matters.
— NYU j-prof Jay Rosen and author Nicholas Carr finished their debate over whether the Internet has been good for journalism, and Rosen also expounded on five key works to understanding journalism in the Internet age.
— Three great pieces to read now…or later…whenever: Anil Dash on how to make sure the people using your website treat each other with decency, Paul Ford on the way Facebook defies the journalistic impulse to craft simple narratives, and Scott Rosenberg with a book (available free via PDF) on the new ethics of online journalism.