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This Week in Review: What Google+ could do for news, and Murdoch’s News of the World gets the ax

Plus this week’s required reading: more on the Guardian’s digital strategy, lackluster numbers for Patch, new paywall numbers from London, and Google’s bid for a display-ad revolution.

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

Google’s biggest social effort yet: This is a two-week edition of This Week in Review, so most of our news comes from last week, rather than this week. The biggest of those stories was the launch of Google+, Google’s latest and most substantial foray into the social media landscape. TechCrunch had one of the first and best explanations of what Google+ is all about, and Wired’s Steven Levy wrote the most comprehensive account of the thinking at Google behind Plus: It’s the product of a fundamental philosophical shift from the web as information to the web as people.

Of course, the force to be reckoned with in any big social media venture is Facebook, and even though Google told Search Engine Land it’s not made to be a Facebook competitor, Google+ was seen by many (including The New York Times) as Google’s most ambitious attempt yet to take on Facebook. The design looks a lot like Facebook, and pages for businesses (like Facebook’s Fan Pages) are on their way.

Longtime tech blogger Dave Winer was unimpressed at the effort to challenge Facebook, and Om Malik of GigaOM said Facebook has nothing to be afraid of in Google+, though All Facebook’s Nick O’Neill said Google+’s ubiquity across the web should present a threat to Facebook.

But the biggest contrast people drew between Google+ and Facebook was the more intuitive privacy controls built into its Circles feature. Ex-Salon editor Scott Rosenberg wrote a particularly thoughtful post arguing that Google+ more accurately reflects social life than Facebook: “In truth, Facebook started out with an oversimplified conception of social life, modeled on the artificial hothouse community of a college campus, and it has never succeeded in providing a usable or convenient method for dividing or organizing your life into its different contexts.” His thought was echoed by j-prof Jeremy Littau (in two posts) and the Guardian’s Dan Gillmor.

Google’s other ventures into social media — Buzz, Wave, Orkut — have fallen flat, so it’s somewhat surprising to see that the initial reviews for Google+ were generally positive. Among those enamored with it were TechCrunch’s MG Siegler, ReadWriteWeb’s Marshall Kirkpatrick, social media guru Robert Scoble, and the Huffington Post’s Craig Kanalley (though he wondered about Google’s timing). It quickly began sending TechCrunch loads of traffic, and social media marketer Chris Brogan brainstormed 50 ways Google+ could influence the rest of the web.

At the same time, there was some skepticism about its Circles function: TechCrunch’s Siegler wondered whether people would use it as intended, and ReadWriteWeb’s Sarah Perez said they might not be equipped to handle complicated, changing relationships. In a smart piece, marketing exec A.J. Kohn said Circles marks an old-fashioned form of sharing. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, meanwhile, said Circles look great, but they aren’t going to be much use until there’s a critical mass of people to put in them.

Google+ and the news: This being a journalism blog, we’re most interested in Google+ for what it means for news. As Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman pointed out, the aspect of Google+ that seems to have the most potential is its Sparks feature, which allows users to collect recommended news around a specific term or phrase. Former New York Times reporter Jennifer 8. Lee said Sparks could fill a valuable niche for news organizations in between Facebook and Twitter — sort of a more customizable, less awkward RSS. The University of Missouri’s KOMU-TV has already used it in a live broadcast, and Breaking News’ Cory Bergman gave a few valuable lessons from that organization’s first week on Google+.

CUNY j-prof Jeff Jarvis gave his thoughts on a few potential uses for news: It could be very useful for collaboration and promotion, but not so much for live coverage. Journalism.co.uk’s Sarah Marshall listed several of the same uses, plus interviewing and “as a Facebook for your tweeps.” Sonderman suggested a few changes to Google+ to make it even more news-friendly, including allowing news org pages and improving the Sparks search and filtering. Still, he saw it as a valuable addition to the online news consumption landscape: “It’s a serendipity engine, and if executed well it could make Google+ an addictive source of news discovery.”

A bit of Google+-related miscellany before we move on: Social media marketer Christopher Penn gave some tips on measuring Google+, author Neil Strauss condemned the growing culture of Facebook “Likes” (and now Google +1s), and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram offered a rebuttal.

Murdoch kills News of the World: In one of the most surprising media-related moves of the year, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. suddenly shut down one of its most prominent properties, the 168-year-old British tabloid News of the World, on Thursday. The decision stemmed from a long-running scandal involving NotW investigators who illegally hacked into the phones of celebrities. This week, the Guardian reported that the hacking extended to the voicemail of a murdered 13-year-old girl and possibly the families of dead soldiers, and that the paper’s editor, Rebekah Brooks (now the head of News Corp. in Britain) was informed of some of the hacking.

Facing an advertising boycott and Parliamentary opposition, Murdoch’s son, James, announced News of the World will close this weekend. (The Guardian has the definitive blow-by-blow of Thursday’s events.) It was a desperate move, and as the New York Times, paidContent, and many on Twitter noted, it was almost certainly an attempt to keep the scandal’s collateral damage away from Murdoch’s proposed BSkyB merger, which was put on hold and possible in jeopardy this week.

Though the closing left hundreds of suddenly out-of-work employees, it may prove less damaging in the big picture for News Corp. than you might expect. NotW only published on Sundays, and it’s widely suspected that its sister tabloid, the Sun, will simply expand to include a Sunday edition to cover for its absence. As one Guardian editor stated, the move may simply allow News Corp. to streamline its operation and save cash, and Poynter’s Rick Edmonds called it a smart business move. (Its stock rose after the announcement.)

There’s plenty that has yet to play out, as media analyst Ken Doctor noted: The Guardian pointed out how evasive James Murdoch’s closing letter was, and Slate’s Jack Shafer said the move was intended to “scatter and confuse the audience.” Brooks, the one that many thought would take the fall for the scandal, is still around, and the investigation is ongoing, with more arrests being made today. According to The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta and CUNY’s Jeff Jarvis, though, the buck stops with Rupert himself and the culture he created, and the Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum said the story has revealed just how cozy Murdoch is with the powerful in the U.K.

Making journalism easier on Twitter: Twitter has been reaching out to journalists for quite some time now through a media blog, but last week it took things a step further and launched Twitter for Newsrooms, a journalist’s guide to using Twitter, with tips on reporting, making conversation, and promoting content. The Lab’s Justin Ellis gave a quick glimpse into the rationale behind the project.

A few people were skeptical: TechCrunch’s Alexia Tsotsis suspected that Twitter’s preaching to the choir, arguing that for the journalists who come across Twitter for Newsrooms, Twitter already is a newsroom. The Journal Register’s Steve Buttry called it “more promotional than helpful,” and suggested some other Twitter primers for journalists. Ad Age’s Matthew Creamer added a tongue-in-cheek guide to releasing your anger on Twitter.

Meanwhile, the Lab’s Megan Garber reported on the ideas of NPR and Andy Carvin for improving Twitter’s functionality for reporting, including a kind of real-time influence and credibility score for Twitter sources, and a journalism-oriented meme-tracking tool for developing stories.

Mobile media and tablet users, profiled: There were several studies released in the past two weeks that are worth noting, starting with Pew’s report on e-reader and tablet users. Pew found that e-reader ownership is booming, having doubled in six months. The Knight Digital Media Center’s Amy Gahran reasoned that e-readers are ahead of tablets right now primarily because they’re so much cheaper, and offered ideas for news organizations to take advantage of the explosion of e-reader users.

Three other studies related to tablets and mobile media: One study found that a third of tablet users said it’s leading them to read print newspapers and magazines less often; another showed that people are reading more on digital media than we think, and mostly in browsers; and a third gave us more evidence that games are still king among mobile apps.

Reading roundup: Bunches of good stuff to look through from the past two weeks. I’ll go through it quickly:

— Turns out the “digital first” move announced last month by the Guardian also includes the closing of the international editions of the Guardian and Observer. Jeff Jarvis explained what digital first means, but Suw Charman-Anderson questioned the wisdom the Guardian’s strategy. The Lab’s Ken Doctor analyzed the economics of the Guardian’s situation, as well as the Mail and the BBC’s.

— This week in AOL/Huffington Post news: Business Insider revealed some leaked lackluster traffic numbers for Patch sites, and reported that Patch is undergoing a HuffPo-ization. That prompted Judy Sims and Slate’s Jack Shafer to be the latest to rip into Patch’s business model, and Shafer followed up to address rebuttals about non-Patch hyperlocal news.

— Google+ was the only interesting Google-related news over the past two weeks: The Lab’s Megan Garber wrote about Google’s bid to transform mobile ads, potential new directions for Google News, and Google highlighting individual authors in search returns. The New York Times’ Virginia Heffernan also wrote on Google’s ongoing war on “nonsense” content.

— A couple of paywall notes: The Times of London reported that it has 100,000 subscribers a year after its paywall went up, and Dorian Benkoil said the New York Times’ plan is working well, the Lab’s Megan Garber wrote about the Times adding a “share your access” offer to print subscribers.

— Three practical posts for journalists: Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman has tips for successful news aggregation and personalized news delivery, and British j-prof Paul Bradshaw reported on his experience running his blog through a Facebook Page for a month.

— And three bigger-picture pieces to think on: Wetpaint’s Ben Elowitz on the shrinking of the non-Facebook web, former Guardian digital editor Emily Bell on the U.S.’ place within the global media ecosystem, and Paul Bradshaw on the new inverted pyramid of data journalism.

                                   
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Justin Ellis    Aug. 27, 2014
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