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Aug. 19, 2011, 10:30 a.m.

This Week in Review: Twitter and big ideas, praise for the NYT’s pay plan, and more trouble for Murdoch

Plus: Google grabs a phone company, a look at Reddit-at-journalism, a stab at explaining AOL’s struggles, and top tips for journalism students.

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

Is social media killing big ideas?: In The New York Times this week, USC fellow Neal Gabler put forward a different form of the familiar “information overload” complaint, this time tying the proliferation of social media to the paucity of big ideas. We don’t spend time thinking about and valuing big ideas, he argued, because we’re too busy trying to process — and add to — the flood of information coming at us through social media. You can’t think and tweet at the same time, Gabler said, because tweeting “is a form of distraction or anti-thinking.”

Naturally, this didn’t go over particularly well among the online media punditry. Several people countered that one of Twitter’s functions is to direct users to big ideas, to point outside of its 140-character limits through hyperlinks. Media prof Chuck Tryon, author Stephen Baker, and Techdirt’s Mike Masnick all made that argument, with Masnick summing it up well: “While social media may not have enlarged Gabler’s intellectual universe, it has massively enlarged mine. Thanks to Twitter specifically, I’ve been able to meet tons of fascinatingly smart people I never would have met otherwise.” The trick, as Baker said, is to “listen to the right people, and then follow their links.”

Two other writers made particularly smart points: Kevin Drum of Mother Jones noted that where before we knew exactly where to find big ideas and how to discuss them, we’re now in the middle of a massive media transition. That doesn’t mean the big idea is dead, he said, it means it’s headed somewhere new, and we don’t know exactly where yet. And the Lab’s Megan Garber pointed out that Gabler’s vision of big ideas is closely tied to big media, but argued that those big ideas don’t need big media to thrive. Instead, she said, “Increasingly, though, the ideas that spark progress are collective, diffusive endeavors rather than the result (to the extent they ever were) of individual inspiration.”

A paywall plan that understands online readers?: Reuters blogger Felix Salmon is already on record as a supporter of The New York Times’ five-month-old paywall, and this week he detailed exactly why he thinks it’s so effective. Salmon likened the Times’ metered model, with all of its leeway and potential workarounds, to a polite “Please keep off the grass” sign. He argued that contra the prevailing philosophy that readers won’t pay for something they can get for free, the Times is betting that “the pleasure of reading its content will be enough to persuade a large number of people to pay. It’s a far more attractive model, and one which is much more likely to attract new young subscribers over the long term.”

In a follow-up post, Salmon explained why the Times’ model is fundamentally different from the Financial Times’ pay meter — it’s not trying nearly as hard to keep non-subscribers away from its content. Venture capitalist Fred Wilson and Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman agreed with Salmon’s premise: Wilson praised the efficacy of getting paid after the fact rather than before, and Sonderman said the Times has discovered that convenience, duty, and appreciation are more compelling motivations than coercion.

There was one notable dissenter: GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, who took issue with the idea that the Times’ plan has been successful, arguing instead that it’s not growing the paper’s online audience, but setting up digital sandbags to protect a declining print product. The plan “has virtually nothing to do with actually taking advantage of the digital world in any concrete way,” Ingram wrote. “It’s just charging people nickels and dimes for their paper, the way the NYT and other newspapers have for a century and a half or so.”

News Corp.’s problems continue to grow: The damning information against News Corp. in the phone-hacking scandal at its former News of the World newspaper keeps on coming. This week, it was a four-year-old letter written by Clive Goodman, a reporter at the center of the scandal. In it, Goodman said that the hacking was discussed regularly at the paper and suggested that knowledge of it ran much deeper than News Corp. has been insisting. Notably, News Corp. had submitted the letter to Parliament but redacted the incriminating parts.

With the new revelation, Slate’s Jack Shafer wrote that “the scandal has grown too large for one or two willing Murdoch lieutenants or employees to stanch it by taking the fall.” That impression has led many watchers to wonder, as the Guardian’s Brian Cathcart did, if James Murdoch, Rupert’s son, may be forced to resign. James responded late last week to Parliament’s questions about his truthfulness in his testimony to them last month, and News Corp. is reportedly making plans in case he decides to step aside.

The bad news continues to pile up elsewhere in News Corp., too. Its first U.S.-based News of the World reporter was arrested. The private investigator at the center of the scandal sued News International (the company’s British newspaper division) for not paying his legal bills, and the company officially acknowledged in its annual report that the scandal could impair its business, and that it doesn’t know how much money it’ll end up costing. Two more commentators — The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta and Reuters’ David Callahan — echoed a popular sentiment lately, saying the responsibility for this whole ordeal lies directly with Rupert Murdoch.

Google grabs a mobile-phone producer: For the tech geeks among us, Google made some big news this week, buying Motorola Mobility, Motorola’s mobile devices division, for $12.5 billion. According to The New York Times, the deal had a lot to do with stockpiling patents in order to defend its Android mobile operating system from patent lawsuits. It also may allow Google to drive down development costs for the all-important smartphone and tablet markets.

Cory Bergman of Lost Remote noted that this move isn’t just about mobile, though — it also represents Google’s biggest move into TV yet. With Motorola’s significant share of the cable-TV hardware business, Bergman said, Google now has the opportunity to seamlessly integrate its technology with TVs across the world.

Here at the Lab, Joshua Benton used the acquisition as an example of the tension between a Windows-style modular approach to business, with products that can be swapped in and out, and an Apple-esque interdependent one, with a set of interlinking, proprietary products. He also applied the idea to news, saying our journalistic ecosystem needs both the more open modular approach and the more packaged interdependent approach.

A couple of other posts looked at the story of the deal itself: Reuters’ Felix Salmon examined the decline and GigaOM’s Om Malik the difficulty of the financial scoops beat, and Gawker’s Ryan Tate saw Google’s manufactured press-release quotes by its business partners as a sign that Google is moving away from the “Don’t Be Evil” mantra toward being a tight-fisted corporate giant.

Reading roundup: This week was a pretty packed one. Here’s the best of the rest:

— HP, one of the biggest non-Apple names in the tablet market, announced Thursday that it’s dropping out of it — and maybe the PC market too. You can gorge yourself on the commentary at Techmeme, or if you just want one smart piece of it, here’s TechCrunch.

— This week in AOL: The New York Times’ Verne Kopytoff analyzed why the new-look AOL has experienced so many hiccups, and j-prof Dan Kennedy seized on the tidbit in that article that AOL would reportedly be profitable without Patch.

— Web philosopher David Weinberger wrote a fantastic piece about the journalistic curiosity and community exchange that’s present at Reddit, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram echoed his thoughts.

— Outgoing Reynolds Journalism Institute fellow Joy Mayer has apparently become journalism’s “Minister of Engagement,” and she’s earned the title, publishing a thorough guide to community engagement for newsrooms.

— The Online Journalism Review’s Robert Niles wondered what journalism is worth, and came up with some depressing answers.

— Finally, since classes are starting up all over the place in the next week or two, here’s 10 great tips for journalism students from Sarah Marshall of Journalism.co.uk, via Twitter.

POSTED     Aug. 19, 2011, 10:30 a.m.
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