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Sept. 23, 2011, 10:30 a.m.

This Week in Review: Facebook goes deeper into information sharing, and news orgs go with it

Plus: AOL’s continued struggles, Netflix splits in two, the News Corp. scandal continues to widen, and the rest of the week’s required reading.

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

Facebook ramps its sharing up even further: We had been hearing all week about a big announcement Facebook would be making this Thursday at its annual conference — about how it would mark the social network’s rebirth and leave the competition in the dust. So here’s what we got (in a handy roundup from Gizmodo): A Twitter-like mini-feed called Ticker (meant to make the News Feed look more like “your own personal newspaper”), apps on Facebook’s Open Graph, sharing music and games through integration with services like the music player Spotify, and Timeline, essentially a one-page Facebook life story.

It’s pretty clear what Facebook’s goal is with all of this: Put charitably, as Wired’s Mike Isaac did, it’s “allowing for the Facebook page to be a sort of one-stop shop, scooping up all of your activities and displaying them in one grand, blue and white frame.” Put more skeptically, as the New Yorker’s Nicholas Thompson did, Facebook wants to eat up a large chunk of the Internet, which has some real consequences: “The more our online lives take place on Facebook, the more we depend on the choices of the people who run the company—what they think about privacy, how they think we should be able to organize our friends, what they tell advertisers (and governments) about what we do and what we buy.”

Tom Foremski of Silicon Valley Watcher made the point a different way, arguing that Facebook is trying to combat the natural slowdown in how much we’re willing to share online by making it more frictionless and ubiquitous. Reactions were similar in displaying two sides of the same coin: The ability to pull together a lot of old social information into a single Timeline was either “something a lot of users wanted without much of a voice asking for it” (ZDNet’s Rachel King) or a fix to “a problem absolutely no one was clamoring about” (Gawker’s Adrian Chen). We’ll get more of a sense of which side is more accurate over the next several months.

Facebook meets news apps: Another one of the changes announced by Facebook on Thursday was the addition of several new Facebook-based news apps, the first of which was the Wall Street Journal’s WSJ Social, unveiled on Tuesday. (Others, like the Washington Post’s and Yahoo’s, were announced on Thursday.) As the Lab’s Megan Garber explained, the app allows each user to edit their own stream of Journal material, and to follow and rank others based on their editing.

As Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici pointed out, the app seems to serve both the Journal’s and Facebook’s interests quite nicely: It keeps people’s news consumption and interaction within Facebook, but allows the Journal to sell its own ads within the app and keep the money. (Facebook gets everything for the ads outside the app.)

There were questions about the app — Adweek’s Dylan Byers wondered how fond people would be of an app that curates content from only one source, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram questioned how well the socially oriented app would work with a hard paywall, and more generally, whether it’s wise for news organizations to leave so much of their user interaction inside Facebook.

AOL’s struggles and the future of online content: The AOL/TechCrunch saga seems to be (mercifully) winding down this week — the last real drama took place late last week, when one TechCrunch writer, Paul Carr, quit with a scorched-earth post directed at new editor Erick Schonfeld, and Schonfeld disputed his claims. But the bad news continues to roll in for AOL: The sales director for its hyperlocal news project, Patch, left — the second top AOL ad exec to bolt in the past month. Business Insider reported that AOL may lose $30 million on Patch this year. And AOL’s prospects as a content-based company in general don’t look rosy, as paidContent’s Robert Andrews pointed out, looking at the declining revenues for AOL Europe once it dropped Internet access from its business model.

AOL execs remain positive in the face of all the bad news: Arianna Huffington said her Huffington Post’s merger with AOL has been a boon for both HuffPo and Patch, thanks to the new synergies between the two operations. On the advertising side, AOL CEO Tim Armstrong said he hopes to catch Microsoft and Google in online display ads, a tall task.

Outside the company, of course, skeptics still abound. Bloomberg Businessweek’s Peter Burrows declared AOL and its fellow web portal Yahoo dead companies walking, saying they “have tried to live by Old Media rules while masquerading as New Media powerhouses.” And at Adweek, Michael Wolff pointed to AOL and Yahoo’s struggles as evidence that online content can’t sustain a business model. The only content that can still do that, he said, is TV or video: “What still works, what advertisers and audiences still seek, is superexpensive content.”

Netflix’s big split: It wasn’t related to journalism per se, but the big story at the intersection of media and tech this week was the announcement of Netflix’s split into two businesses — one for streaming video online, and a new one, Qwikster, to continue its DVD-by-mail service. The change was welcomed by approximately no one: Not users or investors, as The New York Times reported, not analysts like Business Insider’s Henry Blodget (who said it’s bad for customers) and paidContent’s Robert Andrews (who said it’s bad for business), and not the Oatmeal’s Matthew Inman, who summed up the head-scratching nature of the move as well as anyone.

Of course, Netflix had to have a reason for doing this, and there were several popular guesses, rounded up well by Tim Carmody of Wired. As Carmody explained, there are two main theories: 1) Separating DVDs and streaming makes it easier and cheaper for Netflix to negotiate rights with Hollywood (best articulated by venture capitalist Bill Gurley), and 2) Netflix wants to let its DVD business die in peace, without taking streaming down with it (argued in two posts by tech writer Dan Frommer). Along the lines of the latter theory, GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram likened Netflix’s situation to the news business and wondered who would be the first newspaper company to spin off its print product from its digital side.

The News Corp. scandal and a press freedom threat: It’s been a couple of months since News Corp.’s phone-hacking scandal was making big headlines, but the problems stemming from it continue to spread week by week. Deadline New York’s David Lieberman looked at some of the financial signs indicating that the fallout may not be isolated to News Corp.’s British newspaper division. This week, a couple of aspects of the scandal heated up as another wound down: News Corp. is expected to settle its highest-profile hacking case (with the family of a murdered 12-year-old girl) for $4.7 million, while the U.S. Justice Department reportedly began asking the company for information in its investigation into bribery charges, and new allegations of hacking into a former government official’s voicemail emerged.

Meanwhile, apart from News Corp., the story briefly sparked a press freedom fight when Scotland Yard invoked an espionage law to threaten the Guardian to give up its anonymous sources on one of the hacking cases. Journalists across Britain, including some from competitors like the Daily Mail, rose up to defend the Guardian, and within a few days, police dropped their threat. The backlash was strong enough that members of Parliament will question one of Scotland Yard’s top officials over the plan.

Reading roundup: Tons of other little things going on this week. Here’s a quick tour:

— Some interesting media fallout from WikiLeaks’ recent diplomatic cable release: Al Jazeera’s news director resigned after the cables showed that he had modified the network’s Iraq war coverage based on pressure from the U.S. This, of course, raised questions about Al Jazeera’s independence and credibility. Elsewhere, British journalism thinker Charlie Beckett talked about what WikiLeaks can tell us about where news is headed.

— Though its changes were trumped by Facebook, Google+ unveiled several new features and announced that it’s open to everyone. J-prof Dan Reimold declared the new social network dead, but Wired’s Tim Carmody explained how Google+’s changes are meant to change that.

— The Washington Post’s Monica Hesse wrote a thought-provoking piece on journalists’ tendency to obsess with things happening on social networks, leading to insights that … aren’t that insightful. If you’re interested in using social media in a way that’s actually worthwhile, Poynter’s Mallary Jean Tenore has a good guide to ways journalists can use Twitter before, during, and after reporting a story.

— At Silicon Valley Watcher, Matthew Buckland did a fascinating Q&A with Wired editor Chris Anderson — the first half on the decline of the open web, and the second on what journalism is now.

— This week’s most interesting piece of media-related research comes from NYU’s Tim Libert, who looked at thousands of comments about the online hacking group LulzSec, finding that the discourse indicated that the group is “in the position of villain rather than the champion of the people’s rights, as they would presumably like to be seen.”

— Finally, the AP’s Jonathan Stray wrote a stirring piece on what it would look like if we merged journalism with “maker culture,” concluding, “This is a theory of civic participation based on empowering the people who like to get their hands dirty tinkering with the future. Maybe that’s every bit as important as informing voters or getting politicians fired.”

POSTED     Sept. 23, 2011, 10:30 a.m.
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