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This Week in Review: Scrutinizing TechCrunch’s ethics, and a big test for ‘digital first’ at newspapers

Plus: WikiLeaks comes under fire for its document dump, Yahoo’s CEO is out, and other required reading from this week.

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

TechCrunch, ethics, and new notions of journalism: The prominent tech news site TechCrunch tends to find itself in the middle of some controversy or another fairly regularly. Usually it’s relatively inconsequential inside baseball, but this week’s blowup is by far its biggest, and it spurred some enlightening discussion outside of the tech-news bubble.

Here’s the quick summary of what happened (the Guardian has a fuller version): Michael Arrington, TechCrunch’s founder and editor, launched a venture capital fund to invest in tech companies — the same companies TechCrunch covers. AOL, which bought the site last year, responded by taking him off of TechCrunch and moving him to the business side in an arrangement that no one completely understood. Arrington fired back with an ultimatum: Give TechCrunch total editorial freedom, or sell it back to him and other original investors. AOL said no, and is reportedly working on showing him the door. Whatever happens, TechCrunch’s MG Siegler said the site won’t likely be the same.

There were conflicting views on the impact of Arrington’s reported ouster, of course — Reuters’ Felix Salmon said AOL is losing its top journalist, while Fortune’s Chadwick Matlin said the fall of TechCrunch would be good for the tech industry. But the central issue here was the ethics of Arrington’s arrangement — investing in the same companies his site covers, something he’s been doing openly for years.

The critique was articulated most strongly by the New York Times’ David Carr, who documented several instances of TechCrunch writing favorable pieces on companies in which Arrington had invested, calling the arrangement “almost comically over the line.” All Things Digital’s Kara Swisher delivered an angrier version — ”A giant, greedy, Silicon Valley pig pile” — and many others were also critical, including the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal, Rem Rieder of the American Journalism Review, and VentureBeat’s Dylan Tweney.

TechCrunch had its defenders, too, including Gawker’s Ryan Tate, who argued for the hypocrisy of AOL’s Arianna Huffington’s sudden concern about ethics. The most thorough defenses, though, came from TechCrunch’s writers themselves: First, Paul Carr asserted that the new company would have nothing to do with TechCrunch. Then, both Carr and Siegler responded to David Carr’s column by arguing that their site doesn’t have the editorial workflow that its critics assume, and by criticizing the Times for its own ethical conflicts. “Ultimately there is only one thing that matters: information. People don’t care how they get it, just that they get it. If they don’t think they can trust it from one source, they’ll find another way to get it,” Siegler wrote.

Some observers, like New York mag’s Chris Rovzar, called that defense naive. In a terrific post here at the Lab, C.W. Anderson looked a bit deeper into the ways TechCrunch’s philosophy challenges traditional journalism’s norms, particularly the site’s commitment to transparency as its primary ethical safeguard and its idea of the supremacy of information.

There was also the question of whether Arrington should have to abide by journalistic standards in the first place. Arrington asserted that he’s not a journalist, and tech pioneer Dave Winer argued that “journalism itself is becoming obsolete.” GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram countered that journalism is still alive, just evolving and expanding, and j-prof Jeff Jarvis said journalism defies definition, and that’s just fine.

A bigger challenge for Digital First: John Paton has grabbed a lot of attention with his rejuvenation of the formerly bankrupt newspaper chain the Journal Register Co., and this week, his project expanded to include a much larger (also formerly bankrupt) company, MediaNews Group, which owns papers such as the Denver Post, St. Paul Pioneer Press, and Detroit News. Though the two companies will remain formally separate, Paton will manage both companies under the auspices of the newly created Digital First Media.

Paton briefly reiterated his digitally centered philosophy in a blog post on the move, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram called him the “patron saint” of the digitally focused, open approach to newspapers, as opposed to the more print-protectionist, paywall-oriented one. Reuters’ Felix Salmon said Paton’s model of leveraging local sales staff and trusted editorial content for digital revenue makes much more sense than the hyperlocal-en-masse Patch model.

There’s another important aspect to this deal, though: the Journal Register Co. was bought this summer by Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund that also owns a significant stake in MediaNews and several other newspaper companies. The Lab’s Joshua Benton provided some background on that situation, and Ken Doctor predicted that the move “may mark just the beginning of a local newspaper roll-up, resulting in the United States’ first truly national local news(paper) company,” noting that Paton’s Digital First initiative is also accompanied by major cost-cutting. At the Knight Digital Media Center, Amy Gahran expressed concern that Paton’s plans could run aground on an entrenched traditional culture at MediaNews and the impatience of hedge-fund investors.

MediaNews also has newly installed paywalls at 23 papers, and Paton told paidContent he isn’t sure yet what will happen to them. (In an extended interview with the Lab’s Martin Langeveld, MediaNews’ Dean Singleton said it would be Paton’s call to make: “You test everything that has a possibility of succeeding and you make decisions based on tests and market research.”

But one change has already been made: MediaNews’ contract with copyright litigant Righthaven has been ended.

WikiLeaks under fire: We talked last week about the inadvertent release of the rest of WikiLeaks’ archive of 251,000 diplomatic cables and the fallout that ensued. As it happened, WikiLeaks decided late last week to go ahead and publish all of the unredacted cables themselves, given that they had already been leaked online.

The decision led to more criticism — not just from the traditional media, but from others on the web: the Personal Democracy Forum’s Micah Sifry, author of a book on WikiLeaks, chastised the organization for the dump, saying it’s thrown away the moral high ground. Consultant Tom Watson said WikiLeaks’ move has damaged their efforts at transparency and an empowered society, and James Ball, a former WikiLeaks volunteer, made the same point more powerfully by painting a picture of an internal culture at odds with the group’s stated ideals of accountability and openness. “WikiLeaks has done the cause of internet freedom — and of whistleblowers — more harm than US government crackdowns ever could,” he said.

Tech blogger Dave Winer, however, was more troubled by the traditional media’s eagerness to blame and ostracize Assange for the incident. It’s not about one person, he said, it’s about the technology that makes WikiLeaks possible: “They have a method that they have religious feelings about, ones that some of us don’t share, and that method is broken by the Wikileaks model.” Mediaite’s Frances Martel, meanwhile, wondered why no one seemed to care about the documents themselves.

Yahoo fires its CEO: After a tumultuous two-and-a-half-year tenure, Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz was fired this week. The next step for the troubled Internet giant could be to engineer a sale, as CNNMoney’s Paul La Monica urged it to do. Plenty of names were tossed around as potential buyers, most recently Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang.

The Wall Street Journal detailed what’s gone wrong at Yahoo, and Om Malik of GigaOM was one of many who pinned many of the company’s failings on its board. Malik called for Yahoo to rid itself of everything that connects it to the Internet’s past, and Business Insider’s Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry advised Yahoo to “own the fact that it’s a media and content company,” encouraging a strategy that looks quite similar to AOL’s. PaidContent’s David Kaplan noted that Yahoo has a lot of ground to make up in display advertising, and Mark Walsh of MediaPost wondered if we’ll see more of an emphasis on mobile media from Yahoo now.

Reading roundup: Just a couple more items for this week:

— One piece of news to note: Google has killed Fast Flip, the magazine-like news presentation tool it launched in 2009.

— As we continue to move closer to bona fide campaign season, the Columbia Journalism Review’s Greg Marx offered a smart response to Jay Rosen’s critique of political journalism last week, defending the usefulness of certain kinds of the much-maligned “horse-race journalism.”

— On the practical side, the University of Florida’s Mindy McAdams put together a handy list of 10 tips to compelling visual storytelling. It’s a great resource for professionals, j-school professors, and students.

Michael Arrington photo by Joi Ito used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
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Joseph Lichterman    April 14, 2014
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