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Sept. 2, 2011, 10 a.m.

This Week in Review: The great hurricane hype debate, and Google+ as an ‘identity service’

Plus: CNN buys the personalized tablet magazine Zite, hundreds of thousands of WikiLeaks’ cables are inadvertently released, the Financial Times parts ways with Apple, and how we’re training young political reporters.

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

Hurricane news’ innovation and hype: The big U.S. news story this week was Hurricane Irene, which hit the east coast and New England last weekend. It was a story that hit particularly close to home for many of the U.S.’ leading news organizations, which led to some innovative journalism, but also some questionable coverage.

Several news organizations temporarily took down their online paywalls during the storm, led by The New York Times and the Long Island newspaper Newsday. The Times also used the storm as an opportunity to introduce a new Twitter account devoted to curation of information on Twitter by the paper’s editors. The Lab’s Megan Garber noted that the account is incorporating much more conversation than the Times’ other official Twitter accounts, and Jeff Sonderman of Poynter talked to the Times about its goal with the account — to provide a space for faster, more unrestrained information from the Times on Twitter. Another good example of storm-related news innovation: The Journal Register Co.’s Ben Franklin Project.

Irene was also a big occasion for TV news, which trotted out the usual round-the-clock coverage and on-location weather-defying reports. After the storm passed through, many questioned whether news organizations had gone over the top in their breathless coverage of Irene. The Daily Beast’s Howard Kurtz accused cable news of being “utterly swept away by the notion that Irene would turn out to be Armageddon,” and at the Boston Herald, Michael Graham called the Irene coverage “a manufactured media product with a tenuous connection to the actual news.”

Others (many outside the TV news industry) pushed back against those charges: Northeastern j-prof Dan Kennedy said that the storm’s damage actually largely matched the coverage; it just seemed like it fizzled out because that damage wasn’t near New York or Washington. The New York Times’ Nate Silver took a more scientific approach and made a similar conclusion, showing that the amount of Irene coverage was generally in line with that of previous storms, when the level of damage was factored in.

Poynter’s Julie Moos, who put together a great summary of the hurricane hype debate, also argued that Irene’s severity matched the level of coverage, providing along the way a useful six-part measuring stick for journalistic hype. “The perception of hype is fed by the gap between supply and demand,” she said. “Journalists must make more closely calibrated decisions than ever about what information to provide.”

Social network as identity service: Google CEO Eric Schmidt threw some more fuel onto the slow-burning argument over Google+ and real names when he said at a conference last weekend that the new social network is essentially an “identity service with a link structure around your friends” — a way for others on the Internet to verify your identity and communicate with you under that identity. Asked about the risks to some people of such a hard-and-fast online identity, Schmidt replied that, well, they don’t have to use Google+ then.

It was quite a telling quote regarding Google+’s true purpose — one that several commentators seized on. Mashable’s Pete Cashmore described the battle between Google and Facebook over web identity and reasoned that the reason Google is taking a hard line on real names is that it needs its identity system to be more reliable than Facebook’s. Venture capitalist Fred Wilson said now we officially know who the real-names policy is really for: Google, not us. “The answer to why you need to use your real name in the service is because they need you to,” he said.

GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram used the statement to tie together his description of what’s at stake in the identity competition — the more accurate and detailed identities are, the more advertisers will pay for them. Tech blogger Dave Winer was more blunt: Google+ is a bank, he said. They need people’s real names because they want to move money around, like any other business. At the Guardian, tech writer Cory Doctorow argued that we need to open up this discussion about online identity, and that the single-identity philosophy Google’s espousing isn’t in our best interests.

Meanwhile, this month’s Carnival of Journalism blog ring wrote about Google+, with several writers urging journalists and academics to “just use it,” as the University of Colorado’s Steve Outing put it. Spot.Us’ David Cohn put the rationale well: “The reason to be on Google+ isn’t because it’s the newest, hottest, sexiest thing. … You should be on these sites to understand how people are communicating and the vocabulary of this communication.”

CNN grabs Zite: Major news organizations have been itching to jump into the increasingly crowded market for tablet-based news readers, and this week CNN made its own play, snatching up Zite, the personalized, magazine-like iPad news app launched in March. All Things Digital’s Kara Swisher put the purchase price between $20 million and $25 million and explained the simple reason for CNN’s interest: They’re trying to acquire the technology to keep up with audiences that are quickly moving onto mobile platforms for their news.

Zite will continue to operate as a separate unit, across the country from CNN’s headquarters. According to mocoNews’ Tom Krazit, CNN will help Zite scale up to a bigger audience, while Zite will work to improve CNN’s mobile offerings. And when asked by Mashable’s Lauren Indvik about adding ads, CNN execs said they’re going to build up the product first and worry about the business model later. Mathew Ingram of GigaOM said Zite can help CNN learn what people are sharing, why, and how they want news presented in a mobile format.

WikiLeaks’ inadvertent cable release: This week marked what looks like the beginning of a new, bizarre confusing chapter in the WikiLeaks saga. The story’s been a bit of a confusing story, but I’ll try to break it down for you: Ever since last November, WikiLeaks has been gradually releasing documents from its collection of diplomatic cables. But over the past couple of weeks, the full archive of 251,000 cables was inadvertently released online, without sensitive information redacted, as WikiLeaks had been doing.

WikiLeaks blamed the Guardian, the British newspaper with which it had been working, for publishing the password to the hidden document files in a book about WikiLeaks earlier this year. The Guardian responded that it was told when it was given the password that it was temporary, to be changed within a day.

In the meantime, as Der Spiegel explained well, Daniel Domscheit-Berg had defected from WikiLeaks with the server that contained the files, and other WikiLeaks supporters spread the files around to keep them from being taken off the web. Once the password leaked out, the contents of the files gradually started spilling online, and by Wednesday night, they were completely public, according to Der Spiegel. It’s not entirely clear what WikiLeaks will do with the files now, but that’s where the conflict stands. For Gawker’s John Cook, the episode was enough to officially declare Julian Assange irrelevant — WikiLeaks has no major information left to leak, Cook said, and no more leverage over the media and the public.

FT pulls out of the App Store: Back in June, the Financial Times became the first major news organization to develop an HTML5 app for Apple’s App Store, allowing it to design a single app for multiple platforms and to handle subscriptions outside of the app itself, which gave it a way around Apple’s 30-percent cut. FT removed the app from the App Store this week instead of complying with Apple’s requirement that all subscriptions be handled within apps.

As paidContent’s Robert Andrews explained, FT can still make money off of existing iPad app users, but the paper says most of its users have switched over the web app, and its web app use is growing quickly enough that this isn’t a big loss anyway. As GigaOM’s Darrell Etherington pointed out, this could be an important test case in whether a news organization can replace its Apple-based app business with an HTML5-based web app.

A new generation of campaign reporters: We’re starting to hurtle toward full-on presidential campaign season in the U.S., and according to The New York Times, many of the reporters who’ll be covering it are 20-somethings, mere babes in the dark, scary woods of campaign journalism. The Times did a trend story on these young reporters, focusing on a boot camp for them put on by CBS and National Journal. Among the advice they’re getting: Be careful to slip up in public view, and don’t break news on Twitter.

Mocking, of course, ensued. Village Voice’s Rosie Gray said CBS and National Journal are asking to get beat on big stories with their Twitter policy, and Alex Pareene of Salon said the moral of the story is that modern campaign journalism is so inane that it can be pushed off to barely experienced reporters without anyone being the wiser. The Columbia Journalism Review’s Erika Fry had perhaps the most substantive concern: Why are these reporters being taught primarily about avoiding gaffes, rather than actually doing good journalism?

Reading roundup: Here’s the rest of what happened in this crazy-busy news week:

— The New York Times’ public editor, Arthur Brisbane, wrote a column criticizing the Times’ popular DealBook site for missing large-scale economic issues in favor of small, incremental daily stories. Times business editor Larry Ingrassia fired back with a defense of DealBook, and Reuters financial blogger Felix Salmon also defended DealBook, saying Brisbane was making a false either-or distinction, among other errors.

— A few more reflections and analyses of Steve Jobs’ impending departure as Apple CEO, announced last week: The New York Times’ David Carr on what he changed, and Wired’s John C. Abell on Jobs’ legacy and Tim Carmody on Jobs and the arts.

— He’s made the point before in different ways, but NYU j-prof Jay Rosen’s analysis of why the system of political news coverage is broken is still worth a read. He also followed it up with a rethinking of what political journalism could be.

— Finally, NPR’s Matt Thompson wrote a great piece on what journalists can learn from the scientific method, tying together some useful big ideas.

POSTED     Sept. 2, 2011, 10 a.m.
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