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Oct. 28, 2011, 10 a.m.

This Week in Review: Getting tablet news to pay, and WikiLeaks steps back to fight ‘blockade’

Plus: News Corp.’s shareholder meeting, USA Today tries an innovative data licensing strategy, and the rest of the week’s big stories.

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

News consumers and paid content on tablets: We’re now a year and a half into the tablet era, so we’ve started to get a more stable sense of exactly who’s using them and how. The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism added to that understanding this week with what’s probably the most comprehensive study to date on tablet use, particularly for news.

The survey’s big headline was of the good-news, bad-news variety: 77 percent of users read news on their tablets at least weekly, and 53 percent do it daily. That’s the good news. The bad news? Only 14 percent have paid directly for the news they’re reading on their tablet — though another 23 percent get access as part of a print subscription package. And those who haven’t paid valued the free-ness of their news sources pretty highly.

The fact that people love to read news on their iPads but aren’t particularly willing to pay for it didn’t seem to worry PEJ director Tom Rosenstiel too much — he told Adweek that things will be different in a year or two as people get used to paying for tablet news, just as they got used to paying for TV.

Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman noted that while most users prefer to get their news via browser, many of those in the paying crowd are the ones using mostly apps. He suggested going with a two-tiered paid/free approach, with an ad-driven browser site and a paid, premium app. “Rather than bemoan the small number of people who will pay, or freeze out the large number who won’t, the smart publisher will find ways to capture both audiences,” he said.

A couple of other tidbits from the study: John Paul Titlow of ReadWriteWeb said it’s good news for publishers and e-businesses that tablets are drawing much more of people’s undivided attention than desktops or laptops did, and Mathew Ingram of GigaOM noted that people aren’t sharing much of the news they’re reading on their tablets, identifying social features as an area where news orgs could stand to improve on tablets.

WikiLeaks goes into hibernation: WikiLeaks leader Julian Assange announced this week that the site may be forced to close by the end of the year because what he called a “financial blockade” of major banks and credit card companies refusing to process donations for it. The blockade, begun last December after WikiLeaks began releasing its collection of diplomatic cables, has wiped out as much as 95 percent of the site’s revenues, according to Assange, forcing it run on its reserves over the past several months.

WikiLeaks has stopped processing leaks and shifted its resources to fundraising, including lawsuits and petitions it has filed in several countries to force the companies to process their donations. As Australia’s the Age reported, its leaders hope to back up and running within a month.

At the Guardian, Dan Gillmor chastised news organizations for their lack of concern about the financial companies’ action against WikiLeaks, saying the blockade is “a danger to everyone. It is a harbinger of a future where governments will find new leverage points to shut down the media they don’t like.” Gawker’s Adrian Chen, on the other hand, posed some good questions on WikiLeaks’ use of money this year, wondered how the group has used up most of its reserves (reported at $1.3 million at the end of 2010) without publishing any major new leaks.

With WikiLeaks now in rebuilding mode, the Atlantic’s Elspeth Reeve reflected on what the site has done for transparency and networked journalism, and her conclusion wasn’t a flattering one. She called its experiment in enabling mass document leaking “an abysmal failure,” noting that its most consequential leaks all seem to have come from one man — Bradley Manning — who’s now in jail. “All those theoretical discussions of an anarchic new citizen press driven by anonymous file-sharing remain academic,” she said.

Reeve noted that leakers seem to be no safer now than they were a few years ago, and that goes for the ones who give information to traditional news organizations as well as WikiLeaks. Writing in the New York Times, data security expert Christopher Soghoian praised WikiLeaks for its security measures to protect its confidential sources while lamenting how poorly traditional news orgs do at the technical aspects of that job. It’s probably not a coincidence, then, that news orgs’ efforts at creating WikiLeaks-like leak submission programs have stalled, as Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici reported.

Murdoch & Co. hang on at News Corp.: The long-simmering outrage at News Corp. over its phone-hacking and circulation inflation scandals may have been expected by some to come to a head last Friday at the company’s annual shareholder meeting, but there were relatively few fireworks to be seen. Rupert Murdoch made a defiant address to shareholders, describing the criticism of his company as “both understandable scrutiny and unfair attack.”

As expected, there were shareholders who called for Murdoch and his sons to step down, and a good number of critical questions parried by Murdoch, as paidContent documented. But the main business of the meeting remained unaffected: Murdoch and his sons were re-elected to the News Corp. board, though there was speculation that an “embarrassingly high” number of shareholders voted against them, according to the Independent.

Meanwhile, former Dow Jones CEO Les Hinton testified before a committee of Parliament about the phone hacking and, predictably, gave a whole lot of “I don’t recall”s and non-answers.

Reading roundup: This week was one of those weeks without many big stories in the future-of-journalism world, but with a lot of small ones. Here are a few of them:

— As Andrew Phelps reported at the Lab this week, USA Today tried something new that we may see other news organizations doing in the future, licensing the data from the databases it produces on its website to commercial app developers. As GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram and the Knight Digital Media Center’s Amy Gahran pointed out, the real benefit of moves like this may be less about revenue and more about a creating a crowdsourced R&D department.

— The death of former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi was the big news story late last week, and there were a couple of media-oriented angles. The big one was whether news orgs chose to show pictures or video of Gadhafi dead or being beaten. Poynter’s Julie Moos found that U.S. newspapers were less likely than European ones to run the gruesome images. Those orgs that did run them ended up having to defend themselves. Meanwhile, Techdirt’s Mike Masnick looked at the copyright issues involved with camera-phone footage of Gadhafi’s beating.

— After Jeff Jarvis and Evgeny Morozov traded blows over the past couple of weeks about Jarvis’ new book, “Private Parts,” the Lab’s Megan Garber weighed in with a brilliant post on why books’s ideas aren’t truly read and discussed, and how to make it so that they are. Jarvis chimed in with some more ways to disrupt the book/conference cycle.

— Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan unearthed a sketchy linking-for-pay scheme from a small marketing company that claimed to have pulled it off with the Huffington Post and Business Insider. Those two orgs, naturally, issued denials.

— Media/tech entrepreneurs Cody Brown and Kate Ray introduced another venture this week with Scroll, a tool intended to help publishers use a variety of more sophisticated web designs without knowing how to code them. The Lab had a profile of it.

— In a masterful column, the New York Times’ David Carr suggested that some of the Occupy Wall Street agitation should be directed toward newspaper chains, such as Gannett and the Tribune Co., who give their executives massive bonuses while laying off employees.

— Finally, I’ve linked to a lot of “programming for journalists” guides and tipsheets here, but this one by Jonathan Richards at the Guardian from a couple of weeks ago may be the best I’ve seen at capturing and explaining the coding mentality in simple terms. Give it a read, if you haven’t already.

Julian Assange caricature by Robert Cadena and Rupert Murdoch photo by David Shankbone used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Oct. 28, 2011, 10 a.m.
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