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Oct. 21, 2011, 10 a.m.

This Week in Review: Things get testier at News Corp., Google+ makes an identity compromise

Plus: keys to sustainability for nonprofit news, an auspicious start for Apple Newsstand, and all the rest of this week’s required reading.

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

Growing tension at News Corp.: We’ll be hearing the news from News Corp.’s annual shareholder meeting later today, and media observers are certainly watching the meeting closely, especially after reports late last week that numerous groups representing about a quarter of the company’s investors are planning on voting against many of News Corp.’s board members.

The list of problems at News Corp. has continued to lengthen over the past three months, and an analyst interviewed by NPR’s David Folkenflik asserted that in an ordinary company, the board would have fired the CEO by now. But Rupert Murdoch, of course, is no ordinary CEO. Even in the close-knit top leadership of News Corp., though, this scandal is leading to significant tension between Murdoch and his son, James, who was until recently the company’s heir apparent. A New York Times report this week gave details of the power struggles in the Murdoch family, and Reuters’ Jack Shafer pointed out that public family squabbles aren’t new for the Murdochs.

Both media analyst Alan Mutter and the Guardian’s Dan Gillmor were doubtful, however, that the complaints of investors would make any sort of difference in the way News Corp. is run, especially since Murdoch has a 40-percent share in the company. “As long as Rupert Murdoch is in control, there are only two factors that will lead to change: a genuine threat to his family’s money and power,” Gillmor said. Without those threats, he argued, shareholders aren’t going to see a change in direction.

Amid all of this, News Corp.’s various scandals continue to play out publicly. On the phone-hacking front, an attorney who did work for News Corp. told Parliament that he knew the company had misled Parliament about the extent of the hacking but did nothing about it.

And on the Wall Street Journal’s circulation inflation, News Corp. reportedly knew about the issue almost a year before its executive resigned over it, and Poynter’s Steve Myers found that WSJ Asia also relies heavily on deeply discounted issues. But the Journal isn’t the only one that relies on those discounted circulation ploys: The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade noted that three major U.K. papers do, and Poynter’s Rick Edmonds said some U.S. papers do as well. Media analyst Frederic Filloux warned of the effects of this kind of culture of cheating: “Such tricks push prices further down because media buyers increasingly distrust the system. Today, they apply the rule ‘you cheat, we cut prices.’ And the downward spiral continues.”

Getting identity right online: Google+ announced a big change in its policies this week, giving word that it will soon amend its real-names-only rule to allow pseudonyms. That policy has been the subject of much debate over the past couple of months, and the coming change prompted Electronic Freedom Foundation to declare victory. Programmer Jamie Zawinski called that statement “shamefully credulous” and wondered why it’s going to take months to implement. He predicted that Google+ will still require real names, but will allow nicknames and pseudonyms in addition.

Before its change, Google+ had drawn some more criticism for its identity policy. Christopher “moot” Poole has been one of the more prominent advocates for anonymity online — it’s central to 4chan, the image-based message board he founded — and he articulated his position again this week in a short tech-conference speech. (Good summaries by VentureBeat and ReadWriteWeb.) This time, he targeted the identity policies of Facebook and Google+, saying they try to force-fit people into a single identity, when they’re really much more complex than that.

“Google and Facebook would have you believe that you’re a mirror, but we’re actually more like diamonds,” Poole said. “Look from a different angle, and you see something completely different.” He argued that Google+ missed a big opportunity to innovate by allowing users to manipulate who they share with, rather than who they share as. Twitter has a better handle on identity, he said, as an interest-based community, rather than an identity-based one.

Wired’s Tim Carmody praised Poole’s philosophy of identity, arguing that it’s practical without surrendering to Facebook’s one-identity-for-all-time mantra. And GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram also praised Twitter’s approach, arguing that its commitment to free speech is far more important than whether participants are using their real names.

Making nonprofit news sustainable: The Knight Foundation released a comprehensive report on what makes local nonprofit news organizations work, featuring profiles of eight orgs, including many of the big names in that corner of the news world — Bay Citizen, MinnPost, Voice of San Diego, Texas Tribune, and so on.

The study highlighted three keys to sustainability for local nonprofit news orgs: First, a workable business development strategy, which means that even if they start with foundation support, they need to treat it as something that will diminish over time, rather than an ongoing revenue stream. Second, they need innovative approaches to building engagement both online and offline. And third, they need the skills to go deep into data journalism and interactive features, which “require technological capacity that sits outside the experience of many journalists.”

Poynter’s Rick Edmonds dug deeper into the study, noting a couple of other interesting tidbits: Though the sites are working hard to diversify their funding, more than half of it is still coming from foundations, and another third from donations. He also said these news sites need to have deep community roots and be able to adapt to specific local information needs, rather than just having a general “replace what’s gone” goal.

Apple’s Newsstand starts strong: It’s only been around a little more than a week, but according to a couple of app sellers, the early indicators on Apple’s new Newsstand have been quite positive. Exact Editions and Future, two companies that produce and sell apps for publishers, said that sales have more than doubled across the board since Newsstand’s launch, according to paidContent. The Daily was the biggest winner, coming out No. 1 on Newsstand’s first bestseller list. While noting that it’s very early, Jessica Roy of 10,000 Words called the news “incredibly encouraging for digital publishers.”

At the Knight Digital Media Center, Amy Gahran wondered whether Newsstand’s popularity and ease of use will eventually spell the end of standalone iPhone and iPad news apps. That may not be a bad thing, she said: “Standalone news apps may look cool, but cumulatively they’re also a hassle for users who mainly just want access to content, not special interactive features.” Meanwhile, another news org, The Economist, has had to give in to Apple’s requirements that app payments go through its App Store, rather than through the web.

Reading roundup: Here’s what else went on in the world of news and tech in the past week:

— Google announced it would shut down a few services: Code Search, which lets people look up open-source code, and two social networks, Jaiku and Google Buzz. ReadWriteWeb’s Marshall Kirkpatrick reflected on Buzz’s privacy problems, and j-prof Josh Braun said Buzz reminds us that a social network site doesn’t have to be huge to be priceless. Mathew Ingram of GigaOM wondered if Google has really learned all that much from Buzz and Jaiku.

— The New York Times’ David Streitfeld wrote on Amazon’s burgeoning business as a book publisher, both online and in print. Mathew Ingram told publishers to wake up and realize that they’re a middleman that people are figuring out how to eliminate.

— The Guardian gave an update after a week its open-newslist experiment, reporting that it’s drawn quite a bit of interest from readers and that it’s been expanded to include longer-range plans. The Journal Register Co.’s Steve Buttry noted that some of his company’s papers are doing this, too.

— After its initial five-year run ended, the Knight Foundation announced its Knight News Challenge will continue in 2012, being run three times a year.

— The real-time web got a real breaking-news test yesterday when the news of former Libyan leader Muammer Gaddafi had died broke with numerous conflicting reports. Poynter’s Julie Moos looked at how major news sites handled the uncertainty.

— It’s something that’s been harped on for at least a decade, but Poynter’s Mallary Jean Tenore showed that news orgs still have a ways to go in providing accessible contact information for their journalists.

Image by Surian Soosay used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Oct. 21, 2011, 10 a.m.
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