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Dec. 9, 2011, 9:30 a.m.

This Week in Review: Institutions and news innovation, and papers’ paywall experiments roll on

Plus: A legal test of ‘Are bloggers journalists?’, Facebook’s Timeline and Subscribe, and the rest of the week’s future-of-news reading.

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

Do institutions have a place in news innovation?: About three weeks after Dean Starkman’s indictment of future-of-news thinkers was posted online by the Columbia Journalism Review, NYU professor Clay Shirky — one of the primary targets of the piece — delivered a response late last week in the form of a thoughtful essay on the nature of institutions and the news industry. Shirky explained the process by which institutions can lapse into rigidity and blindness to their threats, and he argued that there’s no way to preserve newspapers’ most important institutional qualities in the digital age, so the only option left is radical innovation.

Several observers — of a future-of-news orientation themselves — jumped in to echo Shirky’s point. The Journal Register Co.’s Steve Buttry praised Shirky for waiting and reflecting rather than responding immediately, and media consultant Steve Yelvington seconded Shirky’s point that all this talk about traditional journalistic models being overwhelmed by a decentralized, audience-focused digital tidal wave is descriptive, not prescriptive — not necessarily the way things should be, but simply the way they are.

Howard Owens of the Batavian took the middle ground, declaring that evolution, not revolution, is the standard vehicle for change in journalism and laying a model for sustainable local journalism that focuses on local ownership, startups, and innovation. In the end, Owens wrote, online journalism will evolve and survive. “It will find ways to make more and more money to pay for more and more journalism.  The audience is there for it, local businesses will always want to connect with that audience, and entrepreneurial minded people will find ways to put the pieces together.”

The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal raised a good point in the discussion about how to preserve serious journalism: He argued that the primary obstacle won’t be so much about paying for journalists to cover important public-affairs issues, but about finding a way for that news to reach a substantial percentage of the population in a given area. That “amplification” problem may be tough to solve, but could be relatively easy to scale once that initial solution is found.

Paywalls picking up steam among smaller papers: Now that The New York Times has bravely served as a paywall guinea pig for the rest of America’s general-interest newspapers (apparently successfully, judging from the indicators we have so far), we’re starting to see more of the nation’s mid-sized papers announce online pay plans of their own. This week, Gannett, the United States’ largest newspaper chain, revealed that it would be expanding its paywalls to more of its papers sometime next year. According to the Gannett Blog, the company began experimenting with paywalls at three newspapers last year, and while we don’t know much of anything about those projects, it appears Gannett is pleased enough with them to build out on that model.

The Chicago Sun-Times also announced a paywall to begin this week: It’ll follow the increasingly popular metered model employed by the Financial Times and New York Times, allowing 20 page views per 30-day period before asking for $6.99 a month ($1.99 for print subscribers). PaidContent noted that the plan is being run by Press+ (the system created by Steve Brill’s former Journalism Online) and that Roger Ebert’s work has been exempted from the paywall.

We also got a couple of updates from existing newspaper paywalls: MinnPost reported that the Minneapolis Star Tribune has come out ahead so far in its new paywall, generating an estimated $800,000 in subscriptions while losing a five-figure total of advertising dollars. And PaidContent reported that three paywalled MediaNews Group papers (now run by John Paton of the Journal Register Co.) have killed their Monday print editions, with a corresponding drop of their online paywall on those days.

Is this blogger a journalist?: Just when you thought the “Are bloggers journalists?” discussion was completely played out, it got some new life this week when an Oregon judge ruled that a blogger being sued for $2.5 million in a defamation case wasn’t protected by the state’s media shield law because she wasn’t a journalist. As Seattle Weekly initially reported, the judge reasoned that she wasn’t a journalist because she wasn’t affiliated with any “newspaper, magazine, periodical, book, pamphlet, news service, wire service, news or feature syndicate, broadcast station or network, or cable television system.”

This type of ruling typically gets bloggers (and a lot of journalists) riled up, and rightly so. Mathew Ingram of GigaOM gave some great context regarding state-by-state shield laws, noting that several other recent rulings have defined who’s a journalist much more broadly than this judge did. These types of distinctions based on institutional affiliation are attempts to hold back a steadily rising tide, he argued.

On the other hand, Forbes’ Kashmir Hill described some of the case’s background that seemed to indicate that this particular blogger was much more intent on defamation than performing journalism, creating dozens of sites to dominate the search results for the company she was attacking, then emailing the company to offer $2,500/mo. online reputation management. Hill concluded, “Yes, bloggers are journalists. But just because you have a blog doesn’t mean that what you do is journalism.” Libertarian writer Julian Sanchez agreed, saying that while the judge’s ruling wasn’t well worded, this blogger was not a journalist.

Facebook’s new tools: A few Facebook-related notes: The social network began rolling out Timeline, the graphical life-illustration feature it announced back in September this week, starting in New Zealand. It also briefly, vaguely announced plans to extend its Twitter-like Subscribe button into a plugin for websites, a move that TechCrunch said signifies that “the company is directly attacking the entire Twitter model head-on.” Cory Bergman of Lost Remote urged news orgs to get on the Subscribe bandwagon as soon as they can, as a way to extend their journalists’ brands.

Meanwhile, news business consultant Alan Mutter laid out a basic plan for publishers to not just gain audience on Facebook, but make money there, too. The key element of that plan may be a surprising one: “The most intriguing and perhaps most productive approach for making money off Facebook, however, is for newspapers to take over the social media marketing and advertising campaigns for businesses in their markets.”

Reading roundup: Pretty slow week this week, but there were a few smaller stories worth keeping an eye on:

— As a sort of sequel to the Huffington Post’s OffTheBus effort in the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, Jay Rosen and NYU’s Studio 20 are partnering with the Guardian to determine and cover “the citizens’ agenda” in the 2012 election. Rosen and NYU will also be working with MediaNews and the Journal Register Co. on the local and regional level. At the Lab, Megan Garber explained what’s behind the initiative.

— The American Journalism Review published a piece on the journalistic ethics of retweeting that included news that the Oregonian is telling its reporters to consider all retweets as endorsements. The Journal Register Co.’s Steve Buttry rounded up (appalled) reaction and argued that editors should consider each case individually.

— Ten NBC-owned TV stations in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles will work with nonprofit news orgs (public radio in LA and Philly, and the Chicago Reporter and ProPublica) in a new initiative first reported by the LA Times.

— The popular iPad news aggregation app Flipboard launched for iPhone this week, and Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman drew lessons on mobile design for news orgs from it.

— The New York Times reported that most of the pack of would-be iPad competitors in the tablet market have fizzled out, though the Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet have gotten off to promising starts.

— Here at the Lab, longtime newspaper editor Tom Stites is in the midst of an interesting three-part series on the state of web journalism. Part one is a good overview of where we are and where we want to go, and part two looks at the wide-ranging effects of layoffs and cuts into local journalism.

Clay Shirky photo by J.D. Lasica used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Dec. 9, 2011, 9:30 a.m.
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