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Dec. 16, 2011, 10:30 a.m.

This Week in Review: The web censorship fight heats up, and BuzzFeed’s new social news model

Plus: Twitter’s redesign, the debate over how to legally define journalism, and all the rest of this week’s must-reads in media and tech.

Sides line up on SOPA: The Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, continues to make its way through Congress, earning derision from all corners of the web every step of the way. This week, a House markup was held on a new version of the bill amended to allow Internet service providers to choose the “least burdensome” means of preventing access to websites, rather than explicitly requiring them to block domain names. As Techdirt’s Mike Masnick explained, it also contains several other changes to bring it more into line with the Senate version of the bill, though it’s still a censorship bill. Julian Sanchez of the Technology Liberation Front made a similar argument: “There is no “right” way to do Internet censorship, and the best version of a bad idea remains a bad idea.”

Meanwhile, the bill’s supporters and detractors seem to be organizing along predictable lines: Many of the largest media companies in the world, like Disney, News Corp., Viacom, and Time Warner, voiced their support for the bill. Of course, they’re also maintaining that they’re “pro-Internet” as they do this, as the film industry’s Chris Dodd declared. Journalists — most recently the American Society of News Editors — have been lining up against the bill, and top constitutional law scholar Laurence Tribe made the case against the bill as well.

Wikipedia has been considering imposing a brief blackout on itself, and its attorney, Geoff Brigham, laid out the site’s legal argument against the bill. A bunch of stars from the tech start-up world launched a site called I Work for the Internet highlighting the economic threat SOPA poses, which was immediately mocked by Gawker.

There’s also an international angle to this: Global Voices’ Ivan Sigal and Rebecca MacKinnon pointed out the potential global censorship threats of the bill. And it’s also worth noting that a SOPA alternative (called OPEN) has been introduced in the House, which, as Mathew Ingram of GigaOM noted, has been received a bit more warmly by some SOPA critics.

A social model for news: One of the web’s top political bloggers, Politico’s Ben Smith, announced this week he was leaving to take the editor-in-chief job for an unlikely employer: BuzzFeed, an aggregator of what’s viral on the web. As Smith and BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti (a co-founder of the Huffington Post) told the Atlantic Wire and Fast Company, their goal is to make their site the first to organize itself around its social distribution model at its core, incorporating the talk on the web around issues into each story and building content fundamentally to be shared. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram noted that this distribution-oriented model is the opposite of the one employed by most traditional news orgs and advised to observe its fate closely.

Smith and Peretti see it as the next iteration of the SEO-focused approach pioneered by the Huffington Post and currently followed by many others, and Smith told Fast Company he saw it as an improvement: “A lot of online journalism has been about gaming search engine algorithms — writing, in a way, for machines. Sharing is fundamentally about producing things people like.”

Smith also told the Lab’s Megan Garber he and his staff would still be doing old-fashioned political reporting, and Reuters’ Jack Shafer looked at another viral aggregator, Fark, to find out why adding journalism to that mix could be a good idea.

Twitter’s play for the casual user: One issue to catch up on from late last week: Twitter unveiled a redesign that orients the site around four new tabs: Home, Connect, Discover, and Me. In a critical review, John Gruber of Daring Fireball explained how the new interface works, but also worried about what the changes mean for where Twitter is headed: “The Twitter service this new UI presents is about … mass-market spoonfed ‘trending topics’ and sponsored content. It’s trying to make Twitter work for people who don’t see the appeal of what Twitter was supposed to be.”

Gruber wasn’t the only who looked at the new Twitter and saw a grab for traffic and advertisers. ZDNet’s Larry Dignan said it’s about keeping users on longer and feeding ad revenue, and Gizmodo’s Casey Chan called it “Twitter for the lurkers.” The New York Times’ Nick Bilton explained further how Twitter is trying to make itself simpler for non-techies, and as Ad Age reported, this redesign also includes the addition of brand pages for companies and marketers.

New ReadWriteWeb editor Dan Frommer also had some good takeaways from the redesign: Search and lists are being de-emphasized, and Twitter is trying to scale up to get really, really big. On the latter point, Mashable’s Sarah Kessler pointed out several ways in which Twitter is going after Facebook with these changes. As far as news goes, Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman saw a lot of potential for driving traffic and discovering news through the new Discover tab.

Classfying journalism by “what,” not “who”: As much as we complain about it, it turns out we were apparently eager to take another opportunity to argue about the “bloggers vs. journalists” issue. Discussion continued this week about the Oregon court ruling, reported last week, that declared that a blogger was not entitled to the same legal protections as journalists.

The New York Times’ David Carr echoed some of skepticism summarized here last week about whether the blogger in question was really acting as a journalist or more as an online antagonist. Others maintained that this blogger’s particular behavior was irrelevant to the larger legal question at hand: Boston j-prof Mark Leccese worried that this ruling could become an important precedent, though Eric Robinson of the Citizen Media Law Project pointed out that there are other legal precedents classifying bloggers as journalists.

John Dvorak of PC Magazine ripped the decision apart, and The New York Times brought several people together to consider whether and how the courts should consider bloggers to be journalists. The Atlantic’s Rebecca Rosen threw some (needed) cold water on the entire argument over who’s a journalist by contending that the notion of press freedom as protecting journalists is an anachronism, as the idea of a professional journalist didn’t exist when the First Amendment was written. Instead of focusing on the “who,” she said, we should look at the “what” — the quality and content of information for the good of the public and democracy, rather than who’s producing it.

A couple of others jumped on that theme of journalism being defined by what it is, rather than who does it. Free Press’ Josh Stearns tied the issue to the recent journalist arrests in the Occupy protests and said journalists should be defined by their actions, not any professional or institutional specifications. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram said it may be difficult to define journalism outside of traditional means, but the definition still needs to be rethought.
Reading roundup: There wasn’t any dominant story this week, but it was a pretty busy one overall. Here’s what else you might have missed:

— Mark Hemingway of the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard issued a critique of journalistic fact-checking operations, calling them an attempt by liberal news orgs to impose some authority on political discourse. Forbes’ John McQuaid agreed that fact-checking is indeed flawed, but not in the way Hemingway described — he called for more reporting and less unmerited certainty. Meanwhile, Ethan Zuckerman reported on a talk on the rise of fact-checking by a Columbia grad student.

— There are new holes being poked in News Corp.’s phone hacking defense every week, but this could be a particularly big one: We found out that James Murdoch replied to an email referring to the hacking as a major problem in 2008, long before he’s said he knew about the breadth of the issue. The New York Times’ David Carr wondered when James Murdoch’s house of cards will fall, and another former News of the World editor was arrested in the scandal.

— A USC study predicted that most newspapers (all but the smallest and largest) will be dead in five years. Longtime newspaper editor John Robinson was dubious.

— Free Press’ Josh Stearns commented on another USC study on open journalism to argue for journalism as a service, rather than a product. O’Reilly Media’s Alex Howard reported on a talk given by the scholar who wrote that study, Melanie Sill, and Lab contributor Nikki Usher about what open-source culture can teach journalism.

— Media consultant Judy Sims gave newspaper executives two ways to think radically differently, one of which hasn’t been discussed much: Jealously defending their talent, giving them more control over and equity in the products they’re developing.

Twitter bird by Matt Hamm and typing photo by Fabien Jakimowicz used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Dec. 16, 2011, 10:30 a.m.
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