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Jan. 13, 2012, 11:30 a.m.

This Week in Review: Google and the social search wars, and the Post’s in-house innovation critic

Plus: ‘Truth vigilantes’ and objectivity, debating the value of political journalism, unique paywall models, and the rest of the week’s must-reads in the future of news.

Social search and competition: Google made a major move toward unifying search and social networks (particularly its own) this week by fusing Google+ into its search and deepening its search personalization based on social information. It’s a significant development with a lot of different angles, so I’ll try to hit all of them as understandably as I can.

As usual, Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan put together the best basic guide to the changes, with plenty of visual examples and some brief thoughts on many of the issues I’ll cover here. TechCrunch’s Jason Kincaid explained that while these changes may seem incremental now, they’re foreshadowing Google’s eventual goal to become “a search engine for all of your stuff.”

PaidContent’s Jeff Roberts liked the form and functionality of the new search, but said it still needs a critical mass of Google+ activity to become truly useful, while GigaOM’s Janko Roettgers said its keys will be photos and celebrities. ReadWriteWeb’s Jon Mitchell was impressed by the non-evilness of it, particularly the ability to turn it off. Farhad Manjoo of Slate said Google’s reliance on social information is breaking what was a good search engine.

Of course, the move was also quite obviously a shot in the war between Google and Facebook (and Twitter, as we’ll see later): As Ars Technica’s Sean Gallagher noted, Google wants to one-up Facebook’s growing social search and keep some of its own search traffic out of Facebook. Ben Parr said Facebook doesn’t need to worry, though Google has set up Google+ as the alternative if Facebook shoots itself in the foot.

But turning a supposedly neutral search engine into a competitive weapon didn’t go over well with a lot of observers. The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal saw a conflict between Google’s original mission (organizing the world’s information) and its new social mission, and Danny Sullivan said Google is putting score-settling above relevance. Several others sounded similar alarms: Mathew Ingram of GigaOM said users are becoming collateral damage in the war between the social networks, and web veteran John Battelle argued that the war was bad for Google, Facebook, and all of us on the web. “The unwillingness of Facebook and Google to share a public commons when it comes to the intersection of search and social is corrosive to the connective tissue of our shared culture,” he wrote.

For others, the changes even called up the specter of antitrust violations. MG Siegler said he doesn’t mind Google’s search (near-) monopoly, but when it starts using that monopoly to push its other products, that’s when it turns into a legal problem. Danny Sullivan laid out some of the areas of dispute in a possible antitrust case and urged Google to more fully integrate its competitors into search.

Twitter was the first competitor to voice its displeasure publicly, releasing a statement arguing that deprioritizing Twitter damages real-time search. (TechCrunch has the statement and some valuable context.) Google responded by essentially saying, “Hey, you dumped us, buddy,” and its executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, told Search Engine Land they’d be willing to negotiate with Twitter and Facebook.

Finally, some brief journalistic implications: Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman said this means SEO’s value is waning for news organizations, being replaced by the growing importance of building strong social followings and making content easy to share, and Mathew Ingram echoed that idea. Daniel Victor of ProPublica had some wise thoughts on the meaning of stronger search for social networks, concluding that “the key is creating strategies that don’t depend on specific tools. Don’t plan for more followers and retweets; plan for creating incentives that will gather the most significant contributions possible from non-staffers.”

Innovation and its discontents: Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton inducing a bit of eye-rolling among digital media folks this week with a column arguing that the paper is “innovating too fast” by overwhelming readers and exhausting employees with a myriad of initiatives that lack a coherent overall strategy. J-prof Jay Rosen followed up with a revealing chat with Pexton that helps push the discussion outside of the realm of stereotypes: Pexton isn’t reflexively defending the status quo (though he remains largely print-centric), but thinks there are simply too many projects being undertaken without an overarching philosophy about how or why things should be done.

Pexton got plenty of push-back, not least from the Post’s own top digital editor, Raju Narisetti, who responded by essentially saying, in Rosen’s paraphrase, “This is the way it’s going to be and has to be, if the Post is to survive and thrive. It may well be exhausting but there is no alternative.” GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram said he was just about to praise the Post for its bold experimentation, and the Guardian’s Martin Belam argued that Pexton is actually critiquing newness, rather than innovation.

J-prof Alfred Hermida argued — as Pexton himself seemed to in his chat with Rosen — that the issue is not about how fast or slow innovation is undertaken, but whether that innovation is done in a way that’s good or bad for journalism. Former Sacramento Bee editor Melanie Sill responded that many newspapers remain stuck in 20th-century formulas, blinding them to the fact that what they consider revolutionary change is only a minor, outmoded shift. She noted that all the former top editors she’s talked to have had the same regret: that they hadn’t pushed harder for change. And Free Press’ Josh Stearns pointed out that we should expect the path toward that change to be an easy one.

‘Truth vigilantes’ and objectivity: Pexton wasn’t the only ombudsman this week to be put on the defensive after a widely derided column: New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane drew plenty of criticism yesterday when he asked whether Times reporters should call out officials’ untruths in their stories — or, as he put it, act as a “truth vigilante.” Much of the initial reaction was a variation of, “How is this even a question?”

Brisbane told Romenesko that he wasn’t asking whether the Times should fact-check statements and print the truth, but whether reporters should “always rebut dubious facts in the body of the stories they are writing.” He reiterated this in a follow-up, in which he also printed a response by Times executive editor Jill Abramson saying the Times does this all the time. Her point was echoed by former Times executive editor Bill Keller and PolitiFact editor Bill Adair, and while he called the initial question “stupid,” Reuters’ Jack Shafer pointed out that Brisbane isn’t opposed to skepticism and fact-checking.

The American Journalism Review’s Rem Rieder enthusiastically offered a case for a more rigorous fact-checking role for the press, as did the Online Journalism Review’s Robert Niles (though his enthusiasm was with tongue lodged in cheek). The Atlantic’s Adam Clark Estes used the episode as an opportunity to explain how deeply objectivity is ingrained in the mindset of the American press, pointing to the “view from nowhere” concept explicated by j-prof Jay Rosen. Rosen also wrote about the issue himself, arguing that objectivity’s view from nowhere has surpassed truthtelling as a priority among the press.

How useful is the political press?: The U.S. presidential primary season is usually also peak political-journalism-bashing season, but there were a couple of pieces that stood out this week for those interested in the future of that field. The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank mocked the particular pointlessness of this campaign’s reporting, describing scenes of reporters vastly outnumbering locals at campaign events and remarking, “if editors knew how little journalism occurs on the campaign trail, they would never pay our expenses.”

The New Yorker’s John Cassidy defended the political press against the heat it’s been taking, arguing that it still produces strong investigative and long-form reporting on important issues, and that the speed of the new news cycle allows it to correct itself quickly. He blamed many of its perceived failings not on the journalists themselves, but on the public that’s consuming their work.

The Boston Phoenix reported on the decline of local newspapers’ campaign coverage and wondered if political blogs and websites could pick up the slack, while the Lab’s Justin Ellis looked at why news orgs love partnering up during campaign season, focusing specifically on the newly announced NBC News-Newsweek/Daily Beast arrangement.

A unique paywall model: The many American, British, and Canadian publishers implementing or considering paywalls might marvel at the paid-content success of Piano Media, but they can’t hope to emulate it: A year after gaining the cooperation of each of Slovakia’s major news publishers for a unified paywall there, the company is expanding the concept to Slovenia. As paidContent noted, Piano is hoping to sign up 1% of Slovenia’s Internet-using population, and the Lab’s Andrew Phelps reported that the company is planning to bring national paywalls to five European nations by the end of the year. As Piano’s CEO told Phelps, the primary barrier to subscription has not been economic, but philosophical, especially for commenting.

Elsewhere in paywalls, media consultant Frederic Filloux looked at what’s making The New York Times’ strategy work so far — unique content, a porous paywall that allows it to maintain high traffic numbers and visibility, and cooperation with Apple — and analyst Ken Doctor wondered whether all-access subscriptions across multiple devices and publications within a company could be a key to paid content this year.

Reading roundup: Tons of smaller stuff going on this week outside the glare of the Google-Facebook-Twitter wars. Here’s a quick rundown:

— One item I forgot to note from late last week: The AP and a group of 28 other news organizations have launched NewsRight, a system to help news orgs license their content to online aggregators. Poynter’s Rick Edmonds offered a detailed analysis, but GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram was skeptical.

— The online commenting service Disqus released some of its internal research showing that pseudonymous commenters tend to leave more and higher-quality comments than their real-name counterparts. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram used the data to argue that a lack of real names isn’t nearly as bad as its critics say.

— No real news in SOPA this week, but the text of Cory Doctorow’s lecture last month on SOPA and the dangers of copyright regulation has been posted. It’s long, but worth a read.

— Finally, three fantastic practical posts on how to practice digital journalism, from big-picture to small-grain: Howard Owens of the Batavian’s list of things journalists can do to reinvent journalism, Melanie Sill at Poynter on how to begin doing open journalism, and Steve Buttry of the Journal Register Co. on approaching statehouse coverage from a digital-first perspective.

Photo by SpeakerBoehner used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 13, 2012, 11:30 a.m.
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