Is Facebook a threat to the open web?: There was still a lot of smart commentary on Facebook’s filing for a public stock offering rolling in last late week, so I’ll start with a couple pieces I missed in last week’s review: Both The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal and Slate’s Farhad Manjoo were skeptical of Facebook’s ability to stay so financially successful. Madrigal said it’s going to have to get a lot more than the $4.39 in revenue per user it’s currently getting, and Manjoo wondered about what happens after the social gaming craze that’s been providing so much of Facebook’s revenue passes.
How to supplement those revenue streams? A lot of the answer’s going to come from personal data aggregation, and law professor Lori Andrews wrote in The New York Times about some of the dark sides of that practice, including stereotyping and discrimination. Facebook also needs to move more deeply into mobile, and Wired’s Tim Carmody documented its struggles in that area. On the bright side, Wired’s Steven Levy approved of Mark Zuckerberg’s letter to shareholders and his articulation of The Hacker Way.
Facebook’s filing also spurred an intriguing discussion of the relationship between it, Google, and the open web. As web pioneer John Battelle said best and The Atlantic’s James Fallows summarized aptly, several observers were concerned that Facebook’s rise and Google’s potential decline is a loss for the open web, because Google built its financial success on the success of the open web while Facebook’s success depends on increased sharing inside its own private channels. As Battelle argued, this private orientation threatens the core values that should drive the Internet: decentralization, a commons-based ethos, neutrality, interoperability, and data openness. Mathew Ingram of GigaOM countered that users don’t care so much about openness as usefulness, and that’s what could eventually do Facebook in.
Another Facebook-related discussion sprung up around Evgeny Morozov’s piece for The New York Times lamenting the death of cyberflânerie — the practice of strolling through the streets of the web alone, taking in and reflecting on its sights and sounds. Among other factors, he pinpointed Facebook’s “frictionless sharing” as the culprit, by mandating that all experiences be shared and tailored to our narrow interests. Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci pushed back against Morozov’s argument, countering that there’s still plenty of room for sharing-based serendipity because our friends’ interests don’t exactly line up with our own. And journalist Dana Goldstein argued that a lot of what yesterday’s flâneurs did is still echoed in the web today, for better or worse — cyberstalking, trying out new identities, and presenting our ideal selves to the public.
The clampdown on breaking news via Twitter: One of international journalism’s leaders in social media innovation, News Corp.’s Sky News, issued a surprisingly stern crackdown on its journalists’ Twitter practices, banning them from retweeting information from any other journalists without clearing it past the news desk and from tweeting about anything outside their beats.
There were a few people in favor of the new policy — Forbes’ Ewan Spence applauded the ‘better right than first’ approach, and Fleet Street Blues rather headscratchingly asserted that “it makes no sense for them to pay journalists to report through a medium outside its own editorial controls.” But far more people were crying out in opposition.
Reuters’ Anthony De Rosa reiterated that argument that a retweet is simply a quote, rather than an endorsement, and Breaking News’ Cory Bergman said not all the broadcast rules apply to Twitter — it’s okay to be human there. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram and POLIS’ Charlie Beckett made the point that Sky should want its reporters to be seen as go-to information sources, period — no matter where the information comes from. As Beckett put it: “We the audience now privilege interactivity and added value over conformity. We trust you because you share, not because you have hierarchical structures.”
The BBC also updated its social media guidelines to urge reporters not to break news on Twitter before they file it to the BBC’s internal systems. BBC social media editor Chris Hamilton quickly clarified that the policy wasn’t as restrictive as it sounded: The BBC’s tech allows its journalists to file simultaneously to Twitter and to its newsroom CMS (an impressive feat in itself), and when that tech isn’t available, they want their journalists to file to the newsroom first — “a difference of a few seconds.”
J-prof Alfred Hermida said the idea that journalists shouldn’t break news on Twitter rests on the flawed assumption that journalists have a monopoly on breaking the news. And on Twitter, fellow media prof C.W. Anderson asserted that the chief problem lies in the idea that breaking news adds significant value to a story. “The debate over “breaking news on Twitter” is a perfect example of mistaking professional values for public / financial / ‘rational’ ones,” he wrote. Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman, meanwhile, praised the BBC for putting some real thought into how to fit Twitter into the breaking news workflow.
An unclear picture of the Times’ paywall: The New York Times released its fourth-quarter results late last week, and, as usual with their recent announcements, it proved something of a media business Rorschach test. The company reported a loss of $39.7 million for the year, thanks in large part to declines in advertising revenue — though most of that was due to About.com, as revenue in its news division was slightly up for the quarter.
As for the paywall, media analyst Ken Doctor reported 390,000 digital subscribers and estimated the Times’ paywall revenue at $86 million and said the paper has climbed a big mountain in getting more than 70 percent of its print subscribers to sign up for online access. Reuters’ Felix Salmon saw the paywall numbers as “unamiguously good news” and said it shows the paywall hasn’t eaten into ad revenues as much as it was expected to.
Others were a bit less optimistic. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram said the Times’ new paywall revenue still isn’t enough to make up for its ad revenue declines, and urged the times to go beyond the paywall in hunting for digital revenue. Media analyst Greg Satell made a similar point, arguing that the paywall is a false hope and calling for the Times build up more “satellite” brands online, like the Wall Street Journal’s All Things Digital. Henry Blodget of Business Insider had a different solution: Keep cutting costs until the newsroom is down to a size that can be supported by a digital operation.
A nonprofit journalism merger: After a few weeks of speculation, two of the U.S.’ more prominent nonprofit news operations, the Bay Citizen and the Center for Investigative Reporting, have announced their intent to merge. Both groups are based in California’s Bay Area, and the CIR runs the statewide news org California Watch. The executive director of the new organization would be Phil Bronstein, the CIR board chairman and former San Francisco Chronicle editor.
Opinions on the move were mixed: Oakland Local founder (and former California Watch consultant) Susan Mernit thought it would make a lot of sense, combining the Bay Citizen’s strengths in funding and distribution with California Watch’s strengths in editorial content. Likewise, the Lab’s Ken Doctor saw it as an opportunity to make local nonprofit journalism work at an unprecedented scale.
There are reasons for caution, though. As Jim Romenesko noted, the Bay Citizen has recently gone through several key departures and the unexpected death of its co-founder and main benefactor, Warren Hellman (and even forgot to renew its web domain for a bit). And California Watch pointed out some of the potential conflicts between the two newsrooms — California Watch has a partnership with the Chronicle, whom the Bay Citizen considers a competitor. And the Bay Citizen has its own partnership with The New York Times for its regional edition, something PBS MediaShift’s Ashwin Seshagiri said could now prove as much a hindrance as an advantage.
J-prof Jay Rosen said the two orgs aren’t a good fit because of their differing institutional bases — the CIR is more established and has been on a steady build, while the Bay Citizen’s short history is full of turmoil. And the San Francisco Bay Guardian’s Steven Jones argued that Bronstein’s rationale for the merger is misrepresenting Hellman’s wishes.
Reading roundup: Lots of other stuff going on this week, too. Here’s a quick rundown:
— Another week, another few new angles to the already enormous News Corp. phone hacking scandal: The FBI is investigating the company for illegal payments of as much £100,000 to foreign officials such as police officers, a political blogger told British officials that the Sunday Mirror’s top editor personally authorized hacking, and The Times of London admitted it hacked into a police officer’s email to out him as the author of an anonymous blog. How much is this whole mess costing News Corp.? $87 million for the investigation alone last quarter.
— News Corp.’s tablet news publication The Daily got the one-year treatment with an update on its so-so progress in The New York Times. News business analyst Alan Mutter also gave a pretty rough review of the status of tablet news apps as a whole.
— A couple of other news developments of interest to folks in our little niche: The tech news site GigaOM announced it was buying paidContent from the Guardian (PBS MediaShift’s Dorian Benkoil loved the move, and the Knight Foundation announced the first of its new News Challenge competitions, this one oriented around networks.
— Finally, for those of us among the digitally hyper-connected, The New York Times’ David Carr wrote a poignant piece on the enduring value of in-person connections, and sociologist Zeynep Tufekci offered a thoughtful response.
Original Twitter bird by Matt Hamm used under a Creative Commons license.