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This Week in Review: A push for aggregation standards, and the end of an era for print

Plus: Kony 2012 and the value of online activism, more News Corp. arrests, SXSW news, and the rest of the week’s big stories in media and tech.

Looking for aggregation standards: In response to the dozens of dust-ups over the proper way to aggregate others’ work online over the past few years, a new group has formed to establish some standards guiding the practice of pulling and drawing on others’ writing. The group, called the Council on Ethical Blogging and Aggregation, was announced by Advertising Age’s Simon Dumenco at the South by Southwest Interactive festival and given a shot of publicity in a column by the New York Times’ David Carr.

The group is still in its early stages, but according to Carr, it may end up with some of seal of approval for sites that abide by the standards it comes up with. Its members insisted they weren’t anti-aggregation, but simply want to bring some order to a practice that’s been chaotic and contentious. Dumenco explained his aims in a bit more depth in a Poynter chat as well.

Carr’s column also highlighted a similar effort by Maria Popova, who runs the creatively aggregated site Brain Pickings, to introduce what she calls The Curator’s Code, two new symbols to indicate whether you discovered a piece of content directly or indirectly. As The Atlantic’s Megan Garber explained, behind the code lies the idea that curation — the ability to combine pieces of content together in a creative and compelling way — is a form of intellectual labor and even art, something that should be honored through honest attribution.

The backlash against both ideas didn’t take long to start. Chris Crum of WebProNews said he appreciates the cause, but doesn’t see any real usefulness for Popova’s new symbols. Concern about Dumenco’s council was more significant: FishbowlNY’s Chris O’Shea said the council is made up only of content and blogging bigwigs and that it’ll only be preaching to the choir anyway. Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan made the same points a bit more forcefully, arguing that the group will be unnecessary to those who already care about aggregating properly and ignored anyway by those who don’t. Plus, he said, “This sort of top-down, expert-heavy, credential-credulous media structure is exactly what blogging has so brilliantly been destroying for more than a decade.”

Rob Beschizza of BoingBoing and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram both argued, like Nolan, that the solution to shoddy aggregation is cultural and social, not formal, and as Ingram noted, “we already have a tool for providing credit to the original source: It’s called the hyperlink.” Instapaper’s Marco Arment said that the problem isn’t whether people can find links to sources in aggregated work, but whether the aggregation eliminates the need for the link in the first place. He also disagreed with Popova’s contention that discovery entails its own form of ownership.

J-prof Susan Currie Sivek, meanwhile, said that more than anything, the council and the Curator’s Code may be for the curators themselves, rather than audiences. She referred to it as a form of “boundary work,” a professionalizing tactic meant to set a profession or form of work off as distinct from similar groups and practices.

Britannica goes out of print: We on the web seem to gobble up those symbolic milestones that indicate that Print Is Dead, and we got a big one this week, when the Encyclopedia Britannica announced that it was printing its last paper copy. PaidContent has a good summary of the story, with details about the digital efforts Britannica is touting.

There was a decent bit of mourning: Steven Vaughan-Nichols of ZDNet voiced his disdain for the lack of appreciation of true expertise on Wikipedia, and author Alexander Chee said the rise of Wikipedia at the expense of Brittanica is indicative of two of our cultural problems: “first, the belief that we all have a right to our opinions, and a right to base them on misinformation, and second, that we rely on unpaid content.”

Many others weren’t shedding any tears, though. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram argued for the superiority of the open, networked process of gathering knowledge, and The New Republic’s John McWhorter praised the comprehensiveness of Wikipedia. And while he was saddened by the closing, former Brittanica.com editor Charlie Madigan told Romenesko the encyclopedia had been far more interested in making money off of its knowledge than sharing it.

Taking the middle way were Time’s Matt Peckham, who noted that while the web offers us a wealth of easy-to-access information, it also requires us to be more diligent in our discernment of that information; and The Guardian’s Dan Gillmor, said he’s appreciated the wealth of knowledge Britannica’s accumulated but wants to see traditional publishers like it act with less condescension toward the web.

And Tim Carmody of Wired threw some cold water on the “Wikipedia killed Britannica” narrative, arguing instead that Microsoft’s Encarta was the true impetus for the encyclopedia’s demise in the early ’90s. Even in its heyday, Carmody said, print editions of Britannica were more valuable as cultural totems than actual knowledge sources. “Print will survive. Books will survive even longer. It’s print as a marker of prestige that’s dying,” he wrote.

How valuable is web activism?: The web’s viral video du jour — the Kony2012 campaign aimed at raising awareness about the activities of Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony — has led to some fascinating discussions about the Internet’s role in focusing attention on important issues and raising the possibility of meaningful collective action.

Numerous observers have raised valid points about the shortcomings of the video itself and the paternalistic attitudes toward Africa it reveals among those in the West; Ethan Zuckerman and BoingBoing’s Xeni Jardin have done a tremendous job gathering and summarizing those sentiments. I’m going to focus here instead on the role of the web and social media in mobilizing collective action.

As the Guardian’s John Naughton noted, the video’s massive reach is a vivid demonstration of the capability of web to bring video to a much broader audience than traditional broadcast. But what happens after that point? GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram laid out the basic point of disagreement — are videos like these spurring meaningful action on a wide scale, or merely pointless “slacktivism”?

Sociologist Zeynep Tukefci objected to the term “slacktivism,” arguing that the people who participate in networked activism campaigns like this aren’t slacking off from “real” activism; they’re taking symbolic action in a realm whose barriers to entry are typically too high for them to be included. In a similar New York Times column, she argued that the problem of limited action isn’t because of the video, but because of a lack of institutional mechanisms for significant action on big issues. USC prof Henry Jenkins and his students pointed out the empowering nature of the video, but said it missed a chance to instill a deeper media literacy in its viewers.

In a fantastic post, Gilad Lotan of SocialFlow added some deep data to the discussion, showing that the video’s spread relied on pre-existing networks that its producers, a nonprofit called Invisible Children, had been involved in for years, largely among Christian youth. An NPR story helped flesh out Invisible Children’s work in building those networks and their importance to the video’s success.

Re-arrests and a semi-apology in News Corp. case: A quick update on News Corp.’s ongoing travails: Rupert Murdoch’s son, James, who recently moved out of the company’s British newspaper division to a spot elsewhere in the company, wrote to the British Parliamentary investigation committee taking responsibility and expressing regret for allowing the phone hacking to go on so long but maintaining his innocence regarding the hacking itself.

Meanwhile, the former head of that division, Rebekah Brooks, was re-arrested this week on suspicion of obstruction of justice, and a top reporter at the now-defunct News of the World was also re-arrested on suspicion of intimidating a witness. A former NotW reporter told the investigation he was fired during the 1980s because he refused to bribe police officers. Murdoch told the staff of the Sun that the investigation into that paper would be finished soon, but he and his son have been booked to testify before the investigation next month.

Reading roundup: Lots of smaller stories this week to keep an eye on, thanks in part to South by Southwest. Here’s a quick rundown:

— Twitter announced this week it’s buying the microblogging site Posterous (The Next Web has plenty of details.) Posterous hasn’t exactly been thriving, so it was widely assumed that Twitter bought it for its technology and talent and will shut down the site sooner or later. Several people, including Dave Winer and Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman, noted a lesson for web users (including journalists): Platforms — especially free ones — are fragile things.

— A slew of SXSW happenings: Gawker’s Nick Denton decried the state of online comments and detailed his plans to overhaul Gawker’s commenting format, and Anil Dash talked about why the effort excites him. A marketing firm launched a program that turned homeless people into wireless hotspots, which got lots of people upset (but not Megan Garber). Reuters’ Felix Salmon reported (and the New York Times seconded) that CNN was close to buying the social media blog Mashable, but paidContent’s Staci Kramer was skeptical. And New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson spoke on her paper’s future, then caught up with Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici.

— Yahoo sued Facebook in federal court for infringing on 10 patents covering advertising, privacy, and social networking. Much of the opinion among tech folks aligned against Yahoo, but Om Malik said there has to be more here than meets the eye.

— The venerable magazine The New Republic was bought by someone with web in his blood: Facebook co-founder and online Obama campaign veteran Chris Hughes. Here’s Hughes’ letter to readers and interview with NPR, and The New York Times’ article on the purchase.

— The Columbia Journalism Review went deep inside AOL’s hyperlocal initiative Patch with an account from a former editor of one of its local sites. A SXSW panel also discussed the struggles of many hyperlocal sites.

— Finally, two fantastic pieces on how to improve journalism education: Web writer Howard Rheingold talked about the importance of teaching students to collaborate, and Nebraska j-prof Matt Waite suggested teaching tech outside the j-school curriculum.

Encyclopedia photo by John Morrison and Rebekah Brooks image by Surian Soosay used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
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