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April 6, 2012, 10 a.m.
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This Week in Review: The ethics of online reading’s middlemen, and News Corp.’s latest blow

Plus: Fallout from the sale of the Philadelphia newspapers, analysis of media coverage of the Trayvon Martin case, and the rest of the week’s media/tech news.

Are read-it-later programs fair to publishers?: A brief controversy involving the offline reading app Readability brought to light some of the conflicts between publishers and those who present their content this week. It started last Friday, when Andy Faust of AppAdvice noticed that when Readability presents an article that you’ve saved to read later, it gives it to you from its own servers, without any prominent links to the original source. Daring Fireball’s John Gruber picked up the story and called Readability “scumbags” who “steal page views,” later saying his problem with Readability was that it presented its arrangement with publishers in dishonest terms. ReadWriteWeb’s Jon Mitchell chimed in to warn that Readability and other apps like it are walking a fine line between useful tool and unfair middleman.

One of the larger underlying issues to this fight is nature of Readability’s model — as Mitchell explained, it’s free with an optional paid version, and it distributes a portion of the revenues proportionally among the publishers whose articles are saved, but only if they sign up to receive it. Make sense? Good.

Readability responded to this criticism by adding direct links to the original publisher’s site and by reasserting the value of its financial model, particularly the fact that it pays some of the publishers of the content that gets shared on its apps. (This was something that online campaign organizer Clay Johnson also emphasized.) Anil Dash, a Readability adviser, offered a defense of the company, arguing that the tech world drags itself down with pointless inter-company squabbles, and tech pioneer Dave Winer also said the whole thing is being blown out of proportion. Tech writer Ben Brooks countered Dash by saying that the issues surrounding Readability are big ones, particularly what happens to its unclaimed money.

There were a few bigger-picture takes worth checking out on this issue. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram wondered why publishers don’t take advantage of Readability’s program (or at least design a competitor), and ReadWriteWeb’s Mitchell wrote that while publishers shouldn’t be happy with Readability and Instapaper’s models, the primary onus is on them to give readers what they want: “If publishers want to stem the tide of impressions and money lost to read-later services, their sites need to not suck.” Newsvine CEO Mike Davidson made a similar point, saying that “this whole episode is a good reminder that the problems of the publishing industry haven’t gone away just because the world has gone digital. In fact, personal archiving is an example of a way it’s gotten worse.”

News Corp. takes another hit: As News Corp.’s phone-hacking scandal shifts toward bribery and, most recently, satellite piracy, Capital New York’s Tom McGeveran explained what this new scandal is and why it may be more damaging than the original one. Meanwhile, the News Corp. empire suffered another blow, as Rupert Murdoch’s son, James, resigned as chairman of BSkyB, the company’s largest broadcasting arm, just six weeks after he did the same thing with its British newspaper division, News International.

Several journalists helped us understand what the move means: NPR’s David Folkenflik highlighted the importance of BSkyB to the Murdoch empire, and the Guardian’s Dan Sabbagh explained that News Corp. is doing everything it can to keep BSkyB immune from its scandals. The BBC’s Robert Peston said James Murdoch’s resignation was voluntary and wasn’t prompted by the upcoming government report on the phone-hacking scandal, and Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff gave the backstory of the politics between Rupert and James Murdoch.

Elsewhere, a group of investors filed a formal call to replace Rupert Murdoch as News Corp. chairman with an independent official, and it appears as though Rupert and James will be called to testify before the hacking scandal inquiry in the next few weeks. In the Guardian, Michael Wolff decried the American media’s apathy toward the scandals, and in an interesting tangential story, the document annotation and sharing site DocumentCloud took down the documents that broke the satellite piracy scandal because of a legal threat.

Philly papers’ startling price drop: Two of America’s iconic newspapers were sold again this week, and for many observers, it was a reminder of how far the industry has fallen. The Philadelphia Media Network, which publishes the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News, and their shared website Philly.com, was sold for the fourth time in six years to a small group of investors that includes a few prominent local political figures.

The group had most prominently included former Philadelphia mayor and Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, but he backed off after many people (including inside the papers’ newsrooms) voiced concern about possible political meddling. The Inquirer has the most comprehensive story on the sale, in which the new owners said they don’t want to run the papers, but simply want to preserve them for the community’s benefit. The new owners also voiced to Poynter their commitment to invest more money into the paper, met with employees to try to reassure them, and brought back former editor Bill Marimow, who is known for his commitment to investigative journalism.

What got most people’s attention, though, was the price — $55 million. That’s barely 10 percent of the papers’ 2006 sale price, and the same price they were sold for in 1969. Both media analyst Alan Mutter and Forbes’ Brian Solomon remarked on the massive loss in value and detailed what went wrong.

Darts and laurels in Trayvon Martin coverage: A few notes on the ongoing story of Trayvon Martin’s killing: Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism released a report on how traditional media and social media have looked at the story, and it had a few interesting takeaways. First, the story didn’t hit the public consciousness until a couple of weeks after the incident — but when it did, it blew up almost immediately. Second, blogs focused on racial aspects of the story, while Twitter was dominated by outrage at Zimmerman, and cable news and talk radio were focused on gun control and legal issues. And finally, there’s been a great disparity in the amount of coverage among the cable channels — tons on MSNBC, some on CNN, and much less on Fox News.

The New York Times’ David Carr lamented the sorry state of discourse surrounding the story, asking, “What happened to the village common, a place where we all meet with different opinions but the same set of facts? It seems to have gone missing.” The Atlantic’s Elspeth Reeve pushed back against his complaints. Meanwhile, the Columbia Journalism Review published a remarkably comprehensive guide to the best journalism on the case, and critiqued the Orlando Sentinel’s coverage.

Reading roundup: There’s loads and loads of other stuff worth keeping up on this week, so I’ll try to go through it as quickly as possible:

— Less than a year into their relationship, the liberal cable channel Current TV fired former MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann late last week. Here’s Olbermann’s response, the emails that led up to the decision, and David Carr’s explanation of why Olbermann will get hired again by someone.

— A couple of interesting studies, one on the production end and one on the consumption end: The American Society of News Editors released its annual survey of newsroom employment, and Poynter and Alan Mutter put the numbers in context regarding diversity and newsroom contraction, respectively. The other was a Pew study on e-reading, helpfully interpreted by Amy Gahran at CNN and Megan Garber of The Atlantic.

— Two interesting entries in Findings’ series on the future of reading: Wired columnist Clive Thompson, who generated smart responses from Robin Sloan and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, and NYU prof Clay Shirky, who also spoke with the Guardian about open journalism last weekend in a video that’s now up in snippets and in full.

— One of the leading groups representing the magazine industry announced guidelines for collecting user data on tablets. Here are the reports on the new standards from The New York Times and Adweek. And the American Journalism Review ran a feature on tablets as the big second chance for news orgs that have blown the transition to digital media.

— A few particularly helpful resources this week: At PBS MediaShift, Josh Stearns has written two parts of a guide to news media collaboration, and Journalism.co.uk has a great how-to on verifying information from social media.

— And two longer pieces to ponder: A Lab article highlighting a new paper identifying 27 computing concepts that could apply to journalism, and an engrossing interview by The Verge of The New York Times’ David Carr. Both are well worth your time this weekend.

Inquirer photo by Kathy Dempsey used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     April 6, 2012, 10 a.m.
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