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Aug. 13, 2012, 10:02 a.m.
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This Week in Review: The Olympics’ media lessons, and Google’s copyright crackdown

Plus: Another prominent case of plagiarism, the debate over false balance, a challenge to j-schools, and the rest of the week’s media and tech must-reads.

Lessons from Olympic coverage strategies: The Olympics ended yesterday, but it may have a long-term impact on the interaction between television and social media. After a week of complaints about tape-delayed coverage on NBC, a Pew poll found that most Americans are following the Olympics closely on TV (and some online, especially the young), and are also largely giving NBC high marks for its coverage. Time’s Josh Sanburn noted what a surprising success the Games have been for NBC.

NBC executives defended their strategy in a couple of interviews: NBC Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus told Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch that NBC was hesitant to air events both live and taped, among other reasons, because their research indicates that people are more likely to rewatch something they’ve seen online than something they’ve seen on TV. His predecessor, Dick Ebersol, told Joe Posnanski that the conflict comes down to whether you see the Olympics as a sporting event or a family television event (NBC sees the latter).

Others defended NBC as well: The Washington Post’s Michael Rosenwald said the #nbcfail brouhaha only highlighted the failures of Twitter to connect Americans, and Time’s Graeme McMillan said there’s nothing particularly wrong with the reality TV-ification of Olympic coverage.

Still, according to a Gallup poll, most Americans wanted to see NBC broadcast events both live and on tape delay (a plan for which Deadspin’s John Koblin made a good case), and a sizable number of people were using proxy servers to access BBC’s coverage. NPR’s Linda Holmes parsed out the debate between critics of the quality of NBC’s coverage and defenders of its business sense, concluding that the latter shouldn’t necessarily be a consideration of the public. “It’s one thing to suggest that business strategists should care only about the bottom line and the business plan when being critical; it’s quite another to suggest that everyone should.”

Meanwhile, the BBC offered a very different model from NBC, trying to make its content available just about everywhere for just about everyone. The BBC gave its own conclusions from its Olympics coverage — multiplatform viewing was big, and online viewing mirrored that of TV. Looking at both models, The Guardian’s Emily Bell concluded that the major lesson of this Olympics is that media coverage works best when it’s about giving people want they want — something traditional media outlets say they’re trying to do, but in reality aren’t very good at.

Google tightens up on copyright: Google is tweaking its search algorithms all the time, but it made a change this week that could end up being an extremely important one: It’s going to start ranking sites lower as they accumulate valid copyright violation complaints. The New York Times had some good basic background on the move, emphasizing the fact that the giants of the entertainment industry (the same folks behind SOPA and PIPA) have been pushing for this for a while.

Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land went further into the Google/Hollywood relationship and explained a bit more about how this change will work. Sullivan also explained how Google’s own YouTube, with its never-ending stream of copyright violations, will escape the ramifications of the change, as well as other popular sites.

Hollywood may have been encouraged by the change, but many online free-speech advocates were skeptical. The Electronic Frontier Foundation expressed concern about the process’s opacity and the prospect of false positives, and Mike Masnick of Techdirt articulated a variant of the latter objection — many legitimate technologies are initially painted as forms of piracy, and could get incorrectly swept up in this crackdown.

Forbes’ Tim Worstall raised the possibility of malicious false reports in the name of sabotaging rivals, which could be interpreted as valid by Google, and John Bergmayer of Public Knowledge explained the difference between Google’s copyright notices and the legally required copyright notices, and how some more prominent sites might be more disproportionately targeted. On the other side, tech investor Fred Wilson called this move a step in the right direction and suggested going further by developing a commercially competitive market for copyright whitelists and blacklists.

Do we have a plagiarism problem?: Another revered journalist was caught up in an ethical scandal this past week — this time, Fareed Zakaria, longtime Time columnist and, more recently, a CNN host. His recent column on gun control contained some striking similarities to an April New Yorker piece, first noticed by the conservative media-watching site Newsbusters. National Review’s Robert VerBruggen noted a few other similar passages, and the observations quickly spread across the web. Before the day was out, Zakaria had apologized and was suspended from CNN and Time.

Meanwhile, the fallout continued for former New Yorker columnist Jonah Lehrer, who was busted for plagiarism the week before Zakaria for fabricating quotes by Bob Dylan. Michael Moynihan, the journalist who uncovered the problem, found more fake interviews in Lehrer’s books, as well as plagiarized passages. Blogger Kevin Breen also detailed another case of fabrication involving magicians Penn and Teller, and Lehrer’s publisher is now reviewing all of his books.

Many writers have been attempting to answer the “Why?” question regarding Lehrer’s ethical sins over the past couple of weeks. Science writer Seth Mnookin said it’s tempting to blame busyness and shoddiness, but Lehrer’s acts are more indicative of arrogance than anything else. Boston University journalism professor Tom Fiedler tied Lehrer’s problem to his ignorance of how to do journalism.

Others spread the blame more broadly. The Guardian’s Stuart Kelly looked at the fallen status of facts in our society, while the L.A. Times’ Meghan Daum criticized modern shortcut culture and avoidance of complexity. Meanwhile, Reuters’ Felix Salmon linked Lehrer to TED and its habit of subjugating scientific fact to nifty narrative. “TED-think isn’t merely vapid, it’s downright dangerous in the way that it devalues intellectual rigor at the expense of tricksy emotional and narrative devices.”

Journalistic reporting, false balance, and truth: The New York Times highlighted a few of President Barack Obama’s criticisms of the press last week, noting in particular his disdain for false balance — when journalists portray conflicts as if both sides are equally weighted when they’re actually not. (This is a critique he’s voiced more formally in the past.) Reuters’ Jack Shafer was skeptical of the validity of Obama’s complaint: “I fear false balance less than I do those who would silence the false balancers.”

NYU professor Jay Rosen brought up another aspect of the problems surrounding journalism, truth, and objectivity by breaking down a particularly egregious he-said, she-said Washington Post blog post and contrasting the impulse toward that post’s political savviness and the fight for truth among journalists. The Nation’s Greg Mitchell echoed his points, and Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic also made an alternative truth-based proposal for political reporting. The Boston Phoenix’s David Bernstein pushed back against Rosen, however, by arguing that the Post blogger was acknowledging the absurdity of the situation.

A warning for j-schools: Several major journalism funders, including the Knight Foundation, sounded a warning to American journalism schools by saying their continued financial support of those schools would depend on j-schools speeding up their pace of innovation, specifically moving toward the “teaching hospital” model of education that incorporates actual journalistic practices at a much deeper level.

Poynter’s Howard Finberg explained the importance of the statement and included a few responses from those inside j-schools. Later last week, Google’s Richard Gingras told those gathered at the annual AEJMC conference that they need to prepare students for a radically different form of journalism than what’s out there now.

Professional journalists are looking for that kind of radically ramped-up training, as well, according to a Knight report issued last week and summarized well by Finberg. But there is some good news yet for journalism students: A Pew study found that the job market is improving for journalism and communication grads.

Reading roundup: There were bunches of other interesting stories and issues being talked about this week. Here are a few of them worth keeping up on:

— The latest circulation data on magazines revealed more steep drops for much of the industry, especially women’s magazines. The New York Times’ David Carr warned that magazines are on “the edge of the cliff” just as newspapers are, focusing particularly on Newsweek’s decline. Digital replica circulation is still just a small share of magazines’ total numbers, and both Adweek’s Charlie Warzel and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram wondered whether the magazine-style tablet publication model is fatally flawed, and Mike Masnick of Techdirt said it’s just an attempt to create artificial scarcity in digital form.

— Animated GIFs have officially become a capital-t Trend in web culture, with the Olympics acting as, in the words of the Lab’s Andrew Phelps, its “coming-out party.” Phelps explained the background and appeal of the humble GIF, and The New York Times’ Jenna Wortham also talked about how well they fit the Olympics. For journalists hoping to take advantage, Poynter’s Ann Friedman put together a useful how-to.

— Time Warner bought the sports site Bleacher Report for $175 million. As Bloomberg reported, Bleacher Report will operate under Turner Broadcasting, which had managed Sports Illustrated’s ads until last year. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram called the acquisition an important affirmation of the maturation of user-generated content sites.

— All Things D reported that The New York Times Co. is planning to sell its low-cost content site About.com to Answers.com. Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici gave some background on About, and Ryan Chittum of the Columbia Journalism Review argued that About has always been a poor fit for the Times.

— Finally, a short but thoughtful piece by longtime tech blogger John Battelle on the difficulty of founding, running, and properly valuing a digital media startup in a time of such significant flux.

Photos of Olympics TV broadcast by Bert Kimura, Google refrigerator by Aray Chan, and Fareed Zakaria by James Willamor used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Aug. 13, 2012, 10:02 a.m.
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