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This Week in Review: Leveson and British press freedom, and the paywall debate circles WaPo

Plus: The BBC sex abuse scandal and possible libel on Twitter, a new report on post-industrial journalism, and the rest of this week’s media/tech news.

Does the British press need more regulation?: British judge Lord Justice Leveson wrapped up a yearlong investigation into the British press with the release yesterday of a 2,000-page report recommending, as The Guardian noted, the first statutory regulation of the British press since the 17th century. The Guardian has an interactive mini-version of the report, as well as a great explainer of why the investigation was launched and the background on its regulatory options. The investigation was launched in response to News Corp.’s phone-hacking scandal that began at the now-defunct News of the World newspaper, and the report contains damning evaluations of the cultures of both News Corp. and the British press in general.

Leveson called for the modification of the current Press Complaints Commission into an independent regulatory body modeled after the government broadcast regulator Ofcom, one that would be monitored by Ofcom itself to ensure its independence, though Leveson insisted the revamped body wouldn’t be a regulator. His model legislation would also include government protection of freedom of the press, a new libel and privacy tribunal to hear complaints instead of the courts, as well as a whistleblowing hotline and a “conscience clause” in journalist employment contracts allowing journalists the legal right to refuse orders they find morally objectionable without fear of repercussion.

Now comes the political fight over whether these recommendations will be enacted. A bill will be introduced, but possibly just to show the plan wouldn’t work. There’s likely to be a hotly contested split in Parliament, and even Prime Minister David Cameron and his deputy, Nick Clegg, don’t agree. Cameron expressed his deep reservations about a regulatory body, though Clegg gave his own speech to Parliament in favor of the new body.

Many in the press joined Cameron (or are expected to join him) in opposition to Leveson’s proposals: The Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the regulation recommendation, and here in the States, Michael Wolff called the report toothless on the News Corp. scandal, and Reuters’ Jack Shafer said the problem with Britain’s press is less with the press itself than the readers who sanction it. A New York Times editorial also condemned the proposed regulator, and Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici said Britain’s press can police itself.

There was a second objection running strongly through reaction to the report: It created a distinction between print and web news and focused almost entirely on the former. A Guardian article explained several scholars’ concerns about Leveson’s contention that the web is an “ethical vacuum” distinct from print’s ethical standards, and paidContent’s Robert Andrews showed the contradictions on the subject in Leveson’s report. The Guardian’s Emily Bell contended that trying to craft a comprehensive press policy without any real reference to the web is futile, while POLIS’ Charlie Beckett countered that the report’s focus on newspapers doesn’t make it irrelevant.

BBC scandal raises libel questions for Twitter, too: It wasn’t a focus of the Leveson report, but Britain’s other big media scandal spread into troubling new territory this week. After the BBC’s Newsnight program spiked a story about the broadcaster’s role in alleged widespread sexual abuse by a former host and also falsely accused a politician of sexual abuse himself, the BBC’s director general George Entwistle resigned earlier this month. He was replaced on Thanksgiving by Tony Hall, former BBC news director and chief executive of the Royal Opera House. The Guardian’s John Plunkett profiled Hall, and paidContent’s Robert Andrews encouraged him to continue the BBC’s digital news innovation.

Two top BBC officials testifying before a parliamentary committee acknowledged massive errors in judgment by the BBC in the scandal, though they didn’t fault Entwistle specifically. The nonprofit Bureau of Investigative Journalism, whose journalist helped report the faulty story, disavowed any sort of editorial control over the piece. Meanwhile, as former BBC director general Mark Thompson went through his first couple of weeks as The New York Times Co.’s CEO, he also testified before a closed-door committee about the canceled internal Newsnight story.

But last week, the scandal spread beyond news organizations to individual Twitter users. The politician falsely accused of child abuse, Lord Alistair McAlpine, reportedly intends to sue Twitter users who identified him in connection with the accusations (the BBC story didn’t, but provided plenty of clues). As The Guardian reported, he’s going after 20 “high-profile” Twitter users for libel damages, and The New York Times added that those with fewer than 500 followers who named him can settle by apologizing online, donating to charity.

As The Times noted, others have sued Twitter users for libel before, but this case is probably unprecedented in its scope and prominence. The Economist wondered if there’s any legal difference between more personally oriented Twitter messages between friends and tweets that are broadcast to a large audience, and GigaOM’s Jeff John Roberts compared U.S. and U.K. law regarding Twitter and libel.

In the Financial Times, Harvard law professor Jonathan Zittrain argued that the solution to spreading damaging falsehoods online lies in improving the technology, not pursuing legal action: “Technologies that greatly empower people to communicate with one another are transformative enough to cause injury. Their sharp edges can best be sanded by enlisting people of good faith to help correct the wrongs they may have inadvertently amplified.”

Paywalls and the Post’s future: Here in the States, the biggest story continued to be the change at the top of The Washington Post, with The Boston Globe’s Martin Baron replacing Marcus Brauchli as the Post’s executive editor earlier this month. A few pieces took a closer look at what was causing the friction between Brauchli and publisher Katharine Weymouth: Post media critic Erik Wemple reported that the rift between Brauchli and Weymouth stemmed from the Post’s inability to turn growing web traffic into ad dollars. Even though traffic has steadily increased, the Post’s digital ad revenue actually dropped from 2010 to 2011.

The New York Times’ David Carr pointed the finger squarely at Weymouth, faulting her for the paper’s strategy of local dominance and free-access, traffic-driven economics, rather than owning political news on the web and pushing to remain a top national publication. Several others disagreed with Carr’s assessment: Poynter’s Rick Edmonds said the Post is in better shape than Carr gives it credit for. The Washingtonian’s Harry Jaffe said Carr’s blame was misplaced and should have been directed at other Post execs and Brauchli, and former Washingtonian editor Jack Limpert said the Post’s local coverage has actually weakened, for which he blamed Brauchli.

Stepping into this mess is Baron, who addressed the newsroom for the first time and received plenty of unsolicited advice about what to do with the paper. The Columbia Journalism Review’s Sara Morrison wondered if Baron will carry the Boston Globe’s two-site free/paid model over to the Post, while GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram urged him to go all in on the Post’s anti-paywall strategy and move further into open journalism.

This prompted another round of the never-ending paywall debate, as Dean Starkman of the Columbia Journalism Review called Ingram’s “digital first” approach “bankrupt” and said the Post has no real choice but to adopt a paywall, writing, “even if the Post is able to rise to the industry standard, it will still lose. Digital ads are fine, but alone they are not enough when there is a honkingly obvious supplementary source of revenue available.”

Ingram, PandoDaily’s Sarah Lacy, and Rob O’Regan of eMedia Vitals all responded to Starkman with variations on the argument that paywalls are a short-term solution that can only buy newspapers some time without addressing the real long-term problems that plague the industry. At ReadWrite, Piano Media’s David Brauchli (Marcus’ brother) made the case for paywalls and righting newspapers’ “original sin” of not charging for content online, while Digital First’s Steve Buttry rounded up the argument and rebutted a few points from Brauchli’s piece and others from paywall proponents.

Journalism’s post-industrial age: Three professors from New York’s most prominent journalism schools — C.W. Anderson of CUNY, former Guardian digital editor Emily Bell of Columbia, and Clay Shirky of NYU — collaborated on an important report on the current “post-industrial” state of journalism that was released this week. The report is long (not Leveson-report long, but long), but Bell has a post at the Columbia Journalism Review putting it in context and explaining that where past Columbia reports have focused on business models, this one is more about the changing process by which journalism is made.

A money quote to give you a sense of the type points the report makes: “The presence of process is a bigger obstacle to change than the absence of money. … the entire purpose of institutional arrangements is actually to ingrain and rationalize standardized patterns of behavior — in other words, to make change hard.” Joshua Benton of the Lab pulled together a lot of these good excerpts and provided some smart commentary along with them. He also had one main critique — that the report doesn’t deal enough with changes in media consumption, especially mobile.

Elsewhere, Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman highlighted the report’s new definition of journalism — going beyond the facts to provide translation and storytelling “between the crowd and the algorithm.” GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram endorsed the report and expressed a desire for it to go beyond preaching to the crowd, and also at the Lab, Ken Doctor looked at ways news orgs are putting post-industrial journalism into practice by using data to go deeper into stories. And another useful report was issued this week, as well — J-Lab’s report on what works in networked journalism, with several vivid case studies on startups that have received J-Lab grants.

Reading roundup: Lots and lots of other interesting developments over the past two weeks. Here’s the quickest rundown I can give you:

— CNN named former NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker its new president. The New York Times ran a good explanation of what Zucker brings to the job and what kind of situation he’ll step into, while Zucker himself said he wants to see more vibrancy at CNN. Variety’s Andrew Wallenstein praised Zucker as a choice who’s not afraid to shake things up, and The Times gave several ideas of possible directions for CNN. Several observers on Twitter talked about how to make one of those directions — turning CNN into fact-check central — work, and Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici suggested CNN focus on efficiency in informing viewers, just as Google focused on efficiency in search.

— The recent violence between Israel and Hamas has settled into a ceasefire, but there have still been some ripples from the unique social media aspects of it. Tablet profiled the people behind the Israeli Defense Forces’ aggressive social media accounts, while the online clashes between Israel and Hamas led U.S. lawmakers to call for social media accounts of recognized terrorist groups to be banned, the moral implications of which The Next Web looked at. Meanwhile, The New York Times’ David Carr examined the disturbing practice of governments using war as a cover for attacking journalists.

— The San Francisco Chronicle reported that TMZ had applied to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to operate a drone to track celebrities, though both TMZ and the FAA denied it had made that request. Forbes’ John McQuaid and NBC’s Helen Popkin looked at the possibilities and pitfalls of drone use for journalism, but meanwhile, another news organization actually did start a drone program — an NPR affiliate in Missouri.

— Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism released a study on media coverage of the last days of the U.S. presidential campaign that showed that partisan media became even more extreme as the election neared. Poynter and Mediaite published good summaries of the report.

— The press release service PRWeb ran a fake press release announcing a Google acquisition that got picked up by numerous news outlets, prompting Search Engine Land to explain how PRWeb’s press releases get distributed so widely and often show up to Google as news articles. Reuters’ Jack Shafer said he’s not so concerned about the pranksters as the journalists who don’t question the real press releases they see every day.

— Twitter briefly suspended the parody NYTOnIt account based on The New York Times’ request regarding trademark violation. The account was back up (with a new logo) after about 12 hours, but it was still down long enough for the Times to receive plenty of mocking, as well as an admonishment from Jeff Jarvis at The Guardian.

— Finally, legendary sociologist Herbert Gans wrote a piece at the Lab calling for political journalists to embrace citizen news as a bottom-up form of journalism.

                                   
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Joseph Lichterman    Aug. 26, 2014
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