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Dec. 14, 2012, 11 a.m.
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This Week in Review: A red flag for media regulation, and are news paywalls inevitable?

Plus: Twitter’s photo filters try to compete with Instagram, Bloomberg might go paper shopping, and the rest of the week’s media/tech news.

A warning about press regulation’s downside: We’re now two weeks removed from Lord Justice Leveson issuing his report calling for a new regulatory body for the British press, and at this point, we’re waist-deep in the messy work of figuring out what to do about it and how the British press should function in relation to the government. The Labour Party presented its own plan to implement Leveson’s proposals, in response to the prime minister’s plan.

The London School of Economics has some interesting data examining the initial response to the report among newspapers and bloggers, and Leveson reiterated that he wants to see the law enforced on bloggers and Twitter users just as it is on traditional journalists, lest those journalists get tempted to cut corners in order to compete online.

There was also a warning this week about the inevitable downside of government regulation of the press: The Telegraph reported that advisers to Maria Miller, the secretary of state for Media, Culture, and Sport, warned the paper of her role in implementing the Leveson report when it informed her of a story it was publishing on her official expenses. (The Telegraph published the story anyway.)

Opponents of regulation saw the Miller case a clear example of the type of blackmail and political pressure that would accompany government oversight of the press. “Don’t kid yourself that every editor will be as principled in future, and that this is not a foretaste of what may come,” said The Spectator’s Nick Cohen. His colleague, Fraser Nelson, made the “putting the foxes in charge of the henhouse” analogy. Michael White of The Guardian, on the other hand, said he’s giving Miller the benefit of the doubt.

Meanwhile, the man who was heading up the British newspapers’ negotiations with the government over compliance with the Leveson report, James Harding, surprisingly resigned as the editor of News Corp.’s Times of London this week. As the Press Gazette noted, Harding’s had his own run-ins with the Leveson Inquiry over his role in News Corp.’s phone hacking scandal. There was initially a lot of speculation as to why, but it seems the move may ultimately be a precursor to consolidation with the Sunday Times. City University journalism professor George Brock said the merger is probably the key to the move as a cost-cutting measure, and The Guardian reported on News Corp.’s possible plans to merge the two papers even before Harding’s ouster. Afterward, The Times itself reported that it was looking into turning the two papers into one seven-day-a-week paper.

The paywall dominoes keep falling: I noted this briefly in last week’s post, but it’s worth going through in a bit more detail this week: The Washington Post is reported to be planning to institute a paywall in 2013. The Post had been the highest-profile paywall holdout in the U.S., and there are numerous other media companies moving with it across the paid-content divide. As Ad Age reported, the Daily Beast — which also includes the remnants of Newsweek — is also considering a paywall, and Poynter’s Rick Edmonds also summarized reports on paywall progress and plans from Gannett and Scripps at an industry conference.

Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici made note of the influence of paywall proponent Warren Buffett on Post publisher Donald Graham and also argued that it’s way too late for a paywall to salvage the Daily Beast. Dean Starkman of the Columbia Journalism Review said it’s not too late for the Post’s paywall to be successful, though. The Guardian’s James Ball, meanwhile, wrote a smart explanation of why U.S. and U.K. papers are differing on paywalls, pointing out that unlike their British counterparts, American papers seem to be sticking close to their metro roots.

In light of the Post’s move, The Economist and The New York Times’ David Carr both offered good, big-picture assessments of why the U.S. newspaper industry is moving so aggressively to a paid model online. Carr was a bit more pessimistic about the prospects of generalizing the success of larger papers like The Times or The Wall Street Journal to their smaller metro cousins: “The subscription model represents a moment of truth for publishers, who are owning up to the fact that they will be operating as smaller businesses, with smaller audiences.”

At CNN, Howard Kurtz made the argument (pretty familiar by now) that paywalls are necessary for reporting to survive on a large scale. Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan agreed that paywalls have become a necessity for traditional news orgs, but said they won’t work at a lot of places where the content simply isn’t worth paying for: “The fact that readers like you is not enough to support an online paywall; readers must need you.”

The paywall critics are also still making their case — in the best of those, Digital First’s Steve Buttry wrote a smart post arguing that newspaper paywalls are not a settled issue, which drew a point-by-point rebuttal from CJR’s Ryan Chittum. His colleague, Dean Starkman, also looked at the struggles of the Cleveland Plain Dealer as evidence of the failure of the free model.

Twitter’s photo filters vs. Instagram’s community: Less than a week after Instagram disabled its integration with the program that let its photos display properly on Twitter, Twitter struck back with its introduction of its own photo filter features. Matthew Panzarino of The Next Web gave an overview of Twitter’s filters, concluding that they’re easy to use, even if their range and quality of filters isn’t as strong as Instagram’s.

The question is whether these filters will be enough for Twitter to seriously edge into Instagram’s photo-sharing territory. Panzarino and Wired’s Mat Honan said no — Instagram’s service is popular not because of its filters, but because of the community it’s built up around photo sharing. ReadWrite’s Jon Mitchell also said Instagram has the advantage of being exclusively devoted to photos, while Twitter is general-interest.

The Verge’s Ellis Hamburger summarized those arguments for Instagram’s superiority best: “Instagram’s success is about a new way to show what you’re up to. It’s about creating a photographic timeline of your life you can flip through as easily as thumbing through a child’s picture book. The filters are just gravy.”

Reading roundup: A few other stories and discussions also floating around this week:

— The New York Times reported that Michael Bloomberg is considering adding the Financial Times to his business-news empire, prompting journalism professor Christopher Daly and The Atlantic Wire’s Adam Clark Estes to speculate on why Bloomberg would want to buy a newspaper (not so much money, but power). Reuters’ Felix Salmon and Business Insider’s Henry Blodget focused on the nugget that Bloomberg might also be interested in LinkedIn, with Salmon looking at why he might want it and Blodget arguing that it’s too expensive.

— A nasty fight sprung up between Matthew Inman, proprietor of the popular web comic The Oatmeal, and BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed published a nasty (and inaccurate) article about Inman, prompting an equally nasty defense (and counterattack) from Inman. BuzzFeed responded with a half-apology. HyperVocal and GigaOM have good explanations of what happened and why the conflict matters for the web, and the Columbia Journalism Review’s Sara Morrison wrote that despite some nuggets of truth to BuzzFeed’s article, it was fatally undermined by shoddy Internet research.

— A few retrospective pieces on the role of fact-checking and asymmetry in the U.S. presidential election: The Huffington Post’s Dan Froomkin asserted that the mainstream political press missed the biggest story of the campaign in not holding Republicans accountable for their consistently tenuous relationship with the truth. The New York Times’ Margaret Sullivan countered that the traditional media are improving in accounting for political asymmetry, while Brendan Nyhan of the Columbia Journalism Review said the problem doesn’t lie with the fact-checking movement.

— A couple of really interesting articles were written this week on the editorial decisions embedded in the algorithms that we might think of as objective. Nick Diakopoulos at the Lab explained the concept of algorithmic bias, and The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal expanded on that point regarding Google News in particular.

POSTED     Dec. 14, 2012, 11 a.m.
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