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Jan. 7, 2013, 7:30 a.m.
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This Week in Review: Andrew Sullivan’s bold paid-content plan, and Al Jazeera’s play for the U.S.

Plus: The fallout from one newspaper’s publication of gun-permit data, the NYT’s Snow Fall and multimedia journalism, and the rest of the week’s media news.

Note: This week’s review covers about two weeks, looking at everything you might have missed going back to Christmas.

A bellwether for blog paywalls?: Legendary blogger Andrew Sullivan joined the parade of journalists requiring readers to pay for their content online last week, though his move was particularly significant because, after all, he’s not a news organization but a single blogger (with a few staff members). Sullivan, who had been at The Daily Beast, will use a metered model charging readers $19.99 a year for full access, and he won’t host any ads.

At least initially, Sullivan’s plan was a massive success, bringing in more than $300,000 from 12,000 subscribers in the first day alone. Sullivan told The New York Times he’ll need $900,000 a year, and said it’s time journalism “started earning a living like everybody else.” He also told BuzzFeed the lack of advertising will free him to cover more out-of-the-way topics, rather than trying to chase pageviews. Complex editor Foster Kamer was more skeptical, calling the independent paywall a sales pitch to other publications on the loyalty of Sullivan’s audience.

The immediate question that came to pretty much everyone’s mind, it seems, was whether Sullivan’s paid-content model could work for other bloggers, particularly ones without Sullivan’s reach. Sullivan told TechCrunch to hold off on the prognostication, but still saw no reason it couldn’t scale to smaller blogs with less overhead. Others were equally optimistic: GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram described Sullivan’s paywall as a finger in the eye of the industrial journalism model, and The Guardian’s Dan Gillmor explained why he was subscribing, while also suggesting that blogs might eventually be able to band together to charge for content to multiple sites.

NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen argued that the key to Sullivan’s success in charging for content lies in his audience’s loyalty, which is built on his own distinct obsessions. Whether you can charge for content “depends on how strong the relationship is between you and the regular users of your site. Sullivan and crew have ample reason to bet on that relationship,” he said. The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf expanded on the remarkable relationship between Sullivan and his readers (whose devotion Reuters’ Jack Shafer said is a bit like a priest/parishioner relationship) and former Good editor Ann Friedman noted that Sullivan’s success is built on expressing a real personal identity in which readers are invested. Reuters’ Felix Salmon and Techdirt’s Mike Masnick both loved the experiment, though Salmon had some questions and Masnick objected to Sullivan’s argument that it was a way to value his readers.

Some weren’t as positive about other bloggers’ ability to replicate this model. David Holmes of PandoDaily said Sullivan has some major advantages over the typical blogger — not least his size and being among the first to go to the paywall model — and wondered if blog-style aggregation and commentary has become too easily replaceable to get many paying readers. Time’s James Poniewozik also pointed out Sullivan’s abnormal size and traditional-media pedigree, arguing that “Sullivan may be like Louis C.K. or Radiohead: established creators who have been able to monetize DIY efforts themselves after becoming famous in more conventional ways.”

The Columbia Journalism Review’s Dean Starkman made a similar point and also noted that without ads, this is “pretty much a pure bet on quality.” Several people, led by Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum, argued that if other bloggers follow in Sullivan’s footsteps, many consumers simply won’t have enough money to subscribe to all their favorite blogs. And Joel Mathis of The Philly Post lamented the decline of free knowledge as readers have to make decisions about which information to pay for.

Elsewhere in the paywall debate, The Atlantic will experiment with pay models this year, and Bloomberg reported that The New York Times’ paywall is going remarkably well, though Techdirt’s Mike Masnick disputed that notion. PandoDaily’s Hamish McKenzie argued that you have to consider tablets in gauging paywall success, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram summarized the Twitter debate over paywalls.

Al Jazeera comes to America: The pan-Arab news network Al Jazeera made a major play for the American cable TV market this week when it bought Al Gore’s Current TV. Al Jazeera plans to turn the low-rated Current into a new American news channel (reportedly named Al Jazeera America) that can gain traction with U.S. cable carriers and viewers. The New York Times’ Brian Stelter, who broke the story, has the best overview of the network’s plans.

Getting cable distribution figures to be an uphill battle for Al Jazeera: As Bloomberg reported, cable companies weren’t crazy about carrying Current, and they’re even more reluctant to carry an Al Jazeera channel. Time Warner Cable immediately said it would drop the channel, though it quickly took that back (while denying it was taking political animosity toward Al Jazeera into account).

As The Wall Street Journal explained, Al Jazeera’s efforts to woo cable companies appear to be coming at a price: The network’s free online streaming of its channels is coming to an end as it tries to make a case for its value. Peter Kafka of All Things D argued that Al Jazeera would have made an ideal candidate to bypass TV entirely and be the first digital-only news network.

Kirsten Acuna of Business Insider broke down the main pros and cons of Al Jazeera America, pointing to those distribution problems and political toxicity of Al Jazeera’s image in the U.S. as cons, with its possibility for reinvention as the primary plus. Kafka looked at the economics of the move, and The Baltimore Sun’s David Zurawik chastised consumers, media critics, and cable companies for their cowardice in not demanding that Al Jazeera be carried.

Ad Age’s Jeanine Poggi looked at few of the other angles involved with this deal, including the deep pockets of Al Jazeera’s owners, the Qatari government, and said it could come down to whether the U.S. really wants the serious cable news it claims it does. Meanwhile, the Times’ Stelter examined Al Gore’s role in taking Current TV from a startup to an arm of Al Jazeera.

Guns and the ethics of publishing public data: The Journal News in Westchester County, N.Y., launched an interesting discussion on the merits and ethics of publishing public data when it published a database and map of local gun owners in the wake of the Newtown school shooting. The decision to publish the data, which came from public gun permit records, was met with widespread anger from local readers and many others.

A blogger retaliated by publishing personal information about newspaper employees, and a state gun-rights group called for an advertiser boycott of the paper. The paper responded to the information release by hiring armed guards for its headquarters and began screening its mail after receiving a suspicious powder. Meanwhile, county officials refused to give them any more gun permit information, and state legislators said they’d propose a bill making gun permit information confidential.

As journalism professor Dan Kennedy pointed out, the Journal News’ actions fell into an ethical gray area for many journalists — the data was public, but hard to get, and publishing it didn’t necessarily provide a readily identifiable social good. Al Tompkins of Poynter faulted the Journal News on the latter point, arguing that it didn’t do enough to provide a public service in its analysis of the data: “I like it when journalists take heat for an explosive, necessary, courageous investigation that exposes important wrongdoing. There is journalistic purpose and careful decision-making supporting those stories. But The News Journal is taking heat for starting a gunfight just because it could.” Likewise, The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple said the paper didn’t do enough to make its data useful.

GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram countered that publishing gun permit information doesn’t necessarily do anyone harm, nor does publishing public information necessarily violate privacy. Jack Shafer of Reuters made similar points, and also argued that the data dump doesn’t need a good story with it to be valuable, since it’s valuable in itself.

Snow Fall and a multimedia future: Shortly before Christmas, The New York Times published Snow Fall, a multimedia piece that pushed the boundaries of what digital storytelling is capable of. The story brought loads of traffic, including nearly 3 million visits over its first few days. Source went deep into the sausage-making process to find out how the feature was created (and Gizmodo noted that it dedicated a person solely to producing a scaled-back version for people who still used Internet Explorer 8).

Among many others, Times public editor Margaret Sullivan praised the paper for its innovation, though she also aired a few reader complaints. The Atlantic’s Rebecca Greenfield talked with Times design and graphics directors about the future of immersive, distraction-free design in journalism, particularly with the growth of tablets.

But as much as people were oohing and ahhing over the story, The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson said it won’t tell us much about where journalism’s headed, because it took far more resources than other online publishers have and because there’s still nothing wrong with a print-based experience. PandoDaily’s Sarah Lacy countered that even it’s not “the future of journalism,” Snow Fall was the Times showing us “why big, expensive newsrooms actually matter even in a digital age. And they did it in a way that even designers and techies can understand.” Mathew Ingram of GigaOM noted, though, that Snow Fall didn’t include much innovation in the way of making money off of such compelling content.

Reading roundup: Here’s a sampling of the other stories at the intersection of journalism and tech over the past couple of weeks:

— Former newspaper editor John Robinson commented on the dire state of local news and challenged news orgs to do better, then followed up with some specifics led by listening to their communities, something community journalist Jennifer Connic also advocated. Digital First’s Steve Buttry gave some specific ideas for new local beats, though newspaper editor Guy Lucas said the solutions will not be simple.

— Newsweek’s print edition officially died at the end of December, with a final issue that included a hashtag on the cover and an oral history of the magazine inside. Charles Michener looked at the cultural savvy that fueled Newsweek’s golden age in the 1960s and ’70s, and The Spectator’s Owen Matthews said the blame for its demise has to go beyond the Internet.

— Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan railed against the narcissistic streak in American journalism in a smart post, though former Good editor Ann Friedman countered with an argument in favor of a personal voice in journalism. Digital First’s Steve Buttry contended that both Nolan and Friedman were right.

— News developer Dan Schultz wrote a thoughtful post exploring why news organizations don’t adopt each other’s code (or aren’t willing to share it in the first place). It has some valuable food for thought regarding not just news coding, but also the organizational and cultural constraints at work there.

Photo of Andrew Sullivan by Trey Ratcliff used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 7, 2013, 7:30 a.m.
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