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Jan. 25, 2013, 10 a.m.

This Week in Review: Honoring Aaron Swartz’s legacy, and storytelling after the Te’o hoax

Plus: Google’s war with French newspapers, the inevitable privacy concerns with Facebook Graph Search, and the rest of the week’s media/tech news.

Aaron Swartz’s legacy and prosecution: The collective mourning for open-information activist Aaron Swartz and the reflection on his life’s work continued this week with his memorial service following his suicide at 26 two weeks ago. You can read the eulogy that journalist Quinn Norton delivered there, and some further personal reflections from scholar and fellow activist Lawrence Lessig, who expressed his grief and anger at the federal government’s harsh treatment of Swartz.

The Verge’s Tim Carmody wrote the definitive post on Swartz’s wide-ranging life and legacy, touching on his causes ranging from Creative Commons to RSS to open legal documents and concluding that “our belief in technology is the belief in non-incremental change…change in our culture, our politics, our laws, our experiences, and ourselves.” Techdirt’s Mike Masnick urged us get out there and do stuff” as a way to remember Swartz, and NYU professor Clay Shirky reminded us to pay tribute to him by taking care of each other.

Ryan Singel of Wired argued that Swartz’s extremely zealous prosecution (for downloading millions of academic articles through an MIT network to which he wasn’t supposed to have access) offers a chilling reminder of what happens when you try to get in the way of Power. The federal prosecutor who oversaw that prosecution, Carmen Ortiz, faced scores of calls for her resignation, including from members of Congress, though she offered an unrepentant response. Ad Age’s Simon Dumenco made the case that the prosecution of Swartz should trouble us personally, because it opens the door for bad laws to be used against any of us, too.

The New York Times’ Noam Cohen explored MIT’s role in Swartz’s prosecution, particularly its decision to go after him rather than stopping at patching the loophole through which he gained access. The head of MIT’s internal review of its involvement in the case gave an update on his work. Cal-Berkeley biologist Michael Eisen said the blame goes well beyond MIT, though, to the universities and academic institutions that put the research Swartz was downloading behind paywalls in the first place, rather than open to the public. WikiLeaks also claimed association with Swartz, saying he may have been one of its sources.

Manti Te’o and caution in storytelling: We’re all still perplexed (if somewhat less intrigued) by the story of star Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o’s fake girlfriend who had supposedly died of leukemia this fall, but more details of how the story was reported did emerge this week. Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch and The New York Times’ Richard Sandomir and James Andrew Miller both reported that though the story was broken by the Gawker sports blog Deadspin, ESPN had the story, too — but they decided they weren’t ready to run it.

An ESPN executive said they sat on the story because there were holes in it, but as SI and the Times made clear, that “hole” was essentially the lack of an on-camera interview with Te’o. As NYU’s Jay Rosen said, ESPN lost out because it privileged that on-air interview over breaking the news. Matt Yoder of Awful Announcing expanded on the idea of ESPN privileging access over news. At the Columbia Journalism Review, meanwhile, Scott Berinato was disappointed that Deadspin followed up its scoop by going right back to triviality and snark.

Sportswriters continued to consider what their failure to uncover this hoax said about their profession: Deitsch also talked to two Pulitzer winners who lamented the way reporters were too taken in by Te’o’s story to do any real reporting on it. One, the Seattle Times’ Ken Armstrong, also contrasted Deadspin’s aggressiveness on the story with traditional media’s institutional caution: “Deadspin crushed this story, going from tip to publication in a matter of days. At most newspapers, there would have been meetings. There might even have been soul searching and thumb sucking and earnest conversation.” Deitsch’s SI colleague, Tim Layden, wrote a thoughtful piece on the difficulty of verifying anecdotes and details in narrative writing, concluding, “One potential outcome is that a lot of lousy, fawning stories will be saved from publication. Yet some good ones will be lost, as well.”

Lest anyone think these problems are isolated to sports journalism, Esquire’s Charles P. Pierce issued a rejoinder to news reporters who might be tempted to dismiss their sports-side counterparts as less serious hagiographers, reminding us that the fact-challenged mythmaking is prevalent in political reporting, too. And one of the Deadspin’s story’s authors, a Columbia undergrad named Jack Dickey, gave Poynter some good tips on digging up stories in the Internet age.

A tax on online user data collection?: There were a few significant developments in the war between Google and newspaper publishers (not to mention governments) across Europe this week. First, French newspaper publishers rejected a €50 million payment from Google to settle their copyright dispute with the company over indexing their content, as Jeff John Roberts of paidContent explained from the original report in the French paper Le Monde (which is here, if you read French).

The payment would have been similar to, but larger than, a settlement Google made with Belgian newspapers last month. There’s some division over how to characterize these payments, as paidContent noted when the Belgian deal was made: Google called the Belgian deal a “partnership,” but it sure looks like a copyright fee, and The Verge described the French deal as a tax.

The other development involves a different strategy to make Google and other big web companies pay: A French government report released late last week recommended that France institute a tax on companies that collect users’ data. As The New York Times explained the report, it reasons that users are essentially doing unpaid work for companies like Google by giving them personal information that they can sell to advertisers. French media analyst Frederic Filloux went deeper into the report’s rationale, noting that Google is quite good at separating the collection and storage of data from any physical place where they might be taxed. This proposal would spell big trouble for fellow tech companies like Facebook, of course, if it was enacted across Europe, as The Next Web’s Harrison Weber pointed out.

Privacy and obscurity in Facebook Graph Search: As Facebook’s new Graph Search — which lets you search from the (public) personal data of Facebook’s users — rolls out, many observers are trying to figure out what it means for Facebook, advertisers, and, of course, us. We got a troubling clue this week with the Actual Facebook Graph Searches Tumblr, whose funny and more ominous (“men seeking men” living in Iran) searches quickly went viral.

Citing an insightful Atlantic article published last week, Forbes’ Kashmir Hill and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram noted that this isn’t necessarily a privacy issue per se, but an issue of lost obscurity, since Facebook is making information that we had already allowed (knowingly or not) to be public much more accessible to the world. Ingram also argued that this is adding some real, permanent implications to actions we think of as ephemeral.

Megan Garber of The Atlantic wrote a smart post about Facebook putting categories on intimate, messy areas of life, turning them into discrete, ordered units of information, and Slate’s Will Oremus noted that Facebook’s Likes aren’t necessarily accurate reflections of reality. The actual Tumblr turned out to last only 24 hours, with its creator, Tom Scott, signing off by observing that “most of the danger online comes not from strangers making half-assed joke searches: it comes from people who know you.”

Reading roundup: Despite a relatively quiet week, there were a number of smaller stories worth following this week:

— Twitter launched Vine, an app that lets users shoot and post six-second videos within tweets. It marks a shift toward video for Twitter (and, inevitably, its advertisers), and was seen by some as Twitter’s response to Instagram. BuzzFeed saw it as the successor to the animated GIF, Lost Remote’s Cory Bergman wondered if TV should take notice, GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram questioned whether Twitter will overwhelm the simplicity of its service, and Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman offered some Vine applications for journalists.

— British financial newspaper The Financial Times announced it’s laying off 25 people as part of a shift to digital-first production strategy. You can see at the editor’s email to staff at The Guardian, with some highlights of that digital strategy at paidContent.

— A few bits and pieces on comments: TechCrunch killed Facebook comments (“The bullies and asshats left our comments sections, but so did everyone else.”) and brought back its old system. The Financial Times’ Tyler Brûlé proposed charging users to comment on news sites as a way to clean up discourse, and Reuters’ Felix Salmon mused about moving from comments to annotations.

— For two contrasting views on the future and strategies of newspapers, check out Poynter’s Rick Edmonds’ argument that print’s financial future is stronger than we’d thought and this NetNewsCheck interview with Northeastern professor Dan Kennedy in which he says newspapers’ digital strategy is still wrong-headed.

— Finally, former Voice of San Diego editor Andrew Donohue had a really sharp post here at the Lab with some proposals about restructuring the beat to maximize accountability.

Photos of Aaron Swartz by Doc Searls and Manti Te’o by JamesChicago used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 25, 2013, 10 a.m.
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