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This Week in Review: Paywall dominoes keep falling, and Twitter keeps moving into video

Plus: The debate on aggregation do’s and don’ts, the state of media reporting, and the rest of the week’s news.

“To paraphrase Clay Shirky, you can’t fix a business model the Internet just broke.”

Progress and skepticism on paywalls: Several news organizations were making some news with paywalls this week, the most intriguing of which wasn’t actually a news org, but a blogger. Andrew Sullivan officially made his move from The Daily Beast to an independent, subscription-based blog this week. As he explained when he announced the move last month, Sullivan is using a metered model that allows seven free stories before readers need a $19.99 annual subscription to read everything on the site. Inbound links won’t count against that meter.

PandoDaily’s Hamish McKenzie analyzed the plan and was skeptical about whether the meter would make enough to sustain the blog. Sullivan has raised about $500,000 so far, a few hundred thousand short of what he needs for the year. McKenzie figured that if Sullivan has already gotten about 1% of his unique visitors to subscribe (about the same percentage as The New York Times), he may not have that much room to grow. At The Atlantic, Zachary Karabell saw Sullivan’s plan as an example of a new, more democratic funding system emerging alongside traditional lending.

Elsewhere, the Orange County Register, Virginian-Pilot and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette are joining the parade of papers launching a metered paywall, and the Lab’s Ken Doctor gave more details about the Register’s strategy, including the way it’s using the paywall to complement increased print prices and pay for a growing investment in news. Also at the Lab, Dan Kennedy explained why The Boston Globe has tightened the limits on free content for its two-site free-paid plan.

The newspaper giant Gannett had good news on its paywalls (though the news isn’t great for the company overall), reporting that its circulation revenue is way up, and it now has a quarter of its revenue coming from the digital side. (The New York Times Co. reported similarly positive paywall information, as Ken Doctor explained.) Digital First’s John Paton was less bullish, describing paywalls as “tweaking not transforming,” and describing the company’s failures with paywalls at its MediaNews Group papers. Still, Paton said he’s obligated to experiment, and so his company is trying again with paywalls at those papers, and with plans that make readers take a Google survey question or watch an ad before they view stories. (The latter plan is beating the paywalls so far.)

Paton said he’d rather experiment than debate because “emotional arguments over what something is worth in a market economy is a near worthless waste of time at the expense of finding real solutions to the problem.” At Poynter, Rick Edmonds said metered models are looking like a solution to the old paywall problem of losing lots of pageviews (and advertising dollars), as the gain in subscription revenue more than offsets the loss in ad revenue.

One step forward, one step back for Twitter and video: The porn issues from last week plaguing Twitter’s video platform Vine culminated in the app giving itself a 17+ age-restricted rating in Apple’s App Store, based on some serious “nudging” from Apple, as All Things D’s Mike Isaac reported. Isaac said that while this was predictable, it’s still a blow for Twitter and Vine, which have to be counting on the app getting adopted quickly among teenagers.

Several people (Isaac included) pointed out the illogic and inconsistency of Apple’s app ratings: Both BuzzFeed’s John Herrman and TechCrunch’s Gregory Ferenstein both compared Vine with other apps and web tools — like, say, any web browser — where porn is just as easy to find, but where children aren’t kept out. On the other hand, John Gruber of Daring Fireball said a 17+ rating is completely appropriate for an app where porn is easy to find.

Porn notwithstanding, observers continued to assert that Vine has great potential for widespread, meaningful use, and especially for news. Daniel Terdiman of CNET and Mat Honan of Wired both said the citizen journalism angle is one that’s going to be big at some point, even if it isn’t yet. Said Honan, “Vine will have its Tahrir Square moment, and soon. It is destined to be a horrifying window that opens on a violent, capricious world, and to loop it back upon itself.”

Another Twitter development to keep an eye on: The company is buying Bluefin Labs, a company that collects TV-related talk on social media and sells its analysis. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Caleb Garlin explained how Bluefin’s findings help advertisers (and ultimately Twitter) understand and target audiences, and Cory Bergman of Lost Remote said this is just one step in Twitter’s efforts to be the hub for live conversation about TV.

Defining right and wrong in aggregation: We got another round of the debate over the right and wrong ways to aggregate news this week after Digiday’s Brian Morrissey complained that Business Insider unfairly aggregated a story from his site by taking a screenshot of the key picture on it and copy-and-pasting a main paragraph. (He’s not the first to call out Business Insider for this.) Business Insider’s Henry Blodget responded with a defense of aggregation, and the two also had it out on Twitter.

In the process, both laid out their principles for what constitutes responsible aggregation: Morrissey said “it comes down to adding value,” while Blodget said the only requirements are a link and credit. Blodget also claimed that the anti-aggregation attitude is coming from old-media companies who are used to being the only game in town, while they’ve actually always aggregated from each other.

PandoDaily’s Hamish McKenzie sided with Morrissey in the argument, while Mathew Ingram of paidContent said the main defense against aggregation abuse is to produce work whose value can’t be captured in a short excerpt. Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman agreed, and gave this standard for proper aggregation: “Does the aggregation replace the need to read the original piece or stimulate the desire to read the original?” And to put this discussion in a broader context of traffic, advertising, and reader attention, read this piece by Reuters’ Ryan McCarthy on the oversupply problem for publishers on the web.

Fewer eyes watching media institutions?: The New York Times’ most recent round of buyouts formally took place last Friday, and Times public editor Margaret Sullivan offered some reflections on what’s been lost. Doree Shafrir of BuzzFeed lamented not the buyouts themselves, but how they’ve been covered — very perfunctorily, without any work to peel back the layers and find out what kinds of organizational politics are driving them. She saw the oversight as indicative of the lack of deep, explanatory media reporting right now.

Capital New York’s Joe Pompeo acknowledged that coverage of the Times isn’t as exhaustive as it once was, though he pointed out that many Times reporters are telling us their organization’s story via social media, and argued that there’s much more media news to cover than there used to be. On the other hand, Daily Download’s Ben Jacobs said there’s actually less going on now, at least among the legacy media organizations.

Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon said the problem is not so much fewer reporters on the media beat as fewer editors urging them to string together their tidbits into more thoughtful coverage. And Capital New York’s Tom McGeveran defended the value of media reporting (despite the sometimes poor traffic it brings), saying we need to emphasize both deep coverage and incisive criticism.

Reading roundup: A few other discussions worth following in another relatively slow week:

— NBC News shut down the hyperlocal news network EveryBlock, a former Knight News Challenge winner that msnbc.com bought in 2009. Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman got the explanation from NBC’s Vivian Schiller — it didn’t fit with NBC’s strategy and was struggling with its business model — and EveryBlock founder Adrian Holovaty (who’s no longer with the company) expressed his surprise and dismay. Dan Sinker examined its outsized influence, and ReadWrite’s John Paul Titlow looked at what EveryBlock might have been. Amy Gahran of the Knight Digital Media Center critiqued the community-killing way the site was shut down, and Pocket’s Mark Armstrong suggested that a parenting app will be the one that solves the local media puzzle.

— Poynter’s Meena Thiruvengadam offered a useful guide to reporting and writing better explainers, with plenty of tips from the best in the business at it.

— Three bigger-picture pieces to give a read: NYU’s Jay Rosen summed up years of wisdom about digital journalism into a couple of rapid-fire paragraphs, Felix Gillette wrote at Bloomberg Businessweek about Snapchat and intentionally ephemeral social media, and the legendary sociologist Herbert Gans did some thinking about journalism and democracy here at the Lab.

Photo of Vine by Ariel Zambelich/Wired used under a Creative Commons license.
                                   
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Joseph Lichterman    July 22, 2014
The site known for social media and tech coverage has hired nearly 30 more editorial staffers since October and, like BuzzFeed before it, is expanding into more general interest news.
  • duffyaj

    That latest installment re: the aggregation debate was an interesting one. Overall my views are closer aligned with Blodget. Aggregation has ALWAYS existed, it’s just much easier to notice now, and (with profits drying up) much harder to accept.

    – @ajduffs