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This Week in Review: British papers fight new regulations, and Pew’s (mostly) dire look at news

Plus: Google Reader and the future of free services, the Washington Post announces a paywall, and the rest of the week’s media and tech news.

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British press rails against regulations: Much of the British press is livid this week over new government regulations that would establish a tougher independent regulator that could order corrections and fines for wrongdoing. The regulations came out of the Leveson Inquiry report released last year in response to the News Corp. phone hacking scandal, and they are to be inscribed in a royal charter, which is more difficult to change than standard statute. The BBC and New York Times have overviews of the regulations, and The Guardian has some more particulars.

The press was outraged. The Guardian and New York Times reported on their objections, which centered on the regulations’ enshrined limits on their freedom into statute and the increased power of the new regulatory body. As The Guardian noted, various newspaper groups are contemplating legal challenges to the new regulations, and even forming several breakaway regulatory bodies.

There were several columns outlining newspapers’ objections: The New Statesman’s editorial board, The Economist, The Spectator’s Fraser Nelson, The Telegraph’s Boris Johnson (also known as the mayor of London), and The Guardian’s Simon Jenkins all voiced their disapproval, and The New York Times chimed in from across the Atlantic. Said Johnson, “If Parliament agrees to anything remotely approaching legislation, it will be handing politicians the tools they need to begin the job of cowing and even silencing the press.”

There was some pushback to the press’ howling, too. British filmmaker and politician Lord David Putnam said the press is stuck in an antiquated mindset in which it has “the right of kings.” The New Statesman’s Alex Andreou argued that the British press has failed in its chances at self-regulation, and Kevin Anderson said their objections aren’t about freedom of the press, but freedom from accountability.

Another group was also alarmed at the new press regulations — bloggers. The Guardian’s Lisa O’Carroll wrote that bloggers are likely covered by the regulation and could face larger “exemplary” fines, just like the newspapers, if they don’t voluntarily sign up to be subject to the regulator. Cory Doctorow of BoingBoing argued that the deal’s language is vague enough that it could include anyone who uses Twitter and Facebook, too. At The Guardian, Emily Bell said the regulations are operating from a web-illiterate perspective that still sees a coherent “press” and “public.”

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A pessimistic picture of news: The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism released its annual State of the News Media report this week — as usual, a comprehensive, insightful, and data-filled look at where the industry is today. You can drill deeper into it with the Lab’s podcast with PEJ acting director Amy Mitchell. The report covers a broad range of topics, from social news consumption to campaign coverage to network, cable, and local TV to alternative media.

In such a wide-ranging report, there’s plenty of data to support both optimism and pessimism about the future of news. Mathew Ingram of paidContent offered a few tidbits on both sides of the glass-half-empty/glass-half-full divide. The central narrative around the study, though, was decidedly negative: Years of cutbacks in resources within the news industry are bearing distasteful fruit in the form of lower-quality coverage and diminishing audiences. Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon has a good summary of the situation, and as Mashable’s Lauren Indvik emphasized, the news industry’s cuts are corresponding with a rise of various ways for organizations to circumvent the media to reach the public themselves.

The New York Times focused on the effects of this shrinking in local TV news, and Poynter’s Rick Edmonds looked at the grim picture for newspapers. The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson highlighted the discrepancy between print and digital ad revenues as “the scariest statistic about the newspaper business today.” Slate’s Matthew Yglesias took issue with all this hand-wringing, arguing that from the consumer’s perspective, things are actually fantastic — there’s never been more good, easy-to-access information. Several people countered this assertion: Media analyst Alan Mutter countered that Yglesias is mistaking quantity for quality, The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf said the picture is much bleaker on the local level, and Daily Download’s Ben Jacobs that just because people have access to all this information doesn’t mean they’re consuming it.

Others saw an important niche for digital tools in Poynter’s report: Amy Gahran of the Knight Digital Media Center highlighted the crucial role of mobile media for community journalism, and j-prof Alfred Hermida pointed out the indispensability of social media for journalists. Another point that drew attention was Pew’s finding that opinion is taking up a greater share of cable news programming, with MSNBC carrying the most opinion and CNN showing the most change since 2007. The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple noted the profitability of cable-news opinionating, and Mediaite’s Joe Concha urged MSNBC to own its opinion-heavy identity.

google-reader-mark-all-as-readGoogle Reader and the viability of free: After Google announced the shutdown of Google Reader last week, the mass exodus, fury, and pushback echoed into this week, as well. The many RSS alternatives continue to vie for the Reader diaspora, led by Feedly, which drew more than 500,000 Reader users in two days. David Zax of MIT Technology Review wondered whether any of the alternatives would catch on, but suspected that social media would be good enough for many people; RSS, he said, is for the obsessive who “needs to know every development in a given field as it happens.”

Slate’s Chris Kirk and Heather Brady cleverly noted that Reader is very, very far from the first service Google has killed, and management prof Joshua Gans wondered whether Google Scholar might be next. Developer Clay Allsopp differentiated between Reader as a product and Reader as a symbol, saying that the former was clunky and antiquated, while the latter was a bulwark against the “walled garden” approach.

Several more writers made the popular case for Reader as a warning against using free, corporately owned tools. The Observer’s John Naughton pointed to that as a lesson of Reader’s downfall, and Instapaper’s Marco Arment and programmer Christoph Nahr both argued that free pricing works in the short run but has damaging long-term implications. What Google did with Reader, Arment wrote, was effectively predatory pricing, which turned what could have been a thriving industry into a “proprietary monoculture.” Jack Shafer of Reuters said this isn’t Google’s fault; you just get what you pay for, and its free service was more of a gift while it lasted.

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The Washington Post’s paywall: The Washington Post, the most prominent American newspaper still holding out against an online pay model, announced this week it would join the ranks of the paywalled with plans to institute a metered model this summer. (The mantle of most prominent American holdout now passes to USA Today.) The plan is quite modest, though — users will get 20 free page views per month, and students, educators, government employees, and the military will all get free access.

As Jeff Bercovici of Forbes noted, those loopholes will encompass a significant percentage of DC-area residents. Ryan Chittum of the Columbia Journalism Review gave some “better late than never” approval to the paywall, but criticized the large loopholes as poor design: “They largely won’t pay to read at home what they get at work for free—which is where most reading is done anyway.”

Reading roundup: Plenty of other smaller stories to check out during this busy week:

— The Washington Examiner, the free daily newspaper owned by Philip Anschutz, announced that it will cease daily publication in June and laid off 87 employees, according to the Washington City Paper, though 20 new positions will be hired. The locally oriented paper will turn into a weekly magazine and website focused instead on national politics, aiming for straight news reporting supplemented with conservative opinion. The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple gave more details on that plan and compared it to Anschutz’s other political publication, The Weekly Standard.

— Some follow-ups on the arrest last week of Reuters social media editor Matthew Keys for helping Anonymous attack news sites in 2010: Keys’ attorney said he was actually doing undercover journalism on Anonymous. Gawker’s Adrian Chen gave some more details on that defense, as well as Keys’ Internet past. Keys’ former co-worker, Judy Farah, reflected on Keys as a friend, and Gerry Smith of the Huffington Post used the case as an example of the security dangers of rogue employees, while the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Hanni Fakhoury used the case to look at problems with sentencing under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Caitlin Dewey of The Washington Post, meanwhile, countered the idea that Keys is comparable to Aaron Swartz.

— A few leftover pieces from the closing of the alternative weekly the Boston Phoenix late last week: The Phoenix’s Carly Carioli and the Columbia Journalism Review’s Justin Peters gave elegies for the paper, and the Lab’s Joshua Benton pointed to its demise as a reminder that a switch from newsprint to glossy print doesn’t solve the basic problems alt weeklies are facing. Jack Shafer of Reuters zoomed out to explain why alt weeklies everywhere have been declining  for years, and Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon pointed out their declining circulation in Pew’s State of the Media report.

— For those interested in media research or analytics, two extremely helpful posts this week: First, at the Lab, Matt Stempeck of the MIT Center for Civic Media released a script for tracking mentions of words, phrases, or people in the recently released TVNews Archive. Second, New York Times OpenNews fellow Brian Abelson demonstrated a metric for engagement on news apps.

— Finally, the post just about everyone currently or formerly in newspapers seemed to be passing around this week was this essay by former newspaper reporter Allyson Bird about why she left the business. It’s a thought-provoking perspective on what it’s like to work in newspapers right now.

                                   
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