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This Week in Review: The ethics of freelancing for free, and Facebook’s filtered News Feed

Plus: The Washington Post drops its ombudsman position, a new News Corp. sports venture, and the rest of the week in the future of news.

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The ethics of freelancing for free: Freelance journalist Nate Thayer touched off a spirited discussion on the ethics and economics of paying (or not paying) freelancers with a post criticizing The Atlantic for asking him to rewrite for them an article he’d published elsewhere, and to do it for free. He ranted some more to New York’s Daily Intel , and The Atlantic’s James Bennet issued a somewhat apologetic, somewhat explanatory statement. (In a later twist, author Jeremy Duns raised some plagiarism questions about his original piece, which the Columbia Journalism Review followed up on.)For the deepest discussion of the issues at work in paying freelancers online, check out this conversation started by The Awl’s Choire Sicha and joined by dozens of online writers and editors.

We’ll look at this from the freelancer’s perspective first: Several writers took issue with Thayer’s implication that freelancers should never write for free. Slate’s Matthew Yglesias said that with a few exceptions, most anybody who’s writing should write for free. Freelancer Stephanie Lucianovic (in a piece originally written before Thayer’s was published) and TechCrunch’s Gregory Ferenstein explained why they’re glad they write (or wrote) for free. Former WSJ.com writer Jason Fry offered some criteria for considering when to write to free, but cautioned: “Be ruthless in asking yourself if the trade-off’s really worth it. Is the platform really that prestigious? Is the give and take with readers really that attractive? Is the relationship with the editor really going to be that hands-on?” Kelly McBride of Poynter noted, though, that it can be very difficult to keep hard rules about how little pay to accept.

Others looked at pay dilemma from the angle of the editor, or the industry as a whole. Atlantic tech editor Alexis Madrigal (who wasn’t involved in Thayer’s situation) laid out the case from the editor’s perspective, explaining why traffic and low freelance budgets lead some editors to pay freelancers little or nothing, even when they’d rather not. Reuters’ Felix Salmon explained things more dispassionately, reasoning that the lack of division of labor in online publishing makes it much easier to produce content in-house than to incorporate freelancing. Likewise, Om Malik of GigaOM explained why he hasn’t used many freelancers, but believes they should always be paid.

At PandoDaily, Paul Carr asserted that sites like The Atlantic need to decide between the cheap, aggregative model of online publishing, and the expensive, journalistic one. Mathew Ingram of paidContent argued that the fact that so many on the web are willing to create content for free will always make it difficult for freelancers, but there are still alternative ways for freelancers to make money. (Patrick Thornton suggested a few creative ideas.) Virginia Quarterly Review web editor Jane Friedman argued that there’s nothing to be gained by ripping sites who are trying to get things right and make money.

Likewise, Forbes’ Timothy B. Lee said that people who think bad pay for writers is unacceptable should work to change the system, rather than personalize things. And Pocket’s Mark Armstrong posited that we’re all contributing to the problem whenever we casually give our writing away for free even on social media, or to sites that give it away themselves.

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Mo’ content, mo’ problems for Facebook: Facebook introduced a redesigned News Feed yesterday, focusing on visual elements as well as music, games, and ads. As Gizmodo’s Sam Biddle detailed, the visual focus is an attempt to increase ad revenue, and Wired’s Ryan Tate noted that the changes look like they’ll emphasize content from news publishers and businesses, though users could still end up prioritizing their family and friends’ stuff. While Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg once again referred to his ideal as a “personalized newspaper,” Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman said the site still has a long way to go before it’s really useful for news.

Craig Kanalley of The Huffington Post gave a useful timeline of the evolution of Facebook’s News Feed. Many people saw a likeness in this latest iteration to Google+, as BetaNews’ Joe Wilcox described, though CNET’s Casey Newton said it’s also aiming for Twitter. Mathew Ingram of GigaOM contrasted Facebook’s changes to further fine-tune its feed filtering with Twitter’s generally unfiltered presentation. The problem, he said, is that with Facebook, you really don’t know what you’re missing.

That’s a potential problem not only for users, but for the people creating the content, too. The New York Times’ Nick Bilton highlighted the concern earlier this week when he noted that likes and comments on his Facebook posts are way down over the past year, but shot back up when he paid to have a post show up more prominently. Facebook responded by noting that overall engagement is up for people using the Twitter-like Subscribe feature (like Bilton) and explained that if users don’t engage with posts from someone they follow for long periods of time, they get shown fewer of those posts. Facebook’s Vadim Lavrusik also clarified the relationship between organic and sponsored posts to Reuters’ Anthony De Rosa.

YouTube’s Hunter Walk suggested several other reasons Bilton might be seeing less engagement (less spam, News Feed growth, mobile), and Quartz’s Zach Seward chimed in with another good theory — that Facebook has essentially turned off the subsidy that once artificially propped up large Subscribe users. Mathew Ingram said those theories might have merit, but we really have no idea what Facebook’s doing with its News Feed algorithm.

TechCrunch’s Josh Constine made a similar point, arguing that while Facebook’s Subscribe feature is a free way to reach devoted followers, it’s also pretty opaque and inconsistent about how it runs that feature. All Facebook co-founder Nick O’Neill argued that Subscribe is deeply flawed as a way for people to reliably reach their followers (and measure that reach): “If most of your emails never reached their destination, you’d probably say that your email is broken. If most of your Facebook posts never reach the people who subscribed to/followed you, does that mean Facebook’s broken?”

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The Washington Post cuts its ombudsman: Two weeks after the departing Patrick Pexton reported that he might be The Washington Post’s last ombudsman, the paper’s publisher, Katharine Weymouth, confirmed it by announcing that the position will be replaced by a reader representative who will be a Post staffer and will write occasionally, rather than weekly, like the ombudsmen did. The first reader representative will be longtime Post reporter and editor Doug Feaver.

The move was quickly met with criticism from elsewhere in the news industry. NPR ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos’ was the most stinging rebuke, as said the new position “sounds like a customer relations person” and stated, “It eliminated a position that builds audience trust precisely at a time that this fundamental and fickle quality — trust — in the Post and all American news media is declining.” In a lengthy post, Schumacher-Matos laid out the case behind that statement, and argued that the ombudsman both keeps news orgs accountable and treats them fairly.

The American Journalism Review’s Rem Rieder made a similar point, and noted that The New York Times’ public editor, Margaret Sullivan, is reinventing ombudsmanship for the digital era while the Post is dropping it. Philip Seib, the son of a former Post ombudsman, also criticized the move by describing the ombudsman as a crucial check on the press’s power.

Others weren’t nearly so concerned. Reuters’ Jack Shafer noted that readers haven’t made much of a stink and argued that absent real, unvarnished criticism, most ombudsmen “have served primarily as safety shields for newspapers, with the ombudsmen catching, deflecting or containing the flak tossed by readers.” Surprisingly, the executive director of the Organization of News Ombudsmen praised the Post for its continued commitment to the position.

Meanwhile, the Post’s media critic, Erik Wemple, proposed an intriguing reboot of the ombudsman’s job — an “ombizman” that would ask tough questions about the Post’s decisions about its financial strategy and business model, rather than just its editorial content. Elsewhere in ombudsmanship, Eric Deggans at the National Sports Journalism Center called attention to ESPN’s four-month-old vacancy in its ombudsman position.

Reading roundup: A few other news items and thought-provoking pieces this week:

— News Corp. announced its long-anticipated creation of two 24-hour sports networks to rival ESPN — Fox Sports 1 and 2. The channels (currently Speed and Fuel) will launch later this year. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal have good background on the strategy behind the channels, and USA Today’s Michael Hiestand looked at whether it’s too late to challenge ESPN’s dominance. Despite the struggle for supremacy, John Ourand of Sports Business Journal reported that Fox and ESPN are actually partnering elsewhere on league broadcasting rights.

— The Pew Research Center produced an intriguing study indicating that public opinion often differs sharply from the opinions expressed on Twitter. ReadWrite’s Taylor Hatmaker noted that Twitter is a platform for very intentional expressions by highly invested users, which is far from the nature of the public as a whole.

— Time Warner was negotiating with Meredith to sell most of its Time Inc. magazines, but it cut off those talks this week and announced it would spin Time Inc. off into its own publicly traded company. Longtime media exec Charlie Rogers explained why Time wants out of the magazine business, and at The Guardian, Michael Wolff mused on what went wrong and what happens now.

— The Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum went deep into the New Orleans news environment and Newhouse’s management of the Times-Picayune in particular.

— Wisconsin researchers Dominique Brossard and Dietram Scheufele wrote in The New York Times about a nifty study they’ve just published suggesting that uncivil online comments can polarize readers and negatively affect their opinion of the news topic being discussed.

— Reuters blogger Felix Salmon and the Lab’s Ken Doctor both added an important pieces to our ongoing discussion about online paid content — Salmon with the second of his two posts (here’s the first) on content economics, in which he thoughtfully explored the subtle differences between charging for access and asking for donations, and the psychology of enticing users to pay. Doctor examined why paywalls are just now being widely adopted at news orgs

Photo of Cleveland’s Free stamp by Bradley Stabler and Washington Post by Yuri Numerov used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
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  • http://twitter.com/pwthornton Patrick Thornton

    I’ve offered some explanations as to why Bilton and others are seeing low engagement on Facebook: http://interchangeproject.org/2013/03/03/the-curious-case-of-sharing-on-facebook-sometimes-it-comes-with-a-price/

    What it comes down to is this: Facebook has prioritized strong tie connections (family and close friends) over weak tie connections (friends you don’t interact with much, people you subscribed to, etc.). And anyone who studies Facebook and uses it, knows that strong ties are the top reason that people keep coming back and why older people — parents, grandparents, etc. — are much more likely to join Facebook than Twitter, Tumblr, Google+ or other social networks. Faceook is also used to keep up with former strong ties (college friends that you don’t see that much anymore, for instance).

    I think Facebook may have gotten the balance a bit off, because its algorithm functioned as positive feedback loop, where the more you viewed someone’s content and the more you interacted with them, the more they showed up in your newsfeed. The problem then is that this led to a strong narrowing of what people e, and I suspect leaving people like Bilton on the outside.

    This new strategy seems to be a much better way for people to balance what is popular in their personalized feeds — almost certainly going to be strong tie or somewhat strong tie content — and page, subscriber and lesser-friend content.

    Bilton and others need to understand that visual content does significantly better on Facebook as well.

    I offer much more detail on the Interchange Project, but it’s important to understand what Facebook is used for and what a network such as Twitter is used for.

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    http://www.digitalprefix.com/odesk-genuine-freelancer-portal-earn-online/

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