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This Week in Review: The lessons of Google Reader’s death, and the free labor of news sources

Plus: The New York Times’ redesign sneak peek, SXSW takes on Reddit and newspapers, and the rest of the week’s media and tech news.

Mourning the loss of Google Reader: Google announced that it would be pulling the plug this July on Google Reader, the dominant RSS reader on the web. There are plenty of alternatives, of course, several of whom (like DiggFeedly, Zite and Flipboard) began actively courting Google Reader users within hours of Google’s announcement.

google-reader-mark-all-as-readGoogle Reader users collectively freaked out, with a petition to restore Google Reader picking up 30,000 signers in less than a day. Others (generally non-users) downplayed their concerns, with many of them, including GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, voicing the argument that Twitter has replaced much of the functionality of RSS. Laura Hazard Owen of paidContent rebutted that point in her elegy for Google Reader, saying they fill completely different roles for her: “Twitter provides a snapshot of a moment in time, and you’re likely to miss tweets as they whiz by; Google Reader stores everything.”

Chris Wetherell, one of Google Reader’s creators, lamented to Om Malik of GigaOM that the takeover of closed platforms like Twitter and Facebook have replaced the open Web 2.0 ethos on which Reader was built, eliminating the “common language of sharing.” Likewise, tech guru Robert Scoble saw it as another example of the death of the open web, and Felix Salmon said RSS has been dying for a while now.

As Emil Protalinski of The Next Web detailed, former Reader project manager Brian Shih said on Quora that Reader’s death is directly related to Google’s focus on Google+ — specifically, moving its engineers and then its features over to the floundering social network. (Though as BuzzFeed’s John Herrman notes, Reader sends far more traffic than Plus.) Blogger Colin Walker proposed that there could be a way for Google to make Reader work within a Google+ framework, however.

Instapaper creator Marco Arment saw Reader’s shutdown as a good thing, asserting that it should be the impetus for significant RSS innovation for the first time in years. Slate’s Matthew Yglesias agreed, adding that Reader has dominated the field and crowded out competitors. Others, such as TechCrunch’s Drew Olanoff and New York’s Joe Coscarelli, said that RSS never really evolved enough to catch on with the non-techie public.

Others took away a different lesson for Reader users: Mike Masnick of Techdirt said it illuminated the danger of relying too heavily on a single provider for a service, and Alex Kantrowitz of Forbes said it should remind us that many of the technologies we use aren’t ours. Barbara Krasnoff of ComputerWorld made a similar point, wondering if we’re getting a lot of precariousness with the convenience of the cloud. Slate’s Farhad Manjoo said this should be a wakeup call to stop relying on free services. Said blogger Dave Winer: “Next time, please pay a fair price for the services you depend on.”

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Free writing, and free sources: The debate over the ethics of writing for free that started last week spilled over into this week, as well, with a few more thoughtful perspectives on the subject and a new avenue of discussion about labor in producing the news. Cord Jefferson of Gawker made the pertinent point that when organizations ask people to write for free, they’re propping up a system that overwhelmingly favors those who already have money.

The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates noted that many accomplished writers and intellectuals are still doing work simply for exposure rather than money, especially when we consider that doing good, informed opinion writing is serious work, too. At Jim Romenesko’s blog, freelancer Ryan Glasspiegel explained why he keeps at it while often working for free.

At The Washington Post, Ezra Klein introduced another group of people who do plenty of work to produce news stories without getting paid for it: sources. Klein argued that many sources get their ideas reshaped into news articles for little benefit other than exposure. Many of the people writing for free for major media organizations aren’t journalists, he said, but these experts in other fields.

Esquire’s Charles P. Pierce disagreed, pointing out that many sources aren’t in it for the exposure (and indeed are pretty hostile to the idea of being exposed at all) and drawing a line between reporting and punditry. “Ezra, dude, all of journalism is not the op-ed page,” he wrote. “Most of the people you cite above couldn’t cover a one-car fatal on 128 on a Sunday night.” Blogger Dave Winer, a longtime champion of the idea of sources going direct, pushed back against Pierce, arguing that the news process has been reorganizing to allow sources to bypass professionals for quite some time, and not all journalism is done by reporters.

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A first look at the Times’ redesign: The New York Times gave us a peek behind the curtain at its ongoing redesign efforts this week with the release of prototypes of their article pages for the web and tablets. Times digital design director Ian Adelman told Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon the prototype isn’t a beta of the real thing, but you could glean a few general directions the Times will be headed based on his comments — less clutter (including fewer navigational links), more options for multimedia arrangement, and more room for ads. Adelman also told New York magazine’s Joe Coscarelli the Times is removing pagination from longer articles and trying out comments side-by-side with articles.

Tim Carmody of The Verge went deeper into the prototype’s design and pointed out that the post-PC, responsive design doesn’t mean the Times is moving away from its native apps. “It’s more that the NYT is taking elements from its native apps and one-off, designed stories like the acclaimed ‘Snow Fall,’ and making them part of the everyday web platform,” he wrote.

At MIT Technology Review, John Pavlus contrasted the Times’ new approach with that of the traffic-gobbling Daily Mail, arguing that the Times is finally emphasizing the web’s affordances for readability while the Mail has found success by gearing everything doing clickability instead. The turn toward readability, Pavlus said, is an admirable one, though it may not also be commercially successful.

Reddit and newpapers at SXSW: The SXSW Interactive conference drew quite a few in the media-tech tribe to Austin last weekend, and while there were undoubtedly plenty of fascinating panels (here’s one on social media post-Arab Spring and one on social media’s benefits for language), two in particular got a little bit of traction in the media world: The first was a panel critical of Reddit’s darker elements, especially its tendencies toward racism and sexism.

The panel was panned by many in attendance, including Poynter’s Mallary Jean Tenore, who said it tended to eschew thoughtful discussion for generalization. BuzzFeed’s John Herrman was also critical of the panel, though he pinned some of the blame on Reddit’s apparent inability to engage in collective introspection. “By accusing Reddit of making victims, you make a victim of Reddit.” One of the panelists, Rebecca Watson of Skepchick, issued a defense in which she called attention to thoughtless responses from Reddit defenders at the panel and bullying responses from ones online. Fruzsina Eordogh of Motherboard recapped the post-debate discussion.

The second session was a talk by New York Times media columnist David Carr on the state of the newspaper industry on the web. Caitlin Clark of The University Star wrote a good, short summary, and Poynter’s Mallary Jean Tenore put together a more in-depth Storify of the talk. The TL;DR version: He’s bullish on metered pay models like the Times’, bearish on online ads, and adamant about writers getting paid for their work. As Times public editor Margaret Sullivan noted, even though the crowd didn’t appear to be a newspaper-heavy one, the questions were pretty sympathetic to print newspapers.

Reading roundup: Here’s what else you might want to catch from this week:

— Reuters deputy social media producer Matthew Keys was federally indicted for allegedly working with Anonymous to hack a Los Angeles Times article in 2010. Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon and BuzzFeed’s Ryan Broderick have the most comprehensive summaries of the situation and Keys’ background with Anonymous.

— The Boston Phoenix, one of the U.S.’ most prominent alternative weeklies, is shutting down this week. Here’s the report from The Boston Globe and Poynter, and former Phoenix staff writer Dan Kennedy’s reflections.

— The New York Times published three important pieces on the impact of the Bradley Manning case: One by Floyd Abrams and Yochai Benkler on the devastating precedent that could be set by sentencing Manning, the source of WikiLeaks’ most crucial leaks, to death. Former Times editor Bill Keller guessed at what might have occurred if Manning had leaked to the Times (as he tried to do) instead of WikiLeaks. And Times public editor Margaret Sullivan wrote on the dangers of the recently ramped-up prosecutions of government leaks.

— All Things D’s Kara Swisher reported that the news-reading app Pulse is on the verge of being bought by LinkedIn. Swisher said it makes sense given LinkedIn’s recent push for more original content, and paidContent’s Mathew Ingram agreed, describing as yet another move by a social network into the realm of a media company.

— After the contraction of hyperlocal news network Daily Voice, CUNY journalism professor Jeff Jarvis drew some valuable conclusions about what works in hyperlocal (small, local sites — not large networks) and what can be done to help those on the front lines.

— Karen Fratti of 10,000 Words urged news orgs to buck up and start working harder on new models of making money online — and to start by scrapping the word “paywall” for “subscription,” which she called “a quick fix to make balance sheets look better.”

Free photo by Bradley Stabler used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
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