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This Week in Review: What Facebook Home will do to mobile, and retiring “illegal immigrant”

Plus: Alternatives to the metered model, Roger Ebert’s death, changes at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and the rest of the week’s media and tech news.

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Facebook Home, content, and messaging: Facebook has long been rumored to be developing a phone, and when it finally unveiled Facebook Home this week, it didn’t release a phone per se, but it may have as significant an impact on the mobile industry as if it had. As Engadget explained in its succinct walkthrough of Home’s features, it’s a suite of apps and a home-screen replacement for Android phones. It’s somewhere between app and operating system — an “apperating system,” as Wired’s Alexandra Chang put it.

All Things D’s Mike Isaac described the Cover Feed — a nonstop, full-screen flow of Facebook photos and status updates — as Home’s key feature, as it puts its content constantly front and center for its users. (Later on, that will also include, crucially, ads.) Richard Nieva of PandoDaily, on the other hand, saw Chat Heads, an interface that allows users to message others continuously as they move into and out of apps, as the central element. As he argued, this puts the focus on messaging, a key component of a truly mobile-first strategy. Gregory Ferenstein of TechCrunch saw Chat Heads as crucial to Facebook’s efforts to “own the conversations of text-obsessed teens.”

Many observers, such as Fortune’s Miguel Helft, saw Home as Facebook’s attempt to make a run at Google’s mobile market, as it displaces Google Search as the home screen for many Android phones. Tim Carmody of The Verge detailed Google and Facebook’s tension-filled, passive-aggressive relationship. Some surmised that Home would have a relatively small impact overall: GigaOM’s Eliza Kern said it wouldn’t go much beyond the Facebook app for many users, John Herrman of BuzzFeed pointed out that demand for a Facebook phone appears tepid, and Forbes’ Robert Hof noted a few other factors that will limit Home’s impact.

Still, Mat Honan of Wired — in the sharpest analysis posted yesterday — said that Home’s mediocrity may be the key to its value for many users. “For many people, Facebook is the Internet, just as AOL was before it,” he wrote. For those people, “Facebook Home is going to be the best way for those people to experience the Internet on a phone.” Wired had the other indispensable piece on this announcement — Steven Levy’s lengthy interview with Mark Zuckerberg on the strategy and philosophy behind Home. The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal took a philosophical approach to Zuckerberg’s announcement, arguing that we can’t let him redefine “people” as “Facebook friends.”

Another angle to take note of: As with any Facebook announcement, there are, of course, privacy concerns. The Next Web’s Ken Yeung said its biggest impact may be in its data collection abilities, and Om Malik of GigaOM warned that Home will erode whatever’s left of its users’ privacy.

Dropping “illegal immigrant”: The Associated Press made what could be a landmark decision this week when it announced it would no longer use the term “illegal immigrant.” As it explained in its post on the move, the AP has looked at nixing this term before, but had held off on changing it until a decent alternative emerged. The AP still hasn’t found an alternative, but decided it’s time to abandon “illegal immigrant” anyway.

New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan noted that The Times is also considering a formal change in their policy on that term, to be announced as soon as this week. She doubted it would be banned altogether, but expected the paper’s aversion to “undocumented immigrant” to soften. She also noted that she had changed her own stance to oppose “illegal immigrant.” Poynter’s Taylor Miller Thomas pointed out that the San Antonio Express-News dropped the term back in 2008 and dropped “immigrant” altogether in 2010.

As The Maynard Institute’s Richard Prince reported, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists has talked about eliminating the term since the 1980s. The NAHJ and the National Association of Black Journalists both praised the decision, as did former Washington Post reporter Jose Antonio Vargas, who has been a leader in the push to drop the label. Vargas told Poynter’s Thomas and Andrew Beaujon he hopes The AP’s decision starts conversations in newsrooms across the U.S.

Roy Peter Clark of Poynter also approved of the change, even with the AP’s rather clunky suggestions for alternatives. “To find and depict our common humanity requires more reporting, not less; more language, not less; more thinking, not less,” he wrote.

Buried in the partisan political reaction were a few interesting points: Mark Krikorian of the National Review wondered whether the AP would drop the word “illegal” as a descriptor in other contexts, as well as nominalized adjectives for other groups of people. On the other hand, Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum saw some usefulness in labels, and lamented the fact that the AP hasn’t chosen an alternative.

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Alternatives to the metered model: Virtually every week for the past year or so, we’ve seen a significant news org adopt an online pay plan. And most of those plans are remarkably similar — variations on the same “metered model” that allows readers a certain number of free views before prompting them to pay up. This week, though, the Orange County Register instituted a paywall (and yes, it’s definitely a wall) that differs drastically from that cookie-cutter approach, in some intriguing ways.

The Lab’s Ken Doctor has the most thorough breakdown of the plan, which allows almost no unpaid access to any local news content less than two weeks old. It also charges the same amount for digital access as for print, and online access literally matches print access — if you have a Sunday print subscription, you can access the website only on Sundays. The paper is also giving its subscribers perks, like free tickets to the Los Angeles Angels.

Doctor was intrigued but skeptical: “It doesn’t matter how clever you are; readers don’t like running into walls.” In a pair of posts, free-news advocate Mathew Ingram of paidContent took a similar view as he emphasized the Register’s plans to focus exclusively on creating content for subscribers, rather than online readers or advertisers. “Spitz and Kushner aren’t trying a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and hoping that they can be both web-native and print-focused at the same time,” he said. “That deserves some respect.”

A few other interesting data points from a variety of paywalls bubbled up this week: A yet-to-be-launched online Dutch publication has raised €1 million from subscribers, bypassing advertisers and focusing on in-depth “slow journalism.” Metered model pioneer The Financial Times talked with Mashable’s Lauren Indvik about the centrality of user data to their online subscription plan, and Business Insider had a lengthy interview with Andrew Sullivan about his attempt to charge for his blog and his aims to “reinvent the magazine online.”

Felix Salmon of Reuters talked with influential paywall firms Mather Economics and MediaPass and found that even they aren’t sold on meters because of concern that it treats all readers equally, when all readers aren’t equally likely to pay. The Guardian’s Charles Arthur said the key isn’t necessarily the style of paywall, but determining what’s the unique, core offering worth charging for. And Michael Wolff argued that paywalls aren’t going to solve any of newspapers’ deeper existential problems, while Jeff Israely of the news startup Worldcrunch argued that charging readers for news isn’t simply another kind of subsidy, but an affirmation of the real value in news orgs’ core product.

Reading roundup: The other stories to catch up on from a relatively quiet week:

— Roger Ebert, the legendary film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, died yesterday of cancer at age 70. You can read the Sun-Times and New York Times obits, a brilliant 2010 Esquire profile, and some personal reflections on Ebert by Will Leitch from 2010, as well as Ebert’s own reflections on death from 2011. Ebert was also a pioneer in turning a personal brand into paid online content, as Poynter documented in 2011. Ebert’s 2010 blog post about Twitter also helps give a good idea of his approach to digital media, which paidContent’s Mathew Ingram also praised.

— The Cleveland Plain Dealer announced it would cut home delivery down to three days a week (it’ll still print all seven days). It’s expected to cut at least a third of its newsroom staff, according to The New York Times. Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon has the requisite background, and the Columbia Journalism Review’s Dean Starkman criticized the print- and cost-cutting strategy of Advance Publications, the Plain Dealer’s publisher.

— The online currency Bitcoin had a roller-coaster week this week, as its currency value rocketed to a record high before falling back down. As BetaBeat lamented, much of this was a result of Cyprus residents trying to put their money into something stable amid their country’s financial crisis, though the report that one of its biggest exchanges went down after a DDOS attack also exacerbated the problem. Reuters’ Felix Salmon gave the best analysis of the situation, comparing Bitcoin to offline and online currencies and the threats to its long-term health. The Financial Times’ Izabella Kaminska’s analysis is also insightful.

— NPR announced that it’s cancelling Talk of the Nation, its 21-year-old public-affairs call-in show, this summer. As The New York Times reported, NPR’s replacing it with Here and Now as part of its effort to develop a midday newsmagazine show along the lines of Morning Edition and All Things Considered. NPR’s account of the move noted that TOTN has been a pioneer in the format of call-in shows.

— Poynter’s Kelly McBride shed some light on BuzzFeed’s substantial efforts to do serious journalism, while Alex Kantrowitz of PBS MediaShift looked at its native ad network. Mathew Ingram of paidContent wondered why we’re so reluctant to take BuzzFeed seriously.

— A couple of interesting pieces of Twitter data: The Awl’s Choire Sicha tallied the “work” tweets of staffers at Gawker, BuzzFeed, and Business Insider, and research consultant Nick Diakopoulos looked at the correlation between newspapers’ circulation and Twitter followers.

— Finally, Evgeny Morozov’s Baffler critique of Tim O’Reilly is also a thoughtful analysis of the culture of Web 2.0. It’s quite long, but has been getting rave reviews.

Photo of Angel Stadium by socaltimes used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
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Joseph Lichterman    Aug. 26, 2014
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