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May 3, 2013, 10:29 a.m.

This Week in Review: Fuzzy math at newspapers, and more opposition to Kochs’ media plans

Plus: Twitter’s security problem for news orgs, and the rest of the week’s media and tech news.

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Newspapers’ digital subscriptions jump: Newspapers’ biannual circulation reports came out this week, and there were a couple of ways to read them. The New York Times went the glass-half-full route, emphasizing that digital subscriptions are up, now accounting for 20 percent of total circulation figures. Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici went glass-half-empty, pointing out that overall circulation is down, meaning that “publishers seem to be shedding print subscribers faster than they can replace them with readers of online, mobile or replica editions.”

The big news among individual papers was that The New York Times passed up USA Today as the second-largest newspaper in the U.S., behind The Wall Street Journal. Ad Age reported that the Times’ jump in digital subscribers since its paywall was introduced two years ago has come mostly from new digital subscribers, not print subscribers who added digital subscriptions. 10,000 Words’ Lauren Hockenson pointed out the slowdown of the Times’ paywall growth, though recently paywalled blogger Andrew Sullivan compared the Times’ situation favorably to the free (for the time being) Washington Post.

Despite its continued drop in circulation, USA Today’s publisher, Larry Kramer, sent out a cheerful memo published by Jim Romenesko that noted that it’s relying on a different model — free and ad-based — than its competitors, which doesn’t give it the digital subscriptions to match up against theirs. Northeastern University journalism professor Dan Kennedy also broke down the difference digital numbers are making among the Boston papers.

Mathew Ingram of paidContent, meanwhile, called BS on the whole exercise, pointing out that circulation figures allow newspapers to count someone who reads the paper in print, on the web, and on a tablet as three different readers. With numbers so inflated and open to interpretation, Ingram said, “The bottom line is that no one really knows what the ‘real’ readership numbers are for newspapers.” Media analyst Alan Mutter echoed his point, arguing that newspapers’ fuzzy digital circulation numbers are masking a collapse in print subscriptions over the past several years.

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More pushback against the Kochs: The news that the conservative billionaire Koch brothers are talking about buying the Tribune Co.’s newspapers (which include the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times) came to the fore last week, and opposition to the move continues to bubble up. Kathleen Miles of The Huffington Post reported that in a show of hands at a recent meeting there, about half of the L.A. Times newsroom said they’d quit if the Kochs bought the paper. (Tribune columnist Rick Kogan didn’t see the same sentiment at his own paper.) The Times also reported on three L.A. city councilmen who threatened to pull city pension money from the investment firms who currently own the paper if they sell to the Kochs.

The Newspaper Guild-CWA called for the Times to only sell to a buyer that will commit to preserving the paper’s objectivity, while locals in south Florida have circulated an online petition against Koch ownership of a Tribune paper there. At the Times, David Horsey urged L.A. residents to rise against Koch ownership there. Craig Aaron of the media reform group Free Press called on readers of Tribune Co. papers to do the same across the country, but said the best (though extremely unlikely) solution would be breaking up the chain in favor of local ownership.

Forbes’ Daniel Fisher wondered why the Kochs might think the deal might work well from a business perspective (it won’t), while at USA Today, Michael Wolff did the same with their potential for political influence. Those papers’ influence would be limited to their cities, Wolff said, none of whom seem to be clamoring for a loud conservative media voice. “Other than a few editorials tilting to their views, it is hard to imagine how they get a new conservative national voice to rise from Los Angeles, Chicago, Hartford and Baltimore — or in Spanish,” he wrote. Jack Shafer of Reuters offered a similar caution to the Kochs, while also contending that they’re not the hard-right loons they’re being painted as.

Elsewhere, Michael Calderone of The Huffington Post gave some background on the Kochs’ dealings with the media — they generally refuse to talk until after an article about them is published, then complain loudly afterward. And Texas grad student Brian Baresch looked at some of the history of newspaper ownership driven by conservative ideology.

Daily Beast fires Kurtz: Howard Kurtz, longtime Washington Post media critic and one of the web’s most prominent media writers, was fired yesterday by The Daily Beast. There were a couple of possible causes — one more immediate and another more general. Kurtz wrote an erroneous column earlier this week that was critical of Jason Collins, the NBA player who announced Monday he was gay. Kurtz accused Collins of hiding the fact that he used to be engaged to a woman, but Collins actually revealed that in the very Sports Illustrated column in which he made his announcement. The Daily Beast retracted the column Thursday morning and fired him later that day. (He’s also under review at CNN, where he hosts Reliable Sources.)

The other factor came in the form of a report by The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone on Kurtz’s heavy involvement with a little-known website called The Daily Download, which is increasingly the subject of his tweets and a publishing venue for his perspectives on media. Kurtz is on the board of the site but told Calderone he doesn’t have a stake in the company, so Calderone said his extensive work there is raising eyebrows at The Daily Beast.

Alex Pareene of Salon tied the two together, arguing that while his main flaw previously had been his blandness and subservience, this error was evidence that he’s spreading himself too thin. The question, then, was what role both played in his firing: Calderone reported that the Collins error was a last straw in a series of grievances, and hinted that Kurtz’s role at The Daily Download may be greater than what he has said publicly. Kurtz responded on Twitter last night:

The Washington Post and The New York Times both quoted a (very similar-sounding!) anonymous Daily Beast source who said the firing wasn’t just a reaction to the Collins story but was over problems that had accrued over time, and that Kurtz has had too many distractions from his work there. Anonymous sources aired similar grievances to Politico’s Dylan Byers and Katie Glueck, who framed the firing as the latest step in Kurtz’s decline as a media voice.

Stopping hackers on Twitter: A week after its hack of the Associated Press’ Twitter account, the Syrian Electronic Army hacked 11 Twitter accounts for the Guardian over the weekend, getting control of them through phishing emails. Twitter responded by sending a memo to journalists regarding security that, as Marketing Pilgrim’s Frank Reed wrote, didn’t exactly inspire confidence: As BuzzFeed’s John Herrman noted, Twitter is actually telling journalists “to stay off the internet on the computers they use for Twitter.”

At the Investigative News Network, Amy Schmitz Weiss had some good tips for journalists to keep their accounts and CMSes secure. Meanwhile, Twitter posted a job listing for a “head of news and journalism” to better manage its relationships with journalists.

Reading roundup: A much quieter week this week than the last few, but still several interesting items worth noting:

— Politico owner Robert Allbritton sent a memo to the site’s staff announcing that he’s exploring selling his TV stations, though he was emphatic that he wouldn’t be selling Politico, which The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone posted with some background. The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple wondered whether Politico is truly as profitable as Allbritton asserts.

— Yahoo announced six new original web shows and a variety of TV partnerships, which, as Ad Age’s Michael Learmonth argued, left the distinct message that it’s still a media company. Its proposed purchase of the French video-sharing site Dailymotion, meanwhile, was shot down by the French government.

— Two interesting conversations that developed this week: The New Republic’s Marc Tracy declared the death of blogs, and blogger Andrew Sullivan said it’s more likely magazines that are dying. And Northwestern journalism student Katie Zhu urged j-schools to rethink their approach to data and computer science, while journalist/developer Derek Willis chimed in with his own call for reform.

— Betaworks, which also owns Digg, bought the content-saving app Instapaper late last week, and The Atlantic looked at Betaworks’ quiet but increasingly significant role in the online news world.

— Twitter expanded its self-serve ad platform, which was launched last year and had been invite-only, to all businesses in the U.S. TechCrunch’s Josh Constine explained what it might mean for Twitter and for advertisers.

— Two thoughtful pieces to read through this weekend: Legendary sociologist Herb Gans argued that public opinion polls don’t actually measure public opinion, and The New Republic’s Jeffrey Rosen looked at the Internet giants’ control over online speech.

Photos of newspapers by J E Smith and Koch Brothers kennel from 2011 Occupy Wall Street protest by Caroline Schiff Photography used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     May 3, 2013, 10:29 a.m.
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