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This Week in Review: Gauging Bezos’ Post plan, and tech companies’ surveillance dilemma

Plus: The San Francisco Chronicle backtracks on its paywall, layoffs at Patch, the coming arrival of Al Jazeera America, and the rest of the week’s news in journalism and the web.

Reading Bezos’ tea leaves: A week and a half after Amazon’s Jeff Bezos announced he was buying The Washington Post, we still don’t know any more about what he plans to do with the paper. A few people mined his past, however, for clues to what kind of owner he’d be. The Post published its big profile of Bezos, and the Columbia Journalism Review’s Dean Starkman examined a Fast Company profile of Bezos’ work at Amazon, pointing to his long effort to circumvent tax obligations as an indication he’s the wrong guy for The Post.

NYU’s Jay Rosen raised the alarm that Bezos won’t defend free information, tying him to NSA leaker Edward Snowden’s case and noting in particular Amazon’s kicking WikiLeaks off its servers in response to government pressure in 2010. “That’s not answering the bell for freedom of information. That’s doing what the surveillance state requires, and relying on a legalism to justify it.”

The week brought a couple of reflections on the Graham era of ownership at The Post and the paper’s glory days in decades past, from Post veterans Peter Perl and Henry Allen. Several other ideas about the move’s significance also emerged: The New York Times’ Ross Douthat pinned The Post’s decline on the rise of Politico as the premier news organization covering Washington politics and followed up on that point in a blog post. Former Politico writer Steve Friess argued that The Post shouldn’t try to be like Politico, and Douthat countered that he’s not saying the paper should have followed the Politico model, but simply to invest more deeply in politics as a core area.

Media analyst Alan Mutter examined the trend of mergers and acquisitions in newspapers, noting that Bezos’ overpay for The Post not withstanding, the sale prices for these papers is slumping badly. The New York Times noted the trend of tech luminaries, such as Bezos, Craigslist’s Craig Newmark, and Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, lending a hand to traditional media outlets. And Poynter’s Rick Edmonds concluded that “the era of the public newspaper company is winding down.” And next, many people are turning their attention to The New York Times, as The Times itself noted.

Bezos is getting plenty of unsolicited advice about what to do with The Post once he takes over: Install top Post digital officer Vijay Ravindran as publisher (Reuters’ Jack Shafer), shrink the newsroom (Forbes’ Tim Worstall), shut down the print edition (GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram), keep the paywall around (Post columnist Robert Samuelson), reinvent classifieds (Tim Carmody and Dave Pell), and fire conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin (former Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton).


Snowden, the NSA, and tech stuck in the middle: NSA leaker Edward Snowden didn’t make any news directly this week, but his leaks continued to generate discussion, centering this week on a New York Times Magazine feature on Laura Poitras, the filmmaker who worked with Snowden to release his information. The Times also published a short interview with Snowden alongside the article, and Gawker’s Adrian Chen highlighted the email encryption Poitras and The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald encountered in the piece.

President Obama gave a press conference last Friday responding to Snowden’s leaks, where he promised an “independent” review of surveillance policies that may be run by the director of national intelligence. The press conference prompted defenses of Snowden by The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein and the Freedom of the Press Foundation’s Trevor Timm, who both said he’s prompted the kind of democratic discussion about surveillance that Obama says is necessary.

The other Snowden-related piece of news was particularly ominous: Lavabit, the email privacy service reportedly used by Snowden, abruptly shut down late last week with a cryptic email from its founder, Ladar Levison, suggesting that he was shutting Lavabit down rather than comply with the U.S. government’s demands to hand over its users’ data (possibly passwords). He concluded that letter with the admonition that “I would _strongly_ recommend against anyone trusting their private data to a company with physical ties to the United States,” and told Forbes’ Kashmir Hill we might not use email at all if we knew what he knew about it. NYU’s Jay Rosen described all those who are acting on the situation — “If the public knew what the government was doing, the government wouldn’t be allowed to do it anymore” — as the Fourth Estate.

Another encryption service, Silent Circle, also shut down after seeing “the writing on the wall” with Lavabit’s shutdown, though it said it hadn’t received any orders from the government. Alex Hern of The Guardian provided some more context to the decisions, saying they mark the death of secure cloud computing.

The Guardian’s Greenwald noted that the perception that U.S. tech companies’ security can’t be trusted will hurt their financial prospects, and expressed his encouragement at their growing defiance of the government. The Atlantic’s Bruce Schneier urged those companies to fight harder and characterized the government’s actions toward them as essentially the wartime practice of commandeering: “But now it’s happening in peacetime. Vast swaths of the Internet are being commandeered to support this surveillance state.”

The Chronicle’s paywall reversal: After a couple of years of American newspapers adding online paywalls virtually every week, we saw a surprising reversal this week, as the San Francisco Chronicle announced that it was dismantling its paywall less than five months after it was launched. The Chronicle’s pay plan was a two-site model, with a free and a paid, and according to SF Weekly’s Joe Eskenazi, the two sites are sticking around and SFChronicle will continue to be paid, though all its stories will be available for free on SFGate. SFist’s Jay Barmann noted that many of the paper’s writers have been finding ways to make their content available for free for a while now.

GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram questioned whether the Chronicle’s move was the start of a trend of paywall rollbacks, and evidence quickly came in supporting that idea, as D magazine reported that the Dallas Morning News will drop its across-the-board paywall and instead launch a premium site for subscribers. Meanwhile, one big new paywall is going up, as the Toronto Star’s paywall kicks in this week.

Patch and hyperlocal’s viability: AOL CEO Tim Armstrong confirmed last Friday that the company will be laying off hundreds of employees of the hyperlocal network Patch this week (he also fired an executive mid-conference call for taking pictures, for which he apologized). Ad sales are reportedly down across the network as Patch staffers await the bad news.

USA Today’s Rem Rieder characterized Patch as the latest in a litany of failed hyperlocal news initiatives, arguing that there still isn’t a workable business model for it. Several people responded that the problem isn’t with hyperlocal news as a whole; it’s that hyperlocal doesn’t scale and can’t be implemented top-down. Howard Owens of the New York local news site The Batavian made the point most cogently, and Ad Age’s Alex Kantrowitz and Northeastern’s Dan Kennedy concurred.

Reading roundup: A few of the other stories worth checking out this week:

— The launch of Al Jazeera America is a few days away, and the channel is working to get Time Warner Cable to pick it up. USA Today published a feature on the network, focusing on whether it can win over American viewers. Maclean’s interviewed Al Jazeera America anchor Ali Velshi and the launch, and tech pioneer Doc Searls drew attention to the fact that Al Jazeera is killing its online live stream in the U.S.

— U.S. Army Pfc. Bradley Manning apologized during his sentencing hearing for the “unintended consequences” of his leaks to WikiLeaks, saying he was sorry they hurt the U.S. The Freedom of the Press Foundation’s Rainey Reitman said no apology was necessary, as the leaks didn’t hurt the U.S.

— Three interesting pieces on data journalism: In a talk at a statistical convention, new ESPN hire Nate Silver gave 11 useful principles on dealing with statistics for journalists, British journalism professor Andy Dickinson questioned whether data journalism helps democracy, and Poynter’s Anna Li looked at some journalistic cases that involve design thinking.

— Finally, former Guardian and BBC journalist Kevin Anderson argued that news organizations made a mistake by merging their print and online operations, pointing to Clark Gilbert’s Deseret Morning News as a better alternative.

Photos of Jeff Bezos by ptufts and of Herb Caen poster by SP8254 used under a Creative Commons license.

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  • Asok Asus

    Paywall up, paywall down. Paywall up, paywall down. These are just more convulsions of the dying newspaper industry.

    The Internet comet crashed to earth in 1998 and killed the newspaper dinosaurs, who existed solely because they could create monopoly conditions for local advertising. The newspapers were killed by the digital revolution with the formation of craigslist, ebay, google, and amazon all around 1998, thus destroying the local advertising monopolies, but their deaths have taken over a decade to register with their pea-sized brains as their mammoth bodies thrashed about.

    Going digital ten years too late means that newspapers have merely become little more than a few additional websites competing with a billion existing web sites for limited advertising dollars. And even worse for the dying papers, ad pages no long bring in thousands of dollars per page, but instead bring in thousandths of a cent per page, so there’s no chance whatsoever of digital ad revenues ever equaling newspaper publishing ad revenues.

    Digital subscriptions, also known as paywalls, never had a chance of working either. Most of what’s behind a paywall is freely available elsewhere, and paywalls render any ads behind the paywalls valueless, meaning no one in their right mind is going to pay for an ad behind a paywall.

    It is true that the loss of news gathering by newspapers is collateral damage from the digital revolution. However, news was never anything more than the hook to get consumers to buy and read the newspaper ads, and for the most part had been turned into little more than leftest propaganda anyway, so the value of the “loss” is highly debatable.

    At any rate, it couldn’t have happened to a nicer bunch, since most U.S. newspapers have been promoting the overthrow of all that is good and unique about the U.S. for at least 70 years. At least buggy whip makers never tried to destroy the U.S.

  • Bob Jacobson

    Bezos can’t make any money on The Post. All he wants is to control the information flow, or at least be privy to it, of everything significant that occurs in the nation’s capital. But seeing how cozy he is with the NSA and the intelligence community at large, one can speculate (a) he’s doing this at the NSA’s behest or (b) he’s doing it because the NSA doesn’t offer him enough of a controlling position. Welcome to the world of calorie-free news.

  • Bob Jacobson

    I was with you until your “leftist propaganda” non sequitur. Are you kidding? Who do you think owned newspapers in America, Leon Trotsky? Try the wealthiest individuals and corporations in America. The “news” was and remains no more than a reification of the ruling hegemony. How could it be anything else?