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This Week in Review: Questions on journalists’ handling of NSA files, and the value of viral content

Plus: Katie Couric’s jump to Yahoo, Lara Logan’s leave from 60 Minutes, and the rest of the stories in journalism and tech.

Scrutiny for The Guardian over leaks: The stories continue to spill out of Edward Snowden’s documents from the U.S. National Security Agency — we’ve learned in the last two weeks that the NSA has been tracking cellphone locations worldwide, infecting computer networks with malicious software, getting into Internet companies’ data by tapping into the Internet backbone, spying on the porn habits of Muslim “radicalizers,” and trying to expand its power.

The two biggest stories, however, have been about the journalists that have published the stories on the leaks. The first was regarding The Guardian, whose editor, Alan Rusbridger, was called in to testify to a Parliament committee about his paper’s reporting on the leaks. The paper’s staff could be charged with terrorism offenses related to their publication of the leaks.

Rusbridger gave a vigorous defense of The Guardian’s handling of the documents, saying that the paper has only published about 1% of Snowden’s documents and that he doesn’t expect to publish many more. He also detailed the efforts the British government has taken to intimidate the paper, including prior restraint on publication, the forced destruction of the paper’s Snowden data, and calls from lawmakers to prosecute the paper.

Not surprisingly, journalists from Britain and elsewhere rose up in Rusbridger’s defense. Mike Masnick at Techdirt mocked some of the members of Parliament’s questions, including one that asked, “Do you love this country?” Trinity Mirror journalist David Higgerson used that question to warn of the dangers of giving government even more control over the press. The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade marveled at the fact that Rusbridger was even called to testify before Parliament, and from the U.S., Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein and USA Today’s Rem Rieder both expressed alarm that The Guardian is facing scrutiny at a time when the true scrutiny should be on excessive government surveillance and secrecy. Rusbridger also made his own case before the hearing in an interview with The Washington Post.

Monopolizing the Snowden documents?: The second big story revolved around Glenn Greenwald, the former Guardian journalist who is launching his own news organization with eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and others. The Rolling Stone’s Janet Reitman wrote a long, rich profile of Greenwald and Snowden, and The Independent profiled his new colleague, Jeremy Scahill. NYU’s Jay Rosen, and adviser to the new organization, talked to The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf about how it will manage reporting with an open perspective as opposed to traditional objectivity.

Greenwald and Omidyar faced several criticisms of their possession of Snowden’s documents. First, Greenwald refuted an accusation by a Wall Street Journal reporter that he failed to properly disclose the nature of his freelance relationship with the CBC. Then came a more substantial critique from Mark Ames at PandoDaily, that Greenwald and Omidyar’s possession of the documents amounts to their privatization by a tech mogul who will be running a for-profit news organization. “Information of national importance, such as which major tech companies colluded with the US government to spy on private citizens, will be published at the discretion of the founder and largest shareholder of one of those companies,” Ames wrote.

In a lengthy response to Ames, Greenwald argued that no one has monopolized the documents and that the way he and the others with access to the documents have handled them has been the best of several options. PandoDaily’s Paul Carr responded back to Greenwald, particularly his accusations about Ames and PandoDaily.

The Berkman Center’s David Weinberger also delved into the debate, concluding that the fact “that the charge that Glenn Greenwald is monopolizing or privatizing the Snowden information is even comprehensible to us is evidence of just how thoroughly the Web is changing our defaults and our concepts.” Also at PandoDaily, David Sirota looked at why The Washington Post’s Barton Gellman has been received better for his reporting on the documents than Greenwald, and blogger Marcy Wheeler examined Bob Woodward’s role in the monopolization debate.

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How much value does viral content have?: A number of different issues and stories converged into a wide-ranging discussion on the value of viral content over the past week or two. The first was Michael Wolff’s column in USA Today criticizing the traffic-based business model of Business Insider and suggesting that the site’s owner, Henry Blodget, sell before that model collapses. Blodget responded that the overpriced high-end digital ad market actually works in his site’s favor, as more advertisers will gravitate to his low-cost model. Reuters’ Felix Salmon, meanwhile, critiqued Wolff’s numbers as “unreasonably bearish.”

At PandoDaily, Bryan Goldberg also criticized the effectiveness of a business model that relies on viral traffic (especially through social networks like Facebook), arguing that it doesn’t mesh well with the precision of a well-planned advertising campaign. Likewise, Mathew Ingram of Gigaom said chasing after pageviews is a fool’s errand when the value of pageviews continues to drop. “That’s not just because there are more and more sites doing it, but because the value of incremental pageviews is sinking inexorably towards zero,” he wrote. (Facebook also released a change to its News Feed that will make it more difficult for viral content to spread as quickly or ubiquitously there.) Blodget also defended Business Insider’s infamous slideshows as a form of native digital storytelling, something PandoDaily’s Hamish McKenzie balked at, though Ingram offered a defense of the humble slideshow.

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal’s Farhad Manjoo wrote a profile of Gawker’s Neetzan Zimmerman, who generates an absurd amount of viral traffic there. (Later, Capital New York reported that Zimmerman is getting his own section of the Gawker website.) The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein highlighted several lessons from Manjoo’s piece, noting that it shows that garnering huge traffic via social media isn’t a crapshoot, but a skill that can be mastered. PandoDaily’s McKenzie also drew attention to the “mechanics” of viral content being used by Zimmerman and sites like BuzzFeed and Upworthy, calling it “annoying as hell.” At the Columbia Journalism Review, Ann Friedman offered some tips on doing viral content well within a journalistic context.

In addition, several viral stories were revealed to be hoaxes last week, led by a Huffington Post column on poverty and a Thanksgiving airplane note-passing story. There was both hand-wringing and ambivalence over all the falsehood being passed around online. “If there’s a great reward, and little downside, to be had in publishing B.S., the Internet’s going to get more B.S.,” wrote Slate’s David Weigel, and The Guardian’s Hadley Freeman saw it as indicative of the “immature overexcitement that engulfs some people” online. Vice’s Harry Cheadle urged us all to be a little more skeptical, because the false information online isn’t going away. On the Media’s PJ Vogt, on the other hand, said he’s starting to treat these viral stories as “pieces of culture rather than pieces of reporting.”

katie-couric-yahooYahoo brings Katie Couric aboard: Yahoo announced this week that it’s hiring Katie Couric as its “global anchor” — another big traditional media name jumping to an online-only organization, though not necessarily the poaching maneuver we’ve become used to. Couric, the former anchor at CBS News, has been working as a special correspondent for ABC and has a syndicated daytime talk show (which will continue, at least initially).

Couric told The New York Times her new job hasn’t been fully defined, but will involve shaping Yahoo’s growing news operation and told Capital New York that she and Yahoo would be very flexible with the possibilities of her new position, though they’d bring a broadcast journalism sensibility to the web. All Things D’s Kara Swisher said bringing a broadcast news heavyweight to the web is a flashy but risky move.

The Washington Post’s Andrea Peterson argued that Yahoo is bringing in Couric and former New York Times tech writer David Pogue because it’s looking for established brands with a history of bringing in video audiences around which to anchor advertising, and the Lab’s Ken Doctor saw the move as part of a broad set of experiments with the nature of the newscast on the web.

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A leave of absence for Lara Logan: CBS News completed its internal review of 60 Minutes’ faulty October report on Benghazi (for which it offered a terse apology last month), and it resulted in the report’s lead journalist, Lara Logan, and its producer, Max McClellan, taking leaves of absence. The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple denounced the leaves of absence as “worthless” as a punishment, and Mother Jones’ David Corn questioned why 60 Minutes’ executives hung onto the story long after they had reason to believe it was false.

The Christian Science Monitor’s Peter Grier wondered whether Logan was being made a scapegoat for malfeasance higher up 60 Minutes’ editorial ladder, and Mediaite defended Logan, arguing that CBS’ action “sends a message that the idiom ‘What have you done for me lately?’ is not only true, it’s become CBS network policy.” In a staff meeting, CBS News chairman Jeff Fager reportedly denied scapegoating Logan. Elsewhere, Newsweek’s Jeff Stein called for more attention to the possible role Logan’s husband, former intelligence agent Joseph Burkett, may have played in connecting her to the story, and the Columbia Journalism Review’s Brendan Nyhan chastised 60 Minutes for its lackadaisical correction efforts.

Reading roundup: A few other stories that have sprung up this week and last:

— The fallout from Bloomberg News’ self-censorship of news about Chinese corruption continues: Chinese authorities conducted unannounced “inspections” of Bloomberg’s Chinese bureaus, and one of Bloomberg’s reporters in the U.K. was barred from attending a press conference with a Chinese leader there, to the disapproval of the British government. The New York Times looked more closely at Bloomberg’s transition as a news organization and its dilemma in China, and meanwhile, a prominent Hong Kong journalist called for Bloomberg CEO Dan Doctoroff to resign his chairmanship of a prominent international press freedom dinner, while American journalists defended him. (Doctoroff ended up chairing the dinner.)

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— As The New York Times’ David Carr reported, New York magazine will drop from weekly to bi-weekly print publication next year. Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan called the print cutback “a process of right-sizing,” though The Awl’s Choire Sicha noted that New York still makes a lot of money off of print advertising. Harvard Business Review’s Sarah Green said the reporting on the print cuts shouldn’t characterize them as a failure, but simply an adaptation that’s more good than bad.

— The Beastie Boys fought a parody of their song “Girls” in a viral online ad by the toymaker Goldieblox, igniting a brief but intense debate on the correct application of fair use. Goldieblox filed a lawsuit defending its right to use the song, but took the video down a bit later with a conciliatory letter to the band. In the few days in between, the lines were drawn quickly and sharply. Arguing in favor of Goldieblox’ use of the song: Tech entrepreneur Andy Baio, Techdirt’s Mike Masnick, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Stanford’s Julie Ahrens, and Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram. Arguing against Goldieblox: The Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum (twice) and Reuters’ Felix Salmon.

— The U.S. Federal Trade Commission held a conference this week on native advertising, urging advertisers and publishers to more clearly mark native advertising as sponsored content and make it less deceptive. Ad Age, Forbes, and the Columbia Journalism Review have more detailed descriptions of the discussion at the conference.

— Longtime New York Observer editor Peter Kaplan died at 59 this week, prompting remembrances of the man and the vanishing style of journalism he represented from many of those who knew him, including Gawker’s Tom Scocca, Observer publisher Jared Kushner, BuzzFeed’s Doree Shafrir, The New Yorker’s Nathan Heller, and The Guardian’s Michael Wolff.

Image of dengue virus by Sanofi Pasteur used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
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