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Jan. 6, 2014, 9:18 a.m.
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This Week in Review: The NYT backs Snowden, and journalists’ personal brands break away

Plus: Making sense of the flood of NSA revelations, Facebook’s greatly exaggerated demise, and the rest of the holidays’ must-read journalism and tech news.

This week’s post covers the past two weeks, including everything from Christmas up through this weekend.

The Times pushes for Snowden’s clemency: U.S. National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden received some strong support from a rather unexpected source last week, as The New York Times editorial board made a forceful case for the U.S. to grant Snowden clemency, allowing him to return home to face “at least substantially reduced punishment.” The Times argued that Snowden should be given clemency because he was acting as a whistleblower who knew that the only way to reform the NSA’s abuses was to expose them to the public. “When someone reveals that government officials have routinely and deliberately broken the law, that person should not face life in prison at the hands of the same government,” The Times wrote.

The editorial predictably outraged Obama administration officials and some members of Congress, though other members have begun to come out in favor of clemency as well. Times public editor Margaret Sullivan reported some of the background on the editorial, and Andrew Sullivan offered a sampling of opinion on the piece from the political blogosphere.

The Times’ editorial was echoed by a Guardian editorial published almost simultaneously, and others affirmed the Times’ points as well, including CNET’s Charles Cooper and Techdirt’s Mike Masnick. Slate’s Fred Kaplan disagreed with the Times, arguing that Snowden’s revelations and associations with Russia and other U.S. adversaries go beyond a whistleblower’s actions, and that clemency is highly unlikely anyway. On the other hand, Jack Shafer of Reuters noted that the NSA has publicly floated this clemency idea before, too.

The political blogger Digby voiced her surprise that anyone thought a newspaper would or should believe other than the Times board does, drawing from past words by The Washington Post’s Barton Gellman on the proper attitude of journalists toward government secrecy. Firedoglake’s Kevin Gosztola wondered why The New York Times hasn’t given the same support to WikiLeaks source Chelsea Manning, while Kalev Leetaru of Foreign Policy noted that Snowden has displaced WikiLeaks in the public eye.

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Making sense of the NSA news: There was plenty of other NSA surveillance-related news over the holidays, starting with the continuing stream of stories about newly revealed NSA surveillance programs and capabilities: The NSA has a catalog advertising back-end break-ins for a variety of common electronic gadgets, it’s intercepting laptops to install malware that gives them remote access, it generated these back-door routes through a secret contract with computer security industry giant RSA, and it’s trying to build a quantum computer that could break most types of encryption in existence.

In case all of these NSA revelations are starting to blur together for you, The Washington Post’s Andrea Peterson put together a brief summary of the main things we learned about NSA surveillance this year, and NYU’s Jay Rosen listed three of his bigger-picture takeaways, including the the role of freedom rather than privacy as a core value of anti-surveillance activism and the value of Snowden’s going public. Arizona State’s Dan Gillmor, meanwhile, said the Snowden case shows what’s possible when journalists collaborate to create a critical mass of attention to an issue.

A federal judge upheld the NSA’s phone surveillance program, countering a ruling against the NSA by a federal judge in a different case earlier last month; The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson offered a good explanation of the two rulings. Others called attention to corporate surveillance: At All Things D, Michael Dearing criticized tech companies’ cooperation with the NSA, and The Guardian’s John Naughton and journalist Dan Conover both said we need to be more concerned about the surveillance tech companies are doing in addition to the NSA.

Snowden made a couple more public statements — an interview with The Washington Post in which he declared “mission accomplished” and a Christmas message on the U.K.’s Channel 4 in which he called for a restoration of privacy. Based on the interview, The Post’s Ruth Marcus derided Snowden as insufferable. Techdirt’s Mike Masnick wondered whether we’re now getting information from non-Snowden NSA leakers, and The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf suggested that NSA staffers voice their willingness (via the media) to meet with members of Congress as a way to blow the whistle without leaking.

Two other NSA-related media stories that continue to develop: 60 Minutes’ soft piece on the NSA spurred more criticism, this time from The New York Times’ David Carr. John Miller, who reported the story, left for a New York Police Department job. And Glenn Greenwald, who broke the Snowden leaks for The Guardian and is now starting up First Look Media, promised many more Snowden documents to come and defended himself against charges that he’s become a spokesman for Snowden.

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Personality-driven subsites break away: Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg’s AllThingsD made its long-awaited separation from News Corp’s Dow Jones, whose banner the tech site has been operating under since it was founded in 2007. Mossberg said farewell at AllThingsD’s site on New Year’s Eve, then the pair relaunched as Re/code the next day. The New York Times has more of the details: The investment firm Windsor and NBCUniversal News Group are minority investors, and News Corp’s Wall Street Journal launched a replacement tech news site called WSJD.

Another personally driven brand within a news org may be on the move as well, as The Washington Post political blogger Ezra Klein was reported to be looking to start his own site elsewhere. Michael Calderone of The Huffington Post reported before the holidays that Klein was talking to people both inside and outside the paper about launching his own site, and two weeks later, The New York Times’ Ravi Somaiya reported that Klein’s proposal of an eight-figure site dedicated to explanatory journalism was turned down by The Post, so he’s planning on starting it with someone else.

Calderone gave some more details about the situation and compared it to the birth of Politico in 2007 after it was a rejected proposal by Post journalists. Klein’s proposal, Calderone said, represents the first test of new owner Jeff Bezos’ stewardship. BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel speculated that Klein’s recent Twitter follows might be a clue to a jump to the growing Vox Media.

Meanwhile, Neetzan Zimmerman, the viral content guru who accounts for a large chunk of Gawker’s traffic, announced he’s leaving to become editor-in-chief of the social sharing app startup Whisper. We also got an update on the progress of last year’s personal-brand media departure, Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish. Sullivan finished the year with $851,000 in gross subscription revenue from 34,000 subscribers, just short of his initial goal of $900,000, and talked to Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram about his lessons learned and plans for the future.

Reading roundup: A few other stories that you might have missed over the holidays:

— A British study of social media use by teens led to a handful of attention-grabbing headlines about Facebook being “dead and buried” for young people. Several others, like the BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones and David Brake at The Conversation, warned that such a characterization of the study’s conclusion was overblown, since the study was based on data from students at just a few U.K. high schools. The lead researcher himself, Daniel Miller, also explained why his study shouldn’t be interpreted that way. Meanwhile, Pew released its newest survey numbers on social network use, which TechCrunch’s Ingrid Lunden broke down, and music technologist Ethan Kaplan argued that the phone, rather than the various platforms like Facebook that are used on it, is becoming the main technological form of identity for young people.

— There were no shortage of media-related reflections and lists as 2013 came to a close — you can check out Mathew Ingram of Gigaom’s list of 2013’s media ventures to watch, Josh Stearns’ list of the year’s best online journalism and storytelling, or the Future Journalism Project’s much more arbitrary best-of list. BuzzFeed’s John Herrman argued that this year was the culmination of Internet giants’ domination, while Quartz declared this a lost year for tech, an assertion Ingram disagreed with.

— Y Combinator founder Paul Graham gave an interview to the tech news startup The Information in which he was quoted as saying that he can’t make women see the world from a hacker’s perspective because “they haven’t been hacking for the past 10 years.” The quote was breathlessly picked up by Valleywag and briefly turned into a controversy, with debates and opinions about women and coding popping up all over. Graham responded that he was misquoted and was only referring to women who aren’t programmers, and The Information’s Jessica Lessin acknowledged that the quote in question was edited but denied that her organization did anything unscrupulous. Tech bloggers like John Gruber and Michael Arrington supported Graham, and tech PR exec Sean Garrett offered some lessons from the episode.

— News Corp bought the social news site Storyful, which focuses on social photos and video, just before the holidays. News Corp’s Raju Narisetti explained to Poynter and to Gigaom that Storyful will give News Corp an ability to verify, use, and syndicate viral video, giving it a new revenue opportunity and a building block toward a social news agency. Poynter’s Craig Silverman gave several reasons Storyful is worth our attention.

— Finally, the tech story everyone was talking about last week was Alexis Madrigal’s captivating piece at The Atlantic on how Netflix comes up with its extremely specific movie genres. It’s long, but well worth the time.

Photo of NSA headquarters by AP/Patrick Semansky. Photo of Kara Swisher looking badass by Lois Le Meur used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 6, 2014, 9:18 a.m.
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