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April 11, 2014, 9:55 a.m.
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This Week in Review: Vox and the wonk boom, and Comcast defends its TWC merger plans

Plus: Heartbleed exposes the Internet’s vulnerability, the alleged decline of the mobile web, and the rest of the week’s must-reads in journalism and tech.

This week’s essential reads: If you’ve only got a minute or two, this week’s essential reads are Felix Salmon on the boom in wonk journalism, David Carr with big questions for Comcast and Time Warner Cable about their merger, and Washington Post editor Marty Baron’s reasons for optimism about the future of journalism.

Vox, tech, and wonk journalism: Former Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein launched his explanatory journalism site, Vox, this week, cautioning in an introductory note with co-editors Melissa Bell and Matt Yglesias that it’s still quite unfinished. The Washington Post profiled Klein’s new boss, Vox Media CEO Jim Bankoff, but most of the focus was on Vox’s distinctive tech.

vox-logoThe New York Times centered on Vox Media’s internally built content management system, Chorus, which was a key tool in recruiting Klein. Ad Age looked at Vox’s “card stacks,” the system the site is using to break their explainers into digestible chunks for readers. That includes cards to note how card stacks have been altered for corrections or changing events, as Poynter reported.

Initial reviews were curious but critical. The Columbia Journalism Review’s Greg Marx saw Vox as a welcome test of Klein’s argument that what news needs are more clear and helpful entry points for complex, ongoing stories. Mathew Ingram of Gigaom liked Vox’s clear purpose and “cards” organization format, but expressed concern that it’s going to have to compete with Wikipedia and lacks a personal orientation. The Wire’s Allie Jones said many of the initial cards “don’t seem to provide any information that you can’t get on Wikipedia or About.com.” PandoDaily’s Nathaniel Mott was also skeptical, referring to the cards as “glorified slideshows” and describing the style as “BuzzFeed written by a college professor.”

Vox’s launch also reignited the discussion about Klein’s departure from the Post after his proposal for an explanatory journalism site there was turned down. The Times article on Vox quoted Klein as saying he was “badly held back” by the technology and the culture at the Post, though it later edited it to refer to newspapers in general, not just the Post. At a conference last weekend, Post editor Marty Baron said Klein had proposed an entirely new news organization separate from the Post, rather than an expansion of his Wonkblog.

Mathew Ingram said Baron’s justification makes decent financial sense, but starting sites like Vox are precisely the bets the Post should be taking in an attempt to survive the disruption of news. Similarly, Reuters’ Felix Salmon said Klein made the right decision by going with a nimbler company and voiced his doubt that the Post is the best place to develop the wonky journalism that’s so popular right now. “In general, the bigger and more entrenched the media company you’re part of, the harder it is to get stuff done,” he wrote.

In another piece for Politico, Salmon explained why analytical journalism like Klein’s and Nate Silver’s is experiencing a boom, and Laurie Penny of the New Statesman questioned why white men like Klein and Silver are being feted as the future of journalism: “These, it turns out, are the kind of ‘outsiders’ the old guard can cope with: outsiders who look almost exactly like them, except younger and cooler.”

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Comcast and the competition: Comcast and Time Warner Cable started down the regulatory road toward their proposed merger this week, appearing before a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee that was mostly skeptical about the value for consumers of a merger of the nation’s two largest cable TV and broadband providers. The New York Times’ David Carr asked several critical questions about the merger heading into the committee hearing, noting at one point that because of its size in the broadband market, a combined Comcast/Time Warner “may have an effective veto over the programming and technological innovations of others.”

The two companies also made the case for their merger this week in a filing with the Federal Communications Commission, arguing that they’ve been diligent about trying to improve their service and that they’re trying to defend themselves against the competition of streaming video services like Netflix, Roku, and Apple TV. Variety and Ars Technica gave closer looks at their arguments.

Several other writers picked those arguments apart, particularly Comcast’s claim to be one of many little guys in a giant pool of competitors. The Verge’s Adi Robertson, Recode’s Amy Schatz, and Techdirt’s Mike Masnick all dissected Comcast’s list of competitors, noting that many of those competitors rely on Comcast and Time Warner for distribution of their online streaming services, and that cable providers rarely compete directly with each other because they’ve largely divvied up various geographical areas among themselves. Gigaom’s Stacey Higginbotham also had some critical questions for regulators to ask, and the Daily Dot’s Andrew Couts poked holes in Comcast’s avowed embrace of net neutrality.

More than 50 groups sent a letter to the FCC objecting to the merger, and some conservative groups have joined the fight against it as well, though as BuzzFeed’s Peter Lauria explained, no major TV content providers have opposed the deal. As the Sunlight Foundation’s Palmer Gibbs noted, however, Comcast and Time Warner have been very politically active, with their employees giving millions of dollars to many of the key political figures in the upcoming regulation decisions.

heartbleedHeartbleed’s quiet leak: Experts discovered a security bug this week, called Heartbleed, which has quietly left a great deal of the web’s encrypted information open to hackers for two years. The best explainers on Heartbleed are by Vox’s Timothy B. Lee, Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram, and NPR’s Jeremy Bowers, but here’s the very quick summary: Heartbleed is an opening in the popular OpenSSL encryption software that could let hackers into information on servers that isn’t even part of the server’s initially encrypted information. Other than changing passwords once a site has patched the leak, there’s not much users can do to protect themselves at this point — most of the work is on web companies’ ends. At Source, Mike Tigas gave some valuable tips to newsrooms on dealing with the bug on their sites.

We don’t know who, if anyone, has taken advantage of Heartbleed — as Charlie Warzel of BuzzFeed noted, the most likely culprit may be the U.S. National Security Agency. The New Yorker’s Rusty Foster went deeper into the roots of the bug, noting that it’s partly a function of an OpenSSL that’s run by a small group of volunteers and relies on an old and more vulnerable programming language (C). “If open-source software is at the heart of the Internet, then we might need to examine it from time to time to make sure it’s not bleeding,” he wrote. Farhad Manjoo of The New York Times also addressed the difficulty of keeping the web’s security up to speed with its growth.

Reading roundup: Several interesting conversations popped up around journalism and tech this week. Here are a few worth following:

— Tech entrepreneur Chris Dixon lamented the dominance of apps over the mobile web, arguing that apps are governed by a rich-get-richer dynamic and subject to the whims of the keepers of the app stores. Tech blogger John Gruber disagreed, saying that whether we’re talking about apps or the mobile web, it’s all the web. Venture capitalist Fred Wilson said the shift to apps has led to less risk-taking in tech entrepreneurship, and blogger Ben Thompson argued that the web still matters for writing. Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram summed up the discussion and emphasized the importance of links.

— Poynter’s Howard Finberg and Lauren Klinger released a report comparing the views of journalists, journalism educators, and students about which skills are important in journalism, finding that educators view technical skills — especially multimedia — as much more important than professionals do. Meanwhile, journalism professor Mindy McAdams took a couple of looks at what multimedia journalism skills mean today and what skills are necessary for journalism students to learn.

— Twitter introduced new profiles this week that emphasize photos and look a lot like Facebook’s. PandoDaily’s Nathaniel Mott said the changes are a good thing, as they “showcase a Twitter willing to move beyond its simple, what-you-see-is-what-you-get roots in order to create a more approachable service.”

— Finally, several great reads to look at this weekend: Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark on what it takes to create a new mode of journalism and whether data journalism qualifies, Adrienne LaFrance on rethinking online news archives, News Corp.’s Raju Narisetti with 26 key questions to ask about news organizations’ move to digital, and Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron on reasons to be optimistic about the future of journalism.

Photos of “Wonky” sign in Los Angeles by Payton Chung and Comcast remote by MoneyBlogNewz used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     April 11, 2014, 9:55 a.m.
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