This week’s essential reads: The key reads this week are Dylan Byers’ piece on the possible connection between BuzzFeed’s web-based curation style and the risk of plagiarism, James Fallows’ piece on journalistic observation and self-respect, and David Carr’s piece on war coverage and bearing witness in real time.
Covering war in a social media environment: Much of the news over the past few weeks has taken place in war zones (or near-war zones) with action quickly moving from one crisis to the next. That’s put the journalists covering those stories in some particularly dangerous situations: In Ukraine, journalists have been intimidated, detained, and attacked in alarming numbers over the past month, as The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade cataloged. The Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the abductions and detentions, which are “happening at dizzying speed in eastern Ukraine.” One of those involved a Ukrainian freelancer working for CNN, who was freed several days later.
In Gaza, several journalists were injured in Israeli airstrikes, and one radio station was forced to shut down because its broadcasting equipment was damaged. Gunshots were fired into Al Jazeera’s Gaza bureau, a day after Israeli’s foreign minister reportedly said he would work to shut down Al Jazeera’s operations in Israel. And in Iran — though not a war zone — a Washington Post correspondent was arrested and detained without explanation, prompting the Obama administration to call for his release.
For many news consumers, the bloodshed and mayhem of war has been communicated primarily through social media, with videos, photos, and eyewitness accounts coming from reporters and citizens alike. The New York Times’ David Carr reflected on the nature of bearing of witness to war in a real-time environment, writing that “Bearing witness is the oldest and perhaps most valuable tool in the journalist’s arsenal, but it becomes something different delivered in the crucible of real time, without pause for reflection.” The Times also defended its decisions to run graphic photos of the violence in Gaza and Ukraine, with executive editor Dean Baquet saying, “This is not the time for antiseptic coverage.”
The immediate dissemination of news from unstable and uncertain war zones through social media has made verification a particular challenge. The Guardian explored the tactics Storyful used to confirm information shared online, and PBS MediaShift’s Julie Posetti and the Columbia Journalism Review’s Jihii Jolly both laid out of the basics of the quickly developing discipline of social verification, and Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram outlined some of the most helpful tools for quickly checking out online information.
The real-time reporting of war and the more personal nature of social media have also given rise to new controversies: In a series of tweets, The Atlantic’s David Frum accused The New York Times of running fake photos from Gaza, then, after Bag News’ Michael Shaw refuted his claim in detail, Frum apologized. The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple critiqued the apology, taking issue with Frum’s claim that he acted with skepticism. At The Atlantic, James Fallows wrote a thoughtful piece on accusations of fakes, concluding that regardless of what you think of the media, reporters on the ground in areas of conflict deserve respect for their efforts to see and explain what’s going on.
Earlier, two reporters were reassigned from Gaza for controversial social media posts. NBC’s Ayman Mohyeldin was pulled from Gaza then briefly reinstated after he witnessed Palestinian boys being killed by Israeli shells, and CNN’s Brian Stelter reported that he was removed after NBC gave the script he wrote about the incident to another reporter to read. CNN had its own correspondent, Diana Magnay, removed from covering the conflict after she referred to Israelis cheering missile strikes as “scum” on Twitter.
Plagiarism and the ethics of writing online: Two news organizations dealt with plagiarism cases this week: In the more serious case, BuzzFeed viral politics editor Benny Johnson was fired after he was caught plagiarizing from dozens of sources, BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith apologized to readers and cataloged the 41 instances of plagiarism that BuzzFeed discovered.
Talking Points Memo’s Tom Kludt talked to the pseudonymous Twitter users who initially exposed Johnson’s plagiarism (after Johnson had called out another writer for plagiarizing him), and Digiday’s Ricardo Bilton talked to ad buyers who weren’t concerned about the incident’s impact on BuzzFeed — “We expect that,” said one. “That’s the medium.”
The other case involved The New York Times’ Carol Vogel, who was caught lifting some text from Wikipedia in an article last week. The Times added an editor’s note to the article and “dealt with” Vogel in some unspecified way. The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple noted a few more suspicious passages in Vogel’s past work.
The two cases sparked a debate as to how serious plagiarism in these contexts. The Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten pooh-poohed the Johnson case, arguing that his was simply “crappy, lazy Internet writing” rather than “real plagiarism,” because he lifted things that were of negligible value to produce content that was of negligible value.
New York’s Joe Coscarelli countered that Weingarten’s argument was less about the propriety of copying than “an outdated rant against the state of internet writing in general.” The Times’ public editor, Margaret Sullivan, stated simply that whether you’re at BuzzFeed or The Times, the rules are the same: Use your own stuff, or attribute and link. Reuters’ Jack Shafer said Weingarten is focused too narrowly on plagiarism’s violation against the creator of the content being copied, when it’s a much greater crime against readers, “who have every right to believe that journalists vouch for the copy they serve,” whether it’s a listicle or something more substantial.
The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple went deeper into Johnson’s plagiarism at BuzzFeed, looking at the sources he borrowed from and how the scandal might influence BuzzFeed. Politico’s Dylan Byers posited the idea that outfits like BuzzFeed, which are built around collecting and pithily displaying content from around the web, are more susceptible to bouts of plagiarism than traditional news organizations. “If the BuzzFeed case feels different, it is because the site’s very business model — Internet ‘curation’ — walks a fine line between aggregation and plagiarism,” he wrote.
Parsing The Times’ numbers: The New York Times released its quarterly financial numbers this week, and the news was mostly negative: Its revenue and profits both dropped. It did pick up 32,000 new digital subscribers, but as Poynter’s Rick Edmonds reported, its new paid-content offerings — led by the NYT Now and NYT Opinion apps — haven’t done as well as expected, serving to confuse some readers and cannibalize subscribers to its existing plans.At the Lab, Ken Doctor saw the slow uptake of NYT Now as a cautionary lesson for other news organizations hoping to gain subscription revenue from new digital products. The Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum contrasted The Times’ mediocre figures with the Financial Times’ steady growth and suggested that The Times start tweaking its core subscriptions rather than adding new options as revenue drivers. Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram suggested that The Times make “some bold bets,” and The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson noted that despite its strong efforts to boost circulation, it just can’t solve the digital advertising problem that plagues its industry.
Meanwhile, Capital New York’s Joe Pompeo reported, based on a reader survey that was recently sent out, that The Times is considering another subscription option, this one in print: A condensed print edition that would be about half the price of the current paper.
Evaluating Fox’s bid for Time Warner: Since news of 21st Century Fox’s bid for Time Warner was reported a few weeks ago, little has occurred publicly on that front. But as The New York Times’ David Carr and Business Insider’s Henry Blodget told CNN, the question of Fox acquiring Time Warner quickly shifted from ‘whether’ to ‘when’ and ‘how much.’ Blodget reported that Fox will take its time in raising its bid and that Time Warner shareholders expect the deal to happen once they can get the price bumped up sufficiently. On the other hand, Time Warner amended its bylaws to remove shareholders’ ability to call a special meeting, buying itself some time against a sale forced by shareholders.
The New York Times’ Richard Sandomir looked at the challenge a Fox-Time Warner acquisition would present for ESPN, with the addition of TBS, TNT, and Bleacher Report to Fox’s portfolio. Journalism professor Dan Kennedy said Rupert Murdoch’s Fox could save Time Warner’s CNN by having it sold to a new owner who would overhaul the lackluster network, while The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade argued that the decline in competition from deals such as this one would be bad news for viewers.
At The Times, Carr noticed that there was one thing conspicuously absent from this rumored merger and the future of media these companies are trying to form: Print. “To the extent that the proposal offered a crystal ball on the future of media, print doesn’t seem as if it will be much a part of it.”
Reading roundup: There were a number of smaller media happenings over the past couple of weeks — here are a few to keep an eye on:
— Forbes Media, which had been owned since its founding in 1917 by the Forbes family, sold a majority stake to the Hong Kong investment company Integrated Whale Media Investments, which valued the company at a reported $475 million. Former owner Steve Forbes and executive Lewis DVorkin talked about what’s next for the company, and both the Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum and journalism professor Jeff Jarvis wondered what Forbes’ click-driven editorial strategy has cost the company in quality and credibility.— First Look Media, the news venture founded last year by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, announced a shift this week in a blog post by Omidyar. Instead of building a family of “digital magazines” as it had initially intended, it will focus on the two it’s already launched — one built around Glenn Greenwald’s work and another around Matt Taibbi’s — while planning on doubling its staff to 50 and centering its work on more tech-based experimentation with news. Jay Rosen, a consultant to First Look, offered his interpretation of the announcement, as did the Lab’s Justin Ellis and Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram.
— The Washington Post announced that it will launch Storyline, a sister site to Wonkblog, which had been piloted by Ezra Klein, who’s since departed to found Vox. The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone and Poynter’s Benjamin Mullin both gave some details about The Post’s plans: It will center on policy issues, and will be data-driven and topic-oriented.
— The New Yorker relaunched its website last week, a move that includes the addition of a metered paywall. The Guardian’s Hannah Jane Parkinson went through the redesign, and Capital New York’s Nicole Levy and Peter Sterne went deep into what’s at stake with the overhaul.— E. W. Scripps and Journal Communications announced a deal in which they will merge their broadcast operations and spin off their newspapers into a separate company. Here at the Lab, Joshua Benton explained how the move marks a trend of media companies looking to narrow their portfolios after years of talk of diversification.