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Aug. 20, 2010, 10 a.m.

This Week in Review: Patch’s local news play, Facebook takes location mainstream, and the undead web

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

Patch blows up the hyperlocal model: AOL’s hyperlocal news project, Patch, launched a site in Morristown, New Jersey, this week — not a big story by itself, but Morristown’s site was also the 100th in Patch’s network, part of the Internet giant’s plan to expand to 500 hyperlocal news sites by the end of the year. Newark’s Star-Ledger and NPR both profiled AOL’s hyperlocal efforts, with The Star-Ledger focusing on its extensive New Jersey experiment and NPR looking more at the broader picture of hyperlocal news.

PaidContent added some fascinating details from Patch president Warren Webster, such as the tidbit that Patch determines what communities to enter by using a 59-variable algorithm that takes into account factors like income, voter turnout, and local school rankings. And Advertising Age’s Edmund Lee compared Patch with several of its large-scale-content rivals, finding it most closely comparable to Philip Anschutz’s Examiner.com.

patchAs Steve Safran of the local-news blog Lost Remote noted, Patch is hiring 500 journalists to run those sites and is touting itself as the nation’s largest hirer of journalists right now. That, of course, is good news for people who care about journalism, but the far bigger issue is whether Patch will be financially sustainable. Safran was skeptical, arguing that Patch needs relevant local advertising, which requires not just reach but relationships. The Boston Phoenix found several other people who also wonder about Patch’s long-term prospects. Ken Doctor asked some good questions about Patch’s implications for local news, including whether it will disrupt the handcrafted local ad networks that have been the domain of non-templated startup local news blogs.

Facebook is going Places: Facebook made a long-anticipated announcement Wednesday, rolling out its new location-based service, Facebook Places. It’s all the tech blogs have been talking about since then, so there’s plenty to wade through if you’re interested in all the details, but Search Engine Land did a good job of discussing the basics of the service and its implications. It made one particularly salient point, given that Facebook has partnered with all of the leading location-based services (FoursquareGowallaBooyah, and Yelp): Location check-ins have officially become a commodity, and location services need to expand beyond it. (It also means, to borrow Clay Shirky’s point, that location-based technology is about to get socially interesting, since it’s quickly becoming technologically boring.)

Facebook isn’t yet doing anything to drive revenue from Places, but Lost Remote’s Cory Bergman noted that Places’ inevitable widespread acceptance could “usher in a new era of local advertising” when Facebook incorporates proximity-based advertising. Facebook is already paving the way for that shift, asking advertisers to help fill out its directory of places. Fast Company’s Kit Eaton took a deeper look at how Facebook Places will change location-based advertising, though Terry Heaton called Facebook Places’ revenue potential a missed opportunity for local news organizations.

Despite Facebook’s preemptive privacy defense with Places — by default, check-ins are visible only to friends and can be limited further than that — it still faced some privacy pushback. Several privacy advocates argued that people are going to have a difficult time finding ways to control their privacy on sharing locations, and the ACLU said that, once again, Facebook is making it much easier to say “yes” to Places than “no.” One of those advocates, dotRights, provided a guide to Facebook Places’ privacy settings.

Is the web really dead?: In its most recent cover story, Wired magazine declared the web dead, with its editor, Chris Anderson, arguing that in our quest for portability and ease of use, we’ve moved into an app-centered world led by Apple, Facebook, Twitter, RSS, Netflix, and Pandora. The result, Anderson said, is that we now prefer “semiclosed platforms that use the Internet for transport but not the browser for display,” a universe not ruled by Google or HTML.

Not surprisingly, such a sweeping statement was met with quite a bit of resistance. Web luminaries Tim O’Reilly and John Battelle dived into the arcane in their lengthy debate with Anderson, while plenty of others across the web also had problems with his decree of death. Boing Boing’s Rob Beschizza provided the most cogent statistical argument, showing that while Anderson depicts the web as decreasing in the percentage of Internet use, its total use is still exploding. Terry Heaton and TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington argued that the web still functions well and serves as the basis for many of the “apps” Anderson makes his argument from, with Heaton positing that Wired (and Apple) are still operating on a set of scarcity-based presumptions in a world now defined by abundance. Gawker’s Ryan Tate noted that Wired first released its article on its profitable website, while sales of its iPad app are down.

Quite a few others took issue with the idea of declaring things dead in the first place. ReadWriteWeb and Technologizer tallied lists of very-much-alive things that were long ago declared dead, and The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal criticized Anderson’s view that tech is “just a series of increasingly awesomer things that successively displace each other” as long ago proven wrong. Here at the Lab, Jason Fry made a similar point, writng that “the web isn’t dying but being joined by a lot of other contact points between the user and the sea of digital information, with points emerging for different settings, situations, and times of day.”

Murdoch’s tablet newspaper plan: The Los Angeles Times reported late last week that Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. is developing a new national U.S. “digital newspaper” to be distributed solely as a paid app on tablets like the iPad. The publication would feature short, easily digestible stories for a general audience, and would compete with papers like USA Today and The New York Times. Its newsroom would be run under the New York Post. Murdoch said he sees this as a “game changer” in the news industry’s efforts to reach younger audiences, but news industry vet Alan Mutter was skeptical: “Newspaper content tends to attract — whether on print or on an iPad or however — mostly the same kind of readers,” Mutter told the Times. “Not necessarily younger readers.”

Mutter wasn’t the only dubious one. Murdoch biographer/gadfly Michael Wolff ripped the idea, and TechCrunch’s Paul Carr noted that News Corp. tried a similar idea in Britain in 2006 for free, which bombed. The idea this time around, Carr argued, “reflects less a bold strategy to convince a new generation of readers that good journalism is worth paying for and more the 79-year News Corp proprietor’s desperation to keep the cash flow coming until the company’s profitability becomes someone else’s problem.”

Drawing on a survey of iPad users, Mario Garcia said that Murdoch’s plan for quick, snappy stories doesn’t fit well with the iPad’s primary role as a relaxing device. At least one person was encouraged by Murdoch’s idea, though: Missouri j-prof Clyde Bentley called it the cannon shot that will scare the herd of newspaper executives into seriously pursuing mobile media.

News Corp. also made news by donating $1 million to the Republican Governors Association. I’ll leave most of the analysis of that move to the politically oriented media critics, though media consultant Ken Doctor outlined a good case for the gift’s importance in the journalism world. We also got a report that Murdoch’s British tabloid, News of the World, will go paid online by October. The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade wasn’t impressed by that initiative’s prospects for success.

Reading roundup: Lots and lots to get to this week. In the spirit of Rupert Murdoch, I’ll keep it short and snappy:

— The fallout from last week’s Google-Verizon proposal continued into the weekend, with both watchdogs and Google allies raising concerns about the future of net neutrality. Harvard Internet law professor Jonathan Zittrain had plenty more thoughtful things to say about the flap, and The Wall Street Journal had a lengthy interview with Google CEO Eric Schmidt about that issue and several others.

— We got some discouraging news from a couple of surveys released this week: Gallup found that Americans’ trust in traditional news organizations remains historically low, while a comScore study found that (surprise!) even young news junkies don’t read newspapers. Each study had a silver lining, though — Gallup found that young people’s trust in newspapers is far higher than any other age group, and comScore showed that many young non-print readers are still consuming lots of news online. Here at the Lab, Christopher Sopher wrote a sharp two-part series on attracting young would-be news consumers.

— Google’s Lyn Headley is continuing his series of articles explaining the new Rapid News Awards, and each one is a smart analysis of the nature of aggregation and authority. They’ve all been worth checking out.

— Two great resources on interesting trends within journalism: the Lab’s series of videos, via the Knight Foundation, of a recent discussion among a who’s-who of nonprofit journalism leaders; and Poynter’s Mallary Jean Tenore’s article on the encouraging resurgence of long-form journalism in its online form.

— Finally, Florida j-prof Mindy McAdams sparked a great discussion about what skills are necessary for today’s reporter. If you’re a college student or a budding reporter (or even a veteran one), give this conversation a close read.

POSTED     Aug. 20, 2010, 10 a.m.
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