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Sept. 21, 2012, 12:28 p.m.

This Week in Review: Rethinking free speech online, and mixed reviews for USA Today’s redesign

Plus: Ideas for innovation in j-schools, Newsweek’s “Muslim Rage” backlash, and the rest of the week’s news in media and tech.

‘Innocence of Muslims’ and the future of free speech: We learned a bit more about the anti-Muslim film “Innocence of Muslims” this week, and, yes, it still seems about as strange as we initially thought. The man said to be behind the film, Nassoula Bakkeley Nassoula, has been convicted of felony drug possession and bank fraud and was questioned about the film late last week by local law enforcement. The director and many of the actors came from softcore porn,  and the movie’s rise to prominence began early this month when a U.S. Coptic Christian called an Egyptian newspaper reporter to alert him to its presence.

The major angle that developed this week regarding the film, though, was whether it deserved protection as free speech, particularly from Google’s YouTube. The White House asked YouTube to examine the film to see if it violated the site’s terms of use, a request YouTube declined. The New York Times explored YouTube’s decision in light of its history regarding free-speech issues, as did the Los Angeles Times, which quoted the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s Tom Rosenstiel as saying that the era of unmediated commenting is “pretty much over.”

Despite its rebuff of the U.S. government’s efforts, YouTube did take the video down in several countries elsewhere, including Egypt, Libya, Indonesia, and India. Jeff Bercovici of Forbes said that decision was a “well-meaning mistake,” arguing that the removal didn’t actually curb violence and YouTube should err on the side of free expression. Likewise, Jeff Jarvis wrote at the Huffington Post that rather than trying to “civilize” or clean up speech online, we need to learn to just ignore the trolls.

Andy Sellars of the Citizen Media Law Project noted that there’s a structural weakness to free speech online — it’s controlled by numerous private parties that can largely limit it as they choose. But Adam Thierer of Forbes argued that we shouldn’t expect private parties to adhere to the same high free-speech standards as the government.

In the Los Angeles Times, Sarah Chayes argued that the video shouldn’t be protected speech because it presented a clear and immediate likelihood that violence would ensue. And in an NPR interview, Harvard’s Noah Feldman said that although we’ve traditionally interpreted the immediacy of violence resulting from speech very strictly, we have to rethink that in a more globally connected environment.

The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw and The New York Times’ Roger Cohen both pinned the video’s destructiveness in part on that globally connected environment, arguing that its hyperconnectedness and lack of gatekeepers allow for a small, obscure band of extremists to do so much damage. Meanwhile, Devin Harner at PBS MediaShift used the initially false reporting about a Jewish “Sam Bacile” being behind the film to castigate professional journalists for their sloppiness in a real-time environment.

How much will USA Today’s redesign help?: USA Today unveiled its print redesign last Friday and its web redesign the following day, and it was much more than a mere touch-up. The paper’s new look (which is centered around simple, single-color circles as logos), was the subject of much mocking, including from Stephen Colbert, though Erik Wemple of The Washington Post told the blue-ball critics to give the redesign time.

Others had more substantive critiques: Charles Apple of the American Copy Editors Society said the redesign has been a great idea with great content, but horrible execution. Design consultant Mario Garcia liked the redesign overall as a colorful, contemporary look that still managed to make the paper more text-driven and conducive to long-form stories. He also gathered some opinions on USA Today’s influence on news design from several people in the industry.

USA Today’s website redesign was met with the approval of Poynter’s Julie Moos, who liked its emphasis on large images, horizontal scrolling orientation, navigation, and layering of information. Garcia talked to the redesign’s driver, Gannett’s David Payne, who noted that the redesign was about rethinking advertising as much as news, with a priority put on making multimedia ads more fully a part of the browsing experience. Poynter’s Sam Kirkland talked to the design firm that engineered the project about the influence of the iPad and the challenge of keeping the content uncluttered, and Business Insider also had a cool look at some of the other concepts USA Today was considering for its website.

Two writers went deeper into what role this redesign might play in the future of the paper as a whole. Media consultant Ken Doctor said USA Today is overhauling its look as a platform for a potential future rethinking of its identity and purpose. The latter should be a bigger priority, he said, as USA Today may have “a CNN-like problem, occupying a middle that no longer exists; yet it doesn’t even offer up enough of the deeper journalism of a CNN.” Meanwhile, newspaper analyst Alan Mutter went into the history and philosophy behind USA Today, arguing that its primary utility to business travelers has disappeared, leaving it with difficult work to do in rebuilding an economic base.

More ideas for transforming j-schools: The Lab’s “Back to School” series on rethinking journalism education has continued this week with several more interesting pieces looking at how to change the way j-schools prepare students for a changing journalistic environment. CUNY’s Jeff Jarvis laid out a blueprint for innovation in journalism education that included skills taught through an outside-of-class system and a focus on creating journalism for those outside the university.

On a more practical level, Digital First’s Steve Buttry explained why student newspapers are particularly well-suited to make a full digital-centric transition, and the University of Florida’s Mindy McAdams gave some advice to instructors on teaching journalism students to code without leading them to get frustrated and tune out. The key, she said, is to see the story behind the skill: “Before we can teach journalism students about code, we have to bring them to a place where they can appreciate what journalists use it for.” Elsewhere, British journalism professor Paul Bradshaw provided a useful guide for teaching collaborative journalism through a peer-to-peer emphasis.

One school, Georgia’s Emory University, is headed in quite a different direction from these recommendations: It announced this week it’s shutting down its journalism program. Here’s the article from The Emory Wheel and a good summary from Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon.

Newsweek’s ‘Muslim Rage’ and Twitter resistance: In the wake of last week’s unrest in the Middle East, Newsweek — in what’s become a habit for them — published an inflammatory cover with the words “Muslim Rage” across the top. It was roundly mocked by both journalists (as Storified by the Electronic Freedom Frontier’s Jillian York) and the general tweeting public (as Storified by The Wall Street Journal). Gawker cleverly responded with images of joyful, contemplative Muslims, and the Telegraph’s Rob Crilly called it “a sickening piece of shock journalism.”

Twitter users, meanwhile turned Newsweek’s suggested #muslimrage hashtag into a forum for satirical comments on Newsweek’s cynical cover. As The Atlantic’s Megan Garber explained, those users recognized Newsweek’s bald-faced play for sales and pageviews, and met it with their own sarcasm. “They turned the magazine’s own cynicism into something better — something funny and meaningful and insightful and real. They turned Newsweek’s ‘scripted experience’ into something they wrote on their own.”

The Columbia Journalism Review’s Kira Goldenberg argued that this type of attention-getting isn’t going to do Newsweek any good in the long run, and just before the cover was released, Michael Wolff at USA Today said that Newsweek’s (and the Daily Beast’s) Tina Brown is trying to use old-media, headline-grabbing tricks to make the magazine relevant in a radically different digital age.

Reading roundup: An unusually large number of small but meaty stories this week in the media/tech world:

— The New York Times issued a policy forbidding its reporters from letting sources approve their quotes, though The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple noted that it leaves some loopholes. The issue came up when the Times’ David Carr took on the trend of journalists, coming down firmly against it, and Times public editor Margaret Sullivan urged the paper to develop a policy on the practice. Others, however, such as Scott Adams (“Dilbert”) and Instapaper’s Marco Arment, said reporters get quotes wrong far too often. In a followup, Carr gave voice to one of those critics and urged others to weigh in.

— News Corp. got a big break this week when the British media regulator OfCom ruled that the BSkyB satellite network, in which it is the largest investor, could keep its broadcasting license in the wake of the conglomerate’s phone-hacking scandal. The Guardian has a good explainer about the ruling. We also had a new report that News Corp.’s now-defunct News of the World had ordered numerous burglaries at the homes of people they covered, prompting a stern letter to Rupert Murdoch from Member of Parliament Tom Watson. On another front, News Corp. cut a deal with former avowed enemy Google to start selling and renting videos on YouTube.

— The big political story this week was Mitt Romney’s “47%” video, released by Mother Jones. It was a pageview bonanza for MoJo, and BuzzFeed and The Washington Post explained how they got the video. Politico looked at the issue of whether the recording might have been illegal, and the Columbia Journalism Review’s Brendan Nyhan critiqued press coverage of the video.

— The Atlantic’s new business news organization Quartz will launch on Monday, and Poynter has all the details on what it’ll be. The Lab’s Ken Doctor went in-depth on Quartz’s business model, and Quartz’s Gideon Lichfield wrote about why the startup will be organized around “obsessions,” rather than beats. Here at the Lab, C.W. Anderson expanded on Lichfield’s thoughts with a very smart post about the ties between beats and journalism’s self-identity as a watchdog of government.

— Twitter announced a new profile page look and new iPad app, though the Huffington Post’s Craig Kanalley wasn’t crazy about it. It also released a useful study with tips for journalists on how to maximize interaction.

— Finally, j-profs Nikki Usher and Seth Lewis wrote a great post here at the Lab on some fascinating research they’re doing on how open-source journalism is working at Al Jazeera English, with some helpful lessons for other news orgs.

POSTED     Sept. 21, 2012, 12:28 p.m.
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