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Sept. 14, 2012, 10:34 a.m.

This Week in Review: The bizarre anti-Muslim film, and challenging foundations’ journalism priorities

Plus: More details on the Journal Register Co.’s bankruptcy, new ideas on j-school training, and the rest of the news in media and tech this week.

A bizarre video’s mysterious roots: The week’s big political story has been the killing of a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans at an embassy in Libya, but it’s also been an extremely bizarre media story. The media dimension centers on a shadowy anti-Islamic film, apparently made in the U.S., called “Innocence of Muslims” that set off protests across the Middle East (though it appears those protests may not have been related to the killings). Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon has a very good summary of what we know and don’t know about this short film and the people who made and promoted it that’s a good place to start on the subject.

The film was initially said to be made by an Israeli producer named Sam Bacile, though one of the Americans involved with the movie told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg that Bacile wasn’t Israeli and the name was probably a pseudonym. Gawker’s Adrian Chen wrote that Bacile might actually be a member of the Egyptian Coptic Christian sect, and a California Coptic Christian and convicted fraud named Nakoula Basseley Nakoula acknowledged to the Associated Press that he was involved, and The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens traced Bacile online to the name Abanob Basseley. Time put together a good who’s who of those reported to be involved with the film.

The film itself was even stranger than the background of those who made it. The AP and New York Times both reported that the movie played once this summer before a small crowd at an obscure Hollywood movie house, but there were serious questions about how it was produced. BuzzFeed’s Rosie Gray noticed the awful, amateurish production quality and editing and wondered whether it was merely pieced together from clips from other movies. Both Gray and On The Media’s Sarah Abdurrahman pointed out that every name and religious reference was clearly dubbed in, with Abdurrahman suspecting that the actors might have been led to believe the movie was about something else entirely.

It turns out that’s likely the case. Gawker’s Adrian Chen talked to an actress in the movie who said she was deceived about the film’s subject and found what appeared to be the movie’s original casting call. Time’s James Poniewozik lamented the fact that such a ridiculous movie set off such a predictably violent response.

There were other editorial angles to this story. Several newspapers ran a graphic photo of Ambassador Christopher Stevens after the attacks, some of them on the front page, as Poynter’s Julie Moos chronicled. The New York Times’ public editor, Margaret Sullivan, defended the Times’ running the photo online, though she said she wouldn’t run it on the front page. The U.S. State Department also asked the Times to remove the photo, and the Times refused. As for the anti-Islam video itself, Google blocked YouTube access to it in Egypt and Libya, and Afghanistan blocked YouTube entirely in response. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram was troubled by Google’s censorship of the video.

Misplaced priorities in journalism funding?: This week was a very good one for Homicide Watch, a reporting project that aims to chronicle every murder in Washington, D.C. The site finished raising its goal of $40,000 in less than a month from the crowdfunding site Kickstarter, which will go toward turning the site into a “student reporting lab” to keep it running for the next year while its founders are at Harvard on a Nieman-Berkman Fellowship.

Homicide Watch’s founders, Laura and Chris Amico, were justifiably ecstatic, but others were a bit more skeptical of the site’s viability. Jan Schaffer of the J-Lab said that the decision to leave a local news startup after just three years is a risky one, and she and others including The Wall Street Journal’s Raju Narisetti said, as summarized by Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman, that Homicide Watch still doesn’t have a viable business model.

David Carr of The New York Times pointed out that Homicide Watch has tried and failed going the foundation route, having been rejected by numerous journalism funders. He juxtaposed those rejections with the Ford Foundation’s recent grants to the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post, wondering why foundations are choosing to fund large legacy news orgs rather than startups, concluding that “the existential dilemma confronting media will require new answers, not stopgap funds for legacy approaches.”

Carr referred to a two-part series by news industry analyst Alan Mutter that went deeper into the issue of old-media foundation funding, looking first at why the Ford Foundation funded the Times and Post and second at the other small news orgs missing out on that money. David Cohn, whose Spot.Us was funded by the Knight Foundation, echoed Carr’s criticism and also touched on the challenge and opportunity that crowdfunding offers for public media.

More details on a newspaper bankruptcyLast week’s bankruptcy filing by the newspaper chain the Journal Register Co. continued to generate criticism this week, with the Guardian’s Michael Wolff calling the situation “a classic disparity between the way journalists wishfully see their business and the way the people they work for see it.” While the journalists have been focused on the innovation of the newsrooms’ Digital First plan, he said, the money people are focused on the much higher-priority work of extracting everything they can out of a bad deal. Likewise, the Guardian’s Peter Preston said the degree to which the Journal Register’s digital gains pale in comparison to its print losses is sobering.

At the Columbia Journalism Review, Bill Grueskin chastised Journal Register CEO John Paton for using selectively revealing statistics to make the company’s digital transition look better than it was. Paton, meanwhile, disclosed some more information to CJR’s Ryan Chittum, who concluded that while the company’s digital revenue growth has been impressive, it hasn’t offset print losses, nor is it likely to continue growing so quickly. Paton also gave his thoughts to Chittum on maintaining MediaNews’ paywalls (which he also runs) and told The New York Times the bankruptcy was “embarrassing” but necessary.

Media analyst Terry Heaton tied the Journal Register’s struggles to newspapers’ insistence on keeping banner ads central to their online revenue strategies. The Lab also published a couple of pieces examining smaller aspects of the company’s bankruptcy, looking at the fate of Connecticut’s New Haven Register and Project Thunderdome’s New York location. More personally, Digital First’s Steve Buttry gave some thoughts on dealing with bitterness toward the news industry, in light of the bankruptcy.

A new vision for j-schools: For the past two weeks, the Lab has been running a “Back to School” series on the state of journalism education and training, with a number of pieces by professionals and educators on what today’s young journalists need to know and how j-schools should best teach it to them. In one, the Knight Foundation’s Eric Newton described the response to an open letter published this summer in which he and other foundation executives urged j-schools to move more quickly on innovation and incorporate the “teaching hospital” model of  instruction. Former Washington Post editor Len Downie seconded the teaching-hospital call and described how it works at Arizona State, where he teaches.

USC’s Geneva Overholser also offered a vision for j-schools as a center of campus and community life, focusing on journalism’s service to the public. Meanwhile, The New York Times covered a particularly bold project at Georgia’s Mercer University to use the j-school as the newsroom for the town’s newspaper and radio station.

On the practical side for students, Meredith Artley of CNN listed the skills and qualities she’s looking for in new hires (think specialty and curiosity) and NPR’s Brian Boyer offered a syllabus for the “Hacker Journalism 101” class he’d love to see in j-schools. On the other side, science writer Erin Podolak responded to a couple of earlier Lab posts on the need for journalism students to learn code with an explanation of why she didn’t feel the need to learn code in school.

Reading roundup: Lots of interesting smaller stories going on this week. Here’s a quick review:

— The new video news startup headed up by Huffington Post co-founder Ken Lerer announced an official name this week (NowThisNews) as well as a partnership with BuzzFeed and the hiring of a former CNN executive. It’s aiming to launch next month. Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici looked at what might make NowThisNews different (non-conventional styles, not much live-streaming), and Reuters’ Jack Shafer examined HuffPost Live as an example of what it might look like.

— Apple unveiled the iPhone 5 this week, and on the whole, critics weren’t overly impressed with its generally incremental changes from previous versions of the phone. If you want to know all about it, Techmeme has everything you could ever need, though the Lab’s Joshua Benton has a few notes pertinent to journalists in particular — mostly related to mics and cameras.

— A few leftover notes from the fact-checking discussion of the past few weeks: Poynter pulled together a final roundup of convention and fact-checking commentary, and the Hannah Arendt Center’s Roger Berkowitz explored our desire to turn opinions into facts. Xark’s Dan Conover gave some pieces of fact-checking advice to news orgs — declare a perspective, don’t focus so much on lying, and don’t get cute.

— USA Today is debuting is redesigned paper today and its relaunched website tomorrow. You can see a preview of the paper at Jim Romenesko’s blog, and Advertising Age and The New York Times both have good explanations of the rationale behind the changes.

— The Wall Street Journal updated us on The Times-Picayune’s print reductions in New Orleans and the resistance to them, and former T-P reporter Chris Rose wrote a long elegy for the paper it once was. That and everything else TP has been rounded up by Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon.

— Sorry, I’m going to leave you with a real downer: Rick Edmonds of Poynter and media analyst Alan Mutter both have strong analyses of some recent numbers on the difficulties newspapers are having in getting digital revenue gains to replace print revenue losses. The eye-popping statistic: Newspapers are gaining just $1 in digital ad revenue for every $25 in print ad revenue they lose.

POSTED     Sept. 14, 2012, 10:34 a.m.
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