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Jan. 18, 2013, 10 a.m.

This Week in Review: Aaron Swartz’s quest for open data, and Facebook dives into search

Plus: The Manti Te’o hoax, The Atlantic’s botched Scientology advertorial, a check on CNET’s editorial independence, and the rest of the week’s media/tech news.

An activist’s death and the open information cause: The death of a young digital innovator and activist, Aaron Swartz, quickly led to a fruitful discussion about the main cause he stood for — free information. Swartz, who was 26, committed suicide last Friday. His New York Times obituary has a good summary of his substantial accomplishments: He helped develop RSS, was in on the ground floor of Reddit, and co-founded the social justice advocacy group Demand Progress, among other things. He also took more radical steps to make information free, including downloading millions of pages from the U.S. government’s (paid-access) PACER document system and then downloading millions of academic articles from the subscription-based service JSTOR.

Swartz’s death prompted scores of remembrances, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram collected many of them on blogs and Twitter. Several of the most poignant personally oriented tributes — from writer Quinn Norton, from Boing Boing’s Cory Doctorow, from The Nation’s Rick Perlstein, and from Mashable’s Christina Warren — described him as a brilliant, passionate, and empathetic young man. Swartz’s friend Matt Stoller also paid tribute to his political beliefs, and NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen (who didn’t know Swartz) reflected on his devotion to the public good.

Web philosopher David Weinberger also expounded on Swartz’s tremendous work to help create an open Internet, and contended that Swartz was not a hacker (as he was described by some), but a builder. That work was what turned him into a “hero of the free culture movement,” as The New York Times put it, and inspired academics this week to post thousands of copyright-protected research articles online, and a California legislator to introduce a bill amending hacking law.

The central issue that swirled around Swartz’s death, though, was the legal case stemming from his JSTOR hack of academic articles, which threatened to send him to prison. The Wall Street Journal reported that Swartz’s attempts at a plea deal to avoid prison time had stalled last week, and many fingers were quickly pointed at both the federal prosecutor who went after him and MIT, whose network he used to access the articles and who was reportedly a significant part of the reason plea deals had fallen through.

Free-culture legal activist Lawrence Lessig expressed the outrage against Swartz’s prosecution well: “Somehow, we need to get beyond the ‘I’m right so I’m right to nuke you’ ethics that dominates our time. That begins with one word: Shame.” Social media researcher danah boyd also voiced that anger, but also cautioned the geek activist community to channel its efforts to create change into means that don’t create easily targeted martyrs. Similarly, Gawker’s Adrian Chen chronicled the recent “example-setting” crackdown on hackers.

Others, such as The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald and open Internet advocate Lauren Weinstein, described Swartz as a hero who boldly challenged (and was ultimately steamrolled by) the government’s overreaching and power-mongering control of information. A few discussed in detail the merits (or lack thereof) of the case against Swartz: Alex Stamos, Swartz’s expert witness in the case, argued that Swartz’s charges were groundless, but Orin Kerr of The Volokh Conspiracy found much more merit to them. Greenwald called for judicial abuse like this to be investigated, and at Inside Higher Ed, history professor Timothy Burke contended that the blame for this case runs much deeper to systemic levels, including academia itself.

Facebook dives into search: Facebook took an important step in its evolution as a social network, unveiling its Graph Search, which allows you to search for people, places, and things among the social data built up in its network. The New York Times has a good, quick overview, and Wired’s Steven Levy has the exclusive deep dive into how it was developed and What It Means. “Most strikingly, it expands Facebook’s core mission,” he wrote, “not just obsessively connecting users with people they already know, but becoming a vehicle of discovery.” Search expert John Battelle also wrote a good post explaining why this is a big deal for Facebook — “Facebook needed a service that layered a fresh blanket of value over its core topography. Graph Search is it.”

Some of the initial reviews were quite positive. Slate’s Farhad Manjoo said Graph Search could finally make Facebook useful (and not just a fun time-waster), and Molly McHugh of Digital Trends saw it as a way to finally put all that data Facebook’s been collecting to the user’s benefit by creating a truly personalized search engine. Facebook’s Vadim Lavrusik also explained its potential usefulness to journalists.

The biggest questions in the wake of the announcement were what Graph Search would do for Facebook as a company, and for its partners and competitors as well. The Guardian’s Josh Halliday reported that Graph Search is intended to keep Facebook’s social network from growing static, while The Verge’s Tim Carmody noted that it’s targeting not just Google (the obvious search rival), but LinkedIn and Yelp, too, intending for Graph Search to become “sufficiently powerful in enough situations to displace web search as the query of first resort.” As Quartz’s Christopher Mims put it, Facebook is trying to turn all those other networks into mere features of its own network.

Still, Facebook’s main target is Google, and The Wall Street Journal wrote a definitive explanation of Graph Search’s role in the battle between the two, and The Guardian’s Charles Arthur focused on Google’s foray into social — Google+ — in relation to Facebook’s foray into search. Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan broke down what’s unique about Graph Search as compared with Google, and Business Insider’s Alyson Shontell noted that unlike Bing, Facebook’s powering its search with data Google can’t touch. Speaking of Bing, it will get every Graph Search query that Facebook can’t handle, though Mark Hachman of ReadWrite was skeptical about how much Bing would benefit in the long term.

Others said Graph Search needs more in order to fulfill its potential value: John Battelle wanted to see sharing search results, Mike Isaac of All Things D said Facebook now needs engagement beyond the “Like,” and PandoDaily’s Richard Nieva and The Verge’s Tim Carmody said what’s missing is mobile. And, of course, with every Facebook innovation come privacy concerns: Salon’s Andrew Leonard laid those out,  and John Herrman of BuzzFeed explained how Facebook is continuing to ignore distinctions between the private (or semi-private) and public through Social Graph.

Manti Te’o and willful blind spots: The sports journalism world was left with some serious soul-searching this week after the sports blog Deadspin broke the news that one of college football’s most compelling stories this year — the death of the girlfriend of star Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o — turned out to be a hoax: The girlfriend never existed. (It’s not clear yet whether Te’o was a victim or perpetrator.) Co-author Timothy Burke talked about how he uncovered the lie, which he described as a false story that “became true through the media.”

And that was the most alarming part about this story: Dozens of media outlets, including some of the U.S.’ biggest, ran with the lie and helped sell it to the public. Deadspin outlined exactly what the media got wrong, and singled out Sports Illustrated and ESPN for scrutiny. As Gawker’s Mobutu Sese Soko noted, reporters were refreshingly forthcoming with their mea culpas. But the question remained: Why did no bother to check this too-good-to-be-true story?

The answer for many was that it was simply too good to check. Several people — including The Big Lead’s Ty Duffy, Slate’s Josh Levin, Ohio Ph.D. student Molly Yanity, and The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone — argued that it played too perfectly into the cliched, archetypal story of the noble, inspirational hero that sports journalism is far too reliant on. As Sports On Earth’s Will Leitch (Deadspin’s founder) put it, “this story exists because sports media wanted it to exist.” Deadspin editor-in-chief Tommy Craggs called those stories “dumb, infantilizing stories” that were “executed poorly and sloppily,” though Jack Shafer of Reuters said there’s no need to do away with simpering stories entirely.

Syracuse Ph.D. student Brian Moritz said that in addition to reporters falling in love with a story, it was a failure of process, particularly editing — a point The Baltimore Sun’s John E. McIntyre also emphasized. Digital First’s Mandy Jenkins tied the problem to sports journalists’ deference to power and unwillingness to jeopardize their access. Her Digital First colleague Steve Buttry argued that linking was a key missing element from what should have been their verification process, while Poynter’s David Griner advocated more transparency and some renewed self-reflection.

A few people emphasized that they could understand how reporters could have missed something like this. Former Newsday editor Diane Werts played the “hamster wheel” card, Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum said it’d be bizarre to think of digging into something like this, and the Columbia Journalism Review’s Robert Weintraub said that while the media was gullible, the alternative would have been telling a young man he was lying about someone he said he loved (though Moritz noted that verification need not be confrontational). The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple described the mistakes as “at once understandable and inexcusable.”

The Atlantic and advertorial ethics: The Atlantic fell on its face this week with an article-like piece of “sponsored content” from the Church of Scientology, which proved to be an illuminating case to examine that murky region between news and advertising known as advertorial. The Scientology article, which looked like an Atlantic article but for a small “sponsor content” tag on top, also had its critical comments removed by Atlantic ad staff before it was taken down (though you can see a screenshot here).

The Atlantic apologized, though The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple noted that it didn’t say what it was apologizing for. Wemple also laid out what little we know about how the whole thing happened and predicted that The Atlantic would be done moderating comments on advertorials. As controversial as the Church of Scientology is — and as odious as its treatment of journalists has been — Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici said the problem wasn’t necessarily with running advertorial from the group, but in how The Atlantic went about it.

Several others went into greater detail about what exactly The Atlantic did wrong. Jack Shafer of Reuters said The Atlantic turned off its upmarket advertisers by running “loopy Scientology content,” and eConsultancy’s Patricio Robles said The Atlantic has an obligation not to throw its advertisers under the bus. At paidContent, Mathew Ingram maintained that sponsored content should be a crucial part of many media sites’ strategies, provided they’re done well.

Others said the problem is more of a fundamental issue with advertorial content. The Columbia Journalism Review’s Dean Starkman and content strategist Erin Kissane argued that if the advertising’s success depends on its deceiving its readers into thinking it’s journalism, that’s a fatal flaw. Said Kissane: “If you wouldn’t knowingly lie to your readers in an editorial or an investigative feature, you shouldn’t deceive them with interface design choices that obscure the line between ads and ‘content.'” Josh Stearns of Free Press argued that news orgs can’t sacrifice readers’ trust with such content, and Poynter’s Julie Moos listed some ethical questions for news orgs to ask about sponsored content. At The Guardian, Dan Gillmor said it needs to start with disclosure.

CBS twists some arms at CNET: At last weekend’s Consumer Electronics Show, the tech website CNET was forced by its parent company, CBS, to remove Dish Network’s Hopper (a DVR that automatically skips commercials) from its “Best of CES” awards because CBS is suing Dish over it. The initial report was that the Hopper had simply been removed from consideration, but as it turned out, CNET had voted it “Best in Show” before CBS stepped in and forced it to re-vote.

One of CNET’s star reporters, Greg Sandoval, quit in protest, saying in the process that CNET wasn’t honest about what had happened. CNET editor-in-chief Lindsey Turrentine then explained her side of the story, pointing out that she wrestled with CBS executives about letting the vote stand, or, failing that, being transparent about what had happened. (She was overruled.) She insisted that CNET’s writers remain uncompromised, and CBS insisted to The Verge’s Tim Carmody that it won’t interfere in news, only reviews (and then only in exceptional cases).

PandoDaily’s Sarah Lacy said Turrentine made the wrong decision by not demanding an independent vote or quitting over it: “She is picking a corporate overlord over her readers.” If you do that, she said, “you don’t get to keep your self respect or the respect of your peers.” Ars Technica founder and editor-in-chief Ken Fisher argued that disclosures simply aren’t enough to combat conflicts of interest, while TechCrunch’s John Biggs said that as bad as this episode might seem, gadget journalism isn’t fundamentally corrupt.

Reading roundup: There was lots of more media news going on during a busy, busy week:

— More commentary on the Journal News’ map of local gun owners: The New York Times’ David Carr was skeptical that the map had sufficient rationale for publication, as was the Times’ Bill Keller. On the other hand, both Jeff Jarvis and Politico’s Dylan Byers defended the paper for publishing the data. Amid reports that a burglary was linked to a house’s inclusion on the map, the local police commissioner said there was “no pattern” of crime linked to the data.

— There’s rumored to be a top-level editorial shakeup coming soon at The New York Times, and this week, the paper closed its environmental desk and reassigned its reporters. Climate Progress’ Joe Romm and the Scientific American’s Bora Zivkovic both voiced their concern, with Zivkovic saying that the Times’ Green Blog becomes even more crucial. Andrew Revkin, who blogs about the environment from the opinion section, predicted the Times’ environmental coverage would remain strong, and the paper’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, said it’ll take real work to keep quality up without a dedicated desk.

— The Chicago Tribune published a four-part postmortem on the disastrous Sam Zell era at its parent company, the Tribune Co., and its ensuing bankruptcy. It’s the definitive account (so far) of what went wrong.

— Mike Fourcher, who runs the Chicago hyperlocal news site Center Square Journal, wrote a post full of lessons for running a hyperlocal news site. It’s a great resource not only for people doing hyperlocal news, but most anyone doing entrepreneurial journalism anywhere.

— And finally, a fantastic post by The Awl’s Choire Sicha on the bizarre art of writing pageview-grabbing headlines for the web.

Photos of Aaron Swartz by Sage Ross, Mark Zuckerberg by ofnetsandthings, and Manti Te’o by Shotgun Spratling/Neon Tommy used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 18, 2013, 10 a.m.
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