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May 24, 2013, 10 a.m.

This Week in Review: Yahoo goes after Tumblr’s cool factor, and investigative reporting under fire

Plus: Snow Fall revisited, and the rest of the week’s media and tech reads.

Marrissa Mayer, David Karp

Yahoo snaps up Tumblr: Yahoo approved a $1.1 billion deal to buy Tumblr over the weekend, giving the company, as The New York Times’ Jenna Wortham noted, a big stake in the current wave of simpler, more personal and expressive social media platforms. Yahoo pledged “not to screw it up,” and its sources told All Things D’s Kara Swisher they’d take a hands-off approach to Tumblr. But it will make changes — Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer said it would introduce more ads to Tumblr’s dashboards.

A lot of people were immediately skeptical of Yahoo’s ability (or willingness) to keep Tumblr un-screwed-up, including GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, who noted, as many others did, that Yahoo was unable to do that with its prior purchases Geocities and Flickr. PandoDaily’s Sarah Lacy pointed out that a lot has changed at Yahoo since then (particularly Mayer’s presence). Still, blogging pioneer Dave Winer warned that when you sell a company, your buyers can do what they want with it; promises don’t matter. YouTube’s Hunter Walk offered Yahoo some helpful tips from Google’s management of his own site.

Several other writers along with Lacy saw this move as a good one for Yahoo. Forbes’ Alex Konrad saw it as a success as long as Yahoo maintains a light touch, and Ingram said it made some sense as a desperation move. Reuters’ Felix Salmon said the deal looks good from both sides — it allows Yahoo better user data and advertising opportunities, and it lets Tumblr pawn off its profitability problems. Tumblr co-founder Marco Arment said the Yahoo deal will allow Tumblr’s founder and head, David Karp, to focus on design and user experience while offloading concerns about maintenance and money to Yahoo.

Business Insider’s Jay Yarow and Nicholas Carlson cited similar reasons in arguing that this deal works for Tumblr, and reasoned that it also helps Yahoo solve its mobile problem. Tech entrepreneur John Battelle said the key is Yahoo’s shift from traditional to native advertising, and Fast Company’s Sarah Kessler advised Yahoo to adopt Tumblr’s creativity in developing native ads.

Fortune’s John Saroff listed some reasons to doubt Tumblr’s effectiveness for advertising, however. BuzzFeed’s John Herrman argued that Yahoo is buying Tumblr for access to its young user base, which sees Yahoo as representing adults, and with them cluelessness and boredom. Ingrid Lunden of TechCrunch asserted that Tumblr’s users will jump ship rather than go with it to Yahoo, and WordPress saw a jump in posts at the announcement, potentially (though not necessarily likely) suggesting a migration.

Business Insider’s Jay Yarow saw a troubling dip in traffic at Tumblr over the past few months, while Timothy B. Lee of The Washington Post saw Yahoo’s fixation on young, “cool” users as a sign that’s thinking too much like a media company, rather than a tech company. Paul Smalera of Reuters, meanwhile, argued that Yahoo and Tumblr’s fundamental clashes in philosophy could be greater than their shared strengths. The Guardian’s Michael Wolff was similarly skeptical, writing that the Tumblr purchase is fueled more by desperate investors than anything else: “nothing in Yahoo’s muddled experience and questionable competence suggests it knows anything about the social business or has any sensibility that has anything to do with cool.”

Finally, tech entrepreneur Anil Dash offered some thoughts about how Tumblr upended the conventional wisdom on blogging and furthered the form as a result, and Referly’s Danielle Morrill wrote that Tumblr could have had an even bigger windfall if it had figured out how to better monetize its user base.


Is investigative reporting being criminalized?: After last week’s revelation that the U.S. Department of Justice seized a broad swath of the Associated Press’ phone records in a leak investigation, we were hit with another case of the U.S. government snooping into journalists’ work in an effort to hunt down leak sources, as The Washington Post reported that the DOJ had named Fox News reporter James Rosen a criminal “co-conspirator” in the leak of classified information about North Korea as a means of getting search-warrant access to his personal emails. Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon has a good overview of the developments in both cases; we’ll start with the AP then move to Rosen.

The AP continued its public outrage at the DOJ’s actions, with its CEO calling the move unconstitutional. The Los Angeles Times talked to a media law scholar who backed up the AP’s concern, as well as a prosecutor who said the seizure was pretty routine. The New York Times lined up six perspectives on the subject as well, with a couple of them defending the Obama administration.

The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone explored the complex relationship between the government and the press that the seizure illuminates, especially when it comes to national security. The president of the Society of Professional Journalists urged Congress to pass the media shield bill that President Obama advocated last week, though journalism professor Chris Daly argued against it, calling for journalists to instead insist on the rights they already have under the First Amendment. Meanwhile, USA Today’s Devin Karambelas and David Schick noted that college newspapers often face similar heavy-handed (and often illegal) pressures from administrators.

Regarding the Rosen case, NBC reported that Attorney General Eric Holder signed off on the search warrant himself, and Fox’s Shepard Smith claimed that the government’s intrusion went further — that it “went into” Fox News’ servers without notifying the organization. The DOJ maintained, meanwhile, that naming Rosen as a co-conspirator in a subpoena doesn’t mean it ever wanted to charge him with a crime, and Obama said they don’t think journalists should be prosecuted for soliciting government information.

Still, just as they were last week, many observers were appalled at the DOJ’s treatment of Rosen. Fred Kaplan of Slate called it “a quantum leap” in the Obama administration’s crusade against leakers, The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald called it indefensible (and noted that the Obama administration has used this rationale before with WikiLeaks, though fewer journalists came to its defense), and The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank said it’s “as flagrant an assault on civil liberties as anything done by George W. Bush’s administration.” Mike Masnick of Techdirt said it’s clear this is more about waging war on investigative reporting than protecting national security.

The common argument was simple: This action criminalizes basic reporting in a way that seriously jeopardizes journalists’ First Amendment rights. The Washington Post’s Leonard Downie emphasized the chilling effect that this has on investigative journalism, and the Freedom of the Press Foundation’s Trevor Timm urged journalists to stand up for their rights.

On the other hand, Reuters’ Jack Shafer drew attention to Rosen’s faulty practices of keeping his sources secret (as well as the neglible value of the scoop). Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall said he was more shocked at Rosen’s ineptitude than the government’s actions. A group of former attorneys general (or deputies) defended the administration’s fight against leaks in The New York Times. Forbes’ Daniel Fisher explained a bit of the conflicted attitude toward leaks from the government’s perspective.

Others pushed back against the anti-leak attitude: The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza argued that leaks are essential for government to be kept accountable. Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic made the point that leaks will always continue as long as public servants believe information should be public, but if the government goes hard after professional journalists, those leaks will go through less established channels, like WikiLeaks and Anonymous.

Reading roundup: A few other bits and pieces this week amid the big stories:

— Scrollkit co-founder Cody Brown created a replica of The New York Times’ famous multimedia feature Snow Fall as a demo of his web design product, but The Times demanded he take it down, then demanded again that he remove any reference to their paper. Techdirt’s Mike Masnick defended Brown, while The Times’ spokeswoman defended the paper to Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon. The episode sparked a lengthy Twitter fight documented by the Columbia Journalism Review’s Sara Morrison, and prompted The Awl’s Choire Sicha to report that journalists secretly resent Snow Fall for being hyped as the “future of journalism” that everyone should be expected to pull off.

— ESPN laid off an estimated 300 to 400 employees this week. The company has been rolling in cash from cable and satellite subscriber fees, which might leave you scratching your head as to why these layoffs had to happen. Business Insider’s Tony Manfred and Forbes’ Chris Smith pinpointed ESPN’s skyrocketing rights fees to broadcast various live sports as the primary cause.

— Finally, a couple of interesting pieces at the Lab this week — journalism professor Nikki Usher on the use of Twitter at the Miami Herald, and Jonathan Stray on some fascinating research on the evolution of objectivity toward contextual journalism.

Photo of Marissa Mayer and David Karp by AP/Frank Franklin II.

POSTED     May 24, 2013, 10 a.m.
PART OF A SERIES     This Week in Review
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