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Nov. 22, 2013, 10:02 a.m.

This Week in Review: ‘Native ads’ in Politico’s Playbook, and Greenwald’s news org takes shape

Plus: Digital First Media’s newspapers jump on board with digital subscriptions, Bloomberg’s layoffs, and the rest of this week in media and tech.

politico-playbookExpansion and questions for Playbook: Capital New York, the politics- and media-heavy news site bought earlier this fall by Politico owner Robert Allbritton, announced it would relaunch after Thanksgiving with a subscription service and a new Capital Playbook daily briefing, which aims to be to New York what Politico’s influential Playbook is to Washington. Politico’s Mike Allen, who writes Playbook, will co-write the new Capital Playbook. The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple said it makes sense to expand Allen’s brand, but wondered if he can be spread too thin.

The New York Times is also trying to build on the Playbook model, announcing the launch of its own daily tip sheet of Washington news. As The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone reported, The Times is describing something that will rely more on its reporters’ observations, as opposed to Allen’s aggregation-heavy style.

Meanwhile, Wemple highlighted a significant problem with Allen’s Playbook — namely, that he gives his advertisers sympathetic coverage even in non-ad items and tends to ignore negative news about them. Wemple found patterns of fawning coverage of advertisers such as Goldman Sachs, BP, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Andrew Sullivan registered his alarm, writing that Wemple’s piece “reads like a meticulously researched tale of at least the appearance of blatant corruption.”

Likewise, Jonathan Chait of New York magazine wrote that the scandal is that Playbook as a whole is so anodyne and establishmentarian that the kind of corruption Wemple described isn’t even necessary. “The behavior Wemple documents would ordinarily amount to a scandal and a likely firing offense, except that it seems to be Allen’s essential job description,” he said. And the Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum said Allen is taking Washington access journalism to a new level, adding money to the access that journalists often get in exchange for friendly coverage.

jay-rosenA big pickup for Greenwald and Omidyar: The net of personal information and communications swept up by the U.S. National Security Agency, at least as the public is able to see it, continues to widen each week. The Guardian reported that the NSA has access to personal information of U.K. citizens, thanks to a 2007 agreement with British intelligence authorities. Meanwhile, The Washington Post reported that the U.S. Department of Justice is reviewing its criminal cases where evidence was used from its warrantless surveillance program.

A group of news organizations backed a lawsuit by the Electronic Frontier Foundation against the NSA surveillance, filing a brief arguing that such tactics put confidential sources and therefore accountability journalism at risk. Elsewhere, Bob Woodward said he wished Edward Snowden, who leaked these documents, would have come to him, as he would have convinced Snowden to remain anonymous and give him time to present the information “in a coherent way.” His Washington Post colleague Barton Gellman, one of the people Snowden did leak to, fired back at Woodward. There were also a couple of engaging longform pieces published on the NSA leaks — one by Gawker’s Adrian Chen on 1970s NSA whistleblower Perry Fellwock and another by BuzzFeed’s Natasha Vargas-Cooper on David Miranda, the partner of former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald who was detained in the U.K. for possessing Snowden documents.

Greenwald’s inchoate news organization with eBay founder Pierre Omidyar gained a high-profile (at least in the meta-journalism world) member when NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen announced he had signed on as a paid adviser who will establish a “learning culture” within the organization and communicate its journalism philosophy to the public. The new organization will offer an opportunity to put the principles he’s been expressing over the past decade to the test, he said.

CNET’s Edward Moyer pulled together a summary of everyone else on board at Greenwald/Omidyar venture so far. French media executive Frederic Filloux offered a list of suggestions for the new organization, encouraging it to embrace an endowment funding model, paid online subscriptions, and a niche print product.

A newly laid brick wall

A paywall holdout jumps on board: Digital First Media, one of the nation’s largest newspaper chains and perhaps its most prominent holdout on online paywalls — although it had inherited some of MediaNews Group’s — announced it would be expanding its digital subscription plan to all of its 75 daily papers. Digital subscriptions “don’t transform anything; they tweak. At best, they are a short-term tactic,” said Digital First CEO John Paton. “But it’s a tactic that will help us now.” Industry analyst Ken Doctor marveled at how thoroughly and quickly Paton and the newspaper industry have flipped on paywalls, estimating that 41 percent of the U.S.’ daily papers now have online pay plans.

Mathew Ingram of Gigaom, a longtime paywall detractor, saw the move as an alarming indicator of the revenue problems of traditional media but applauded Paton for calling a digital subscription plan a short-term solution rather than a monumental development. Another paywall critic, Digital First’s own Steve Buttry, collected some conversation about the decision and stated that while he doesn’t agree with this approach, he has full confidence in overall direction of the company.

On the other side, the Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum applauded Paton for “putting pragmatism over ideology” and saw his decision as part of an ongoing vindication of the paywall as a significant part of newspapers’ future, lamenting that newspapers bought into the ideology of free content for so long. “The paywall argument has always been about applying a tourniquet in the short term to give papers time to figure out the inevitable transition to all-digital,” he wrote. Elsewhere in paywalls, Doctor detailed The New York Times’ plans to move its pioneering paywall forward.

Reading roundup: Not many big stories this week, but a few smaller ones floating around:

— Bloomberg laid off journalists from a variety of departments this week, particularly in its arts and culture coverage. It also let go Mike Forsythe, who co-wrote an article that had reportedly been suppressed for political reasons and who had been suspended last week. Reuters’ Jack Shafer examined the Forsythe case, and his colleague Felix Salmon explained what’s going on behind the larger cuts. Peter Lauria of BuzzFeed looked at the implications for Bloomberg TV.

— Snapchat, a mobile messaging service built around ephemeral messages, was reported last week to have turned down a $3 billion acquisition offer from Facebook, leading to some commentary this week on just how valuable (or not) the company is. The Wall Street Journal’s Farhad Manjoo chastised Silicon Valley for its obsession with youth as an indicator of value or future trends in tech, though Mathew Ingram of Gigaom disputed that argument. BuzzFeed’s Peter Lauria questioned just how widely used Snapchat is.

— The New York Times announced a slew of changes in its Washington bureau, including the launch of a daily political tip sheet (mentioned above) and a political data journalism initiative to succeed the now-departed Five Thirty Eight. The New Republic’s Marc Tracy analyzed the news of the data journalism project — the Times sees its main advantage in its strong graphics department — and Henry Farrell of The Monkey Cage welcomed its arrival.

— Finally, former newspaper editor John L. Robinson and journalist Kevin Anderson wrote a couple of quick but thoughtful posts on changing news coverage to fit people’s everyday lives rather than officials and organizations.

POSTED     Nov. 22, 2013, 10:02 a.m.
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