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Feb. 7, 2014, 10 a.m.

This Week in Review: Paper and the future of Facebook, and an accusation of journalism as theft

Plus: Ezra Klein and the personal-franchise model of news, Al Jazeera journalists charged in Egypt, and the rest of the week’s media and tech news.

Facebook as viral gatekeeper: Facebook launched its newsier app, Paper, this week, and other than the makers of the sketching app Paper, pretty much everyone seemed impressed. TechCrunch’s Josh Constine said it appears Facebook has designed Paper to supersede its own main app, and several reviews concluded that it does indeed blow the Facebook app away. The Verge’s Ellis Hamburger explained why he’s already replaced his Facebook app with Paper, and Time’s Harry McCracken said Paper — Facebook “rethought for a small screen, with 2014 aesthetics” — could be the app that gives Facebook its mobile breakthrough.

Rachel Metz of Technology Review and Lauren Hockenson of Gigaom both emphasized the newsiness of Paper’s content and design. Hockensen noted that while the app seems to be designed for the minority of users who use Facebook only for news, “the dirty secret remains that Paper is probably the ideal experience for everyone, filtering the noise in a way the desktop and mobile fail to do.” The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer said Paper represents a change in direction from the Twitterization of Facebook — it’s slower, more stable, and a bit less stream-like.

Wired’s Kyle Vanhemert looked at the way Paper is part of Facebook’s effort to improve the quality of the content people post there. With its slicker layout and more sophisticated publishing interface, “posting stuff to Paper will cease to feel like anything resembling ‘updating Facebook’ at all, and more like putting out a news article.”

The New York Times’ piece on Paper focused on its potential role in aiding Facebook’s increasing dominance in driving traffic and what goes viral and what dies. Recode’s Peter Kafka highlighted data from BuzzFeed that shows how Facebook has pulled away from Google as its top traffic driver, and The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer noted that publishers may be steering toward social optimization rather than search optimization because Google is getting better at providing many commonly sought answers itself.

Reuters’ Felix Salmon broke down the formula behind Facebook-driven virality, concluding that Facebook is sure to close that curiosity-gap clickbait loophole through which Upworthy is running straight to the bank. “Facebook is the monster in the publishing room: a traffic firehose which can be turned on or off at Mark Zuckerberg’s whim,” he wrote. Mathew Ingram of Gigaom similarly cautioned sites like Upworthy and BuzzFeed that Facebook may turn on them just as Google shut off the flow to content farms.

nsa-hq-ap

NSA hacking, and Greenwald accused: There were a handful of new developments over the past week in the ongoing U.S. National Security Agency surveillance story: First, tech companies released their first reports since their deal with the U.S. government giving a broad idea of how many requests they’ve gotten to turn over user information. Over the first half of 2013, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Yahoo handed over data on at least 59,000 users to the NSA.

In addition, NBC News reported based on documents leaked by Edward Snowden that Britain’s spy unit Government Communications Headquarters has been going after the hacktivist groups Anonymous and Lulzsec using some of those groups’ same hacking tactics, though in the process they’ve disrupted other web users who have no connection to hacking or Anonymous. At Wired, anthropologist Gabriella Coleman decried GCHQ’s actions as a “shotgun approach to justice that sprays its punishment over thousands of people who are engaged in their democratic right to protest simply because a small handful of people committed digital vandalism.” Slate’s Joshua Kopstein pointed out the hypocrisy in GCHQ’s actions as well.

And in a U.S. Congressional hearing, Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, accused Glenn Greenwald of illegally selling stolen material by getting paid to write freelance stories on the Snowden documents. Greenwald, who was with The Guardian when he broke the Snowden story and is now starting up First Look Media, countered that he’s not selling the documents, but simply working on stories about the documents with freelance contracts, just like any other freelance writer reporting on national security would. Greenwald also talked to Salon’s Brian Beutler about his decision over whether and when to return to the U.S. in light of this latest accusation.

The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi briefly explored the legal case, noting that the U.S. government has never actually tried a journalist for something like what Rogers is suggesting. A few others condemned Rogers’ comments as pure intimidation: Techdirt’s Mike Masnick called Rogers’ comments “an attempt to create chilling effects and to protect his friends in the intelligence community” and Rem Rieder of USA Today said they were “a blatant attempt to intimidate journalists by criminalizing their actions.” Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic looked at why Greenwald is being perceived differently from other journalists and argued that whether or not we agree with his style or political aims, Greenwald is the face of journalists’ First Amendment protections in the U.S. right now.

Also in Snowden-related press freedom, The Guardian released video of their destruction of the hard copies of the Snowden files last summer under government compulsion and explained that incident more fully, and Amitai Etzioni at The Atlantic critiqued Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger’s defense of his paper’s handling of the Snowden documents.

ezra-kleinDefining news’ personal-franchise model: Two new individually driven news organizations are continuing to take shape: Ezra Klein lured three more former Washington Post colleagues to his new explanatory journalism venture at Vox Media, and New York magazine’s Benjamin Wallace profiled Klein and gave some more details about his philosophy of using the permanence of the web and the openness of digital publishing to build his new site through a combination of breaking-news blurbs and static, Wikipedia-type explainers.

The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf listed some of the questions he’ll be keeping an eye on as Klein’s site develops, including the role of narrative storytelling and whether it will develop context-oriented software it can sell to other news organizations. The Lab’s Joshua Benton wondered if Klein’s site might have a search strategy built around the idea that “we’re going to build answers to questions more complex than what Google can answer.”

Meanwhile, First Look Media, the new organization owned by eBay co-founder Pierre Omidyar and built around a group of journalists led by Glenn Greenwald, announced it will launch its first publication next week. It also hired several people, including former NPR social media guru Andy Carvin. Carvin talked to Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram about his excitement at being part of a news organization being built from scratch, as well as his goal of carrying his open, crowdsourced form of social journalism there. A few days earlier, The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple expressed some skepticism of First Look’s developing non-hierarchical editorial structure.

NYU’s Jay Rosen attempted to define this emerging model of personal franchise-based journalism exemplified by Klein’s venture (though First Look, of which Rosen is an adviser, wasn’t on his list of examples — he said it’s structured to allow for multiple personal franchise sites to emerge) and explain its rise. Among several factors, he called this the next step in the rationalization of blogging: “This is blogging, regularized and made into a sustainable business.” The Guardian’s Emily Bell explored how this entrepreneurial spirit came to infect professional journalists, while Michael Wolff at USA Today said these ventures are operating more on blind hope in journalism than solid business principles.

Reading roundup: Several other stories were worth following this week:

— Egyptian authorities finally issued formal charges against 20 journalists, including three Al Jazeera journalists who were arrested in late December and have been held in prison since then. Al Jazeera, which employs nine of the 20, ripped the charges, and the Obama administration urged the government to release them. The government also released a video of two of the journalists in an attempt to portray them as part of a terrorist cell. The Columbia Journalism Review has a good summary of the case and why it has journalists and press freedom advocates concerned.

— A few weeks after a court ruling struck down the U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality protections, Verizon is facing accusations that it’s slowing traffic to Netflix and Amazon Web Services. Verizon denied the charge, though critics such as Free Press and Public Knowledge were unconvinced. Gigaom’s Stacey Higginbotham found a similar trend in other data from ISPs’ speeds on video streaming sites. Meanwhile, a pair of bills were introduced in Congress to keep a net neutrality status quo until the FCC resolves the issue, and President Obama pledged his continued support of net neutrality. The New York Times’ Nick Bilton explained where things stand.

— Twitter’s first quarterly report revealed that its revenue beat expectations, but its stock price still dropped after it also revealed that its user growth is relatively flat and its engagement metrics are actually down. In short, as Quartz put it, Twitter’s getting more money from less-engaged users. Forbes explained how Twitter’s going to try to jump-start its user growth.

gannettlogo— Poynter’s Rick Edmonds reported that Gannett is hinting at a concern with its new paywall plan — its circulation revenue dipped a bit, suggesting that the circulation gain from its paywalls may have been a one-time event. The Lab’s Joshua Benton argued that the paywall isn’t a long-term solution to the problem of the decline of print, and the Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum said you have to invest in journalism to make your print-centric paywalls work.

— Finally, two interesting pieces worth a read: Two ex-BBC News execs made the case in The Guardian that the new digital news environment is making 24-hour TV news channels obsolete, and here at the Lab, journalism professor Nikki Usher looked at how the Des Moines Register is using its newsroom space as a metaphor for its digital ambitions.

Photo of NSA headquarters by AP/Patrick Semansky.

POSTED     Feb. 7, 2014, 10 a.m.
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