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May 30, 2014, 10 a.m.

This Week in Review: Kinsley vs. Greenwald on NSA secrets, and new data on mobile’s rise

Plus: Conversation continues on changes at The New York Times, and the rest of the week’s journalism and tech news and commentary.

This week’s essential reads: The key articles this week were Michael Kinsley’s New York Times review of Glenn Greenwald’s new book, the Lab’s Joshua Benton on the gap between mobile and print attention and advertising, and Ryan Chittum of Columbia Journalism Review on historical trends in newspapers’ reliance on reader vs. advertising revenue.

A new attack on Greenwald’s judgment: Late last week, political journalist and pundit Michael Kinsley launched a particularly contentious new round in the nearly year-old debate about the release of Edward Snowden’s documents about National Security Agency surveillance. Kinsley delivered a scathing review of Glenn Greenwald’s book No Place to Hide for The New York Times which described the book as self-righteously bombastic and concluded that the government should ultimately have the responsibility for determining what of its information gets released. “Someone gets to decide” what gets published, he wrote, “and that someone cannot be Glenn Greenwald.”

Kinsley’s review unleashed a storm of livid responses, with the Freedom of the Press Foundation’s Barry Eisler, Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan, and Firedoglake’s Kevin Gosztola, all arguing that, as Nolan put it, “Michael Kinsley is coming out in opposition to journalism.” The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple also argued that even though Kinsley says Greenwald can’t be trusted to decide what gets published, he doesn’t give any evidence that Greenwald’s mismanaged it. Greenwald also replied, saying that Kinsley’s review was simply evidence of the complicity of Washington journalism with government authority.

Times public editor Margaret Sullivan chastised both Kinsley and the Times’ Book Review editor, Pamela Paul, for the review, concluding that while the piece shouldn’t have been edited to change its point of view, “surely editing ought to point out gaping holes in an argument, remove ad hominem language and question unfair characterizations; that didn’t happen here.”

Kinsley responded to Sullivan by saying she mischaracterized his argument as well as American legal protections for the press, and New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait sided with Kinsley regarding Sullivan’s response: “The notion that it’s wrong for the book review to print abhorrent reviews, let alone to poke fun at no less a hero than Glenn Greenwald, is an artifact of the culture of smugness that Kinsley is writing about here,” he wrote.

Kinsley’s wasn’t the only critical review of Greenwald’s book. At Prospect magazine, The New Yorker’s George Packer wrote a more thorough, less personal but equally stinging critique of Greenwald’s account and argument. On the other side, GQ published a lengthy interview with Greenwald about the book, the Snowden documents, and his background.

Snowden himself also made some public statements this week, in the form of a lengthy interview with NBC News. In it, he denied any relationship with or support from the Russian government and lamented that he was “stuck” in a place with so little protection for the individual rights he champions. The New York Times had a good summary of the interview’s particularly noteworthy elements, as well as the story of how NBC News got a sitdown with Snowden.


New numbers on the state of the Internet: Legendary Internet analyst and venture capitalist Mary Meeker released her annual slides on the state of the Internet this week, which, as the Lab’s Joshua Benton noted, is a very useful set of hard numbers to pin down our sense of how the Internet is changing and where it’s headed. The trend that got the most attention was the acceleration of mobile use: As Robert Hof of Forbes and Recode’s Liz Gannes highlighted, the growth of Internet use is slowing, while smartphone use is up more than 20 percent annually around the world and mobile traffic is up 81 percent, thanks largely to video.

Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici also pointed out the increase in sensors and other wearable or mobile systems that are measuring mountains of user data, only a very small portion of which is being analyzed. On the financial side, Meeker presented some numbers suggesting that tech’s role in the market isn’t approaching the bubbly levels of the dotcom bust era, as Recode’s James Temple noted, though Fortune’s Dan Primack argued that Meeker was selectively omitting data indicating abnormally high VC valuations of tech companies.

For those in traditional journalism, Benton broke down what he called the scariest chart in Meeker’s slide deck, which shows that despite the decline in print advertising, it still far outstrips the attention paid to print, which continues to drop annually. Benton noted that while one could argue that print may be a medium distinctly suited for advertising, newspapers need to reckon with the fact that “Print advertising is not coming back. It will fall further. Substantially further.” On the flip side, he said, “mobile is eating the world, and most news organizations make only a pittance off it.”

Reading roundup: A few more things to check out as this relatively slow week comes to a close:

— On the New York Times and diversity front: The Pew Research Center’s Monica Anderson noted that new Times executive editor Dean Baquet is part of a small minority of racial and ethnic minorities in American newspapers. The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta gave yet another report on the circumstances behind the firing of his predecessor, Jill Abramson, and at The Washington Post, journalism professor Nikki Usher argued that beyond Abramson, women are being marginalized in journalism, especially the more tech-centric parts of it. Former Digital First journalist Mandy Jenkins countered that tech is an asset, not an obstacle, for women to gain larger roles in newsrooms.

— On the New York Times and innovation front: In Politico magazine, David Warsh criticized the Times’ recently released Innovation Report as short-sighted, while French media executive Frédéric Filloux praised the paper’s digital adaptation and said it could conceivably even drop print and survive financially. Here at the Lab, Times news analytics director James Robinson explained a tool the Times is using to track the flow of traffic and audience attention across the site, and Benton noted that the paper was restructuring its Page 1 meetings to be more digital in focus, as the innovation report had recommended.

— The New York Times’ David Carr profiled Medium, the publisher-as-platform run by Evan Williams of Blogger and Twitter fame. Ricardo Bilton of Digiday looked into its prospects for bringing in revenue as well.

— Finally, Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum analyzed some historical newspaper data to make the case that newspapers have been relying on inflated advertising revenue and must extract more revenue from their readers as they did before about 1980.

Photos of Glenn Greenwald by Gage Skidmore and of Michael Kinsley by the Aspen Institute used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     May 30, 2014, 10 a.m.
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