Is it acceptable for a website operator to make use of registration data not known to anyone else in order to expose the identity of an offensive commenter? That’s one of the main issues in a libel suit against Nieman Journalism Lab founder Joshua Benton. Bill Grueskin explains the case in detail at the Columbia Journalism Review. (Disclosure: I know and like Benton, and wrote for him from time to time when he was the Lab’s editor; he is still a staff writer. I continue to contribute to the Lab occasionally.)
Way back in 2008, when the internet was still powered by coal, The Eagle-Tribune of North Andover did something similar. I wrote about it at the time. A Haverhill city councilor was caught posting to the newspaper’s website under 38 different screen names. The Eagle-Tribune outed him using information no one else could have known, arguing:
The average citizen does not take an oath to serve the public. An elected official does. An attempt to deceive the public is clearly not serving it, and a public official who does so is not only undeserving of the protection of confidentiality, but deserves public criticism.
Two differences between the cases. First, the person suing Benton, former Temple University journalism professor Francesca Viola, is not a public official. Second, Viola claims that in addition to exposing her for comments she made at Nieman Lab, Benton also attributed to her anti-Muslim comments made on another site — and she contends she did not make those comments.
As Grueskin notes, these problems can easily be avoided by requiring commenters to register and post under their real names. But, he adds, “an administrator can’t have it both ways, promising anonymity and then using special access to expose someone’s identity.” I agree — and I remain troubled by the choice that The Eagle-Tribune made nearly 13 years ago as well.
Earlier this week, I wrote for GBH News about a study showing little support for the core principles of journalism. Joshua Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab has done an exceptionally deep dive into the numbers and has concluded that they don’t say what the study’s authors claim.
Benton’s explanation is that the Media Insight Project took unambiguous support for certain journalistic verities and watered it down by pairing it with findings that showed a more dubious view of the press. Benton writes:
Its top-line finding — summarized by a [Washington] Post headline writer as “Bad news for journalists: The public doesn’t share our values” — is bogus. Or, at a minimum, unsupported by the methodology in use here. There is no reason to believe, based on this data, that Americans have somehow abandoned the basic values of democratic governance, or that we noble journalists are left to fight the lonely fight for accountability.
But Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute, one of the organizations that sponsored the study, replies at the Columbia Journalism Review that Benton’s methodology is itself flawed:
Researchers caution against trying to draw conclusions from any one individual item without considering the full set.
We fear this is the mistake Josh has made.
My quick takeaway is that Benton gets the better of the dispute. But read both pieces and see what you think.
News publishers have been railing against Facebook ever since the gigantic platform began scooping up — along with Google — the lion’s share of digital advertising. But though people in the media business have long feared that they can’t live with Facebook, many of them have also concluded that they can’t live without it.
That second proposition is now being put to a serious test. Last week Facebook announced that it was changing its news feed to give priority to content posted by family and friends, thus downgrading journalism. As The New York Times put it, “Prioritizing what your friends and family share is part of an effort by Facebook to help people spend time on the site in what it thinks is a more meaningful way.”
Like many journalists, I have long relied on Facebook (and Twitter) to promote my work and to engage with my audience. It’s not exactly clear — at least not yet — what this will mean to individuals who post links to news content as opposed to, say, pictures of their cat. But the implications for publishers are clear enough. And at a time when the news business is besieged on multiple fronts, Mark Zuckerberg’s latest brainstorm is one more thing to worry about.
“For publishers who have come to rely on traffic from Facebook — which for some still drives the majority of their traffic; for many others, 30 or 40 percent — this is awful news,” wrote Joshua Benton at the Nieman Journalism Lab. Benton added that digital-only news sites that rely on free content, massive audiences and online advertising will be hurt the most. Newspapers that have had some success in getting readers to sign up for digital subscriptions won’t be hurt as badly, he added, although they will suffer from a loss of traffic, too.
At the Columbia Journalism Review, Mathew Ingram predicted that some publishers may go out of business as the result of the change:
Moving from an advertising-focused model to one that relies on reader subscriptions may be the prudent move, but getting from point A to point B could be difficult, and some companies may not be able to make the transition. For them, Facebook’s latest algorithm could be what Mother Jones Senior Editor Ben Dreyfuss called “an extinction-level event.”
There’s no question that a decreased emphasis on news may make life easier for Zuckerberg and company. Facebook’s fecklessness in the “fake news” wars has damaged the company’s reputation, and eschewing journalism, fake or otherwise, in favor of heartwarming family updates is, as Benton noted, more in keeping with Zuckerberg’s original vision.
Yet I can’t help but be concerned that this is one more blow that the news business doesn’t need. Maybe the solution is to develop a news product for legitimate publishers that would be separate from the news feed. That would require Facebook to hire journalists and make editorial judgments. But it could also be a contribution to democracy — an idea that Zuckerberg often pays lip service to with very little in the way of action to back it up.
The report, wrote Joshua Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab last May, is “one of the most remarkable documents I’ve seen in my years running the Lab.” Both the full document and a comprehensive summary are available as part of Benton’s piece, and they are well worth reading. The report describes how the Times — in many ways an innovator in the transition to digital — is still being held back by an antiquated management structure, an overemphasis on what goes on page one of the print edition, and a lack of understanding of how to promote and distribute the Times’ journalism.
The ONA panel was moderated by Ann Marie Lipinski (@AMLwhere), curator of Harvard’s Nieman Foundation. The panelists were Amy O’Leary (@amyoleary), deputy editor for digital operations at the Times and one of the authors of the report; Tyson Evans (@tysone), the Times’ editor of newsroom strategy, who also contributed to the report; and Alex MacCallum (@alexmaccallum), recently promoted to a newly created assistant managing editor’s slot to oversee audience engagement.
Hundreds of people were on hand, and many of them — including me — live-tweeted the panel. Bursts of fragmentary news are no substitute for a well-crafted story about the event (here’s one by a student who covered it), but they can give you some flavor of the discussion. Here’s what I had say, including a couple of retweets that I thought were worth sharing.
Have we reached the limits of clickbait media exemplified by The Huffington Post and BuzzFeed? According to three experts on Internet journalism, the answer is yes.
At a forum on the future of journalism held in WGBH’s Yawkey Theater on Wednesday, the consensus was that aggregating as many eyeballs as possible in order to show them advertising does not produce enough revenue to support quality journalism. Instead, news organizations like The New York Times are succeeding by persuading a small percentage of their audience to support them through subscription fees. (Click here for some tweets from the session.)
“One of the things that interests me is the end of the audience as a discrete category that can be treated as an aggregate,” said Clay Shirky of New York University. “Scale was the business model,” he said, describing the attitude among Web publishers as “‘At some point scale will play out.’ And it didn’t.”
As it turns out, Shirky continued, pushing people to “a hot new story” didn’t really matter that much. “What really matters,” he said, “is that there’s about 3 percent of that audience who really cares whether that newspaper lives or dies. We’re just at the beginning of that.”
O’Brien and Zuckerman disagreed over the need for mass media. O’Brien argued that the audience for an entertainment program can come up with ways of paying for it that don’t depend on attracting a larger audience. “We’re talking about different ways to finance passion,” he said.
To which Zuckerman retorted: “We’re not just talking about ‘Downton Abbey.’ We’re talking about news.” The challenge, Zuckerman said, is to find ways not just of funding journalism but of building enough of an audience so that investigative reporting at the local level can have enough clout to influence events.
Zuckerman also raised the issue of how news organizations do and don’t foster civic engagement, offering the example of the sudden closing of North Adams Regional Hospital in western Massachusetts. The closing put about 500 people out of work and left residents about 45 minutes away from the nearest emergency room.
Zuckerman praised the Berkshire Eagle’s coverage, but said the paper offered little sense of what the public could do. That, he said, would require “advocacy journalism” of the sort that makes traditional journalists uncomfortable.
That led to an observation by Shirky that newspaper editors are actually well-versed in telling their readers how to get involved when it comes to something like a theater review. Not only do readers learn whether the critic liked the play or not, but they are also told when and where it is being performed, how much tickets cost and how to buy them. But when covering a political story, Shirky continued, readers never learn how to make a donation or get involved.
Zuckerman said the problem is that news organizations don’t like to promote what-you-can-do measures when it comes to partisan politics.
By contrast, he added, news organizations have no issues with telling their audience how they can help after a natural disaster, explaining: “There is not a huge pro-hurricane constituency.”
Based on recent statements they’ve made, I’m wondering if Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron may have a more sophisticated view of what the Internet has done to newspapers than the Post’s incoming owner, Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos.
Bezos, who visited the Post’s newsroom earlier this month, seemed to endorse a classic paywall model, arguing that he was convinced people were willing to pay for the “daily ritual bundle” that The Washington Post represents. That brought a retort from Post blogger Timothy B. Lee, who wrote:
That daily ritual got blown up for good reason. Trying to recreate the “bundle” experience in Web or tablet form means working against the grain of how readers, especially younger readers, consume the news today. In the long run, it’s a recipe for an aging readership and slow growth.
Indeed, many news observers have been arguing for years that one of the Internet’s most profound effects on journalism is “disaggregation” — that in a post-industrial environment, with news no longer tied to the enormous costs of printing and distribution, it makes no sense for international and local news, obituaries and comics, grocery store coupons and the crossword puzzle all to appear in the same place.
Baron, the editor of The Boston Globe until late last year, comes up with another metaphor, not original to him but nevertheless key to understanding what has happened — the decline of geographic communities and the rise of communities built around shared interests. In an interview with fellows from the Joan Shorenstein Center for the Press, Politics and Public Policy, at Harvard’s Kennedy School, Baron talks about the difficulty of putting together (to cite one example) a newspaper sports section for Red Sox fans when there are speciality media devoted to nothing but sports.
This development, Baron says, was furthered by the rise of Twitter and other social media, which bring readers in to a news site to read just one article. How can news organizations make money from that? Baron puts it this way:
My sense is that people are going to their passions. Their passions aren’t always based on geography. Newspapers have traditionally been based on geography. We have a community here. We have a community in Miami, a community in Boston, a community in Los Angeles. The assumption was that people were members of that community actually would want to have a product that covered the full range of things in that community. What I observed over time was that, in fact, the sense of community wasn’t nearly as strong as the other passions that people had. In fact, community wasn’t necessarily such a strong passion. It was much more important to them that they were an aficionado of a particular type of music, or that they were a member of a particular religious denomination or that they were obsessed with a particular sports team, than the fact that they lived in Los Angeles.
Unlike some journalists, Baron thinks it was perfectly logical to give away news for free in the early years of the Internet, both because of the need to get big online in a hurry and because there was every reason to believe that advertising would pay the bills. It was only after ad revenues failed to materialize (and even began to drop because of the ubiquity of online ads), he says, that news organizations reluctantly moved to paywalls.
The transcript of Baron’s full interview is here, and it is well worth reading — or watching, as there is a video version of the interview as well.
Baron was one of 61 people interviewed for “Riptide,” a project carried out by Shorenstein fellows John Huey, Martin Nisenholtz and Paul Sagan. (The site was designed by the Nieman Journalism Lab, which also hosts it — but which played no role in the editorial content, as Lab director Joshua Benton explains.) “Riptide” is a comprehensive, valuable resource — but it has proved to be controversial since its release because it’s not comprehensive enough.
As Kira Goldenberg writes for the Columbia Journalism Review, all but five of the 61 interview subjects are men, and only two of the subjects are non-white. Goldenberg says that efforts have begun to produce a counter-report that will be more diverse. In offering a few nominations of her own, Northeastern University graduate student Meg Heckman adds:
It’s unfortunate that, in telling the latest chapter of journalism history in a fresh, narrative format, the authors of Riptide make an old mistake by continuing to devalue the contributions of women.
My own view is that “Riptide” represents a good start — but that there’s no reason for Huey, Nisenholtz and Sagan not to keep going so that it eventually grows into a truly comprehensive, diverse history of how the Internet disrupted journalism.
(Disclosures, of which there are several: I am an unpaid contributing writer for the Nieman Journalism Lab. I have long had a friendly relationship with folks at the Nieman Foundation and at the Shorenstein Center. Heckman is a student of mine, and I am a student of hers.)
Earlier this month, before the New York Times Co. announced it was putting The Boston Globe up for sale for the second time in four years, Poynter Institute business analyst Rick Edmonds sat down with Josh Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab for the lab’s weekly podcast, “Press Publish.”
Toward the end of their nearly hour-long conversation, Benton asked Edmonds which newspapers he thought had the brightest prospects over the next few years. Edmonds responded that he could think of four major metros that were getting it right: the Globe, the Seattle Times, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Tampa Bay Times — formerly and still better known as the St. Petersburg Times.
(It should be noted that Poynter owns the Tampa Bay Times, although I think anyone would point to that paper as one model for how to do it right.)
What Edmonds meant: the four papers had done a better job than most of maintaining the quality and depth of their journalism while at the same time achieving some measure of success financially. Earlier in the podcast, Edmonds voiced his enthusiasm for flexible online paywalls such as the Globe’s (now becoming less flexible).
As another prominent newspaper analyst, Ken Doctor, observes, a lot of newspapers are likely to be sold in the months ahead. The business has recovered slightly since the depths of 2009 and prices are low. Of course, prices are low because the long-term prospects for newspapers remain grim. Still, there are no doubt a number of prospective owners who have enough money and ego to think that they will be the great exception.
Seen in that light, the Globe is a prime property that can be acquired for an attractive price. “The Globe isn’t going anywhere,” Globe columnist Kevin Cullen writes. “It’s changing owners.”