By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

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Apple News Plus: Promising, or just another example of promises, promises?

Photo (cc) 2019 by Lisa Main Johnson

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when news organizations were all-in on social media as a way to distribute their journalism. But that was then. In recent years, Facebook has fiddled with its algorithm repeatedly in order to play down the amount of news that will show up in users’ feeds. Actual partnerships with the likes of The Washington Post are a thing of the past. Google is unreliable. And let’s not get started with what has happened to Twitter/X, the other main source of click-throughs to news stories.

To compensate, media outlets doubled down on newsletters, which don’t drive as much traffic as social but which do have the advantage of being under their control. Of course, all this is playing out at a time when many if not most newspapers and magazines have put their journalism behind paywalls, which further degrades the value of relying on social. A click from Twitter doesn’t mean much if the clicker can’t read the story they’re interested in or — more to the point — see the ads.

Now we’re experiencing a bit of excitement over a newish platform: Apple News Plus. The free version comes preinstalled on everyone’s iPhones and Macs. For $12.99 a month, you get a whole lot more (though not The New York Times, which is skeptical).

Apple News Plus got a big boost earlier this week when Semafor media reporter Max Tani wrote a mostly favorable story. He begins with quite an anecdote about The Daily Beast, which had been on the ropes as its reliance on Facebook and Google was resulting in a dwindling number of clicks. Thanks to its partnership with Apple News Plus, though, the Beast is on track to earn between $3 million and $4 million this year, more than its own in-house subscription program.

Better yet, you don’t have to click through. Stories load instantly and in many cases are more attractive than the publications’ own websites. Tani writes:

The Beast is hardly alone in its increased reliance on the iOS [and Mac] news aggregator. The free version of Apple News has been a source of audience attention for news publishers since it launched in 2015. But while many publishers have come to the conclusion that traffic has less business value than they once thought, they’re still desperate for revenue. Executives at companies including Condé Nast, Penske Media, Vox, Hearst, and Time all told Semafor that Apple News+ has come to represent a substantial stream of direct revenue.

Which raises a question: Haven’t we been down this road before? Indeed, Facebook and Google both experimented with partnering with news organizations and republishing their content on its own platforms, but those arrangements ultimately came to a bad end. Needless to say, Apple News Plus also privileges national publications over local media outlets. Tani mentions partnerships with large regional newspapers such as The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but it’s hard to imagine that they’ll get down to the level of hyperlocals that cover small communities and neighborhoods.

Chris Krewson, the executive director of LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers put it this way on Twitter: “Every time I watch this movie the ending is the same.”

Let me point out another problem. A few large newspapers, both national (principally the Times and The Wall Street Journal) and regional (including The Boston Globe and the Star Tribune of Minneapolis), have achieved profitability on the strength of digital subscriptions. Key to that is that they get all the revenue. The Globe’s non-discounted digital subscription rate of $30 a month is more than double what you’d pay Apple, and that money is being split among all of the media partners that are taking part, as well as with Apple itself.

Journalism is expensive, and news organizations with large reporting staffs need as much subscription revenue as they can get. What Apple is offering, essentially, is iTunes for news, an idea that the late David Carr was promoting 15 years ago. There are good reasons it’s never caught on — until now, maybe.

Long-term, no tech company is going to be a reliable partner for news organizations. Apple is attractive in ways that Facebook and Twitter never were: it’s not a social network, and charging subscriptions for users provides a more solid underpinning than anything the platforms offered. And of course journalism should take advantage of what Apple is offering. At this late date, I think every news executive knows the rug could be pulled out from under them at any moment. But they ought to take the money while it’s there.

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Do not Post

After Elon Musk starting taking a sledgehammer to Twitter in late 2022, I gravitated to two alternatives — Mastodon and Post. Well, Mastodon is still going strong, though it’s very much a niche service. (I guess all social media in 2024 is niche except TikTok, and I’m not on it.) Post, though, seemed to have no constituency right from the start, and I quickly gave up on it. Now it’s gone. These days I’m most active on Threads, and you can find me here.

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Bluesky makes its long-awaited public debut just as Threads skepticism sets in

Photo (cc) 2021 by joey zanotti

Is Bluesky about to have its moment?

Since the fall of 2022, when Elon Musk acquired Twitter and proceeded to take a wrecking ball to it, those of us who are heavy users of short-form, text-based social media have been looking for a new platform. I bet heavily on Mastodon, but though I find it to be a pleasant environment most of the time, with a lot of activity and high engagement, it has not been adopted by more than a handful of news organizations, journalism think tanks, the Massachusetts political community and ordinary people. Those folks have, for the most part, remain firmly planted on Twitter/X.

Threads is a different matter. Since it debuted last summer, the platform has largely fulfilled its promise of becoming a better version of Twitter, a place to have conversations about news, journalism and other topics with less sociopathy than you encounter in Musk’s hellhole. Threads reportedly has about 130 million active monthly users, compared to 500 million on Twitter, which is pretty impressive for a service that’s less than a year old and is still rolling out features.

Unfortunately, it appears that Threads will not fulfill the hopes of its most news-obsessed users. On Friday, Mark Zuckberg’s Meta, which owns Threads, repeated previous statements that it has no intention of becoming a platform that is heavily focused on politics. Posts that the almighty algorithm deems political will not show up in the “For You” listing, which is what you see when you first log on and which is determined by software that thinks it knows what you’re interested in. Any accounts you’re already following will continue to show up, but discovering new accounts will become more difficult. The change also applies to Instagram.

According to Adam Mosseri, who runs Threads and Instagram, “we’re not talking about all of news, but rather more focused on political news or social commentary.” But as Taylor Lorenz and Naomi Nix report for The Washington Post (free link), who’s to say what’s political? They quote Ashton Pittman, news editor of the Mississippi Free Press, who tells them:

If I post about LGBTQ rights, or about being a gay man, is that political? If I post about Taylor Swift, is that political because bad actors are making everything political? Everything is political if we’re honest with ourselves — it’s just about who’s defining what’s political and who gets to define that and what does it mean?

Which brings me back to Bluesky. Unlike Threads, the platform is not fully for-profit; unlike Mastodon, it’s not a nonprofit. Rather, it’s a public benefit corporation, which means that it’s a for-profit company that must serve the public interest in some way and that reinvests any profits it makes back in the operation. Of the three major Twitter alternatives, Bluesky has garnered the most skepticism. For one thing, among Bluesky’s founders is former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who thought selling out to Musk was just fine. For another, Bluesky’s rollout has been painfully slow. Until last week, you couldn’t join without an invitation, which is why it has just 3.2 million users, far behind Threads and Twitter.

After Bluesky finally opened itself up to the public, though, the influential tech writer Mike Masnick wrote an enthusiastic post at Techdirt saying he was “pretty excited” about where the platform is heading. What has Masnick most excited is Bluesky’s roll-your-own approach to content moderation. He writes:

For example, the company has added some (still early) features that give users much more control over their experience: composable moderation and algorithmic choice. Composable moderation lets users set some of their own preferences for what they want to encounter on social media, rather than leaving it entirely up to a central provider. Some people are more willing to see sexual content, for example.

But, the algorithmic choice is perhaps even more powerful. Currently, people talk a lot about “the algorithm” and now most social networks give you one single algorithm of what they think you’ll want to see. There is often a debate among people about “what’s better: a chronological feed or the algorithmically generated feed” from the company. But that’s always been thinking too small.

With Bluesky’s algorithmic choice, anyone can make or share their own algorithms and users can choose what algorithms they want to use. In my Bluesky, for example, I have a few different algorithms that I can choose to recommend interesting stuff to me. One of them, developed by an outside developer (i.e., not Bluesky), Skygaze, is a “For You” feed that … is actually good? Unlike centralized social media, Skygaze’s goal with its feed is not to improve engagement numbers for Bluesky.

For some time now, I’ve been using Threads, Mastodon and Bluesky more or less equally on the theory that we’re a long way from knowing which platform, if any, will emerge as the main alternative to Twitter. (I’m also still on Twitter, mainly for professional purposes, though I’ve locked my account and post less frequently there than on the other platforms.) Even though I have far fewer followers on Bluesky than elsewhere, I’ve found the engagement to be quite good and the content consistently interesting — more so than on Mastodon, and with less crap than on Threads.

We will never go back to the days when there was one platform where everyone gathered, for better or worse. But Bluesky seems like a worthy entry into the social media wars now that it’s (finally) open to the public.

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At long last, Bluesky opens up

I guess I’ll never get rid of those five unused invitations now. Bluesky, one of three significant Twitter alternatives, has finally dropped its invitation-only model and has opened the platform up to the public. I’ve been seeing comments that Bluesky blew it by opening up too late. I don’t know that that’s true. I’ve put most of my efforts into Threads and Mastodon, and I have issues with both. The future of all of these platforms is very much TBD.

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Despite Elon Musk’s vile behavior, a shrinking Twitter continues to dominate

Photo (cc) by François Cante

Twitter’s resilience despite Elon Musk’s toxic leadership has been something of a surprise to me. A little more than a year after he took the helm, the platform that he (and virtually no one else) calls X continues to dominate short-form text-based social media. Mastodon and Bluesky never really caught on, though they have their supporters; users of Mastodon, a decentralized nonprofit, are probably just as happy about that, since they never seemed all that eager to welcome millions of Twitter refugees. The newest alternative, Meta’s Threads, is the only one that has achieved anything close to critical mass.

These realities are driven home in a new piece by Sara Guaglione of Digiday, who reports that some major news publishers have actually cut back on the efforts they’re putting into Threads and are sticking with Twitter. But there is some good news for Threads: it continues to grow, and it’s now expanding into Europe; and publishers would probably do more with the platform if Meta would provide them with the metrics they need to understand their audience.

“There’s a pull to Threads — it’s a good platform, it’s a good [and] improving product,” Matt Karolian, the general manager of Boston.com, told Guaglione. “And there’s an element of being pushed away from X, where there’s only so much time you can spend on it a day now before you just want to pull your hair out. It does feel like a confluence of factors that have really helped it grow.”

But even though The Boston Globe (of which Boston.com is a part), CNN and The New York Times report increased engagement on Threads, others, including the BBC and The Guardian U.S., have cut back. “For now,” Guaglione wrote, “Threads remains a place for experimentation.”

In addition to failing to provide publishers with the data they want, Threads also continues to lack key features for news consumers that they’ve taken for granted on Twitter. There are no hashtags and no lists, making it difficult to follow an ongoing story or a group of journalists or news organizations. Those may be coming at some point, although Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram (Threads is actually part of Instagram as well as the larger Zuckerborg), has made it clear that he doesn’t see news as a priority.

That could change as Twitter continues to shrink and as advertisers flee in response to Musk’s recent boost of a horrendous antisemitic post. At a public event, Musk apologized for the post but then told advertisers to “go fuck yourself.” CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy recently wrote that Threads now ranks No. 2 in the Apple App Store’s list of free apps and that Twitter had fallen to No. 56.

For years, Twitter was the chief watering hole for media people and politicians, and those days are not coming back — the emerging social media landscape is likely to be much more diffuse, and it would be a good thing if we all spent less time with it anyway. But even if Twitter keeps losing audience, advertisers and relevance, those early predictions that it would quickly go the way of MySpace proved premature.

Instant update: I see that “topic tags,” which appear to be hashtags of a sort, have just popped up on Threads. It doesn’t appear that you can roll your own, but this bears further investigation.

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Three for Friday

As social-media sharing continues to deteriorate, I am posting more links here for the benefit of Media Nation regulars. Here are three must-reads for your Friday morning:

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Threads may be a better place (for now) than X/Twitter, but let’s not get too excited

These days I do most of my microblogging (now there’s a blast from the past) at Threads, the Meta-owned Twitter alternative that is moving ahead of Bluesky and Mastodon, if not ahead of Twitter itself. Threads is filled with self-congratulatory posts about how nice everyone is along with occasional criticism of people for not walking away completely from Elon Musk, who has transformed X/Twitter from the hellsite it already was into something even worse.

Well, lest we forget, here’s the top to Brian Fung’s CNN story on the latest in a lawsuit brought against Meta by Massachusetts Attorney General Andrea Campbell:

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg has personally and repeatedly thwarted initiatives meant to improve the well-being of teens on Facebook and Instagram, at times directly overruling some of his most senior lieutenants, according to internal communications made public as part of an ongoing lawsuit against the company.

The newly unsealed communications in the lawsuit — filed originally by Massachusetts last month in a state court — allegedly show how Zuckerberg ignored or shut down top executives, including Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri and President of Global Affairs Nick Clegg, who had asked Zuckerberg to do more to protect the more than 30 million teens who use Instagram in the United States.

Mosseri, in case you don’t know, is the guy who’s in charge of Threads. As for the great Threads versus Twitter debate, well, pick your favorite evil billionaire. At least Zuckerberg and Mosseri seem to want Threads to be a well-run platform that makes money rather than a plaything for a right-wing sociopath — which is what Twitter has devolved into.

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One year later, calculating the damage Elon Musk has done to Twitter

Elon Musk. Photo (cc) 2017 by Steve Jurvetson

This past Friday marked one year since Elon Musk purchased X/Twitter and took a wrecking ball to it. Twitter was far from perfect — we all called it “the hellsite” long before he arrived. But he’s done everything he could to drive it into the ground, empowering trolls, restoring extreme-right and neo-Nazi accounts, and enabling disinformation on a widespread scale.

Musk took specific actions to degrade the experience as well. He ended a modest paid-subscription service that allowed you to edit your tweets. He got rid of the blue checks for verified accounts and replaced them with blue checks for anyone who was willing to pay, thus greatly amplifying hate and falsehoods. He blocked access for anyone who didn’t have a Twitter account, which blew up embedded news feeds. And he proved that he himself was among the most sociopathic users of the service he’d purchased, engaging in such behavior as amplifying an online wilding campaign against a young journalist and putting her life in danger.

The results for Twitter as a business have been devastating. The Washington Post reports (free link):

The number of people actively tweeting has dropped by more than 30 percent, according to previously unreported data obtained by The Washington Post, and the company — which the entrepreneur behind Tesla and SpaceX has renamed X — is hemorrhaging advertisers and revenue, interviews show.

The Post also reports that Musk has succeeded in moving Twitter far to the right. My own experience is that a number of conservatives who I’d like to follow on one of the new platforms that have sprung up or grown in response to Musk’s actions have stayed put, almost as a sign of tribal loyalty. Not everyone — certainly a lot of the Never Trump conservatives have moved elsewhere. But it’s enough that the old sense you had on Twitter that everyone was there has fractured, probably forever.

After Musk bought Twitter, I went all-in at Mastodon, which had already been around for several years. But though I was able to build a decent list of followers and have found engagement to be quite good, most news organizations and prominent people are missing. Bluesky, co-founded by former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, seems like the closest thing to a direct Twitter replacement, but it’s falling behind because of its incredibly aggravating invitation-only scheme.

Which leaves us with Threads, part of the Zuckerborg. It’s definitely the fastest-growing of the alternatives, and it’s where I spend most of my social-media time these days. It’s also adding features quickly in an attempt to catch up. Threads got off to a fast start when it was launched during the summer, lagged, and now seems to be taking off again. Mark Zuckerberg said last week that Threads now has 100 million monthly users — no doubt well behind Twitter (Musk took the company private, so he’s free to lie about metrics), but impressive nevertheless.

Yet I find that there are three buckets of Twitter users that I need to connect with who aren’t going anywhere: friends who are not extremely online; Massachusetts politics folks; and people and organizations involved in the future of local news. For some reason, they’re still firmly planted on Twitter.

Twitter was far from perfect — very far indeed. It had become a frequently ugly place, and a lot of us were already using it differently compared to, say, 10 years ago. But Musk has made it much worse.

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Mainstream media, elected officials feed misinformation in Israel-Hamas war

The war between Israel and Hamas has given rise to a cornucopia of misinformation and disinformation on social media — especially with Elon Musk’s mean, shrunken version of X/Twitter doing little to screen out the worst stuff. But we should keep in mind that several dangerously wrong stories have been reported or amplified by mainstream news sources and political figures.

The most significant is the explosion at Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City on Tuesday, a disaster that has reportedly claimed hundreds of  lives. Palestinian officials immediately blamed the blast on an Israeli rocket attack and, in the absence of any independent verification, news outlets were quick to report that claim as though it were fact. I’ll use The New York Times as an example, but it was hardly alone. According to the Internet Archive, the Times homepage published a headline on Tuesday at 2:25 p.m. that said, “Israeli Strike Kills Hundreds in Hospital, Palestinians Say.” Over the next hour or so, a subhead appeared saying that Israel was urging “caution.” Then, finally, at 3:46 p.m., came a subhead that stated, “Israelis Say Misfired Palestinian Rocket Was Cause of Explosion.” (I’m using the time stamps from the Times’ live blog rather than the Internet Archive’s.)

The Times’ evolution played out on Threads as well. Threads posts are not time-stamped, and at the moment this says only “one day ago,” though it was clearly posted sometime in the afternoon on Tuesday: “Breaking News: An Israeli airstrike hit a Gaza hospital on Tuesday, killing at least 200 Palestinians, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry, which said the number of casualties was expected to rise.” A short time later: “Update: At least 500 people were killed by an Israeli airstrike at a Gaza hospital, the Palestinian Health Ministry said.” Then, finally: “Update: The Israeli military said its intelligence indicated that a rocket that malfunctioned after it was launched by a Palestinian armed group was responsible for the explosion that killed hundreds of people at a Gaza City hospital.”

Screen image from Threads

Now, we still don’t know exactly what happened. But the weight of the evidence suggests that Israeli officials are correct in asserting that the missile was actually fired by Islamic Jihad, an ally of Hamas, and that it accidentally damaged the hospital. BBC News reported Wednesday that the evidence is “inconclusive” but added: “Three experts we spoke to say it is not consistent with what you would expect from a typical Israeli air strike with a large munition.” The independent investigative project Bellingcat cited a tweet by Marc Garlasco, a war-crimes investigator, who said, “Whatever hit the hospital in #Gaza it wasn’t an airstrike.”

The problem is that the initial incautious reports by the Times and other mainstream media, quoting Palestinian statements as though they were fact, clearly created a public narrative that Israel had committed a horrific war crime by bombing a hospital and killing hundreds of people. Indeed, two Muslim members of Congress, Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilan Omar, tweeted out the original unverified report.

Two other examples:

• The claim that Hamas terrorists beheaded Israeli babies has become so widespread that President Biden repeated it several days ago, and even appeared to say that he had seen photographic evidence. The White House had to walk that back. But though Hamas acted brutally in slaughtering civilians and taking hostages, no evidence has emerged for that particular incendiary assertion. The fact-checking website Snopes reports: “As we looked into the claim, we found contradictory reports from journalists, Israeli army officials, and almost no independent corroborations of the alleged war crime, leading to concerns among fact-checkers that such a claim may be premature or unsubstantiated.”

• There remains no evidence beyond an initial report by The Wall Street Journal that Iran was directly involved in planning and approving Hamas’ attack on Israel. This was an especially dangerous assertion since it could have led to a wider war — and still could if the Journal’s story ends up being true. At the moment, though, it appears that the Journal’s reliance on Hamas and Hezbollah sources were spreading misinformation, perhaps deliberately. Indeed, Max Tani of Semafor reported earlier this week that the Journal’s own Washington bureau had raised “concerns about the story” before it was published.

Correction: This post originally said that the hospital had been “obliterated,” but the evidence suggests that the damage fell well short of that.

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X/Twitter may be terrible, but it’s still the go-to place for certain types of conversations

Walt Mossberg, right, has had it with Elon Musk, but he apparently has no problem with Mark Zuckerberg, left. That’s Kara Swisher in the middle. Photo (cc) 2012 by Joe Hall.

On Thursday, I posted an opinion about the newly enacted Massachusetts tax cut on X/Twitter and its three main competitors — Mastodon, Threads and Bluesky. I did it in part simply because I wanted to make a comment, but I also was experimenting. Here’s the post on Threads:

Why are our local media united in referring to the Mass. tax cuts as “tax relief”? It’s an unnecessary package, mainly skewed toward the rich, that will offset the ballot question we just passed to try to meet some real needs in schools, transportation and social services.

Twitter and Mastodon support hashtags, so on those platforms I changed Massachusetts to #MaPoli in the hopes that it would get picked up in those communities. And here’s what I found: As of this morning, I’ve gotten 11 likes and three replies on Threads; 10 likes, four reposts and one reply on Bluesky; eight likes, six reposts and one reply on Mastodon; and 213 likes, 60 reposts and 20 replies on Twitter, including a worthwhile back-and-forth with Matt Szafranski, a lawyer who’s the editor-in-chief of Western Mass Politics & Insight, on whether state officials will be able to grab revenues from the new millionaire’s tax to fund needs other than education and transportation, as the law specifies.

Now, you might say, what’s the big deal? Aren’t we past worrying about engagement on social media? Well, yes and no. Performative tweeting has gotten many people in trouble, including me. But in this case I wanted to express an opinion that would be seen by people in the Massachusetts media and political community, and I knew Twitter would be the best outlet.

Ever since Elon Musk bought Twitter a year ago and took a wrecking ball to it, there’s been a lot of what you might call Twitter-shaming — castigating anyone who continues to use Twitter on the grounds that by doing so you’re enabling Musk and his sociopathic attacks on transgender people and anyone else with the misfortune to cross his radar. For instance, he recently amplified hateful attacks on a reporter for the Las Vegas because he literally had no idea what had really happened, as Angela Fu recently reported for Poynter Online.

I went completely silent on Twitter for several months after Musk bought it and invested quite a bit of time in Mastodon, which is a lovely little community whose members include few of the political, media and local news accounts I need to follow for my professional and academic work. I find more of a political and media presence on Threads and Bluesky but very little of the #MaPoli crowd and virtually none of the people and organizations that are tracking the future of community journalism.

The Twitter-shaming, though, continues. Retired Wall Street Journal tech columnist Walt Mossberg, who only left Twitter a month ago, posted this on Threads Friday:

The reason to quit Twitter (X) isn’t that it’s apparently collapsing financially, or killing important features. It’s a moral and ethical issue. Not only are Nazis, racists, antisemites, misogynists, liars and conspiracy theorists being welcomed back, but the owner seems to be actively supporting this. I gave up a 16-year account with over 800,000 followers because I couldn’t associate myself with this haven for hate and lies. You should too.

Well, good for you, Walt. By the way, you posted that on a platform controlled by Mark Zuckerberg, who has not exactly covered himself in glory with regard to clamping down on election disinformation and enabling genocide. There are also those who criticize anyone who publishes on Substack because that platform has become a home to some sleazy right-wingers (let’s not forget that the great Heather Cox Richardson writes her newsletter on Substack) or who uses Bluesky because Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, who has his own issues, is a member of the board.

I’m actively rooting for Musk to drive Twitter into the ground and kill it off once and for all. Until he does, though, I’m going to use it — not as much as I used to, and more carefully than I did in the past. But though Musk is the worst of the worst, the reality is that most of our tech platforms are controlled by dubious characters, and there’s not much we can do about it.

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