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Connecting the dots on UK press skulduggery

by henrycopeland
Monday, July 18th, 2011

The circle of complicity in the UK phone hacking conspiracy is spiraling outward, with the arrest yesterday of Murdoch protégée Rebekah Brooks and the resignation of Scotland Yard chief Paul Stephenson.

As the New York Times noted yesterday, Scotland Yard has been willfully negligent, if not actively collusive, in its investigation of the hacking into the phones of UK celebrities and crime victims by journalists at News of the World.

But isn’t it obvious by now that the conspiracy to cover up the phone hacking probably goes far wider, likely implicating many members of the UK press itself?

The most aggressive reporting on the UK phone hacking has been consistently led by US journalists, for example in the September 2010 investigative blast in the New York Times magazine?

As the Times reported then, “interviews with more than a dozen former reporters and editors at News of the World … described a frantic, sometimes degrading atmosphere in which some reporters openly pursued hacking or other improper tactics to satisfy demanding editors.”

So let’s assume that, at best, hacking was only perpetrated by NOTW journalists. That premise would still leave hundreds of members of the UK press complicit in the hacking, since they would either have once worked at NOTW and known about the hacking or had friends who worked there.

In an interview (below) before Brooks resigned, a TV journalist asks a spokesman for Newscorp, NOTW’s owner, whether Rebekah Brooks could honestly lead an investigation into actions that had occurred under her own watch as editor of NOTW. The spokesman shivers and jibes, trying to avoid saying the obvious: you can’t investigate yourself. The same logic must be true for many members (and former members) of the UK press itself.

For example…

Tina Brown, editor in chief at Newsweek and The Daily Beast, quipped after the NYT’s expose last September that “I’m shocked, shocked to learn … that the voice mail messages of celebrities have been bugged for tidbits of gossip—can you believe it?—by the Murdoch press in London.” At the time, I’d assumed that Brown’s use of Captain Renault’siconic “I’m shocked” line from Casablanca was just an playful way of saying she’d suspected this might be the case.

In fact, it now seems likely that Brown, a former editor of UK magazine Tatler, was giving a double wink. That, like Renault, her knowledge wasn’t theoretical or speculative. As a former member of the UK press herself, Brown could have intimate knowledge of the hacking. But being friends with some of the miscreants, or friends of friends, Brown would be loath to throw stones herself.

Again, the best case scenario is that no former NOTW staffers took their phone hacking skills to other UK publications when they changed jobs. At worse, obviously, journalists at multiple publications were engaged in the hacking, and the UK presses’ persistent investigative lethargy is not just an act of professional courtesy to fellow club members, but an active desire to not wield a tar brush that might be turned on itself.

For now, the UK press is focused on chasing the scandal ever higher inside Newscorp. It’s obviously exciting to ask whether billionaire James Murdoch will be arrested.

Keeping the spotlight headed upwards helps the UK press from asking hard questions of itself.

So it is up to the US press (or UK bloggers?) to ask: was anyone at The Financial Times involved in hacking? The Independent? The Daily Mail? The Guardian? The Telegraph?

Connecting the dots shouldn’t be too hard. As social network expert Valdis Krebs notes, network analysis might be one good tool for journalists to use in understanding the story. In theory, by tracking which NOTW reporters moved on to which other UK publications, you might find patterns that would reveal the infectious spread of hacking practices. Tools like Influence Networks might help.

New York Times Paywall: Negative Hype That’s Fit to Type

by Nick Faber
Monday, March 21st, 2011

photo: flickr user Telstar Logistics

Fans of The Gray Lady have one more week to browse her content online without limit or cost. Next Monday, March 28, the New York Times will launch its “paywall” internationally, which will restrict the amount of online content reader can view for free. So far, the move, which Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. calls an “investment in The Times,” is receiving rather skeptical press.

The Daily Beast’s Howard Kurtz calls the paywall a gamble, but perhaps not a very big one:

Given the Times’s affluent readership, that gamble may pay off in a way that could be beyond the reach of other metropolitan dailies—unless we all become accustomed to the notion that someone has to pay for good journalism.

boingboing’s Cory Doctorow makes a bold wager of his own that people won’t be able to figure out how the paywall works:

Quick: How many links did you follow to the NYT last month? I’ll bet you a testicle* that you can’t remember. And even if you could remember, could you tell me what proportion of them originated as a social media or search-engine link?

PC World’s Harry McCracken wonders if anyone besides the Times’ most voracious readers will pony up:

You can read 20 articles a month at no charge. People who come to the site via Google will be able to read five stories a day for free; visitors from Facebook and Twitter won’t have to pay.

Wired Epicenter’s John C Abell notes that even thought the broad readership of the Times can find its news elsewhere, the new subscription model is a stake in the ground for apps.

In the “web versus app” debate, the Times seems to be taking sides. Because every mobile device has a browser, the Times could have created a tier that did not include an app component, but it chose not to. You get the web version of the paper tossed in any subscription, print or digital.

TechDirt’s Mike Masnick calls it “The World’s Stupidest Paywall:”

It feels like something that was completely developed by committee group-think. It’s one of those things where they’re sitting around and someone timidly suggests a dumb idea (“I know, for $5 more we take away their smartphone access”) and, because they have to come up with something, someone else says “sure” and then they think there’s validation of a good idea.

The Atlantic’s Walter Frick calls the paywall unsustainable and NPR’s David Folkenflik recalls TimesSelect, the Times‘ last attempt at putting its content behind a paywall.

Let me remind you that all this negative hype is over a subscription model that hasn’t even launched yet. While bloggers and other news junkies have been quick to dump on New York Times, a couple of outside parties are already showing approval. Citi has officially upgraded NYT stock to “buy” and Rupert Murdoch’s new iPad pub, the Daily, ends its trial subscriptions today, implementing its own paywall one week ahead of the Times.

How many articles to your read from NYT a day? Once you’ve read your allotment, and then bypassed the wall 5 times per search engine, will you pay for more? Or will you just click over to another source?

Washington Post SEO headline

by henrycopeland
Sunday, February 27th, 2011

Wapo SEO

And here’s the URL. Odd the Washington Post go to the trouble or writing SEO headlines, but not optimizing URLs.

The Daily: Murdoch’s old wine in Jobs’ new bottle

by henrycopeland
Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

The video intro to Rupert Murdoch’s new iPad publication The Daily is crazily underwhelming.

Some folks seem excited by the price — 99 cents per week or $39.99 per year — arguing that this is far cheaper than a newspaper.

It’s also far more expensive than all the other news sources on the web. Not only does it not do anything particularly new (and therefore justifying some extra effort/expense) but it doesn’t do a lot of things that make the web so amazing — comments, socializing, and hyperlinks to a nearly infinite tree of additional information.

Blogs return to basics

by henrycopeland
Monday, January 17th, 2011

Robert Darnton, dean of French historians, has written a lot about the role of coffee houses in 18th century France and Britain in inspiring free thinking and a self-conscious social class of citizens. So its fun to make an explicit connection between those proto-newspapers and today’s blogs.

To appreciate the importance of a pre-modern blog, consult a database such as Eighteenth Century Collections Online and download a newspaper from eighteenth-century London. It will have no headlines, no bylines, no clear distinction between news and ads, and no spatial articulation in the dense columns of type, aside from one crucial ingredient: the paragraph. Paragraphs were self-sufficient units of news. They had no connection with one another, because writers and readers had no concept of a news “story” as a narrative that would run for more than a few dozen words. News came in bite-sized bits, often “advices” of a sober nature—the arrival of a ship, the birth of an heir to a noble title—until the 1770s, when they became juicy. Pre-modern scandal sheets appeared, exploiting the recent discovery about the magnetic pull of news toward names.

I wonder what Darnton makes of Twitter?

If you’re interested in this stuff, you should definitely read Darnton’s 1999 essay “An Early Information Society.

Friendster circa 2003

by henrycopeland
Monday, January 3rd, 2011

I just got a note saying today is Hylton Joliffe’s birthday from… Friendster.

Weird. I tried an old e-mail address and refreshed my Friendster password and found a time-capsule of my dabbling there early in 2003.

Since then I’ve gotten new glasses and lost some hair.

Friendster face 2002

Happy to say I’m still in touch with people from those days.

Friendster friends

Here’s a graph of Friendster’s growth. And here’s a graph of Friendster’s demise.

Local newspapers make for better locales?

by henrycopeland
Friday, October 2nd, 2009

In a brilliant piece of arm-chair reportage, Clay Shirky dissects (literally and literarily) his local paper and discovers that out of an editorial staff of 59, only 6 folks actually report on local news.

Shirky concludes:

There are dozen or so reporters and editors in Columbia, Missouri, whose daily and public work is critical to the orderly functioning of that town, and those people are trapped inside a burning business model.

Shirky’s entire analysis, like just about everything else he does, is brilliant.

But logically flawed? We’d like to believe that local papers make a difference. But has anyone proven that they do? Do towns with newspapers function better? As Shirky himself notes, “Ann Arbor, another midwestern college town and just a bit larger than Columbia, doesn’t have a newspaper at all.” Is corruption or mayhem rampant in Ann Arbor?

Huffpo’s flight from seriousness continues

by henrycopeland
Monday, July 20th, 2009

Check out what Huffpo’s readers are excited about today.

Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with any of this stuff… it’s just that this bonfire of skin is a long way from the highbrow content that Arianna claims to be championing:

Shirky on publishing, publics and subsidies

by henrycopeland
Tuesday, July 14th, 2009

Many nuggets in Clay Shirky’s essay about the death of publishing:

The hard truth about the future of journalism is that nobody knows for sure what will happen; the current system is so brittle, and the alternatives are so speculative, that there’s no hope for a simple and orderly transition from State A to State B. Chaos is our lot; the best we can do is identify the various forces at work shaping various possible futures. Two of the most important are the changing natures of the public, and of subsidy.

As Paul Starr, the great sociologist of media, has often noted, journalism isn’t just about uncovering facts and framing stories; it’s also about assembling a public to read and react to those stories. A public is not merely an audience. For a TV show with an audience of a million, no one cares whether it’s the same million every week — head count rules. A public, by contrast, is a group of people who not only know things, but know other members of the public know those things as well. Both persistence and synchrony matter, because journalism is about more than dissemination of news; it’s about the creation of shared awareness.

Consider, as an illustration, the difference between assembling a public for a newspaper, and for stories on that paper’s website. The publisher assembled the public for the paper, maintaining subscribers lists and distribution chains, and got to decide what front-page news was for those readers. This was a bottleneck of value that used to be enforced by the limitations of print and distribution, and by lack of competition for sources of written news.

On the website, however, the stories are the same, but assembling various publics is different. The home page doesn’t serve the function the front page used to; for many papers, less than half the traffic even sees the home page. Instead, people who care about gay marriage, say, will pass around the relevant articles in email, IM, or twitter, whether those stories are on page A1 or B17, whether the paper is published in Anchorage or Miami. Online, it is the relevant networked publics, not the editorial board, who determine much of what gets read.

The logic of the Internet, a medium that is natively good at helping groups communicate at vanishingly low cost, is that the act of forming a public has become something the public is increasingly doing for itself, rather than needing to wait for a publication (note the root) to do it for them. More publics will form, they will be smaller, shorter-lived, and less geographically contiguous, and they will overlap more than the previous era’s larger, more rooted, more stable publics.

Which brings us to the changes in subsidy. Journalism written for that fraction of the population that follows the news closely has always been subsidized. For the last century, newspaper journalism had direct subsidy from advertisement and cross-subsidy from sports fans and coupon clippers who never really cared about the city council or the coup in Madagascar. The packages containing news have been so bundled and cross-funded that we’ve never really known precisely the size of the audience for actual civic-minded reporting, or how much direct fees from that audience would amount to. We do know, however, that the rough answers are “Small” and “Not much,” answers that suggest radical transformation, now that the media environment in which those subsidies flourished is gone.

Agreed. I agree less with his remaining points.

There are many shifts coming, but three big ones are an increase in direct participation; an increase in the leverage of the professionals working alongside the amateurs; and a second great age of patronage.

Participation first. Various self-assembled publics can increasingly engage in acts of journalism on their own. The functions of gathering readers, and providing analysis and opinion, are already moving from professional organizations directly into these overlapping publics, and increasingly, the basic act of reporting — of observing and then relaying — is as well. All of this represents a massive supply-side subsidy to the volume and variety of raw reporting.

Though we do lots of writing about ourselves, there’s still very little “reporting” going on. Reporters, even when not brilliant themselves, do a great job of asking questions others aren’t asking.

Similarly, William Bastone and his staff at the Smoking Gun have moved from shoe leather to database queries in uncovering news; here the leverage is not professionals and amateurs but professionals and machines. The ability to get out of the “phone call” model of reporting — one paid journalist talking to one source at a time — and to instead bring in everything the internet has taught us about automation, syndication, parallel effort, and decentralization will increasingly characterize successful new models of journalism.

Agreed. This one I’m still chewing on:

Finally, there’s patronage, either of the “one rich person” model, as with Richard Mellon Scaife’s subsidy of conservative journals, or the NPR Fund Drive model, where the small core of highly involved users makes above-market-price donations to provision a universally accessible good run for revenue but not for profit. These models have always existed alongside the for-profit press, but they were always viewed as oddities, their ability to continue to function being regarded more as a kind of perverse outcome than evidence of continued viability.

In an age where the cost of making things public has fallen precipitously, patronage models suddenly look not just viable but eminently reproducible. The leverage to be gotten from motivations other than profit is now growing rather than shrinking; a poorly capitalized journalistic weblog is now likelier to reach a million readers than a well-funded but traditional journalistic outfit is.

Because journalism has always been subsidized, and because the public can increasingly get involved in activities too complex for loose groups to take on before the current era, journalism is seeping into the population at large, with the models of subsidy being altered to fit that shift. The transition here is like the spread of the ability to drive, from paid chauffeurs to the whole population. We still pay people to drive, from buses to race cars, and there are more paid drivers today than there were in the days of the chauffeur. Paid drivers are, however, no longer the majority of all drivers.

I guess the Sunlight Foundation qualifies as the latter. SEIU blog qualifies. What else?

When journalism becomes a popularity contest

by henrycopeland
Monday, July 13th, 2009

WaPo’s web columnist Dan Froomkin gets the ax because his online articles don’t get enough traffic.

Think about all the coverage that will disappear in coming years as this philosophy becomes standard.

Think about all the far away places about which the average person knows little and care less — Sudan, Kosovo, Bosnia, Pakistan, Ghana, Taiwan, South Korea, Peru — that won’t measure up to the web’s popularity standards and slowly disappear as take-it-or-leave-it bundle of The Newspaper is replaced by the “every word for itself” metrics of web publishing.

The HuffingtonPost has stepped up to hire Froomkin — no doubt garnering a nice little spike in page impressions and PR — but is itself on vanguard of the desperate commercial scramble to add frothy content to drive page impressions and revenues. (Right this second the most popular stories on Huffpo are #1 “Sarah Palin’s Most memorable style moments” #2 “Women’s iconic swimsuit movie moments” #3 “ADN confirms, Sarah Palin’s story doesn’t add up” and #4 “Emma Watson’s Wardrobe Malfunction.”)

I’m not arguing that Froomkin was a great journalist or deserved to stay at the Post. I’m just marking this small moment in the shifting climate of publishing, a moment in which web metrics nudge aside the editor’s judgement.

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