This week’s essential reads: This week’s most important pieces are Zeynep Tufekci on Ferguson and algorithmic filtering, Felix Salmon on BuzzFeed, and Ethan Zuckerman on the failings of the ad-based business model on which the Internet runs.
Press freedom and citizen journalism in Ferguson: The ongoing tensions in Ferguson, Missouri this week that followed a police officer’s killing of an unarmed black teenager became a major story about the media as well. Two reporters were arrested without any apparent justification Wednesday night, and numerous others were tear-gassed or shot with rubber bullets by police. The two reporters, Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post and Ryan Reilly of The Huffington Post, were arrested as police cleared out a McDonald’s they were in. They were released about a half-hour after they arrived at the police station, after a phone call from a Los Angeles Times reporter alerted the police chief to their arrests. Lowery wrote a first-person account of the incident.
In addition, video showed an Al Jazeera America crew getting hit with tear gas and fleeing, followed quickly by a SWAT team dismantling their equipment. Law enforcement officials claimed the gassing was unintentional. Poynter’s Al Tompkins and Kristen Hare reported on the experiences of several local reporters on the scene, and Ellyn Angelotti provided some legal background on what police are able to do to journalists during protests.
Journalism professor Jeremy Littau noted the outrage expressed over Lowery and Reilly’s arrests, and called on journalists to stand up for citizens’ rights alongside professional reporters’, especially since they have been so vital in disseminating information about events such as the Ferguson protests. Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram argued that in situations where traditional journalists can’t or won’t witness abusive police behavior, the crowd-powered platforms like Twitter can be an important check on authority, and Jezebel’s Kara Brown said the events in Ferguson have shown how traditional and social media can complement each other to draw attention to abuses of power.
Sociology professor Zeynep Tufekci noted how discussion on Twitter about Ferguson bubbled up all week and then boiled over Wednesday night, then pointed out how quiet it was on Facebook at the same time, making the case that the algorithms that filter online information have significant (and unexamined) consequences regarding what issues get public attention. Sarah Perez of Techcrunch also explained why Ferguson was only rarely trending on Twitter and Facebook on Wednesday.
Before Wednesday night’s arrests and confrontations, Twitter and Instagram also helped give exposure to criticism of media coverage of Ferguson with the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, in which black users showed contrasting pictures of themselves and questioned which one the news media would run. The New York Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution both covered the trend, and Poynter’s team of experts weighed in as well.
A $50 million infusion for BuzzFeed: BuzzFeed took a big step forward beyond listicles this week, getting a $50 million investment from venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz that will fund a major expansion that includes new content sections, a technology incubator, and more funds for its video division BuzzFeed Motion Pictures. Chris Dixon, an Andreessen Horowitz partner who will join BuzzFeed’s board, explained why the firm is making the investment, and The New York Times’ Mike Isaac laid out what BuzzFeed will do with the money, while the Lab’s Caroline O’Donovan went into more detail about its new, more autonomous divisions: Buzz, BuzzFeed News, and BuzzFeed Life.
One aspect of the announcement that caught quite a bit of attention was Dixon’s statement that his firm views BuzzFeed as more of a tech company than a media company. Gawker and New York Observer alum Elizabeth Spiers objected to that description, and tech writer Ben Thompson sifted through the claim, concluding that while BuzzFeed is still primarily a media company, it has a disconnect from traditional media logic and an ability to cheaply scale that make it uniquely valuable.
Recode’s Peter Kafka looked at BuzzFeed’s $850 million valuation and said that if BuzzFeed is a media company, then that number is a huge overvaluation, but if it’s a tech company, it’s a steal. And for everyone saying “$850 million for a bunch of listicles and cat GIFs?!” Fusion’s Felix Salmon argued that BuzzFeed is different from other media companies in that it doesn’t sell audiences to advertisers, but instead sells its expertise in creating content that young, mobile audiences love. “The best way to think of BuzzFeed’s various products, then, is probably as a proof of concept: it’s a way to show advertisers that the company is able to reach a large, young, mobile, social audience in a multitude of different ways,” Salmon wrote.
Wired’s Marcus Wohlsen examined what it means for BuzzFeed to be, as Dixon called it, a “full-stack” startup, and investor Om Malik looked at the potential hazards for BuzzFeed, specifically its reliance on Facebook and the continued success of native advertising. The Awl’s Matt Buchanan noted that BuzzFeed is moving even deeper into Facebook and other social networks, creating content that only exists there, rather than on BuzzFeed’s site. And TechCrunch’s Josh Constine said the native ads on which BuzzFeed depends may be a fickle form.
As Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram pointed out, BuzzFeed’s investors are betting that it can scale into a massive media company without losing the agility it has so prized, and Bloomberg Businessweek’s Felix Gillette noted that its cost of production and scale of competition are about to increase just as dramatically as its cash on hand. The New York Times’ Claire Cain Miller explored BuzzFeed’s move toward higher-quality content and the larger accompanying shift online from search to social.
Elsewhere, Mike Shields of The Wall Street Journal looked at the deal’s implications for one of BuzzFeed’s biggest competitors, The Huffington Post, and Forbes’ Eric Jackson made the case that Yahoo should have bought BuzzFeed. Gawker’s J.K. Trotter noticed that BuzzFeed has removed more than 4,000 posts this year, and Slate’s Will Oremus talked to BuzzFeed’s Jonah Peretti about why: The posts didn’t meet its editorial standards for a variety of reasons, and they were created before BuzzFeed saw itself as journalistic. Poynter’s Kelly McBride looked at the ethics of unpublishing in light of the situation.
Gannett’s spinoff and future of print: Gannett became the latest media company to spin its print properties off from its broadcast properties into a separate company last week, announcing a split set to take place next year with the broadcasting unit assuming all of the company’s debt. The Lab’s Ken Doctor, who had suggested just a day before the announcement that Gannett could use such a split, gave several observations on the current wave of breakups, arguing that despite the initial cash infusion for newspaper units, they’ll ultimately result in less of a financial cushion for those properties.
Journalism professor Jeff Jarvis argued that these newspaper companies are being spun off because the business is going to continue to get worse and they’re punting on the work of transforming it. “What these spin-offs signals is that media companies do not have the stomach, patience, capital, or guts to do the hard work that is still needed to finish turning around legacy media,” he wrote. The New York Times’ David Carr painted a similarly depressing picture of the spun-off newspaper industry, but concluded that its decline is no one’s fault in particular. Jarvis countered that the decline of newspapers has indeed been journalists’ fault, and it should prompt not fatalism but renewed action and innovation.
At USA Today, Michael Wolff was more optimistic, seeing some potential for newspapers to rethink what business they’re in and reinvent themselves. And Poynter’s Rick Edmonds said there’s no reason to declare these newspaper spinoffs failures before they even occur, and USA Today’s Rem Rieder said there’s a way forward for newspapers despite print’s decline: Find enough in digital subscriptions and advertising to keep revenue flat after years of declines. The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson added that while there’s no certain model for making money off of news, there are several promising avenues, many of them in digital-native outfits or organizations with substantial private funds behind them.
Gannett also announced it’s restructuring the newsrooms at five of its papers to cut down on resources for editing and design while increasing the emphasis on analytics, as Poynter’s Sam Kirkland reported. Columbia Journalism Review’s Corey Hutchins talked to an editor of one of the papers about what the changes will mean, and Jim Romenesko rounded up details of the news that journalists have to re-apply for their jobs, as well as the new job descriptions.
Anonymity and abuse in Gawker comments: Writers at the Gawker blog Jezebel went public this week with their complaints about Gawker’s inaction on an anonymous commenter posting pornographic rape GIFs, upsetting both readers and the staff members who have to remove the comments. Jezebel editor-in-chief Jessica Coen told Poynter the staff published its post “to light a fire under management’s collective ass.”
Gawker responded by first disabling all images in comments as a temporary solution, then bringing back its old pending comment system, in which only comments from approved users are immediately visible, and the rest are put in a separate “pending” queue that’s visible only with an extra click. As both Business Insider’s Caroline Moss and the Lab’s Justin Ellis pointed out, the tension here is between Gawker founder Nick Denton’s vision of its commenting platform, Kinja, as an open, collaborative, and anonymous environment and the practicalities of allowing that kind of freedom to Gawker users.
BuzzFeed’s Myles Tanzer talked to Gawker staffers who expressed frustration at the disconnect between Denton’s vision for Kinja and the difficult, time-consuming reality of wading through comments looking for quality material. And PandoDaily’s Paul Carr pointed out the inconsistency between its handling of abusive content that affects its staffers and the content it posts about others.
Reading roundup: A few other stories and discussions that have emerged in the busy last couple of weeks:
— After making a bid for Time Warner earlier this summer, Rupert Murdoch announced his entertainment media company 21st Century Fox was walking away from negotiations with Time Warner, which had been taking a hard line and refusing to negotiate. As CNN’s Brian Stelter reported, media watchers still see the deal as in play eventually, even if it’s no longer seen as inevitable. The Guardian’s Heidi Moore wondered whether we’re seeing the decline of the great media moguls, without anyone to take their place. Meanwhile, News Corp’s profits dropped, but Murdoch continued to express his bullishness on print.
— The New York Times announced that it would now refer to torture by that name, rather than the term “harsh” or “brutal” interrogation techniques. The Freedom of the Press Foundation’s Barry Eisler criticized the paper’s reasoning for finally using the term, and journalism professor Dan Gillmor called for the Times to apologize for referring to it incorrectly for years. NYU’s Jay Rosen analyzed the factors behind the Times’ refusal to use the term for so long and its change of mind.
— In the ongoing battle between Amazon and the book publisher Hachette, more than 900 writers paid for ad in The New York Times siding with Hachette and urging readers to complain to Amazon. Amazon responded with a letter to readers of its own, urging them instead to complain to Hachette. TechCrunch’s John Biggs and the Times’ David Streitfeld criticized Amazon for its misuse of a quote from George Orwell, and writers John Scalzi (two posts), Chuck Wendig, and Matt Wallace picked apart Amazon’s argument. Writer Christopher Wright and Slashgear’s Nate Swanner gave more “a pox on both their houses” analysis.
— Two potentially useful posts: The American Press Institute’s Kevin Loker on the best strategies for using events to generate revenue for news organizations, and journalism professor Dan Kennedy with a guide to blogging like a journalist.
— Finally, two thought-provoking pieces: Mat Honan of Wired on what happened when he liked everything on Facebook for two days, and Ethan Zuckerman in The Atlantic on the ad-based model as the Internet’s original sin (along with Jeff Jarvis’ response).