Plus: A legal test of ‘Are bloggers journalists?’, Facebook’s Timeline and Subscribe, and the rest of the week’s future-of-news reading.
Do institutions have a place in news innovation?: About three weeks after Dean Starkman’s indictment of future-of-news thinkers was posted online by the Columbia Journalism Review, NYU professor Clay Shirky — one of the primary targets of the piece — delivered a response late last week in the form of a thoughtful essay on the nature of institutions and the news industry. Shirky explained the process by which institutions can lapse into rigidity and blindness to their threats, and he argued that there’s no way to preserve newspapers’ most important institutional qualities in the digital age, so the only option left is radical innovation.
Several observers — of a future-of-news orientation themselves — jumped in to echo Shirky’s point. The Journal Register Co.’s Steve Buttry praised Shirky for waiting and reflecting rather than responding immediately, and media consultant Steve Yelvington seconded Shirky’s point that all this talk about traditional journalistic models being overwhelmed by a decentralized, audience-focused digital tidal wave is descriptive, not prescriptive — not necessarily the way things should be, but simply the way they are.
Howard Owens of the Batavian took the middle ground, declaring that evolution, not revolution, is the standard vehicle for change in journalism and laying a model for sustainable local journalism that focuses on local ownership, startups, and innovation. In the end, Owens wrote, online journalism will evolve and survive. “It will find ways to make more and more money to pay for more and more journalism. The audience is there for it, local businesses will always want to connect with that audience, and entrepreneurial minded people will find ways to put the pieces together.”
The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal raised a good point in the discussion about how to preserve serious journalism: He argued that the primary obstacle won’t be so much about paying for journalists to cover important public-affairs issues, but about finding a way for that news to reach a substantial percentage of the population in a given area. That “amplification” problem may be tough to solve, but could be relatively easy to scale once that initial solution is found.
Paywalls picking up steam among smaller papers: Now that The New York Times has bravely served as a paywall guinea pig for the rest of America’s general-interest newspapers (apparently successfully, judging from the indicators we have so far), we’re starting to see more of the nation’s mid-sized papers announce online pay plans of their own. This week, Gannett, the United States’ largest newspaper chain, revealed that it would be expanding its paywalls to more of its papers sometime next year. According to the Gannett Blog, the company began experimenting with paywalls at three newspapers last year, and while we don’t know much of anything about those projects, it appears Gannett is pleased enough with them to build out on that model.
The Chicago Sun-Times also announced a paywall to begin this week: It’ll follow the increasingly popular metered model employed by the Financial Times and New York Times, allowing 20 page views per 30-day period before asking for $6.99 a month ($1.99 for print subscribers). PaidContent noted that the plan is being run by Press+ (the system created by Steve Brill’s former Journalism Online) and that Roger Ebert’s work has been exempted from the paywall.
We also got a couple of updates from existing newspaper paywalls: MinnPost reported that the Minneapolis Star Tribune has come out ahead so far in its new paywall, generating an estimated $800,000 in subscriptions while losing a five-figure total of advertising dollars. And PaidContent reported that three paywalled MediaNews Group papers (now run by John Paton of the Journal Register Co.) have killed their Monday print editions, with a corresponding drop of their online paywall on those days.
Is this blogger a journalist?: Just when you thought the “Are bloggers journalists?” discussion was completely played out, it got some new life this week when an Oregon judge ruled that a blogger being sued for $2.5 million in a defamation case wasn’t protected by the state’s media shield law because she wasn’t a journalist. As Seattle Weekly initially reported, the judge reasoned that she wasn’t a journalist because she wasn’t affiliated with any “newspaper, magazine, periodical, book, pamphlet, news service, wire service, news or feature syndicate, broadcast station or network, or cable television system.”
This type of ruling typically gets bloggers (and a lot of journalists) riled up, and rightly so. Mathew Ingram of GigaOM gave some great context regarding state-by-state shield laws, noting that several other recent rulings have defined who’s a journalist much more broadly than this judge did. These types of distinctions based on institutional affiliation are attempts to hold back a steadily rising tide, he argued.
On the other hand, Forbes’ Kashmir Hill described some of the case’s background that seemed to indicate that this particular blogger was much more intent on defamation than performing journalism, creating dozens of sites to dominate the search results for the company she was attacking, then emailing the company to offer $2,500/mo. online reputation management. Hill concluded, “Yes, bloggers are journalists. But just because you have a blog doesn’t mean that what you do is journalism.” Libertarian writer Julian Sanchez agreed, saying that while the judge’s ruling wasn’t well worded, this blogger was not a journalist.