Craig Newmark: CraigConnects for journalism

It’s hard not to be curious when the man some have vilified as mortally wounding the classifieds business in newspapers gets into the business of supporting journalism.

Craig Newmark’s most recently announced project, CraigConnects, is, as best as I can tell, a way of funneling Newmark’s attention capital towards (mostly) nonprofit organizations. In the way Craigslist leveraged a simple, open system to bring together people looking for stuff with people looking to get rid of stuff, CraigConnects will play a similar role in supporting work in areas like technology, veterans issues, open government and community building.

And something else called “journalism integrity.” Newmark explains on the site:

Okay, the deal is that trustworthy media really are the immune system of our country, as Jon Stewart says, “If we amplify everything we hear nothing. The press is our immune system of democracy. If we overreact to everything we actually get sicker and perhaps eczema.

Or, as I like to say it, trustworthy media should be “the immune system of democracy”.

Newmark’s examples under “journalism integrity” reads like a coverage list from the Lab: ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity, NewsTrust and Huffington Post among others.

I swapped a few emails with Newmark, and it’s clear he sees attention as a powerful currency. For instance, when I asked him about the issue of supporting HuffPost, which by most accounts got a nice big bag of money from AOL, he wrote “HuffPost is a high integrity publisher, and individuals need to stand up and support that.” (Of course, it should also be noted that Newmark is a regular contributor to HuffPost.) Attention is good for raising awareness of social causes or building the valuation of a startup. But in the business of journalism, getting attention to translate into dollars (and let’s face it, dollars are a primary concern these days) is not an easy science.

What does Newmark mean by journalism integrity? “It means a reasonable adherence to traditional journalistic ethics like fact checking, and truth in advertising when an interviewee is paid to present a position; more so if the interviewee has been caught lying repeatedly,” Newmark wrote.

Newmark isn’t indicting the media for a lapse in ethics — at least not completely — but more pointedly directing light on organizations that are built specifically for investigative work and transparency. It’s not enough to keep government honest, but journalists have to keep themselves and their organizations honest, putting everything on the table and letting the audience decide.

Newmark told me that means disclosing conflicts of interests not just of reporters, but also their sources. “There are many news outlets competing for our attention and only a limited amount of news any day. That motivates sensationalistic reporting, and devalues traditional values like fact checking and the firewall between reporting and advertising,” he wrote.

The continuing struggle for news organizations, aside from making money to support news gathering, is gaining a foothold or step up on competition. What CraigConnects can offer to some degree is a Craig-approved vetting of reliable news sources for readers to consider. (I asked Newmark what he reads on a regular basis. His list includes HuffPost, TechCrunch, BoingBoing, Buzzmachine, Mashable, and The New York Observer among others.) It’s an extension of the recommendations you get from friends or a fine-tuned Twitter feed, but in this case there’s an implied suggestion to give more than your readership and clicks. I asked Newmark whether he thought news organizations can operate as nonprofits. “I think so, a lot of people are willing to pay for trustworthy news, as in the case of NPR,” he wrote.

Talking with Newmark, I get the sense he hasn’t fully defined the extent of how CraigConnects can help journalism, but he senses it’s an important time to start backing the journalism you use and can trust. And as he makes plain on the project’s website, he’s still figuring out how CraigConnects will work as a platform for all the areas he’s trying to support. Either way, he’s committed to a 20-year calendar for CraigConnects.

We know that one of the ways Craigslist revolutionized classifieds was by getting the buyer and seller in direct contact, eliminating the need for the newspaper. With CraigConnects, it seems Newmark wants to put a middleman back in play for the sake of journalism.

Image courtesy of Stephanie Canciello, unali artists.

Craig Newmark: CraigConnects for journalism

It’s hard not to be curious when the man some have vilified as mortally wounding the classifieds business in newspapers gets into the business of supporting journalism.

Craig Newmark’s most recently announced project, CraigConnects, is, as best as I can tell, a way of funneling Newmark’s attention capital towards (mostly) nonprofit organizations. In the way Craigslist leveraged a simple, open system to bring together people looking for stuff with people looking to get rid of stuff, CraigConnects will play a similar role in supporting work in areas like technology, veterans issues, open government and community building.

And something else called “journalism integrity.” Newmark explains on the site:

Okay, the deal is that trustworthy media really are the immune system of our country, as Jon Stewart says, “If we amplify everything we hear nothing. The press is our immune system of democracy. If we overreact to everything we actually get sicker and perhaps eczema.

Or, as I like to say it, trustworthy media should be “the immune system of democracy”.

Newmark’s examples under “journalism integrity” reads like a coverage list from the Lab: ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity, NewsTrust and Huffington Post among others.

I swapped a few emails with Newmark, and it’s clear he sees attention as a powerful currency. For instance, when I asked him about the issue of supporting HuffPost, which by most accounts got a nice big bag of money from AOL, he wrote “HuffPost is a high integrity publisher, and individuals need to stand up and support that.” (Of course, it should also be noted that Newmark is a regular contributor to HuffPost.) Attention is good for raising awareness of social causes or building the valuation of a startup. But in the business of journalism, getting attention to translate into dollars (and let’s face it, dollars are a primary concern these days) is not an easy science.

What does Newmark mean by journalism integrity? “It means a reasonable adherence to traditional journalistic ethics like fact checking, and truth in advertising when an interviewee is paid to present a position; more so if the interviewee has been caught lying repeatedly,” Newmark wrote.

Newmark isn’t indicting the media for a lapse in ethics — at least not completely — but more pointedly directing light on organizations that are built specifically for investigative work and transparency. It’s not enough to keep government honest, but journalists have to keep themselves and their organizations honest, putting everything on the table and letting the audience decide.

Newmark told me that means disclosing conflicts of interests not just of reporters, but also their sources. “There are many news outlets competing for our attention and only a limited amount of news any day. That motivates sensationalistic reporting, and devalues traditional values like fact checking and the firewall between reporting and advertising,” he wrote.

The continuing struggle for news organizations, aside from making money to support news gathering, is gaining a foothold or step up on competition. What CraigConnects can offer to some degree is a Craig-approved vetting of reliable news sources for readers to consider. (I asked Newmark what he reads on a regular basis. His list includes HuffPost, TechCrunch, BoingBoing, Buzzmachine, Mashable, and The New York Observer among others.) It’s an extension of the recommendations you get from friends or a fine-tuned Twitter feed, but in this case there’s an implied suggestion to give more than your readership and clicks. I asked Newmark whether he thought news organizations can operate as nonprofits. “I think so, a lot of people are willing to pay for trustworthy news, as in the case of NPR,” he wrote.

Talking with Newmark, I get the sense he hasn’t fully defined the extent of how CraigConnects can help journalism, but he senses it’s an important time to start backing the journalism you use and can trust. And as he makes plain on the project’s website, he’s still figuring out how CraigConnects will work as a platform for all the areas he’s trying to support. Either way, he’s committed to a 20-year calendar for CraigConnects.

We know that one of the ways Craigslist revolutionized classifieds was by getting the buyer and seller in direct contact, eliminating the need for the newspaper. With CraigConnects, it seems Newmark wants to put a middleman back in play for the sake of journalism.

Image courtesy of Stephanie Canciello, unali artists.

Craig Newmark: CraigConnects for journalism

It’s hard not to be curious when the man some have vilified as mortally wounding the classifieds business in newspapers gets into the business of supporting journalism.

Craig Newmark’s most recently announced project, CraigConnects, is, as best as I can tell, a way of funneling Newmark’s attention capital towards (mostly) nonprofit organizations. In the way Craigslist leveraged a simple, open system to bring together people looking for stuff with people looking to get rid of stuff, CraigConnects will play a similar role in supporting work in areas like technology, veterans issues, open government and community building.

And something else called “journalism integrity.” Newmark explains on the site:

Okay, the deal is that trustworthy media really are the immune system of our country, as Jon Stewart says, “If we amplify everything we hear nothing. The press is our immune system of democracy. If we overreact to everything we actually get sicker and perhaps eczema.

Or, as I like to say it, trustworthy media should be “the immune system of democracy”.

Newmark’s examples under “journalism integrity” reads like a coverage list from the Lab: ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity, NewsTrust and Huffington Post among others.

I swapped a few emails with Newmark, and it’s clear he sees attention as a powerful currency. For instance, when I asked him about the issue of supporting HuffPost, which by most accounts got a nice big bag of money from AOL, he wrote “HuffPost is a high integrity publisher, and individuals need to stand up and support that.” (Of course, it should also be noted that Newmark is a regular contributor to HuffPost.) Attention is good for raising awareness of social causes or building the valuation of a startup. But in the business of journalism, getting attention to translate into dollars (and let’s face it, dollars are a primary concern these days) is not an easy science.

What does Newmark mean by journalism integrity? “It means a reasonable adherence to traditional journalistic ethics like fact checking, and truth in advertising when an interviewee is paid to present a position; more so if the interviewee has been caught lying repeatedly,” Newmark wrote.

Newmark isn’t indicting the media for a lapse in ethics — at least not completely — but more pointedly directing light on organizations that are built specifically for investigative work and transparency. It’s not enough to keep government honest, but journalists have to keep themselves and their organizations honest, putting everything on the table and letting the audience decide.

Newmark told me that means disclosing conflicts of interests not just of reporters, but also their sources. “There are many news outlets competing for our attention and only a limited amount of news any day. That motivates sensationalistic reporting, and devalues traditional values like fact checking and the firewall between reporting and advertising,” he wrote.

The continuing struggle for news organizations, aside from making money to support news gathering, is gaining a foothold or step up on competition. What CraigConnects can offer to some degree is a Craig-approved vetting of reliable news sources for readers to consider. (I asked Newmark what he reads on a regular basis. His list includes HuffPost, TechCrunch, BoingBoing, Buzzmachine, Mashable, and The New York Observer among others.) It’s an extension of the recommendations you get from friends or a fine-tuned Twitter feed, but in this case there’s an implied suggestion to give more than your readership and clicks. I asked Newmark whether he thought news organizations can operate as nonprofits. “I think so, a lot of people are willing to pay for trustworthy news, as in the case of NPR,” he wrote.

Talking with Newmark, I get the sense he hasn’t fully defined the extent of how CraigConnects can help journalism, but he senses it’s an important time to start backing the journalism you use and can trust. And as he makes plain on the project’s website, he’s still figuring out how CraigConnects will work as a platform for all the areas he’s trying to support. Either way, he’s committed to a 20-year calendar for CraigConnects.

We know that one of the ways Craigslist revolutionized classifieds was by getting the buyer and seller in direct contact, eliminating the need for the newspaper. With CraigConnects, it seems Newmark wants to put a middleman back in play for the sake of journalism.

Image courtesy of Stephanie Canciello, unali artists.

Popular on Twitter: Everyblock redesigns, a Mid-East timeline, 4 lines of code

  • Amazing interactive timeline of the Middle East political protests
  • Jenny 8. Lee and Matt Thompson join CPI’s Board
  • In Japan, spreading the news via paper and ink
  • Women hold less than a third of the top jobs in the news media
  • What Everyblock’s redesign tells us about the future of news
  • Four lines of code can take down the NYT paywall
  • Infographic: LinkedIn surpasses 100 million users
  • Everyblock redesigns with a new community focus
  • More on the Everyblock redesign
  • Info wars and more: OpenNet’s 2010 year in review
  • How CNN’s iReport enhanced the network’s coverage of the Japan earthquake and its aftermath

    When the ground began to vibrate in Fukushima, Japan on March 11, Ryan McDonald thought it was just a “normal earthquake.” But the fear in his voice as the vibrations escalated was palpable. In video uploaded to CNN’s iReport, McDonald screams, “Oh my God, the building’s going to fall!” as he frantically shifts the camera’s view into what looks like a garage and then out into the street.

    McDonald’s video is one of the hundreds uploaded onto CNN’s iReport focused on the deadly Japan earthquake that has killed thousands and disrupted the lives of millions. Not long after he submitted the video he was invited onto a live CNN broadcast where he used Skype and a computer headset to field an interview. “I’ve been in Japan for nine years,” he told the CNN host. “I’m an English teacher here… In those nine years I’ve never been concerned, or worried, or scared about an earthquake. But with this I was truly terrified.”

    In the week after the earthquake, CNN invited several other iReporters on air to recount their own firsthand experiences of the disaster, a strategy that allowed the network to enrich its reporting on the region as other news organizations were struggling to get their own reporters on the ground. The New York Times reported last week that CNN — which has often drawn last place ratings against its cable news competitors — shot up to the ratings lead in the earthquake’s aftermath, attracting over 2 million viewers on some nights. Given that a sizable portion of this coverage focused on footage from iReports and interviews with the citizen journalists who recorded them, at least some of CNN’s success can be attributed to its iReport community.

    Lila King, iReport’s participation director, told me in a phone interview last week that it’s not uncommon to see a flood of iReports, not only in the immediate aftermath of a major news event but in the weeks following, as well. “There’s the first wave of iReports,” she said. “An event happens and people post photos or videos immediately — the immediate damage and after-effects. And then once CNN begins covering the story, both through television and online, then there’s a second wave of iReports.”

    This second wave, she explained, comes from viewers at home who watch the iReport interviews and are inspired to produce their own. Often the videos in this second wave are more diverse; they can include both video diaries of people speaking into the camera offering their opinions and more well-edited videos exploring the indirect implications of a major news event. With Japan, the first wave of iReports originated in the disaster area and then moved on to Tokyo before migrating to the California coast. There were videos of waves crashing into the US shore and of tourists huddling on the ground in a Honolulu hotel, fearing the possibility of a tsunami.

    So how does the collaboration between the main network and the iReport team take place? King said that her team — made up of about nine people — sits right in the middle of the CNN newsroom. “They’re like 20 yards from the person who’s running the homepage, so if something happens, you’re within shouting distance,” she said. “It’s just a constant communication like in the middle of any newsroom. With something like this, what typically happens is that an event takes place and then iReport gears up to go build a page to house all the incoming iReports so we can set it up for our television colleagues, and then on the homepage of CNN.com. Then there’s a lot of shouting across the room and telephone calls and daily emails to deal with the iReports that still have to be vetted.”

    What makes iReport stand out from other citizen journalism sites, King said, is the fact that CNN makes an attempt to verify as many of its submissions as possible. An iReport producer will often speak directly to an iReporter, and it’s during these conversations that the producer may bring up the possibility of the iReporter going live on the air to tell his or her side of the story. “When you talk to someone, you get a sense of what their story is, and how they tell it,” she said. “Obviously that can be very important for television. We will just ask people, ‘Would you be willing or interested in talking to someone live on the air?’ In general — not just for this story, but for iReport overall — probably half the people we ask that question to are really excited and the other half decline it outright. It can be a very tough thing to do, doing a live interview on television. When people are willing, we ask them for their Skype handle or iChat or whatever it is that they have, and then we patch them through to the newsroom.”

    Since its launch in 2006, 753,000 people have registered iReporter accounts, and a CNN spokeswoman told me that the network sees an average of 2.1 million unique visitors to the iReport section of the site. So far, 799,959 videos and images have been uploaded.

    I asked King whether most the uploads deal with major news events like the Japan earthquake.

    “When iReport started, we all expected spikes around breaking news reports, and we’ve certainly seen that, especially in this case,” she replied. “But one of the things that surprised me the most is that there is a whole other world in iReport that’s much more focused on feature storytelling through local personal stories.”

    Some of those personal stories will be about what it’s like to live through an earthquake, while others are simply showing off a user’s new iPad. The goal of King and her colleagues is to push the most newsworthy of those stories into the spotlight, whether through the homepage of CNN.com or a feature with Wolf Blitzer on his show. Not only does CNN employ more news journalists than its fellow cable news competitors, but it also has its own personal army of citizen journalists, showcasing the voices of some who didn’t even know they had one.

    In two years, Amazon moved from journalism savior to afterthought; is today the day the trend reverses?

    In the brief moment between last week’s unveiling of The New York Times’s new smartphone- and tablet-centered subscription plans and today’s launch of Amazon’s Android Appstore, it’s worth taking a short historical detour, if only to see how differently the world looks today from the time, not long ago, when the Kindle was supposed to be a big factor in getting people to pay for journalism.

    First, an observation: the NYT’s new digital subscription plans don’t apply to Amazon’s Kindle, Barnes & Noble’s NookColor, or any other e-reader. The digital subscriptions FAQ spells it out: “At this time, we’re not able to connect your e-reader subscription to an NYTimes.com subscription. Each must be purchased separately.”

    This is partly a result of earlier negotiations between the Times and the e-bookstores. But it’s clear that the NYT’s digital strategy today is focused on the web browser for the desktop and applications for mobile. E-reader subscriptions today, for better or worse, are minor players — legacy obligations. With that in mind, it helps to understand how we got here, and why.

    May 6, 2009

    Less than two years ago, between “countless meetings” and furious debates over how to secure The New York Times’s digital future, publisher Arthur Sulzberger appeared on stage with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to announce the new Kindle DX.

    Magazines and blogs ran breathless stories wondering if the new Kindle might rescue newspapers. (We were skeptical.) But everyone seemed to agree that the DX’s extended ten-inch display was ideal for digital subscriptions to newspapers — which were then the Kindle’s best-selling content. (The Times alone was selling tens of thousands of digital subscriptions for the first-generation 7″ Kindle.)

    In 2009, Amazon owned the mobile market for screens six inches and up. No other e-readers had a comparable marketplace. Barnes & Noble had yet to launch the Nook, let alone the NookColor. Apple’s first iPad and the wave of tablets that continue to follow it were still a year away. The Times, along with the Boston Globe and Washington Post, even agreed to subsidize digital subscriptions for readers outside their print delivery areas with the purchase of a new Kindle DX. For the Times, that subsidy amounted to a free one-year subscription and a New York Times-branded Kindle cover.

    At the Kindle DX launch, Sulzberger was bullish on Amazon’s device: “We’ve known for more than a decade that one day an e-reader product would offer the same satisfying experience as the reading of a printed newspaper.” But he was guarded on the specifics of the NYT-Amazon partnership, calling it an “experiment” and “a laboratory to test new digital distribution strategies.”

    Kindle periodicals, two years later

    On its own terms, the Kindle is even more successful today than it was in 2009. The Kindle 3 is Amazon’s best-selling device in its history; more importantly, it generates millions of dollars in ebook sales for Amazon. Even the explosion of color tablets has arguably been good for Amazon’s ebook store; the company’s mobile apps extend the reach of its marketplace while its most loyal readers gobble up books on the Kindle. Amazon’s also continued to innovate in its support of journalism, with Kindle Singles providing a new platform for long form pieces that don’t fit in the current economics of either books or periodicals.

    But you rarely hear anyone talking about Kindle subscriptions as either the savior or future of newspapers or magazines any more. On Amazon’s Kindle DX page, newspaper and magazine subscriptions occupy a slim space at the bottom, together with blog subscriptions and well below books, PDFs, and built-in access to Wikipedia. There’s a short note on newspaper navigation that mostly advertises the DX’s five-way controller and clip-and-save capacity. (Textbooks, the other original raison d’être of the Kindle DX, go unmentioned altogether.) Despite its augmented capacities — I’ve written admiringly about them elsewhere — the Kindle, including the larger DX, is a machine (in both senses) for selling and reading books.

    It’s telling that Kindle Singles, Amazon’s most exciting contribution to the journalism marketplace, essentially converts a periodical article to enlarge the market for ebooks. And it’s telling that Apple’s most influential contribution to the journalism marketplace has been the conversion of periodicals into apps.

    We want the inches: Kindle vs. tablet

    In retrospect, Amazon was prescient in targeting a 9.7-inch screen for periodicals. But several features have tilted the market towards tablets and away from e-readers. Some of the most decisive may not be the first that come to mind.

    The immediate advantages of a tablet like the iPad over an e-reader like the Kindle DX are color, multimedia, touch, richer interactivity, and a wider marketplace. Kindle users trade that for readability, battery life, and a simpler content-buying experience.

    For content creators like The New York Times, however, the revenue streams for the two devices are quite different. Even though Apple now asks for 30 percent of subscription revenue sold within its own app store (and zero for subscriptions sold via NYTimes.com), Amazon’s cut was once far steeper, taking 70 percent to the publisher’s 30. The company’s since moved to a split virtually identical to Apple’s for books and periodicals $2.99 and higher — but Amazon doesn’t have a comparable mechanism for current print subscribers or anyone who subscribes outside of Amazon’s own store.

    Even more significant, however, may be the difference in advertising revenue. Currently, Kindle periodicals like the NYT are ad-free. Mobile applications can offer not only interactive, multimedia ads, but can easily offer advertisements scaled for handheld- and tablet-sized devices. What’s more, demographics for mobile devices and the Kindle differ wildly, with the Kindle skewing older (although those figures are likely closer now than they once were).

    Even six- and seven-inch tablets suffer from diminished ad revenue potential compared to ten-inch devices like the iPad, as Gannett’s Craig McKennis noted last year. Meanwhile, the Kindle DX has amazing screen estate, but keeps it all for itself.

    The future: Amazon’s Appstore and its ten-inch device

    Today, Amazon launched its Appstore for Android devices. It’s a remarkable challenge to Google’s official Android Market, as well as an admission that the market for mobile apps has grown too big for a digital retail giant like Amazon to ignore. And it’s a challenge to Apple, which has filed a lawsuit against Amazon for use of the contested “App Store” trademark, and can’t be happy to have the powerful retailer competing for user mindspace and exclusive access to developer’s apps, even on another platform.

    But the Appstore is also potentially a barometer for Amazon’s future role in the economics of the news industry. Applications, not subscriptions; 30/70, not 70/30; availability on multiple devices and platforms, both analog and digital; control of the marketplace above control of the device or the content. This is largely the emerging conventional wisdom for publishing today, which Apple embodies and Amazon has adopted. It’s also part of the universe in which The New York Times’s new subscription plans appear, and in which they will thrive, fail, or limp along.

    As Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry at Business Insider noted in January, there are several reasons why Amazon’s Android App Store “can be a huge deal”:

    People will be able to download the app store on their handsets, but what’s more likely is that Amazon will partner with device makers to ship gadgets with Amazon as the default app store.

    A few things will set apart Amazon’s app store from Google’s. The first is curation — Amazon will try to strike a happy middle between Apple’s sometimes crazy restrictions, and Android’s free-for-all. Another one is pricing: developers can set a “list price,” but Amazon reserves the right to heavily discount apps. And finally, Amazon will offer app recommendations, like it does on its web site.

    Pre-launch, tech blog AndroidNews took screenshots of a prematurely-available page that seem to confirm that Amazon will be offering apps at lower prices than Google’s marketplace. The apps predicted to appear are mostly games, although Newsweek Mobile’s app also makes an appearance (at a discount).

    Let’s assume that Amazon’s Appstore becomes a success, and that it does, in fact, become the default store for a handful of manufacturers and users who prefer it. If news applications largely do appear there, that’s significant for both publishers and Amazon, because the retailer will be continuing to play a role in the dissemination of news and revenue. If news apps largely don’t appear in the Appstore, that’s also significant — because there will be a class of devices and readers who will be harder to reach.

    The most intriguing but also the most speculative scenario for Amazon, in light of its new app store, is that Amazon itself might launch an Android Kindle, a multimedia tablet to rival the iPad, NookColor, and others, using the Appstore as a base. Nick Bilton at the NYT recently observed that Amazon is hiring Android developers, while rumors of an Amazon Android tablet are nothing new.

    An unexpected hurdle for such a tablet might again be legal. Yesterday, Microsoft filed a lawsuit against Barnes & Noble claiming its Android-based e-reader violates several of Microsoft’s patents. Last year, Microsoft and Amazon made a broad patent cross-licensing agreement for the Kindle and other technology, but it’s not known whether and under what conditions that agreement would permit an Amazon-branded multimedia tablet or prohibit it.

    However, the current-generation Kindle’s low price point and advantages as an ebook reader make it no longer an either/or between tablet and Kindle, as Dan Frommer points out in the smartly-titled “The Kindle Is An iPad Accessory, And That’s Why It’s Still Going To Be Huge.”

    Like Frommer, I think it’s unlikely that the mainstream Kindle will be radically altered. It is simply too successful for what it is. The Kindle DX, however, is something else entirely. It’s too close to the iPad in both size and price to be just a large-print Kindle with 3G access. The original initiative behind the DX, to grow a marketplace for Amazon beyond the book, remains unmet. A ten-inch multimedia tablet backed not just by Amazon’s Appstore, but by its selection of ebooks, music, movies, games, and more — fueled by Amazon’s unparalleled payment system, offering one-click access to millions of credit cards, and driven by Google’s operating software — would meet that need.

    What’s more, Amazon plus Google may be the most dangerous competitor Apple could face. The open question would be whether such a “Googlezon” tablet would need to carry the Kindle brand, or whether (like “Wintel”), they could set the market standards for an ecosystem of third-party manufacturers.

    Kevin Kelly and Michael Arrington have separately speculated that Amazon could give its six-inch wifi Kindle away for free, possibly with purchase of a subscription to Amazon Prime, making its revenue back on the sale of ebooks and real-world retail goods of all kinds. And John Lanchester, writing late last year in the London Review of Books, makes this oddly-resonant observation about a very different kind of subsidy:

    A persuasive looking analysis in the Business Insider put the cost of printing and distributing the New York Times at $644 million, and then added this: ‘a source with knowledge of the real numbers tells us we’re so low in our estimate of the Times’s printing costs that we’re not even in the ballpark.’ Taking the lower figure, that means that New York Times, if it stopped printing a physical edition of the paper, could afford to give every subscriber a free Kindle. Not the bog-standard Kindle, but the one with free global data access. And not just one Kindle, but four Kindles. And not just once, but every year. And that’s using the low estimate for the costs of printing.

    But that future leaves us where we were in 2009: with Jeff Bezos and Arthur Sulzberger sharing a stage, holding a $400 E Ink reader that offers subscriptions without paper or advertising. It’s an open question whether that vision or another will win out in the years to come.

    That was quick: Four lines of code is all it takes for The New York Times’ paywall to come tumbling down

    The New York Times paywall is costing the newspaper $40-$50 million to design and construct, Bloomberg has reported.

    And it can be defeated through four lines of Javascript.

    That fact is both the problem and the opportunity of a leaky paywall. There is no one consistent, workable price for online news content. For the vast majority of people who read a news site, the price they’re willing to pay is zero; for a few, it’s something more. The key question of the Times paywall — and of any paywall, really — is how to maximize the revenue generated from those two extremes and the various gradations in between.

    The Times’ approach is to create a relatively high price point — $15 to $35 a month, depending on the package — for those willing to pay. For those who are very casual fly-by readers — those who read fewer than 20 articles a month — the site remains free, and the Times makes money from advertising. And for those in the middle — readers who lack the brand loyalty to want to pay, but nonetheless like to see Times stories pop up in their Twitter feed — the social media “leak” in the paywall will keep letting them in for ads.

    That kind of nuance makes for a much more precise instrument than a blunt-force paywall. But it also puts the onus on you to get all that nuance right. Get it wrong and you risk angering readers — or letting would-be paying customers in for free.

    The Times paywall doesn’t launch in the United States for another week; the paper has plenty of time to plug this particular Javascript vulnerability, which goes by the name NYTClean, if it wants to. But the real question is: Is this a hole they really want closed? Or is this one of the intentional leaks in the wall?

    The parable of NYTClean

    <nerdy interlude>

    In my piece Thursday looking at the paywall — currently only live in Canada — I noted that, when you reach your 20-article limit and try to read more, the contraband article actually loads just fine in your browser — it’s just quickly covered by an overlay obscuring the article and reminding you to pay up:

    The full text of the article is still visible in the page source. And as I mentioned in responding to a commenter — and as is evident to anyone who can right-click on a page and choose “Inspect Element” — the overlay is nothing more than a little CSS and Javascript.

    Unfortunately for the Times, there are plenty of popular (or popular-among-nerds) tools that tactically remove little bits of CSS and Javascript. There’s Greasemonkey, there’s Stylish — not to mention the ease with which a browser extension in Firefox, Chrome, or Safari can be built to strip out code. As I wrote:

    …not to get too far into it (although many bearded people will in the coming days, I can assure you), but yeah, as far as I can tell it’s just a set of divs generated by some javascript. Although I couldn’t quickly find that script in any of the linked .js files, certainly someone nerdier than me will.

    So an attempt at a set of Firefox/Chrome/Safari extensions named FreeNYT can’t be too far off. Although I’m sure the Times has already thought of some creative things to counter that too.

    Well, consider the first shot in the NYT paywall battle fired. Canadian coder David Hayes has just released NYTClean, a bookmarklet that, in one click, tears down the Times’ paywall.

    “Released” is probably even a little strong — it makes it sound like there was an extended development process. All NYTClean does is call four measly lines of Javascript that hide a couple <div>s and turn page scrolling back on. It barely even qualifies as a hack. But it allows you access to any New York Times story, even when you’re past the monthly limit. (I just tested it out with a Canadian proxy server — works just like it says.)

    </nerdy interlude>

    (Obligatory note: I think the Times is right to ask regular readers to pay, and I think their paywall is basically well designed. Me, I just became a print subscriber last week, using the Frank Rich Discount. Support your local journalist!)

    Leakiness: a bug and a feature

    Now, the Times paywall is, to a certain extent, defined by its leakiness. The various holes — external links from social media and search biggest among them — are no accident; they’re the result of some (correct, I say) thinking about hitting the right balance between fly-by and dedicated readers, between those who come in the front door and others who arrive from the side.

    But the tradeoff for those holes is that they’re designed to be a pain to use if you’re a dedicated NYT reader. Click an occasional Times link when it comes up in your Twitter stream? No problem. But if you’re the kind of person who goes to nytimes.com every morning and clicks on four or five articles, you’ll quickly find it’s a big pain to go search for a headline in Google or Twitter every time you want to read another David Carr piece. (A similar workaround has existed for Wall Street Journal stories behind its paywall for years, but it’s doubtful anyone other than the most desperate reader has ever used it much.)

    This CSS-and-Javascript hole, however, isn’t difficult to use at all. One drag into your bookmark bar, then one click whenever you hit a blocked article.

    And yet this workaround is so blindingly obvious to anyone who’s ever worked with code that it’s difficult to imagine it didn’t come up in the paywall planning process. The other major news paywalls — WSJ, FT, The Economist — don’t actually send the entire forbidden article to your browser, then try cover it up with a couple lines of easily reversible code. They just hit you with a message saying, in effect, “Sorry, pay up here” whenever you stray past the free zone.

    And that leakiness is actually a defensible choice, I think, on the Times’ part. Imagine a Venn diagram with two circles. One represents all the people on the Internet who might be convinced to pay for nytimes.com. The other represents all the people on the Internet who (a) know how to install a bookmarklet or (b) have read a Cory Doctorow novel. Do you really see a big overlap between the two? If someone is absolutely certain to never pay for the NYT, then it makes sense to squeeze a little extra advertising revenue out of them on the rare occasions when a link sends them to nytimes.com.

    The problem with that model, though, is that it assumes inefficiency. It assumes that the happy-to-pay crowd (or the grudgingly-will-pay crowd) never find out about the workarounds — or at least that the workarounds remain complicated enough that they won’t want to bother. One click, though, ain’t all that complicated.

    And that nudge-nudge approach to security through obscurity also assumes that the Times will be, at some level, okay with people using workarounds. It’s a tough balance: tolerating them so long as they boost advertising revenue and continue to give people the impression nytimes.com is available to them; breaking them when they prove to be too popular among people who might otherwise pay.

    To get an idea what that balance looks like, check out statements from two top Times officials in the past few days. First, Eileen Murphy, NYT vice president of corporate communications, talking to the Canadian Press:

    She said the paper will be watching for attempts to circumvent the digital subscription system and the limits in place, like if Twitter users tweeted links to the entire paper.

    “If it was something blatant…that is likely something that we would make an effort to go after,” Murphy said.

    “If there was some real attempt to game the system in some way that was not appropriate it’s something we would certainly look at.”

    Psst…if you’re looking for someone who tweets a whole bunch of links to NYT content, I know a guy.

    Or Martin Nisenholtz, in his interview with Peter Kafka:

    …we want to make sure that we’re not being gamed, to the extent that we can be…We’re obviously going to be vigilant over the next couple of months, in looking at the ways that people are doing that…

    I don’t think we’re going to spend enormous resources to go tracking people down. But at the same time, we’re going to obviously work to see where the source of these workarounds are, and work to close them off, if they become substantive enough.

    But in looking at the research that we did, we expect [paywall jumpers] to be a very significant minority, a small, small number of people. When you look at your Twitter feed, based on the people you follow, it probably seems like it’s looming very large. But in the scheme of things, among people who don’t live in Silicon Valley or don’t cover it, the vast majority of people do not have this on their minds.

    That last bit gets at the issue: You can afford to let nerds game your system. You probably want them to game your system, because they (a) are unlikely to pay, (b) generate ad revenue, and (c) are more likely to share your content than most.

    The danger is when it becomes easy for non-nerds to do it. And that’s the risk of any leaky paywall — the risk that you might calibrate the holes incorrectly and let too many of your would-be subscribers through. Something like NYTClean — or the many tools that will soon follow it — could be the kind of thing that tips the balance in a way that hurts the Times.