Young-adult readers may have abandoned print, but they’ll take news in their pockets

Since the rise of the Internet, print media — most notably newspapers — have faced a big problem with younger readers. But according to a new study released today by the Pew Research Center and The Economist Group, when you look specifically at the devices they love — the smartphones in their pockets — young adults rival or even surpass their parents and grandparents as news consumers.

According to the report from Pew’s Project in Excellence in Journalism, 37 percent of smartphone owners between the ages of 18 and 29 get news on their devices daily, along with 40 percent of smartphone owners aged 30 to 49. Those are slightly higher than the equivalent rates for 50-64 (31 percent) and 65-plus (25 percent). Among tablet owners, news consumption numbers were broadly similar across age groups, with 50- to 64-year-olds being the peak news consumers.

There’s more good news for media companies hoping to reach younger readers: They are more likely to share the news they read on mobile devices and to engage with ads on smartphones and tablets. For ads in particular, readers 18-29 were twice as likely to “at least sometimes” touch an ad on a tablet than people 30-49.

Use of mobile devices has been on the rise for some time, as has growing use of phones and tablets as the main method of going online. Pew’s new findings again reinforce the importance of mobile to the future of journalism, but it also points to new opportunities for media companies.

The data comes from a survey of 9,513 adults, 4,638 of whom owned a mobile device, between June and August of this year.

Pew found many positive signs when it comes to reading on mobile devices: Over a third of the survey respondents said they got news daily on tablet or smartphone. A quarter of 18-29 year-olds tablet owners surveyed said they read ebooks on them daily, higher than people in any other age group. Almost one third of users under 50 said they “sometimes” read archived magazine articles on their tablet. Overall, Pew found young men were the most active news consumers on tablets and smartphones, reading in-depth articles, watching video, and checking news back with the news multiple times during the day.

One thing the report makes clear is paying for news remains a tough sell for many readers. As more newspapers incorporate digital subscription plans, readers are facing a number of options for paying for news:

Our survey found that even among mobile news users, print-only subscriptions outweigh digital. But, 19% of these mobile news users have paid for some form of digital subscription — 14% bundled with print and 9% digital only.

As for subscriptions, the survey reinforces some things we already know: Older people are more likely to pay for news. According to Pew, people over 50 were almost twice as likely as those under 50 to have a print-only subscription. The 50-plus crowd were also more likely to have a print/digital combo: 20 percent of those surveyed said they have bundled subscriptions, compared to only 12 percent of people under 50. A minor bright spot? People under 50 were more likely to go digital only — but only 9 percent said they had digital subscriptions, compared to 8 percent of those over 50.

A sign that may not bode well for the idea of young people’s habits changing in a pro-news direction:

The survey also asked whether the tablet is mostly replacing news that consumers would have gotten elsewhere or is adding to the overall amount of news consumed. Again, one might expect the younger generation, whose news habits are still developing, to be adding to its news consumption more so than older generations. Actually, the reverse is true. Fully 61% of those 65 and older say the news they get on their tablet is adding to their news consumption compared with less than 45% for all other age groups.

There was an area of agreement across all age groups in the report on the reading experience and design of tablet apps. The survey found that both people over 40 and under 40 preferred a “print-like” experience rather than a more interactive layout. (Interesting data in the final week of The Daily’s existence.)

Similar to previous surveys from Pew, readers said they preferred reading on mobile browsers to native apps. But there was good news for fans of native apps as well.

Roughly 60% of tablet news users and smartphone news users mostly use the browser for news while about a quarter mostly use apps (the rest use a mix). But, the survey also found that app users tend to be more active mobile news consumers, carrying special appeal for news organizations.

Finally, as in other surveys, Pew found that iPad owners engaged with their devices at a significantly higher rate than owners of Android tablets did. Those with iPads were more likely to use their devices multiple times per day (54 percent to 33 percent for Android) and to use them to consume news daily (48 percent vs. 35 percent).

Image from Steve Rhodes used under a Creative Commons license.

This Week in Review: Scale, tablets, and what to take away from The Daily’s failure

Learning from The Daily’s demise: One of the highest-profile (and highest-dollar) digital journalism experiments of the past several years ended this week when News Corp. announced it was shutting down The Daily, the daily tablet-based publication it launched in early 2011.  This, of course, gave everyone on the Internet a convenient opportunity to find in its failure confirmation of their own theories of how digital media works. (If you don’t have much time, the most interesting theories are those of Felix Salmon and Alexis Madrigal.) The Lab’s Joshua Benton crowdsourced some explanations for The Daily’s demise and broke them down into four categories — the content, the platform, the structure, and the business model.

The commentary from blogs and news sites generally fell onto the platform and the structure. Benton made a strong case for the third point — that The Daily cost way too much to produce to ever realistically be profitable — by noting that The Daily’s 100,000 paying subscribers was actually an impressive number, but not one that could come close to supporting a newsroom of 100-plus.

PandoDaily’s Sarah Lacy made the same point, contrasting The Daily’s “jumping straight to bloat” with the lean startup approach of the mobile/tablet publication The Magazine. Marco Arment, publisher of The Magazine, said it’s not fair to compare the two, but yeah, The Daily put way too much money into its operation. Likewise, John Gruber of Daring Fireball said The Daily should have thought of itself not as a daily newspaper in scale, but as a daily news app.

The other main critique centered on the viability of a tablet-only news publication. Slate’s Will Oremus asserted that going tablet-only “limits your audience far more sharply than it limits your expenses,” and Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman noted that research has shown that even tablet owners tend to consume media across a variety of devices. At TechCrunch, MG Siegler urged tablet publishers to think ground-up, not print-based. Felix Salmon of Reuters made the most compelling case against tablet publishing, arguing that everything publishing apps try to do, the web can simply do better: “The promise of the iPad was that it would usher in a rich-media world combining the versatility of the web with the high-design glossiness of magazines; the reality is that it fell short on both counts.”

Salmon’s argument got a few thoughtful rebuttals: Former New York Times developer Ben Jackson said Salmon is underestimating the iPad’s capabilities: “there’s much, much more to publishing on the iPad than just blindly reproducing antiquated print metaphors, and there are plenty of developers out there doing amazing things with the medium.” John Gruber agreed and said that The Daily actually showed that an iPad-only publication could be a success; it was just executed poorly. Likewise, the Columbia Journalism Review’s Dean Starkman said it’s fallacious to think that just because The Daily failed, all iPad publications will fail; the problem has to be at least partly about the content, not the platform.

The other main critique of The Daily was one we heard a lot when it was first announced: It just wasn’t made to be shared, which is pretty much a death sentence in today’s web environment. The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson noted this shortcoming, and his colleague, Alexis Madrigal expanded on it, arguing that “the only way to even *know* what readers might like is to allow them to read and share those pieces on the open Internet.” Former Daily writer Peter Ha also asserted that even “great content doesn’t do much good if there’s no good way to share it.”

A few other theories: Reuters’ Jack Shafer said News Corp. should have kept it running longer to experiment with different content approaches, Capital New York’s Tom McGeveran said it remained stuck in general-interest tablet culture, Rex Hammock said it didn’t have any audience to which it mattered, and both Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici and designer Mario Garcia said it felt a bit too much like its fellow News Corp. publication the New York Post.

British press agrees to more self-regulation: A week after judge Lord Justice Leveson issued his 2,000-page report calling for more regulation of the British press, the country’s major newspapers have signed on to most of his proposals — particularly, his call for a more stringent independent newspaper regulator. But, significantly, they’ve rejected one of his most sweeping proposals, to inscribe all of this regulation into British law.

In doing so, they mostly fell in line with the suggestions of Prime Minister David Cameron, who told them to get serious about self-regulation if they wanted to avoid having to deal with a press law. There’s no timetable for the actual legislation to be produced as of now. At The Evening Standard, journalism professor Roy Greenslade explained some of the disagreement among the newspaper editors about how far to go in regulating themselves.

The Leveson Report includes a proposal to write into British law a protection of freedom of the press, though Rupert Myers of The Telegraph said it’s nothing like the United States’ First Amendment. At Journalism.co.uk, journalism professor Angela Phillips said Leveson’s proposals would help, rather than hinder, legitimate investigative journalism.

An ethical debate over a chilling photo: The New York Post sparked an interesting discussion on photojournalism ethics and images of death this week with a front-page photo of a man (58-year-old Ki-Suck Han) clinging to the wall of a subway track, about to be run over and killed by a train, with the headline “DOOMED.” As Poynter chronicled well, the reaction on Twitter and among experts was swift and universally outraged.

Many of the criticisms took the same tack — people didn’t fault the photographer himself for taking the photo, as it seems as though he couldn’t have done anything to save the man, but they considered the Post’s decision to run the photo to be irresponsible at best and unconscionable at worst. That was the overwhelming opinion of the photojournalism experts in a Gawker post and a Daily Beast article, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Ethics Committee, and Poynter faculty member Kenny Irby. Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici noted that the “to help or shoot” is not simply a foregone conclusion, but remains a topic of much debate among photojournalists. (PandoDaily’s Bryan Goldberg vehemently disagreed, though, that it should be an ethical question at all.)

The two most thoughtful posts on the subject came from The New York Times’ David Carr and Reuters’ Jack Shafer, who both probed deeper into why the photo was so disturbing. “We are all implicated by this photo, not just the man who took it,” Carr wrote. “That train is coming for all of us, one way or another.” Shafer, for his part, concluded that “the deadliest image, it turns out, is the one in which the victim is still alive.” Slate’s J. Bryan Lowder made a similar point to both Carr and Shafer, pointing out that a photo like this forces us to put ourselves in the dying man’s position and taps into our darkest fears.

Tom McGeveran of Capital New York argued that it’s actually us, the public, who bears some responsibility for this type of image on the Post’s front page, because we buy papers like this and feed the tabloid’s sensationalist mentality. Anonymous tabloid photographers defended the photo (and, in part, the Post’s decision to publish it) to McGeveran’s colleague Joe Pompeo.

Instagram takes a jab at Twitter: The Facebook-owned Instagram fired a pretty definitive shot against Twitter in the battle over photo sharing turned off integration with Twitter Cards, which Twitter uses to make sure photos show up properly within tweets. That means Instagram photos will look pretty bad on Twitter right now, and according to Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom, the company plans to eventually disable Twitter embedding eventually.

Instagram has been improving its own website, and Systrom said he wants its photos to be viewed on its website, while All Things D’s Mike Isaac noted that Twitter is also doing some arms-racing of its own, working on its photo-filter service. Isaac also chastised the two companies for the passive-aggressive way they’re going after each other, and PandoDaily’s Sarah Lacy looked at the complicated relationship between Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, as Instagram remains an independent company owned by Facebook.

Wired’s Mat Honan lamented that users are “being treated like chess pieces in a proxy war between Facebook and Twitter,” and TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington made a similar point much more emotionally. Meanwhile, GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram wondered if more companies will now think again about their relationship with Twitter, and David Thier of Forbes noted that this opens a door for another company to do what Instagram did in integrating across platforms.

Reading roundup: A few other items of note in the media and tech worlds this week:

— News Corp. announced a load of other changes along with its shutdown of The Daily: As the company splits into news and entertainment divisions, top Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones editor Robert Thomson will head up the news side, which will keep the name News Corp. (The entertainment side will be called Fox Group.) Mike Darcey, an executive of the satellite broadcaster BSkyB, will head up the British newspaper division News International, succeeding Tom Mockridge, who is resigning. In a couple of posts, Ken Doctor provided some sharp analysis of the moves, and The Guardian’s Michael Wolff wrote about how News Corp. and Rupert Murdoch are thriving in the wake of the Leveson Report.

— The Washington Post, the last major newspaper holding out on a paywall, is reported to be planning to launch one next year. Meanwhile, the Neverending Paywall Debate, well, didn’t end this week: Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum fired a broadside at paywall critics, and Digital First’s Steve Buttry gave a rebuttal, while paywall opponent GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram proposed a sort of truce. Open government activist David Eaves explained how metered paywalls are helping him save time as a reader, and UNC PR strategist John Zhu wrote a smart piece about the relationship between paywalls and innovation.

— The Columbia Journalism School report last week on “Post-Industrial Journalism” continues to elicit smart conversation. Craig Kanalley of The Huffington Post pulled together 10 key sections from the report, and journalism professor Matt Carlson appreciated its acknowledgement of the news environment’s increasing heterogeneity, while media analyst Alan Mutter highlighted the legacy-media inertia that is damaging the industry. Media strategist Terry Heaton, meanwhile, critiqued the report for not including enough about culture and focusing too much on existing institutions.

— Finally, four thoughtful pieces to give some time over the weekend: Former newspaper editor John L. Robinson wrote about what he wishes he would have done differently, former New York Times editor Bill Keller opined on the decline of foreign correspondents, the Berkman Center’s Doc Searls gave his vision of journalism as outlining, and Poynter’s Matt Thompson explained why journalists should get involved on the business side, too.

How do you pack your bag for a seven-year, 22,000-mile international reporting assignment?

Every reporter has a checklist of things to grab or arrange before heading out on an assignment. Paul Salopek’s is longer. Beyond a laptop and video camera, Salopek’s list includes a satellite phone, a GPS, and arranging for translators, guides, and camel transport. Also, really good shoes.

Next month, Salopek will begin a seven-year reporting assignment that will take him 22,000 miles (give or take) on foot, from Africa across Asia and the United States, ultimately ending up in Patagonia at the southern tip of South America. The route Salopek is following is the one anthropologists believe was the first path humans took out of Africa to populate the rest of the world. He’s calling it the Out of Eden, a narrative trek that will examine the current state of the cultures Salopek visits, while also writing about their history and connection to the greater world.

(He’ll will be will talking about his project here at Harvard tonight at 7 p.m., and you can follow along with a livestream of his presentation.)

Salopek is a two-time Pulitzer winner who has covered conflict from the Balkans and Somalia to Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2006, he, his interpreter, and his driver were detained for over a month in Sudan after officials charged him with being a spy. In this seven-year assignment Salopek will have to draw on all of his experience as a foreign correspondent. The assignment is ambitious and unforgivably long-term — by design. To see this assignment through he’ll need precise planning and a tool kit that is as diverse as it is lightweight.

So why’s he doing it? “I could go back and work for a newspaper as a foreign correspondent. I loved that,” Salopek told me. “But why not use those skills I’ve developed for the last 15 years or so on a project of my own? One that may attempt to add a layer of meaning to international news that is missing in our business, because media has become so fragmented.”

The plan is to embark from the Great Rift Valley in Ethiopia in January, tracing the horn of Africa into Israel in 2013. In 2014, he’ll head into central Asia, but not before dealing with one of his bigger obstacles: Iran. If you’re on foot, the best, most direct, route into Asia is through northern Iran on the edges of the Caspian Sea. That, of course, means actually getting through Iran safely. This will be one of the many times diplomatic relations will have a bearing on Salopek’s walk. Not going through Iran would be a big problem in Salopek’s plans — he’d have to head north around the Caspian Sea into Russia, “and that’s an awfully big detour.”

“Anything can happen between now and next year, let alone two years from now, he said. So I’m trying to maintain my flexibility.”

Though he’ll be traveling solo for most of the trip, Salopek has a wide network of support, from translators and guides in the field, to media partners and sponsors here in the U.S. For the first two years of his journey, Salopek’s work will appear in National Geographic, both in print and online. He’s also receiving support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, and he spent time this spring here at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism as our first Visiting Fellow, using the time to work with people at Harvard and MIT to plan his expedition and to investigate new forms of digital storytelling he could use along the way.

One of the goals of the Out of Eden project is to make the pace of storytelling match the pace of human walking — which is a way of saying Salopek wants to be deliberate in his writing. “I want to see in the beginning whether going down and taking a more contemplative approach to newsgathering makes the newsgathering more meaningful,” he said. There will be countless topics to write about along the road; Salopek has a preliminary list of story ideas that includes the impact of western food aid on fighting famine, the effect of climate change in areas along the Red Sea, and what the economy of pastoral nomads looks like today. But Salopek is mindful of the fact that plans will inevitably be overtaken by events, and that the reality of the walk could be completely different from what he has planned.

“Here’s the thing: Anything can happen between now and next year, let alone two years from now,” he said. “So I’m trying to maintain my flexibility.”

Inside the backpack

No matter what the road may bring, it’ll be important to have the right gear. Salopek will be a solo traveler for most of the journey, so he’ll need to pull off the one-man band routine many journalists are now familiar with. But given the breadth of his journey, Salopek told me he wanted to have a kit that would open up new kinds of storytelling possibilities. “I’m looking at the walk as a journalist’s laboratory,” he told me.

In his backpack, Salopek will carry a MacBook Air, a satellite phone, a Sony HXR-NX7OU for video and stills, a GoPro camera, an audio recorder, and a personal GPS tracking device. The GPS will obviously play a role in keeping him on track, but Salopek said he’s also interested in trying to geocode stories along his path. Location-based information could play a role in the online component of the project, allowing Salopek and his media partners to give a deeper sense of place. A story about climate change, for instance, could be enhanced with temperature and geological data. Another idea would be to pull in tweets or updates from other social networks to sample the online conversation in a particular region, Salopek said. “The reason why it excites me is that this project by definition is a global project,” he said. “It goes across borders and languages and cultures. I want people to be able to follow along.”

“I think after all these months of prep, taking a hike in 120-degree heat with camel nomads is very appealing at this point.”

But what will likely make the journey more immersive is the multimedia component. Using his video and audio equipment, Salopek said he wants to create a kind of continuous portrait of the world at this point in time. “I’m calling it a narrative transect: Every 100 miles, I’ll methodically take a series of narrative readings that do not vary along the path of the walk,” he said. The plan, as he envisions it, is to stop to take six samples: Ambient sound, photos of the earth and sky, a panorama of his current location, a minute or so of video, and an interview, all in the same method in each location. He sees it as almost a scientific approach, one that can show the changes and similarities in terrain, but also culture and people. And while these transects will make for good multimedia, Salopek said their real value will be as an archive of what the world looked like from 2013 to 2019.

“By the end of seven years, I’ll have created an enduring portrait of a storytelling transect around the world at the end of the millennium,” he said.

At the moment, Salopek is finishing up planning of the logistics for Out of Eden. He’s partnering with Knight Foundation, which is supporting the online component of his trip. He’s looking for additional media partners and working with the Pulitzer Center to create an educational component of the project that can be used in classrooms. He’s been traveling back and forth between Africa doing “reconnaissance” on the route and the conditions on the ground. He’s set up guides and, yes, camel transport where needed. While plotting out the map, he’s also getting his visas in order so cross-border surprises are kept to a minimum. In all, Salopek says he has a pretty good picture of his next two years worth of work. But beyond that, it becomes tough to plan years 3-7. International relations may shift, borders may change. And journalism will likely continue to transform as well; just think of how planning for this sort of a journey would have been different if he’d started seven years ago — before smartphones, social media, and broadband had assumed the role they do now. There are a lot of unknown variables. But Salopek, who calls himself “just another hack,” says he’s ready to start chasing down stories.

“I think after all these months of prep, taking a hike in 120-degree heat with camel nomads is very appealing at this point,” he said.

Photo courtesy of Linda Lynch.

This Week in Review: Leveson and British press freedom, and the paywall debate circles WaPo

Does the British press need more regulation?: British judge Lord Justice Leveson wrapped up a yearlong investigation into the British press with the release yesterday of a 2,000-page report recommending, as The Guardian noted, the first statutory regulation of the British press since the 17th century. The Guardian has an interactive mini-version of the report, as well as a great explainer of why the investigation was launched and the background on its regulatory options. The investigation was launched in response to News Corp.’s phone-hacking scandal that began at the now-defunct News of the World newspaper, and the report contains damning evaluations of the cultures of both News Corp. and the British press in general.

Leveson called for the modification of the current Press Complaints Commission into an independent regulatory body modeled after the government broadcast regulator Ofcom, one that would be monitored by Ofcom itself to ensure its independence, though Leveson insisted the revamped body wouldn’t be a regulator. His model legislation would also include government protection of freedom of the press, a new libel and privacy tribunal to hear complaints instead of the courts, as well as a whistleblowing hotline and a “conscience clause” in journalist employment contracts allowing journalists the legal right to refuse orders they find morally objectionable without fear of repercussion.

Now comes the political fight over whether these recommendations will be enacted. A bill will be introduced, but possibly just to show the plan wouldn’t work. There’s likely to be a hotly contested split in Parliament, and even Prime Minister David Cameron and his deputy, Nick Clegg, don’t agree. Cameron expressed his deep reservations about a regulatory body, though Clegg gave his own speech to Parliament in favor of the new body.

Many in the press joined Cameron (or are expected to join him) in opposition to Leveson’s proposals: The Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the regulation recommendation, and here in the States, Michael Wolff called the report toothless on the News Corp. scandal, and Reuters’ Jack Shafer said the problem with Britain’s press is less with the press itself than the readers who sanction it. A New York Times editorial also condemned the proposed regulator, and Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici said Britain’s press can police itself.

There was a second objection running strongly through reaction to the report: It created a distinction between print and web news and focused almost entirely on the former. A Guardian article explained several scholars’ concerns about Leveson’s contention that the web is an “ethical vacuum” distinct from print’s ethical standards, and paidContent’s Robert Andrews showed the contradictions on the subject in Leveson’s report. The Guardian’s Emily Bell contended that trying to craft a comprehensive press policy without any real reference to the web is futile, while POLIS’ Charlie Beckett countered that the report’s focus on newspapers doesn’t make it irrelevant.

BBC scandal raises libel questions for Twitter, too: It wasn’t a focus of the Leveson report, but Britain’s other big media scandal spread into troubling new territory this week. After the BBC’s Newsnight program spiked a story about the broadcaster’s role in alleged widespread sexual abuse by a former host and also falsely accused a politician of sexual abuse himself, the BBC’s director general George Entwistle resigned earlier this month. He was replaced on Thanksgiving by Tony Hall, former BBC news director and chief executive of the Royal Opera House. The Guardian’s John Plunkett profiled Hall, and paidContent’s Robert Andrews encouraged him to continue the BBC’s digital news innovation.

Two top BBC officials testifying before a parliamentary committee acknowledged massive errors in judgment by the BBC in the scandal, though they didn’t fault Entwistle specifically. The nonprofit Bureau of Investigative Journalism, whose journalist helped report the faulty story, disavowed any sort of editorial control over the piece. Meanwhile, as former BBC director general Mark Thompson went through his first couple of weeks as The New York Times Co.’s CEO, he also testified before a closed-door committee about the canceled internal Newsnight story.

But last week, the scandal spread beyond news organizations to individual Twitter users. The politician falsely accused of child abuse, Lord Alistair McAlpine, reportedly intends to sue Twitter users who identified him in connection with the accusations (the BBC story didn’t, but provided plenty of clues). As The Guardian reported, he’s going after 20 “high-profile” Twitter users for libel damages, and The New York Times added that those with fewer than 500 followers who named him can settle by apologizing online, donating to charity.

As The Times noted, others have sued Twitter users for libel before, but this case is probably unprecedented in its scope and prominence. The Economist wondered if there’s any legal difference between more personally oriented Twitter messages between friends and tweets that are broadcast to a large audience, and GigaOM’s Jeff John Roberts compared U.S. and U.K. law regarding Twitter and libel.

In the Financial Times, Harvard law professor Jonathan Zittrain argued that the solution to spreading damaging falsehoods online lies in improving the technology, not pursuing legal action: “Technologies that greatly empower people to communicate with one another are transformative enough to cause injury. Their sharp edges can best be sanded by enlisting people of good faith to help correct the wrongs they may have inadvertently amplified.”

Paywalls and the Post’s future: Here in the States, the biggest story continued to be the change at the top of The Washington Post, with The Boston Globe’s Martin Baron replacing Marcus Brauchli as the Post’s executive editor earlier this month. A few pieces took a closer look at what was causing the friction between Brauchli and publisher Katharine Weymouth: Post media critic Erik Wemple reported that the rift between Brauchli and Weymouth stemmed from the Post’s inability to turn growing web traffic into ad dollars. Even though traffic has steadily increased, the Post’s digital ad revenue actually dropped from 2010 to 2011.

The New York Times’ David Carr pointed the finger squarely at Weymouth, faulting her for the paper’s strategy of local dominance and free-access, traffic-driven economics, rather than owning political news on the web and pushing to remain a top national publication. Several others disagreed with Carr’s assessment: Poynter’s Rick Edmonds said the Post is in better shape than Carr gives it credit for. The Washingtonian’s Harry Jaffe said Carr’s blame was misplaced and should have been directed at other Post execs and Brauchli, and former Washingtonian editor Jack Limpert said the Post’s local coverage has actually weakened, for which he blamed Brauchli.

Stepping into this mess is Baron, who addressed the newsroom for the first time and received plenty of unsolicited advice about what to do with the paper. The Columbia Journalism Review’s Sara Morrison wondered if Baron will carry the Boston Globe’s two-site free/paid model over to the Post, while GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram urged him to go all in on the Post’s anti-paywall strategy and move further into open journalism.

This prompted another round of the never-ending paywall debate, as Dean Starkman of the Columbia Journalism Review called Ingram’s “digital first” approach “bankrupt” and said the Post has no real choice but to adopt a paywall, writing, “even if the Post is able to rise to the industry standard, it will still lose. Digital ads are fine, but alone they are not enough when there is a honkingly obvious supplementary source of revenue available.”

Ingram, PandoDaily’s Sarah Lacy, and Rob O’Regan of eMedia Vitals all responded to Starkman with variations on the argument that paywalls are a short-term solution that can only buy newspapers some time without addressing the real long-term problems that plague the industry. At ReadWrite, Piano Media’s David Brauchli (Marcus’ brother) made the case for paywalls and righting newspapers’ “original sin” of not charging for content online, while Digital First’s Steve Buttry rounded up the argument and rebutted a few points from Brauchli’s piece and others from paywall proponents.

Journalism’s post-industrial age: Three professors from New York’s most prominent journalism schools — C.W. Anderson of CUNY, former Guardian digital editor Emily Bell of Columbia, and Clay Shirky of NYU — collaborated on an important report on the current “post-industrial” state of journalism that was released this week. The report is long (not Leveson-report long, but long), but Bell has a post at the Columbia Journalism Review putting it in context and explaining that where past Columbia reports have focused on business models, this one is more about the changing process by which journalism is made.

A money quote to give you a sense of the type points the report makes: “The presence of process is a bigger obstacle to change than the absence of money. … the entire purpose of institutional arrangements is actually to ingrain and rationalize standardized patterns of behavior — in other words, to make change hard.” Joshua Benton of the Lab pulled together a lot of these good excerpts and provided some smart commentary along with them. He also had one main critique — that the report doesn’t deal enough with changes in media consumption, especially mobile.

Elsewhere, Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman highlighted the report’s new definition of journalism — going beyond the facts to provide translation and storytelling “between the crowd and the algorithm.” GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram endorsed the report and expressed a desire for it to go beyond preaching to the crowd, and also at the Lab, Ken Doctor looked at ways news orgs are putting post-industrial journalism into practice by using data to go deeper into stories. And another useful report was issued this week, as well — J-Lab’s report on what works in networked journalism, with several vivid case studies on startups that have received J-Lab grants.

Reading roundup: Lots and lots of other interesting developments over the past two weeks. Here’s the quickest rundown I can give you:

— CNN named former NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker its new president. The New York Times ran a good explanation of what Zucker brings to the job and what kind of situation he’ll step into, while Zucker himself said he wants to see more vibrancy at CNN. Variety’s Andrew Wallenstein praised Zucker as a choice who’s not afraid to shake things up, and The Times gave several ideas of possible directions for CNN. Several observers on Twitter talked about how to make one of those directions — turning CNN into fact-check central — work, and Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici suggested CNN focus on efficiency in informing viewers, just as Google focused on efficiency in search.

— The recent violence between Israel and Hamas has settled into a ceasefire, but there have still been some ripples from the unique social media aspects of it. Tablet profiled the people behind the Israeli Defense Forces’ aggressive social media accounts, while the online clashes between Israel and Hamas led U.S. lawmakers to call for social media accounts of recognized terrorist groups to be banned, the moral implications of which The Next Web looked at. Meanwhile, The New York Times’ David Carr examined the disturbing practice of governments using war as a cover for attacking journalists.

— The San Francisco Chronicle reported that TMZ had applied to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to operate a drone to track celebrities, though both TMZ and the FAA denied it had made that request. Forbes’ John McQuaid and NBC’s Helen Popkin looked at the possibilities and pitfalls of drone use for journalism, but meanwhile, another news organization actually did start a drone program — an NPR affiliate in Missouri.

— Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism released a study on media coverage of the last days of the U.S. presidential campaign that showed that partisan media became even more extreme as the election neared. Poynter and Mediaite published good summaries of the report.

— The press release service PRWeb ran a fake press release announcing a Google acquisition that got picked up by numerous news outlets, prompting Search Engine Land to explain how PRWeb’s press releases get distributed so widely and often show up to Google as news articles. Reuters’ Jack Shafer said he’s not so concerned about the pranksters as the journalists who don’t question the real press releases they see every day.

— Twitter briefly suspended the parody NYTOnIt account based on The New York Times’ request regarding trademark violation. The account was back up (with a new logo) after about 12 hours, but it was still down long enough for the Times to receive plenty of mocking, as well as an admonishment from Jeff Jarvis at The Guardian.

— Finally, legendary sociologist Herbert Gans wrote a piece at the Lab calling for political journalists to embrace citizen news as a bottom-up form of journalism.

What kinds of local stories drive engagement? The results of an NPR Facebook experiment

Editor’s note: In February, our friends at NPR Digital Services told you about an experiment they were trying to localize content on the network’s Facebook page, which has a massive 2.5 million fans. Today, NPR’s Eric Athas and Teresa Gorman are sharing some findings from that experiment.

When you come across a story about your town, city, or state, what makes you want to share it?

That’s a question we’ve been asking here at NPR Digital Services. There are hints about what causes sharing — we know emotion and positivity play roles. We know the headline can make or break a story’s potential. But we want to know specifically about local content. What is it about certain local stories that make them more social than others?

To answer this, we conducted a study to define what types of local content cause the most sharing and engagement.

Background

Earlier this year we told you about an experiment where we geotargeted local content on the NPR Facebook page. In that experiment, we posted stories created by Seattle member station KPLU. We geotargeted that content so that only people in Seattle could see it on their Facebook News Feeds.

We measured success using this metric: Of the unique people who see each post, what percentage like it, share it, or comment on it? We found that the geotargeted posts were six times more successful than posts that were shared to the global NPR Facebook following.

The experiment helped KPLU earn record site traffic and confirmed that the NPR Facebook following is eager to engage with and share local content.

In July, we expanded our project. We are now geotargeting content from five member stations in five different regions — KQED in San Francisco, KUT in Austin, WBUR in Boston, KPCC in Southern California, and still KPLU in Seattle.

Since expanding, we’ve found continued (and often greater) success from all five stations. Geotargeted stories continue to register a high success rate and gain an average of 223 combined likes, shares, and comments per post.

But early on in the project, we noticed something that’s probably familiar to any news organization with a Facebook page — certain stories took off, accumulating hundreds of shares, likes, and comments on Facebook and jolting the Chartbeat meter. Other stories fell flat.

So rather than geotargeting just any news story that a station creates, we are selective and calculated with the types of local stories we post. Content must have compelling headlines. It must be locally relevant and meaningful. And locals should be likely to share it, like it, and comment on it. The editors with whom we’re working closely with at KPLU, KQED, KUT, WBUR, and KPCC are terrific at identifying and creating content that meets these standards.

But…what does that actually look like? What types of content will locals be more likely to engage with on Facebook?

That brings us to our study, which aims to answer those questions and pinpoint the kinds of content that locals are compelled to share, like and comment on.

We looked at every story we geotargeted during the months of July, August, and September 2012, focusing on the ones that the localized NPR Facebook following liked, shared, and commented on at a high rate. From this group of successful stories, we identified similarities which allowed us to create nine distinct content categories. We then dissected each successful story to decide which category it fell into.

To identify a story’s category, we asked a series of questions. Why did people share this story? What reaction did people have when they shared it? What is the story actually delivering to people — an explanation, a video, a hard news story?

We repeated this exercise several times for each piece of content until we were confident placing it into a category.

Before we get to the results, we should point out a few things. First, we aren’t implying that the nine types of content below are the only kinds of content that exist or matter. Rather, we’re articulating data-backed trends we discovered in an analysis of content geotargeted to four cities (KPCC joined the project after the measurement period) over a span of three months. Finally, as you look at examples, you might notice that there is overlap. Some stories fit into multiple categories. We placed stories into categories based on their primary defining characteristics.

Here are the 9 types of local stories that cause engagement:

Place Explainers

Every city has traits, quirks, and habits that are begging to be dissected. These characteristics are well known to locals, but no one ever stops to explain why they even exist in the first place. Place Explainers investigate, answer, and explain these questions. In our project, KPLU tipped us off to this content type with its I Wonder Why…? series, which explores the “endearing, odd, even irritating” attributes of the Pacific Northwest. For example, why does Seattle have so few kids and so many dogs? A story by KQED pointed out the 26 signs you’re in Silicon Valley and a KUT piece listed what draws people to Austin and what drives them away.

Crowd Pleasers

We all love to brag every once in awhile about the area we call home. Crowd Pleasers zero in on that feeling of pride. These stories provide an opportunity to celebrate everything from beautiful weather in the Pacific Northwest to the athletic prowess of California athletes who won 93 Olympic gold medals. When Austin was ranked by Bloomberg Businessweek as the eighth-best city in the country, Austinites cheered on Facebook with comments such as “Yaaay!! GO Austin!” and “Whether Austin ranks 1st or 100th, I still love living here :)” That’s exactly the type of reaction you’ll get from Crowd Pleasers.

Curiosity Stimulators

You know those stories you come across that you can’t turn down? The ones that have you hooked at the headline? Curiosity Stimulators get that a lot. It’s the type of story that captures a geeky and quirky side of a city. And after people click through and read a Curiosity Stimulator, they often feel compelled to share it because they get the sensation of stumbling upon a local gem. The Curiosity Stimulator is a 4,000-pound spider-robot named Stompy. It’s a woman who married a corporation. It’s the discovery of a hidden video game city.

News Explainers

Event-based stories chronicle the news of a city. This bill was passed. This person was hired. That person was fired. News Explainers make sense of the news. Rather than just telling you what happened, News Explainers dissect why or how it happened. For example, here’s what people in Washington should consider before possessing legal marijuana. Now that Austin has declared support for same-sex marriage, here’s what happens next. Here’s why it’s been unusually chilly in San Francisco. Leading up to the 2012 election, ballot question guides such as this one by KQED were perfect examples of News Explainers. They took complex local topics and made sense of them for people.

Major Breaking News

Cities are saturated with everyday news stories such as traffic jams and fires. But Major Breaking News has a much bigger impact on a city or a region. Massive storms are an easy example of this because they tend to make life difficult for entire regions. But Major Breaking News doesn’t happen often — a few examples from this project include the coffeeshop shooting in Seattle, Hurricane Sandy, and the approval of legal recreational marijuana and same-sex marriage in Washington.

Feel-Good Smilers

Think “awww,” think “awesome,” think “hilarious.” Most of all, think positive: this category is made up of happy stories. A Feel-Good Smiler is a 10-year-old girl who convinced Jamba Juice to stop using foam cups. It’s the birth of an animal that locals love (Seattleites, apparently, are obsessed with orcas). It’s a nighttime Austin marriage proposal that found its way to Reddit. And is there anything more feel-good than warm cookies delivered by bicycle to your door? Humor, which tends to make people feel good, also plays a role in Feel-Good Smiler content. Cue Seattle’s Colonel Meow.

Topical Buzzers

A Topical Buzzer is the story of the moment that everyone’s talking about locally. When the Space Shuttle Endeavor flies overhead, a Topical Buzzer shows you photos of it. When the mayor of Boston writes an epic memo to Chick-fil-A, a Topical Buzzer tells you about it. When Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis serve coffee at a local cafe (and mobs of locals pack the streets to catch a glimpse), a Topical Buzzer rides the viral coattails of the story. The key to deploying a Topical Buzzer on your site: knowing when something is beginning to buzz.

Provocative Controversies

Have you ever come across a story about your city and you could feel your blood beginning to boil? That’s usually what happens when people encounter a Provocative Controversy — they get ticked off and highly opinionated. In Washington, when state officials killed a pack of wolves, locals had a lot to say about it. KQED’s story about the California State Parks Department sitting on a $54 million surplus for 12 years has dozens of comments. In Boston, a story about a doctor refusing obese patients elicited Facebook comments such as “SOOOO ANGRY !!!!” and “Shame on them.”

Awe-Inspiring Visuals

“Whoa…” You know that feeling? It’s the feeling you get when you see a killer whale catching air in Puget Sound. When you’re spooked by the images of a 75-year-old L.A. hotel wing. When you look into the cold dark eyes of sharks swimming in Cape Cod. When you’re haunted by a people-less time-lapse of Seattle. We already know people like to gaze at beautiful images. People love to goggle at beautiful images of their city. Awe-Inspiring Visuals capture that wonderment through photos and videos.

Graphic by Russ Gossett. Cross-posted from the NPR Digital Services blog.

The future of the feature: Breaking out of templates to build customized reading experiences

When it comes to reading long form, the web can be an ugly, distracting place. It’s the reason why services like Instapaper and Pocket (née Read It Later) exist: to strip content of its context — noisy site designs, advertisements, and other unnecessary elements. But perhaps we’re moving into a new era where more of the web is clean and readable. Maybe the future of web publications will be beautiful enough that the reading experience is more enjoyable in its natural habitat.

This is how I felt, at least, when I came across ESPN.com’s “The Long Strange Trip of Dock Ellis,” a gorgeously designed feature about the Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher who threw a no-hitter while under the influence of LSD. It’s arguably one of baseball’s most colorful tales; this take on it is certainly one of the most ambitious web designs ever attempted by a traditional media company for a single article. The piece is generously adorned with accompanying visuals — photos of Ellis, memorabilia like trading cards, pull quotes, all moving and sliding while the reader scrolls. The reading experience is very comfortable on both desktop and tablet, thanks to a larger text size and generous amounts of white space. It feels like an experience instead of a block of words surrounded by the detritus of the web.

But at a time when news is increasingly consumed without context — stripped down in tablet readers or on mobile devices — and when templates have taken over news web design, what’s the point of dedicating design resources to online feature layouts? Why are outlets like ESPN, Pitchfork, and The Verge investing in bespoke design for articles?

From Super Mario Bros. to ESPN.com

For John Korpics, vice president of creative at ESPN Digital and Print Media, much of the goal is to replicate the immersive experience of reading a magazine — to stand out from the sea of low-end clickbait that fills up so much of the web. “The same way you might read a magazine article, you can browse the surface layer of visuals like graphics, captions, and pull quotes, or you can dive deeper. The key is that the user has the choice of how to interact with the story,” said Korpics.

But while “The Long Strange Trip of Dock Ellis” takes a lot of design hints from magazine layouts, the most interesting and attractive visual elements are unique to the web. Most remarkable is the use of parallax scrolling, a method in which the background moves more slowly than the foreground to give the illusion of depth. (Think of the way the background looks in Super Mario Bros.) Design elements like this exist separate from anything that could ever be done with a traditional magazine layout.

Jena Janovy, deputy editor at ESPN.com, said that several other stories had already chosen for similar deluxe design treatment for later this year and early next year. The design execution alone for “Dock Ellis,” from inception to conception, took three weeks. Which begs the question: How scalable is this? And will smaller publications, without the resources of a site the size of ESPN.com, be able to create something as beautiful?

Building a better template

Tech site The Verge was only about a month old when influential bloggers like Daring Fireball’s John Gruber started declaring it was “one of the best publications in the world.” Founded by Joshua Topolsky, who had previously led Engadget, The Verge represented a chance to build something new and ambitious from the ground up.

“When I left Engadget, there was an emphasis on ‘cheap, fast, and dirty.’ The truth, in what we found, is that people are psyched about longer stuff that’s in-depth and beautiful,” Topolsky said.

There’s nothing cheap, fast, or dirty about The Verge’s impressively designed feature content, which the site has been regularly publishing since its launch a year ago. Take, for example, the versatile design of this long-form piece on biohackers, which elegantly balances text, photos, and video in its storytelling.

The Verge’s secret weapon is Chorus, its custom content management system that makes it easy for writers and editors to create intricate feature layouts. Vox Media — which owns The Verge, as well as GIF-savvy sports site SB Nation and new gaming site Polygon — is protective of Chorus’s features, but a piece about the CMS by TechCrunch describes it as an extremely robust, flexible publishing platform with a strong emphasis on both editorial workflow and design.

As a testament to its power, The Verge only hired its first full-time designer last May. Up until that point, all feature layouts, such as this visual history of Android and this personal essay about Starcraft, had been designed by the editorial staff. The Verge’s features don’t quite have the single-use designs that stories “Dock Ellis” do; they share a common visual frame and differentiate from one another mostly through creative typographic highlights and small graphical touches. But they are definitely designed for reading, not content consumption, and it doesn’t take anywhere close to three weeks to build a story out.

When I asked if each publication should have its own custom platform, Topolsky quickly agrees — explaining that, though his title at The Verge is editor-in-chief, he guides much of the feature development and provides a lot of design input for Chorus.

“I think everyone is going to do this. We’re fighting the same battle [as other publications]: trying to figure out how to create a scalable tool for writers and designers that lets you create beautiful things for the native web.”

In fact, Topolsky’s motivations behind The Verge’s design is deeply rooted in an optimism in the native web, as opposed to designing platform-specific apps to enhance the reading experience. (Though, to be fair, The Verge has an iOS and Android app.) All the site’s feature pieces render appropriately on mobile devices and tablets, and fully adaptive designs will appear on the site early next year. (SB Nation and Polygon are already adaptive.) In contrast, that gorgeous “Dock Ellis” spread is difficult to read on an iPhone without zooming.

According to Topolsky, “Building it once and making it work in multiple places is where everyone is headed with publishing.”

Pitchfork goes horizontal

Venerable indie music site Pitchfork has been publishing album reviews since 1995, and over the past decade and a half, has gradually expanded its content to news, columns, and long-form profiles. This July, the site began publishing Cover Story features, profiles of big artists with specially designed “dynamic” layouts.

They fall somewhere between The Verge’s templated-but-designed and ESPN’s highly-customized approaches. Though most of the profiles so far appear to use a similar template and design language, the tone and aesthetic of each piece is drastically different. Compared to the vertically scrolling designs from ESPN.com and The Verge, I found Pitchfork’s columned, horizontal layout a bit more difficult to read. But visually, it’s much more interesting. Pitchfork takes advantage of the dynamic features of the web. This profile of Cat Power has subtly shifting colors; the Ariel Pink piece animates pull quotes as the reader scrolls; and appropriate for a music site, there’s an embedded music player that persists throughout the layout, featuring a selection of playable tracks from the profile subject. These things improve the Cover Story features not just in terms of readability but tonality, existing to supplement content but never distracting from it. (The fourth Cover Story, on Bat for Lashes, shares the vertical, parallax approach of “Dock Ellis.”)

“I’m less excited about the bells and whistles,” said Michael Renaud, a creative director at Pitchfork. “This level of control just provides the opportunity to present content in a more traditional layout environment that gives focus to the story itself.”

The Cover Story pieces are well-written profiles, but also come from a tradition of great long-form music writing published by Pitchfork. It’s only recently that browsers are catching up to support the kind of visual design that can match the quality of written content.

“Web design has long been plagued with limitations on things like typefaces and bandwidth,” said Renaud. “And now that things seem to be loosening up in those areas, I hope designers can come back to the basics that we once had to abandon, rather than over-designing some grandiose experience for every piece of content. It’s certainly an exciting moment.”

Going mobile

Like “Dock Ellis,” Pitchfork’s Cover Story features are hard to read on a mobile phone. Martin Belam, the UX consultant formerly of The Guardian, criticized the Bat for Lashes piece for it, quoting his friend Mary Hamilton: “Lauding web design that doesn’t work at all on mobile as brilliant is like praising a static PDF of a gorgeously designed print page posted to the web.”

While there’s still work to be done on responsive design — the more complex a design, the harder it is to make it look beautiful on varied screen sizes — readers seem to be reacting positively to these designed pieces. “Dock Ellis” has been one of the most popular long-form presentations from ESPN.com in the past five years; Pitchfork saw a big boost, especially from referrals from social networks (“the design does give people another excuse to tweet about it or whatever,” said Renaud); and for each of its design-heavy pieces, The Verge consistently sees a traffic uptick.

While researching this piece, I asked friends and colleagues about other unique feature designs they’d come across, but in the process, I had a hard time coming up with a single term to describe the trend (I often defaulted to the not-so-elegant phrase “design-y feature pieces”). Even within publications, there doesn’t seem to be a consistent nomenclature for it. Pitchfork makes a distinction between “dynamic” and “standard” viewing experiences; at The Verge, Topolsky says they simply call them “feature layouts.”

But perhaps we don’t need a word for it. There’s a clear trend that both major media outlets and independent web publications are investing the resources and energy into more thoughtful and uniquely designed article layouts, and expect more sites to follow suit. We might not need a word for these kinds of designs, because soon this might be the way all serious publications treat their features.

The newsonomics of thin ice, from the BBC and FT to The New York Times and The Washington Post

The cracks got a little louder this week.

For most of a decade, news companies have been operating on thinning ice. This week, events on both seaboards of the Atlantic displayed anew just how thin the foundations on which many major news operations operate are. With each crack comes a new sense of mortality and, thankfully, motivation.

Here’s a quick chart to demonstrate what’s at stake, just with the companies most lately in the news.

  BBC New York Times Washington Post Financial Times
Number of journalists 2,000 1,150 ~550 600
Last profit reported n/a $8.5M (3Q, 2012) $21.8 million loss (3Q, 2012) $34.8M (or £22M), (1H, 2012)

I’ve highlighted just two data points: the number of journalists and the profit performance of four major news organizations in the spotlight. We see about 4,200 journalists employed among these four companies. One, the BBC, is an intentional nonprofit. Another, The Washington Post, is unprofitable in its publishing division. The New York Times is barely in the black. And the FT, though in better financial shape, may be the odd man out as its parent company re-strategizes its future. We can see how tenuous their business models are, given the profit numbers. They’re each in transition, each in a somewhat different place. Those transitions, though, are subject to many impacts, such planned and some not. Bottom line: There’s not a lot of room for error at even the world’s biggest news producers.

Let’s look at the cracks we heard over the last week:

BBC

The first truly global news organization has been the gold standard for both trustworthy reporting and bloated bureaucracy. Now its multiple scandals (well displayed on this Guardian page), from child abuse committed by one of its long-time icons to shoddy “investigative” journalism, have ripped it wide open. “Appalling,” “wretched,” and “ghastly” are just a few of the printable terms applied so far to the scandals, and those came from people close to the BBC. Its head, George Entwistle, resigned last weekend, while the head of news and her deputy have both been essentially suspended.

Certainly, any long view of the BBC’s quality and value says that these incidents are aberrations, and aberrations can be repaired. Let’s consider the context, though. The BBC has been playing defense at home, even as it tries to take the offensive outside the U.K. Its former head, new New York Times Co. CEO Mark Thompson, spent much of his time fending off and mitigating budget cutbacks. Long subject to political pressures, the BBC is now increasingly vulnerable to new partisan attacks, along with the (some valid, some overblown) complaints of its commercial competitors that it is unfairly transitioning its longtime broadcast dominance into the digital world.

In fact, the BBC’s position as a “free” provider of news has complicated the U.K.’s quality press to move forward with all-access/digital circulation models. For a network that gets about £3.6 billion ($5.7 billion) in tax money, its subsidy in the digital age may now become a central issue. In Britain, TV “licenses” cost £145.50 ($230) a year, so it’s understandable the public already believes it’s paying for “news.”

Bottom line: The strength of the BBC’s 2,000-strong corps of journalists will be further tested as hearings take their toll on a leadership both too numerous (“more senior leaders in the BBC than in the Chinese Communist party,” said Lord Patten, head of the BBC Trust) and too timid. BBC News has already absorbed plenty of cuts, with some being blamed for the latest NewsNight scandal, its false accusation of child abuse against a former Tory leader.

The New York Times

Overall, it’s been an improving year for the Times. It innovated on digital circulation, earning more than an extra $100 million in circulation revenue — and using it to offset fast-declining ad revenues. It sold off its regional newspaper group and About.com, which had become more of a distraction than anything else. It launched a site in China and announced one in Brasil (“The newsonomics of the New York Times’ expanding global strategy”). And it was greatly looking forward to arrival of its new CEO Mark Thompson, who began work Monday. The clear timing of his arrival: to build on those 2012 positives and make the Times even more of a multimedia, global news player.

That may well happen. As I’ve detailed elsewhere (“The New York Times and The Thompson Effect: Blowover or Blowback”), the Thompson impact is uncertain. By hiring the now-to-be-further-questioned former BBC head, the Times has at least borrowed, just by association, a problem that will cascade through the news well into next year and will be covered aggressively (as it has been over the past two weeks) in its own pages. Maybe it will simply blow over as Thompson’s involvement in the scandals is adjudged indirect.

As Times columnist Joe Nocera, though, told WNYC’s The Takeaway Monday: “If he is not telling the truth, it will come out, and it will hurt The New York Times, for having invested so much in him…I think people are trepidatious in the sense that they really want a CEO who can move the ball forward, who can help us figure out our business model issues, and who can help, you know, make this transition from paper to digital. The question of ‘Is this the guy?’ I think looms large in everybody’s mind.”

NYT Co.’s meager third-quarter numbers demonstrates why that trepidation is well-placed: only $8.5 million in operating profit.

The Washington Post

Things have been going from bad to worse at The Washington Post Company. Its cash cow, Kaplan, is in maddening decline, as federal government crackdowns on for-profit education continue to take a toll. So the major prop to the Post’s flagging publishing financials has been removed. Further, the Post continues to lag most of its peers, its downward fortunes generally a little worse. More cuts, including newsroom ones, are underway.

Into this aging castle, now walks in a doughty prince of the trade, Marty Baron. The editor of The Boston Globe since just before 9/11 (good Baron farewell email to his staff here), Baron was announced as Marcus Brauchli’s replacement this week. Brauchli, who’d left The Wall Street Journal, as News Corp. was installing its own leadership, was caught betwixt and between. Early issues of trust (the “salon” debacle forward) muddied the relationship with the new Post publisher Katharine Weymouth who hired him. Inevitable disagreements about where and how to cut staff deepened problems.

Beyond that, though, is the fact that the Post overall has lacked a forward-reaching business model strategy. It’s still a great newsroom, with national reputation and national ambitions, but a company that has focused on harvesting revenue on the regional D.C. area. It’s a great, affluent market, but the regional strategy, as now in place, can’t pay the bills of a national operation. (Good rundown on the Post’s woes by Erik Wemple.)

The deeper problems of the Post are business, not editorial ones. It must figure out what many of its peers have, that a digital circulation strategy is an essential part of the way forward. It must develop a way to make the mobile audience — as much as a third of newspaper audiences now — a key part of its monetization. It must learn to cross borders within its own building, including such things as applying its national Social Code social marketing business to its local market.

The Post’s publishing division showed an operating loss of $21.8 million in the third quarter, more than double its operating loss of $10.8 million a year ago. Broadcasting and cable profits helped buoy the overall company to an overall $75 million profit for the quarter, but those aren’t sufficient to subsidize the newsroom going into 2013. The paper has cut more than 200 newsroom staff since 2009.

Financial Times

It may be soon be up for sale, as reported by Bloomberg. With “the FT-will-be-sold-over-my dead-body” CEO Marjorie Scardino retiring at year’s end, the noises of “not ruling out” a sale are being heard more loudly. That’s the FT’s crack in the ice.

Arguably, the newspaper trade’s leader in digital innovation — digital circulation, data analytics, direct licensing, and more — the 600-strong FT newsroom is a vital news force, one of few truly global news providers. Among the potential buyers are Bloomberg itself, Thomson Reuters, and of course News Corp., as well detailed by Murdoch antagonist Michael Wolff. Any of those could be a good home for the FT, but inevitably, its independent news reporting would suffer in any absorption. There are the inevitable 3 R’s: rollup, redundancies, and rightsizing.

With an almost 5 percent increase in operating profit, Pearson’s FT Group looks more stable than its peers, though it contributes but 12 percent of the company’s overall profit. Yet Pearson is looking like a company that wants to focus more and more on its digital education businesses, and $1 to 1.5 billion in cash (the high end of the FT Group’s potential market value) would help in that pursuit.

These aren’t the only cracks — just the loudest. If you were work for the Manassas News & Messenger, the ice just gave way. Berkshire Hathaway Media, which bought the D.C. suburban daily along with other Media General properties, announced its demise yesterday, putting 33 employees in the deep freeze and removing one news source from Prince William County readers. Then there’s the crack-by-crack continuing layoffs around the U.S., captured well on this Poynter page. In addition, we’re all still waiting for Act 48 of the Tribune saga — 48 months of bankruptcy so far — and to see, soon, into which hands its papers may fall.

To be clear, the events of the last week aren’t life-or-death ones. They’re just more cracks, some more insistent than others — reminding us again of the mortality of news organizations.

Photo by Paul Downey used under a Creative Commons license.