Vox Media acquiring Re/code

Sydney Ember at The New York Times, with some big news in the tech journalism world:

ReCode, the news website led by the veteran journalists Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher, is being acquired by Vox Media, a deal that reflects the turmoil among digital organizations focused on covering the tech industry.

The all-stock deal, financial terms of which were not disclosed, would give ReCode access to a wider audience, something it has struggled to build since Mr. Mossberg and Ms. Swisher split off from The Wall Street Journal about a year and a half ago. Both plan to stay with ReCode after the merger.

Here's a bit from the announcement post on Re/code:

We plan as well to collaborate where appropriate with Vox Media’s current and very successful tech news site, The Verge. While the two sites occasionally overlap, we have focused on the business of tech, while The Verge has focused on covering tech from a lifestyle perspective.

Makes sense to me.

On Verizon's acquisition of AOL

This morning, news broke that Verizon is purchasing AOL. Here's Peter Kafka:

Earlier this year, AOL CEO Tim Armstrong said there was no truth to reports that he was selling his company to Verizon. It’s a different story now: The telco is buying the Internet publisher and subscription service for $4.4 billion.

Verizon, which will pay $50 a share for AOL, says the deal will help its “wireless video and OTT (over-the-top video) strategy.” Verizon says the transaction should close this summer.

Armstrong, who left the top sales job at Google to run AOL in 2009, will stay on to run the business after the deal closes, Verizon says.

$4.4 billion for video advertising tech seems ... bold. Clearly Verizon is trying to generate income in markets beyond the ones it exists in as an ISP.

Honestly, I don't care to much about this. I've been a paying Verizon customer for years, and while all ISPs are creepy, I can deal with Verizon's shenanigans.

However, what AOL is best know for, at least in our circles, are properties like Autoblog, TUAW, TechCrunch and Engadget. That's where this purchase gets interesting, and possibly troubling.

I've gotten to know several people at these sites over the years, and they are all good people. My concerns aren't with the people reporting, but with the business situation these properties have been thrusted into with this acquisition.

While it has since shuttered the site, Verizon made headlines last year trying to blur the lines between tech coverage and corporate messaging.

As I wrote then, there's a clear difference between running ads to pay for content and having news be shaped by a parent organization.

Of course, having corporate ownership isn't anything new. In his editorial about the purchase, Verge boss Nilay Patel writes:

Full disclosure: I used to work at Engadget, as did many of The Verge's founders; we left AOL to start this site. I never felt any editorial pressure at AOL, but huge corporate news like this would frequently leave us spinning without real answers for months at a time. And Comcast Ventures is an investor in Vox Media, The Verge's parent company, but it should be abundantly clear that we have complete editorial independence from that relationship.

However, it's possible that these blogs don't end up as part of Verizon's empire. Here's Kafka again:

One scenario we’ve heard is that Verizon intends to spin out some or all of its content operations, like HuffPo, with a third partner, perhaps German publisher Axel Springer.

In an interview with Re/code, Armstrong didn’t address that scenario directly, though he seemed to leave the door open. “We’ve spoken to partners about content and scaling,” he said. “Obviously we’ve seen a lot of interest in the content brands we have. So over the course of the summer, stay tuned.”

Kara Swisher reports that the Huffington Post at least may be spun off as part of the deal.

Late today, Tim Armstrong spoke on this very topic:

TechCrunch is not getting sold off. There will be editorial independence. And from a distribution and resource standpoint, it’s probably the most exciting deal we could have done.

The interview this is pulled from is an interesting look at the acquisition, but I'm sure it won't be the last word on the marriage of Verizon and AOL. This one will be interesting to watch for a while.

Apple updates its App Store Marketing Guidelines

Apple has updated its guidelines for marketing App Store apps. There are some real gems concerning Apple Watch:

  • Always use the name Apple Watch in singular form. Do not use plural form. Do not make Apple Watch possessive. Never say Apple Watches or Apple Watch's. Modifiers such as model, device, or collection can be plural or possessive.
  • Do not use the article the before Apple Watch.
  • When referring to Apple Watch collections, use the terms Apple Watch collection, Apple Watch Sport collection, and Apple Watch Edition collection. After the first mention of a collection in copy, subsequent references can say simply Sport collection or Edition collection.
  • Custom photography and video of Apple Watch are not permitted.

Apple Watch is awkward to talk about, much less write about. Apple's removal of articles before their product names isn't anything new, but the whole collection business is a new world of hurt.

Gary Allen, on the end of ifo Apple Store

In a post titled "My Work Here is Done:"

So, I’m doing to focus on my family and friends, drop the demands of writing and get back to what it was before—just fun. I won’t be writing new stories, but will attempt to keep up with some of the list-type material on this Web site for reference.

I'll miss Gary's insight into Apple, as well as his obsessive love of detail. Over the years, we have traded emails several times, and he's always been very kind and very helpful. Best of luck, friend.

AOL shuttering TUAW

The Verge's Micah Singleton:

There goes another one. AOL is shutting down The Unofficial Apple Weblog, better known as TUAW, sources familiar with the situation tell The Verge. The company — which is also shutting down its gaming site Joystiq — is in the midst of a major reorganization, and is cutting back on media properties it deems as underperforming. TUAW’s run comes to an end on February 2nd.

AOL is spiraling, and there are about to be another round of Apple writers on the job market because of it. I've got friends caught up in this. Sad day.

On the Serial finale and journalism as entertainment

There's a lot of chatter today about the end of Serial, the podcast from This American Life that has followed the story of Adnan Syed, who is in prison after being found guilty for the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee.

SPOILERS BELOW. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

Today's episode didn't end the way some people wanted. Adnan is still in prison, and the world is still unsure of his guilt.

Serial ends with lots of open questions; there's no clear next step, no immediate benefit to Adnan for taking part in the story. Serial may have unpacked his case — his very life — but it didn't put things back together in a way that has much closure for the audience.

Honestly though, even typing that makes me feel weird. It's hard to remember it's all true. Serial plays out like a television crime drama — and entertains like one — but it's not.

It's a news story.

It's well-edited and heavily polished, but under all of it, Serial's first season was just a news story.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Serial's narrator and co-creator Sarah Koenig said this, looking forward to today's finale:

I’ll present what my reporting bears out, and that’s my responsibility. It’s not my responsibility to entertain you with some wonderful, perfect ending. I don’t mean that in a holier-than-thou way at all—it’s just—I’m a reporter.

On one hand, Koenig was clearly trying to set expectations for rabid fans, but on the other, her point about Serial being a result of reporting is important.

Her work on Serial wasn't traditional, hardcore journalism. Koenig freely shared her personal opinions and views in every episode, something that isn't smiled upon those in the industry who believe reporters should be objective, if not clinical, in their writing.

Serial wasn't created from that school of thought. It's a blend of entertainment and news reporting. It's a hybrid of fact and opinion.

That tension is why Serial is so popular, and at the same time, so weird — and, at times, oddly uncomfortable. It's why the ending — though rooted in reality — is disappointing to so many people.

Serial wasn't the first piece of work to blend entertainment and reporting, of course, but I do think Serial functions as journalism. Koenig and her team clearly spent lots of time investigating every angle of Adnan's story, no matter how obscure the detail or difficult to track down.

In many ways, Serial could only exist as a podcast. The episodes give the story a rhythm and give the audience a sense of excitement each week. It's a great medium for this type of blended reporting.

However, the old-school rules of objective journalism exist for a reason. They protect reporters, subjects and stories from being influenced by emotions. Breaking those rules is fine, as long as expectations are set correctly. The fact that people are upset at Serial's ending indicates they weren't.

While I still don't know what I think about him, I hope Adnan's case gets back in front of a judge. I hope his story is heard, and that Koenig's work can help straighten it all out.

Journalists can affect great change, but expecting it to happen in a neat 12-part story with an exciting ending is a little silly.

More on SugarString

T.C. Sottek at The Verge:

For now, it's easy to shrug off Sugarstring as just another hilariously dumb attempt to make a corporate brand look cool. Its format is somewhere between Digg, BuzzFeed, and Verizon's corporate blog. It appears to gather much of its content from Reddit. It's powered by Wordpress. It inexplicably has 74,000 Twitter followers. It publishes headlines like "Can you survive without chatting at work?" and "Three reasons Neil DeGrasse Tyson is wrong about innovation."

But in the broader context, Sugarstring is frightening. It resembles a future where enormous corporations that own the pipes through which speech travels also own that speech. Hell, that's not even a vision of the future; Comcast already owns NBC, and its promises for good behavior as a vertically integrated superpower have an expiration date.

So far we've been worried about the subtle effects of corporate control of the internet — stuff like data caps, and throttling, and "fast lanes." Sugarstring is something entirely different. It's brazen, disrespectful, and deeply cynical. There can only be two possibilities for its existence: Verizon thinks people aren't paying attention, or they're just too stupid to get it.

SugarString

Patrick Howell O’Neill:

Verizon is getting into the news business. What could go wrong?

The most-valuable, second-richest telecommunications company in the world is bankrolling a technology news site called SugarString.com. The publication, which is now hiring its first full-time editors and reporters, is meant to rival major tech websites like Wired and the Verge while bringing in a potentially giant mainstream audience to beat those competitors at their own game.

I have no problem whatsoever with publications having advertisers. If you’re reading this on my site, you’ll see both a graphic ad and a text ad. Once a week, I post sponsored content in my RSS feed.

The difference between what I — and countless others — do and what Verizon is doing with SugarString is a clear divide between content and advertising. SugarString screams Verizon, from the red colors to the bold text. Oh, and the Verizon logo. And the “PRESENTED BY VERIZON” graphic at the bottom of the page.

Then there’s this:

There’s just one catch: In exchange for the major corporate backing, tech reporters at SugarString are expressly forbidden from writing about American spying or net neutrality around the world, two of the biggest issues in tech and politics today.

Verizon is one of the worst offenders at trying to limit net neutrality and has taken a major hit in the press over this year’s shocking news about programs like the NSA’s Prism. To help counter this, SugarString editors are allowed to cover these issues outside the US, but not inside. Just check out this article on Hungary’s plan to tax Internet traffic:

It’s every government’s responsibility to keep internet charges as low as possible, so access to high-quality information isn’t limited to the rich. By artificially increasing the price of internet access, Hungary’s government would punish users who were trying to contribute to the world’s knowledge and economy. If they managed to force providers to bear the costs, they’d be punishing those companies any time they grew, discouraging them from increasing bandwidth or improving their services. An internet traffic tax is an innovation tax, and any such tax, no matter how small, would be philosophically devastating.

All that about advertising and content being intermixed is small in my eyes compared to this. SugarString is condemning Hungary for doing what its parent company Verizon has been lobbying for — sometimes in terrible ways — for years.

SugarString isn’t bad journalism; it’s not journalism at all. It’s just plain, old-fashioned PR bullshit that is brazen even for a company as tone deaf as Verizon.