Top 10 Media Stories of 2014: Billionaire Trouble; Facebook’s Power; HBO Streaming

    by Sonia Paul
    December 16, 2014
    HBO's move to unbundle its service will shake up streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Video
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    At MediaShift, our sweet spot is covering the space where technology and media intersect. And what a dynamic space that is — always changing, always shifting. 2014 was no different. As we see it, here are the biggest stories and trends that shaped the media and technology industry in 2014, and will likely reverberate into the new year and beyond.

    "Legacy media outlets can never be what they once were anymore — but technologists and journalists also need to integrate their missions so a 'new and unified' media culture can emerge."

    We’ve added in embeds from relevant podcasts from The Mediatwits if you’d like to hear more about those topics.


    1. Billionaire trouble

    2014 brought the first taste of trouble for a new crop of billionaire media moguls who came into the spotlight the last few years.

    Despite the hype surrounding its founding, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar’s First Look Media saw the departure of former Rolling Stone staff writer Matt Taibbi after just seven months due to reported conflicts over management style. The Intercept reported — on itself, no less — his leave as a “serious setback” for the organization, which had already scaled down its original plans to have a large general interest website with several “digital magazines.” Former Gawker Media editor John Cook soon followed Taibbi’s departure to return back to Gawker.

    Then The New Republic joined the mix, with several staffers publicly resigning en masse after owner Chris Hughes — co-founder of Facebook — decided to “force out the editorial leadership, move the magazine to New York, and rebrand the venerable, century-old publication as a ‘digital media company,’” as Politico reported. Hughes hired Bloomberg media editor Gabriel Snyder, who previously ran The Atlantic Wire blog, to replace former top editors Franklin Foer and Leon Wieseltier before they even resigned.


    As the Guardian’s Emily Bell pointed out, these billionaire troubles are a larger reflection of the existential conflict journalism is facing as technology entrepreneurs and journalists face editorial differences over how to run modern-day newsrooms. Legacy media outlets can never be what they once were anymore — but technologists and journalists also need to integrate their missions so a “new and unified” media culture can emerge. Of all the new tech overlords, Jeff Bezos at the Washington Post has done the best job of balancing the traditional while pushing the new.

    Prediction: The tension between Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and journalists will continue to be  potent. Change will be hard, but good.

    2. Facebook gobbles up WhatsApp, Oculus Rift

    2014 was a year of expansion for social media giant Facebook, especially in the realm of news. With its $19 billion purchase of the international messaging app WhatsApp and its $2 billion acquisition of the virtual reality technology Oculus Rift, Facebook showed it’s not only trying to become a go-to destination — it’s also intent on occupying other popular spaces in the present and future.

    Users have long expressed their worries and frustrations at what this dominance means, and now publishers have a right to be concerned. With new controls allowing people to turn down or amplify certain users on their feeds, Facebook users now have more control over what they see, though some critics have been quick to point out this is a “phony claim” because users must agree to Facebook’s terms and conditions to use the service.

    Photo by Robert S. Donovan on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

    Photo by Robert S. Donovan on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

    The entire operation is a behemoth to be reckoned with for news organizations and other publishers. A recent Pew study found that more than 30 percent of American adults now get their news on Facebook. These algorithms that dictate what pops up on a person’s news feed, whether the user is tweaking them or not, influence how users are getting their news. The result is that publishers are ever more dependent on these social media traffic referrals, especially as users continue to increase their use of mobile devices and access Facebook from their phones or tablets. Facebook in effect is becoming a life raft to publishers, and is encouraging them to use more of its tools to promote content on the social network. The question is, even if they’re not sinking, will the life raft help publishers actually swim?

    Prediction: Facebook will continue to extend its arms out to publishers in 2015 and become a powerful news hub on its own, especially as projects like its sentiment analysis shape up. But publishers will pressure the social giant to be more transparent about its algorithm.

    3. HBO to launch streaming service

    HBO announced in October that it’s going to launch its own standalone streaming service in a move to target the 10 million people in the U.S. who have an Internet connection but don’t pay for a bundled cable television or satellite package. It’s what Jeff Cole, the director of the Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California Annenberg, called a “seismic event in the future of television,” according to the Wall Street Journal. It offers consumers more choices than ever, but it also shakes up the television industry because HBO content is no longer exclusive to its cable partners. Yet the time was due — a 2013 Nielsen study found that younger viewers are much more likely to live in “zero TV households,” and therefore prefer online video subscription services such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime. Twenty-five percent of people aged 25-34 and 19 percent of people under the age of 25 reported cutting the cord on their television sets.

    Indeed, with the announcement of this streaming service, HBO in effect is now modeling itself after Netflix, making the two streaming services competitors. HBO has 30 million subscribers in the U.S., whereas Netflix has about 37 million. HBO’s new streaming service, which will run on a third-party platform, will likely launch in April 2015. It’ll be just in time for new episodes of “Game of Thrones,” its most successful original series.

    Prediction: HBO’s streaming service will become enormously successful among consumers when it launches, but only if it gets the price point right — without cannibalizing premium cable packages. Plus, the division of Time Warner will need to calm internal issues: Its chief technology officer, Otto Berkes, stepped down following the announcement that HBO will outsource the building of its streaming service to a third party instead of building it in-house.

    4. Amazon battles Hachette, other publishers

    Photo by Ronnie Pitman and reused here with Creative Commons license.

    Photo by Ronnie Pitman and reused here with Creative Commons license.

    The months-long dispute between e-commerce giant Amazon and book publisher Hachette over e-book pricing and profits finally came to a close last month, just in time for the important Christmas holiday shopping season. But as The Economist pointed out, it’s not quite clear who won the battle. The controversy between the two outfits painted Amazon as the bully of the book trade and stirred discussions over the entire publishing ecosystem. Is Amazon — which controls nearly half the book market and is America’s largest book retailer — an actual monopoly, and therefore right to insist it had authority over setting e-book prices? One of the main arguments of Amazon’s supporters is that in the world of digital self-publishing, publishers like Hachette aren’t necessarily as relevant as they once were.

    Yet in the tussle to help its authors earn more for their work, Hachette, which is the fourth largest book publisher in the U.S., wanted to set its own e-book prices. They were inevitably higher than what Amazon wanted. By the late spring, it became obvious that Amazon “was suppressing Hachette book sales and shipments in response to Hachette’s refusal to agree to lower e-book prices,” as Casey Johnston reported for Ars Technica.

    In the multi-year agreement the two companies finally reached, Hachette won the right to set its own prices, but the deal also “includes specific financial incentives for Hachette to deliver lower prices.”

    Prediction: With the murkiness of the specifics of the agreement, it’s no wonder several analysts are already predicting the standoff is long from over. Amazon’s growing power in book publishing will continue to put pressure on traditional publishers and bookstores.

    5. Digital outlets raise big money: Vice, Vox, BuzzFeed

    Some of the hottest names in digital media added clout to their reputations this year by attracting heavy funding. The now 20-year-old media organization Vice, known for its edgy and notoriously rebellious take on news and current affairs, grew up this year. In March, Vice News became a separate entity and quickly went on to provide stunning coverage of the Ukraine uprisings and the rise of the Islamic State. After flirting with a union with Time Warner, Vice Media announced a deal with A&E Networks, which would have A&E “invest $250 million in Vice in exchange for a roughly 10 percent stake in the company,” as the New York Times reported. The deal would value Vice at more than $2.5 billion — an amount that speaks to Vice’s popularity with younger audiences and savviness in the online digital space, especially its early entry into the video market.

    Vice Media has made a name for itself by pursuing edgier stories and distributing heavily across digital platforms. Screenshot courtesy of Vice.

    Vice Media has made a name for itself by pursuing edgier stories and distributing heavily across digital platforms.

    While it’s taken two decades for Vice to reach the clout it now has, Ezra Klein’s explanatory news start-up Vox needed only nine weeks to hatch. Just five days after Klein and fellow Washington Post staffers Melissa Bell and Dylan Matthews announced their departures from the Post in January, Klein announced they were going to start a news site with Vox Media, and Vox.com officially launched in April. Last month, Vox Media secured $46.5 million in funding from General Atlantic, which puts the company at $380 million in valuation.

    Meanwhile, BuzzFeed — which has had a noticeable step into more serious, in-depth reporting — announced in August it secured a $50 million investment from the prominent Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. It had previously raised $46 million, which puts its total valuation at $850 million.

    Prediction: If there was any sort of hesitation this year over how seriously to take these outlets because of the method of their journalism, they will definitely have more financial clout next year as more people accept their presence for the long-term.

    6. Hashtag activism rises with #Ferguson, #IftheyGunnedMedown, others

    From #YesAllWomen and the #icebucketchallenge to #Ferguson, #IfTheyGunnedMeDown and #ICantBreathe, hashtag activism, sometimes called “slacktivism,” was certainly a go-to method for raising awareness in 2014. But in the cases of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York, the hashtags were just one part of a larger shift.

    As James Poniewozak wrote in Time, the “meta-protests” on social media of people posting pairs of photos with the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hashtag was a larger form of media criticism. It was a powerful reminder to journalists and editors that they also inevitably promote stereotypes and cultural baggage associated with different races in their picture choices for different stories. The #ICantBreathe hashtag — Eric Garner’s last words —  similarly went viral and became a rallying cry for people upset at the decision not to indict the police officer responsible for his death.

    Duke University freshman Jason Fotso constructed and tweeted the poem “Last words” from the entirety of Eric Garner’s own last words. His original tweet has been retweeted nearly 27 thousand times and favorited even more times than that. Yale professor Fred Shapiro is including the words as his most notable quote of the year. He says that doing such an activity is “capturing, producing a first draft of cultural history and political history.”

    Prediction: Hashtag activism, particularly ones associated with social justice and racism, will continue to make headlines in the coming year as America comes to terms with its structural racial injustice.

    7. Renaissance for podcasts

    Thanks in large part to the success of the podcast “Serial,” and growth in mobile technology and other forms of technology that are putting automobiles online, podcasts are seeing a renaissance. Smartphones and bluetooth-enabled cars — not to mention third-party apps like Stitcher and Overcast — are making it easier than ever for people to listen to them, because people can now just download a podcast directly onto their listening device of choice.

    The economics behind production are also streamlining how ambitious producers might be able to get their own podcasts running, since it requires fewer equipment and software than say a TV show. Marketers can also benefit from the intimacy of the medium, analysts say, since listeners are probably much more likely to sit through an ad, especially when it’s read by the host of the podcast, than they are a television ad. The success of crowdfunders like Roman Mars of the popular podcast “99% Invisible,” who has run annual Kickstarter campaigns for his show to fund it, also adds confidence that people will pay for great storytelling. Take the podcast network Radiotopia — it ran a Kickstarter campaign pledging to “remake public radio” through podcasts. It raised $620,412 by the time it closed, offering several lessons for others thinking of crowdfunding a project.

    Radiotopia had a widely successful Kickstarter campaign (MediaShift file photo).

    Radiotopia had a widely successful Kickstarter campaign (MediaShift file photo).

    Prediction: Podcasts will continue to boom in 2015, building stronger bonds with listeners. But the hype over “Serial” will calm down a bit once it finishes its first season — though it will more than likely start up again in anticipation of its second story.

    8. Global journalism and bearing witness

    The beheadings and kidnappings of American journalists James Foley, Steven Sotloff and Luke Somers brought home the dangers journalists, especially freelancers, take when reporting abroad. Dwindling foreign news budgets means that cash-strapped news organizations are using these freelancers at unprecedented rates, and they often lack the support and safety that come from institutional media backing. The situation raised discussion on whether the United States should change its ransom policy for targeted kidnappings, because these journalists are going out on their own to bear witness on behalf of their audiences.

    Photo by Osvaldo Gago on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons.

    Photo by Osvaldo Gago on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons.

    But at the same time, the question of what it means to bear witness in the digital age — already a common topic among some individual freelancers and niche news organizations like Tehran Bureau — is also gaining traction within mainstream news outlets as social media makes events across the world a visceral reality. First Look Media’s global social media news hub reported.ly also recently launched, with its mastermind Andy Carvin — known for his Twitter coverage of the Arab Spring — announcing on Medium, “we want to produce native journalism for social media communities, in conjunction with members of those communities.” In other words, social media outlets are no longer just ways for publishers to refer audiences back to their websites. The act of bearing witness online, whether through watching a direct live stream from a journalist or citizen or debating and analyzing news with others, is just as important.

    Prediction: Although reported.ly sounds promising, bearing witness online won’t necessarily have a universal appeal among news consumers, although there will be a particular interest among journalists. The discussion of freelancers and their risks — and the support needed to help them continue to do their jobs — will definitely be a bigger topic in the months to come.

    9. Rise of data journalism

    From Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight to Ezra Klein’s Vox and the New York Times’ Upshot, 2014 proved data journalism had staked its claim in the media world. FiveThirtyEight launched as an ESPN-owned entity in March after years at the New York Times, and its coverage of the 2014 midterm elections and pursuit of America’s best burrito made it a mainstay among both loyal and new audiences.

    FiveThirtyEight turned to statistics to help find America's best burrito. Photo courtesy of FiveThirtyEight.com.

    FiveThirtyEight turned to statistics to help find America’s best burrito. Photo courtesy of FiveThirtyEight.com.

    With Nate Silver’s departure, the New York Times had a vacancy for a data journalist — and it decided to fill it by launching a new section on the Times’ website in April called The Upshot, which focuses on politics, policy and economic analysis. Its announcement stated it was necessary to help audiences understand the news, which is the same purpose behind Vox, which also started publishing stories in April. Although some observers are still not sure what to make of the explainer website, its fusion of journalism and technology is raising eyebrows across media circles. The “Vox Cards” are designed to offer readers consistent referrals right when they’re reading a story.

    Prediction: Other news outlets will bolster their use of data in reporting, but there probably won’t be too many other niche data-explainer websites launching — after all, having too many sources to help explain the news might end up adding more confusion.

    10. Gamergate and online harassment

    Online harassment, especially directed at women, became a huge topic of discussion in 2014, thanks in large part to the #GamerGate controversy that began in August. The issue started with the online harassment of indie game developer Zoe Quinn and gaming critic Anita Sarkeesian and later spread to award-winning games journalist Jenn Frank and fellow writer Mattie Brice. The moniker now encompasses the wider misogyny in the online gaming world.

    A Pew research survey released this year also found out that women, especially young women, are bearing the brunt of online harassment. While men may experience it more, they generally experience the less-than-severe forms like simple name-calling. Women, on the other hand, are prone to stalkers and sexual harassment online. Emma Watson, for example, received wide backlash online after speaking to the United Nations on gender equality. Users on the image board website 4chan threatened to unveil alleged nude photos of the actress. It follows a wave of nude photos of female celebrities leaked online — which some call a “CelebrityGate” scandal of its own.

    In effect, GamerGate and CelebrityGate are examples of the rise of “doxxing” — which, as The Economist explained, first emerged about a decade ago to refer to hackers’ habit of collecting personal and private information, including home addresses, and releasing them to the wider public. Others have come to see it as another form of investigative reporting. Meanwhile, Twitter recently announced new tools to make reporting abuse and harassment easier, and prevent users who are “blocked” from seeing the profile of the person who blocked them.

    Prediction: More discussion and awareness of the treatment of women online will help curb the skewing of harassment toward them, although Internet trolling and harassment will continue to be an issue as long as people merge their online and offline lives.

    Sonia Paul is a freelance journalist based in India, and is the editorial assistant at PBS MediaShift. She is on Twitter @sonipaul.

    Tagged: amazon apps buzzfeed crowdfunding data journalism facebook ferguson first look media fivethirtyeight freelancers gamergate global journalism hachette hashtag activism hbo online harassment podcasts publishing industry self-publishing serial silicon valley streaming the new republic twitter vice vox whatsapp

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