In the news this week, a massive trove of classified CIA documents were released by WikiLeaks, showing how the spy agency can hack into iPhones, Android phones and even smart TVs. Two local news players, DNAInfo and Spirited Media, both got bigger with buyouts of other local news outlets. Are they on a collision course? Facebook, CNN and Vimeo all delve deeper into virtual reality and 360 video. Our Metric of the Week is Facebook Live video metrics, and we’re joined Washington Post’s Erik Wemple to talk about the difficulties in covering a president who tweets around the clock.
Don’t have a lot of time to spare, but still want to get a roundup of the week’s top news? Then check out our Digital Media Brief below!
Digital Media Brief
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Mark Glaser is executive editor and publisher of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He is an award-winning writer and accidental entrepreneur, who has taken MediaShift from a one-person blog to a growing media company with events such as Collab/Space workshops and weekend hackathons; the weekly MediaShift podcast; and digital training, DigitalEd, in partnership with top journalism schools. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.
Erik Wemple is media critic at the Washington Post. Having started in this position in 2011, Wemple has written extensively on the major media issues of our time, including the retracted story on rape at the University of Virginia by Rolling Stone; the Roger Ailes sexual harassment scandal at Fox News; the incessant attacks of Donald Trump on the national media; and many, many more.
Top News Of The Week
WikiLeaks’ CIA Documents Include Hacks for Phones and Even TVs
While you may have figured that the CIA and spy agencies could probably tap your mobile phone, did you think they could watch you from your smart TV? That’s now a very real possibility, with the new trove of documents shared with WikiLeaks called “Vault 7” including techniques used by the CIA in hacking Apple and Android phones, as well as potentially Samsung smart TVs. And this nearly 8,000 page document dump is only the first of many to come, according to a WikiLeaks press release. Many experts have told journalists that the files appear to be authentic, but some of the hacking methods could be outmoded as tech companies are constantly updating security holes. The leak comes as WikiLeaks has been attacked — and celebrated — for publishing emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee in the runup to the 2016 election — a hack which U.S. authorities have blamed on the Russian government.
Now the U.S. government is opening a federal criminal investigation into the leaked documents, according to CNN’s Barbara Starr, though most government officials wouldn’t talk on the record about the documents so far. Under the Obama Administration, the government said it would work with tech companies to patch security holes it found in hardware and software, rather than exploit them for spying. But with the release of these documents, it shows that the CIA, at least, was still exploiting those holes. While WikiLeaks said the documents showed that the CIA could “bypass” encrypted apps like Signal and WhatsApp, Wired’s Andy Greenberg noted that the hacks were not directly of those apps, but just of the phones which had those apps on them. Still, there’s a lot to digest in this huge document dump, and more revelations are possible down the road. As famous leaker Edward Snowden tweeted, the move by the CIA to leave open security holes for them (and other hackers) to exploit is “reckless beyond words.”
Spirited Media and DNAInfo Expand Their Local News Chains
If there’s one big weak spot when it comes to digital disruption of media it’s local news. There have been many efforts — and failures — to create national chains of hyper-local neighborhood news, like Backfence and Patch. And metro dailies have had a tough time holding onto print advertising while boosting digital subscriptions. But that hasn’t stopped a couple digital upstarts from making ambitious moves, using mergers and expansion to get a bigger footprint in local news. First up is Spirited Media, which runs Billy Penn in Philadelphia and The Incline in Pittsburgh. They agreed to merge with a smaller company running Denverite, giving them reach to 1 million readers per month with just 27 staffers. Spirited CEO Jim Brady, formerly with TBD and the Washington Post, told Nieman Lab’s Ken Doctor that his startup could reach profitability by the end of the year. Doctor noted that the company gets the majority of its revenues with events, and plans to hold 125 events this year in the three cities. Giant newspaper chain Gannett is a minority investor in Spirited Media, as well.
Meanwhile, DNAInfo, the local online chain in New York and Chicago, agreed to buy out the Gothamist blogs that are in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington, and LA. DNAInfo is owned by billionaire Joe Ricketts, a big Republican donor and owner of the Chicago Cubs, whose son Todd was nominated to be Trump’s deputy commerce secretary. As Politico’s Joe Pompeo reported, Ricketts has promised to keep the editorial side of DNAInfo independent, and the Gothamist founders wrote that “While our politics and backgrounds may differ a bit from those of DNAinfo founder Joe Ricketts…we are all committed to building a news organization that offers quality journalism to our readers.” According to Jezebel’s Brendan O’Connor, Gothamist went through its archives and deleted five older stories that were critical of Ricketts. DNAInfo recently had layoffs at its publications, and there might be more layoffs to come after this merger. But it still shows that there are serious ambitions in local news, with two digital chains looking to grow.
Facebook and CNN Get Deeper into VR
We all know that virtual reality brings an incredible immersive element to news and storytelling that’s hard to beat. And the hardware and software keeps getting better. So it’s no surprise that CNN announced it would create a new VR division called CNNVR and Facebook announced a new dedicated Facebook 360 app for the Gear VR headset. CNN has produced 360 video content in the past, including a live-stream of a Democratic Presidential Debate in 2015. They’ve also produced VR experiences for brands through their Courageous content studio. But now, CNNVR will be a dedicated team producing mini-documentaries like a recent one on the “Running of the Bulls” in Pamplona, Spain, as well as live-streaming events. With CNN putting 360 video into its app, the company says it will be the third largest mobile VR app after Facebook and YouTube.
And speaking of Facebook, the social giant, which owns VR hardware maker Oculus Rift, has been giving people the chance to upload 360 videos for nearly two years, and even launched a special 360 camera. Now comes Facebook 360, a dedicated app for Samsung Gear VR headsets that help you find 360 videos that are popular or uploaded by friends. Naturally, Facebook says it will add more social functionality to the app in the future. But how does this affect the existing Oculus Rift app for Gear VR? It seems like Facebook is now pushing its own app to connect the vast number of Facebook users into more immersive and VR experiences. Meanwhile, IAC’s premium video service Vimeo added support for 360-degree video as well. Though they are a bit late to the party — YouTube and Facebook have had such support for a long time — the move is a positive step for a platform that’s trying to set itself apart for paid video content. We’ll see if all these moves collectively can move the needle for VR, and make it more mainstream.
Music on this Episode
Can’t Hate The Hater by 3 Feet Up
Sinking Feeling by Jessie Spillane
DJ by Jahzzar
Backed Clean Vibes by Kevin Macleod
Air Hockey Saloon by Chris Zabriskie
I Never Wanted To Say by Lorenzo’s Music
I’m Going for a Coffee by Lee Rosevere
Jefferson Yen is the producer for the MediaShift Podcast. His work has been on KPCC Southern California Public Radio and KRTS Marfa Public Radio. You can follow him @jeffersontyen.