Any New Oprah Will Come From the Web, Not TV

It's the Best Media Writing of the Week

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Oprah Winfrey
Oprah Winfrey Credit: Harpo Productions, Inc.

We finally -- and mercifully -- said goodbye this week to Oprah's long farewell. There were more than a few tears, particularly in the eyes of booksellers left wondering what Oprah's shift to her new, smaller cable platform will mean for sales.

It's the right time to wonder whether anyone will ever have the cultural influence that Oprah possesses, and Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson did a nice job of setting up the issues in the Financial Times.

Anyone wondering whether another host can take the place of Oprah in daytime television is asking the wrong question. In an era of Facebook distractions and digital video recorders full of prime-time hits ready to watch, nobody stands a chance of capturing the audience she built in an era of fewer distractions. The more urgent question for publishers, and for all content owners watching digital stores become more important distributors, is whether Oprah can replicate her influence online, or whether anyone else can recreate it.

Jakob Nielsen -- pretty much the inverse of Oprah -- is a guy whose advice is talked about more often than it's heeded. The web-usability guru, who maintains a stripped-down, purely functional website, knows how people make their way through web pages and often shares his research with the public. He has naturally turned his sights to iPad app development and just released a new report co-authored with Raluca Budiu that has a long section on magazine apps. It's a must-read for anyone hoping to reanimate a dead-tree publication for a tablet or looking to tweak an already existing app. It's some top-notch geekery!

Many of the magazine apps we evaluated have made a lot of improvement compared to last year's design. We found that , whereas last year there was a frenzy of new gestures and attempts to create an "immersive" experience that lacked any visible interface widgets, today's magazine apps have made some compromises and consequently meet users' expectations better. We were happy to see that several of the recommendations made in the first report were followed: the navigation is more transparent, almost all magazines have one-tap access to tables of contents, they include a back button, and make a lot more use of hyperlinks, on the cover and elsewhere throughout the magazine.

Jaron Lanier, popularizer of the term "virtual reality," is one of the most interesting critics of our gadget-obsessed culture. In a thinky Q&A with The New York Times' Joshua Brustein, he underscored the importance of having an ethical and moral imperative behind technological change:

You've criticized the current shape technology is taking. How did we go wrong, so to speak?

The way I see we've been engaged in this long-term drama since the middle of the 19th century. Technologists provide tools that can improve people's lives. But I want to be clear that I don't think technology by itself improves people's lives, since often I'm criticized for being too pro-technology. Unless there's commensurate ethical and moral improvements to go along with it, it's for naught.

And so there's been, in my view, a social contract. As technologists create disruption, the new stuff we bring in is generally better than the old. If a job is made obsolete, there will be a new job that is more dignified, more cerebral, better paying.

So are we still adhering to that contract? ?

In my view, we forgot about that contract at the turn of the century.

Now we have a different social contract. Services like Google and Facebook only exist because of the social acceptance of a mass amount of distributed volunteer labor from tons and tons of people.

Google said we'll just give you stuff for free. There's a trade-off: You get some short-term benefits because things are cheaper, but in the long term your career prospects are diminished.

Writing for Fortune, Peter Lauria took a look behind Facebook's courting of journalists, an effort that ramped up recently with the hire of a former Mashable editor as its ambassador to the trade.

But Facebook's motivation for putting the "news" in its News Feed isn't purely out of its passion for the Fourth Estate. The company recognizes that understanding what articles its users read and recommend will enhance its ability to anticipate their interests and needs. (And, thus, serve up more relevant advertising.)

More importantly, though, many people believe Facebook sees news as a way to expand the "interest graph," a network of people who share the same interests but aren't necessarily friends. "Facebook is going to always look to extend the "interest graph" of its users across as many horizontal categories as it can," wrote Mark Cuban in an email interview for this story.

We close with another expose of grammatical abuse from the writers at Slate, who recently lit up the internet with a screed against double-spacing between sentences. This time around, Noreen Malone frowns upon the em dash, frequently used by writers trying to force multiple thoughts into a sentence, a mistake often resulting in a disruptive, herky jerky quality. Naturally, Ms. Malone peppers her piece with offending punctuation:

The problem with the dash -- as you may have noticed! -- is that it discourages truly efficient writing. It also -- and this might be its worst sin -- disrupts the flow of a sentence. Don't you find it annoying -- and you can tell me if you do, I won't be hurt -- when a writer inserts a thought into the midst of another one that 's not yet complete?

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