Friday, March 27, 2009

Social Media as the Virtual Ten-Foot Pole

Lots of folks on Twitter this morning seemed to be shocked by this story in the New York Times informing us that not everyone is who they say they are on Twitter--esp. high profile celebrities....Well, duh!

I've known for a very long time that many company blogs, and celebrity blogs, and micro-blogs, were being ghost-written. I've also known for a long time that many "blog" aren't being kept by who they say is keeping them--and that the faux bloggers are pretty darned proud that they can be, oh, say, a 26-year old consultant blogging as 60 year old grandmother or teen-age boy.

I've also known for some time that ghost writers are routinely hired to keep social networking profiles on LinkedIn and Facebook for their clients or bosses.

A month or so ago, I was at a social media conference in NYC, where a young consultant yammered on and on about how she managed her D-list celebrity client's social media persona. It was annoying, to say the least. Esp. since she didn't even acknowledge that some of those fans could cross the line into stalker-dom. The consultant had never heard of a troll either....

As Tameka Kee wrote in Paid Content, there's an "erosion of Twitter's perceived authenticity." But do the celebrities really care?? Probably not.

As the young consultant said over and over,fans *crave* interaction with their celebrities. That's totally pathetic, but that's the way some fans are....although I think they'd get over their *craving* after awhile....

So, while many of us agree that there's nothing wrong with one person in a company doing the blogging or tweeting for the company, there's something really jerky/phony/creepy/insincere about ghosting....

The funny--or, maybe not so funny--thing in the Times piece was what 50Cent's web manager had to say about his client's (non)use of Twitter "He doesn’t actually use Twitter,” Mr. Romero said of 50 Cent, whose real name is Curtis Jackson III, “but the energy of it is all him.”

The energy. Wow. To be able to channel one's "energy" thru another person, from a distance, and have it "touch" one's fans....

wow. isn't that the old ten-foot pole??

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Senator Proposes Newspapers Re-Structure, Become Non-Profits

Apparently, U.S. Senator Benjamin Cardin(D-Maryland) has proposed something called the "Newspaper Revitalization Act"....

According to a post on the Editor's Weblog, under the Newspaper Revitalization Act, newspapers would be organizations eligible for 501(c)(3) status, the same status public radio and television have now, and could adopt the Low Profit Limited Liability Company business model (L3C).

"We are losing our newspaper industry," Cardin said in a statement. "The economy has caused an immediate problem, but the business model for newspapers, based on circulation and advertising revenue, is broken, and that is a real tragedy for communities across the nation and for our democracy.

The new legislation would make advertising and subscription revenue tax exempt and contributions to newspapers tax deductible. Cardin says the bill is to help local newspapers, not big conglomerates...and does not apply to radio or other media (this means *you* New Media interlopers!) what sort of "local newspaper" would fit Cardin's definition? Since most newspapers are owned by corporations of some sort, what are the qualificaitons for a a newspaper corporation to be considered a "big conglomerate"? There are some obvious ones, like Tribune, McClatchy, NYTCo. and Gannett. But what about Advance? What about some of the other regionals? And what if your local newspaper--your only local newspaper--is controlled by a conglomerate? Or are we talking small local papers with very limited ownership--like the Journal Register Co., which closed several papers in Connecticut because buyers could not be sought for them.

Over at the Boston Globe, readers had some rather irate comments to the bill. Says one commenter:"Newspapers aren't failing because of incompentence. Would you say that horse-drawn carriage manufacuturers were incompetent because they couldn't compete with Ford automobiles? Newspapers are failing because they have to adjust to completely new business model, customer base, and production.

According to an AP report John Sturn, President and chief executive officer of the Newspaper Association of America voiced support for the bill, saying it "recognizes changes in the law might be necessary to provide a boost to newspapers trying to weather this difficult economic period."

Yes, newspapers *may* be vital for democracy--but what about the massive incompetence that allowed them to run up huge debit? Perhaps before a bill is passed, what needs to be looked at is exactly why smaller newspapers are failing. Is it because of huge amounts of debit--like at some of the conglomo-papers? or is it some form of financial mis-management, or an inability to monetize web offerings, or some other reason?

Nobody wants to see newspapers close, that's for sure, but is a piece of legislation necessary to help another ailing business? And what sorts of give-backs will be asked from newspaper employees (the way that they were asked from GM employees)? What about newspaper profit margins? Perhaps before doling out money, legislators should look at what's going on with profit margins, with debit, and other aspects of the business model before being so certain that government intervention is needed to keep them in business.

Although, Cardin's proposal makes a bit more sense than Nancy Pelosi's proposed legislation which would allow for relaxing of anti-trust laws, and thus favor the large conglomerates.

Still, to rely on government intervention at this point is perhaps a bit premature. Yes, small regional dailies are closing, and some larger papers (like the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Rocky Mountain News) have moved completely online. But what would throwing government money at newspapers do for them, if there have been no substantial changes in the business model and just a lot of wishful thinking that we'll simply go back to our pre-internet days of relying on the presses?

And then there's the idea of state-owned newspapers....can you say Pravda??

'Nuff said.

(hat tip to Techmeme!)

Update 3/26/09 For some time, I had an inkling that there was something fundamentally wrong with the way the journalism establishment has been whining and moaning about how the death of newspapers will be the sure death of democracy. David Eaves excellent post posits the notion that it's Free Speech that's protected by the Constitution, not newspapers or journalism. Eaves goes on to speak about how newspapers themselves are not democratic (very good point)and that the "Diversity of content and access to it, made possible by the internet, has strengthened our civic engagement." Bravo, Mr. Eaves! Bravo!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Ada Lovelace Day--and Women In Hyperlocal Journalism

This a.m. I got a reminder from some of my U.K. twitter folks that today is Ada Lovelace Day: a day of international blogging established to draw attention to the achievements of women in techology. Technology, however, is defined rather broadly to include innovators, entrepreurs and tech journalists. I'd like to take this one step further to acknowedge the women who create hyperlocal journalism online, for many of them are not just writing about their towns and cities, but are also building the sites (yes, the dreadded "back end"), doing podcasts, and creating video. While some men are sitting around wringing their hands and kvetching that there's "no business model" and "you can't make money on hyperlocal" these women are out there doing the work of hyperlocal. Some are making money, while others are creating incredible influence in both big and small ways. Here's a list of ten that I know who've been constants in hyperlocal but still do not receive the requisite national attention that men whose efforts are half as successful have received...

1. Debra Gallant & Liz George of Baristanet who took a simple Wordpress blog and built it out into a highly successful (yes, moneymaking) hyperlocal site covering Bloomfielded, NJ and surrounding suburbs.

2. Lise LePage founder of iBrattleboro Along w/partner Chris Grotke, Lise works on back end, community building, and article writing for a site that has become a go-to for news in Brattleboro, VT.

3. Maureen Mann, former managing editor of The Forum (Deerfield, NH) What happens when the place you live has absolutely no news coverage? Maureen and several other "citizens" got together and created this hyperlocal site. There are a number of women on the staff as well as Maureen who keep the folks off Deerfield and the surrounding areas informed.

4. Ruby Sinreich of Orange Politics At the hyperlocal panel at BlogWorld Expo, Ruby made a point that sometimes you don't do hyperlocal for the money but for the influence. OP has a major influence not just on bloggers but on the politics of Chapel Hill, NC. Oh, and she also works on the "back end" maintaining this Drupal-based site.

5. Heather Brandon of Urban Compass I met Heather close to 5 years ago now, when she was keeping Urban Compass, a blog about Springfield, MA for the Springfield Republican's site. Since then, she's taken this important hyperlocal blog out from under the auspices of the msm, and has also moved to Hartford, CT--where she now blogs on both Springfiled, MA and Hartford, CT. She's had some of the best coverage on the flap at the Hartford Courant over incivility in their forums...and the criminal charges against the Mayor of Hartford (who was the most vocal critic of the Courant's forums, including a protest on the steps of the paper. such drama!) Oh, and Heather also does the artwork and "back end" of her site as well.

6. Christine Stuart of CT NewsJunkie The place to go for the scoop on the Connecticut political scene. Christine has also done some work for Fox 61, the Hartford Fox affiliate.

7. Gena Haskett of Out on the Stoop Since 2004, Genia has kept this modest blog filled with thoughtful commentary on the political scene, being a woman, and life in Los Angeles. Witty, wise, smart and down to earth.

8. Tracy Record of West Seattle Blog This is the little blog that really, really could! In a (relatively) short period of time, Tracy's built this site into something really special (and money-making) Oh, and she's also great at using Twitter.

9. Borges of KickTime and companion wiki Kickapedia
Kicktime is a huge hyperlocal site serving the Kickapoo Valley, Wisconsin. It's companion site Kickapedia, provides a listing of local businesses, farms, etc. Borges is also the site admin, who's in charge of the "back end"

10. And, last but not least, my compadre Lisa Williams, founder of and H2otown What can I say about Lisa that I haven't already said? When it comes to Placeblogger, Lisa and I are out there with the Big Boys of aggregation, probably the only women doing hyperlocal aggregation, that's for sure.

I know that there are a whole lot more women that I could add to this list, all over the country, who are making hyperlocal happen. If you know of other women who are making hyperlocal happen, please add them in the comments.

Happy Ada Lovelace Day everybody!

Note: There are so many women doing hyperlocal--and I have to apologize to all the women I couldn't include in this post....

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

How Big Corporate Newspapers Fail Community (and a little about why)

I've been sitting on this post a couple of days because I wasn't quite sure how to start it--but tonight, I read Mike Masnick's TechDirt post commenting on Howard Owens' defense of GateHouse's suit against NYTimes Co. (the post has been removed.) Mike contends that if the only thing of value a newspaper is providing its community is headlines and ledes that are easily stolen by a competitor, then the newspaper has somehow failed the community. Now, I can't speak to Gatehouse's properties or Howard's work with them because I have not witnessed them firsthand or spoken directly with Howard about them, but I can speak to the ways that other newspapers fail their communities....and why.

One of the main ways in which newspapers fail communities is by not maintaining civil environments in their forums and comments sections. This has been a bugaboo of mine for some time now, and when I read about the recent flare-up at a Scripps property, where the defendant in a carjacking case complained to the court about anonymous commenters on several newspaper forums and comments sections and I keep hearing the same excuses (some call them "reasons") Here they are, in no particular order:

1. moderating comments is censoring "free speech"--even if the comments are uncivil.
2. moderating stifles participation--people need "instant gratification"
3. moderation is only done *after* someone complains about the comments
4. moderation isn't done in-house but by a bot that manages the site
5. too many comments come in too fast to moderate each one
6. the proper number of staff needed to moderate the volume of comments would be too costly.

Of these six commonly cited reasons, only numbers 5 and 6 make sense. When thousands of comments come in on a daily basis, and there are only one or two (if lucky) staff members to moderate them, then proper moderation can't be done. This is unfortunate, given that it takes a long time for a community to begin to police itself.

In effect, moderation just doesn't scale for most newspapers. There's little income generated from communities (from what I understand) to justify paying for extra staff, yet extra staff is needed if comments are going to be properly moderated to create civil environments and constructive conversation.

As for the other reasons--they are definitely excuses for community neglect and result in poor-quality conversation and sentiments among staff members that range from simply negative to outwardly hostile. Staff begins to get the perception that "the people" only want to verbally assault them (can you blame staff for feeling this way? I can't.) Some staff folks begin to feel that those commenting aren't "our readers" (esp. if a board is not administered locally) while other staff at other papers begin to single out particular readers whose views they do not agree with and ban or do other things to their accounts (as well as not respond to their complaints.)

Not moderating properly has nothing to do with "free speech" and it has nothing to do with "stifling" conversation or that people need immediate gratification.

When I've asked about verification software--to make sure that posters have real identities and valid email addys--I hear that these moderation options are often used. But since many of them are automated, there's little direct viewing of the registration materials by staff.

Still, the problem of insufficient staff would make it impossible to properly review every registration.

Once again, it's a problem of scale.....newspaper "communities" don't scale. And if they don't scale, they are failing any attempt to create a cohesive community for a newspaper.

Community isn't just the physical space--the boundaries of a town or its businesses. Communities, esp. for newspapers, are occurring online. And if there is no moderation within those burgeoning communities to set the tone and then find the right people to police them, those who do not care about them will run them. This dynamic occurs in improperly moderated face to face communities, and bleeds over into online (see Clay Shirky on this one.)

Because no matter how great the technology, it's people that make a community. If a newspaper doesn't properly moderate, and the trolls and other disruptors take over, it is not the people's fault--it's that nobody bothered to lay the foundation for a good community. That may not be the people who constitute the staff, but the fact that there just isn't enough staff to properly police the community....

And maybe this is where, once again, hyperlocal can be better than corporate...

Just a thought.

Just to clarify: moderation doesn't mean that people cannot be anonymous nor use pseudonyms and a recent court in Maryland ruled that, in lawsuits, media companies need not reveal the names of anonymous posters: "It seems to be pretty much following a recent trend that we've been seeing -- that there is at least a qualified right to speak anonymously on the Internet," Bayard said. "Courts are going to require the plaintiff or others seeking identities to make a heightened showing that they have a valid cause of action." This is great as far as anonymity is concerned, but does not address the issues of community policing and if withholding a comment from posting constitutes a form of "censorship." No anonymous, hyperbolic or ad hominem poster has ever argued this one, and it's doubtful that they ever will.

Note Over at The Noisy Channel, there's some discussion about putting comments behind a pay wall. This just might lead to more civil and productive conversation. Would people pay for conversation? It would also show who *wants* conversaton. IMO, though, conversation is better handled in small communities, on hyperlocal sites, where they scale and someone can be paid to properly moderate.