Thursday, December 29, 2005

Links: Loaded Currency

Richard Edelman's blog has emerged as a "must read" in the PR world. Here is the top executive at the world's largest independent PR agency talking about the future of the craft. His essays are well thought out, well written and always encourage feedback. In fact, whenever I put comments on his blog I receive an email from him directly with a response. These have, quite often, turned into longer email conversations. He is certainly quite accessible.

But Shel Israel over on Naked Conversations believes Edelman doesn't deal enough in the "currency" of the blogosphere: links. "Any blogger soon learns that links are the blogophere's currency. Why is he so damned cheap?" Israel writes.

John Cass wonders if this is a case of "Synthetic transparency." By that he means a blog that offers only lip-service to the ideas of becoming a truly transparent corporation. He concludes that it's not.

But I think the major problem here is that links are a lousy currency. In the blogging world people live and die by them mostly for their search engine value. Get more links, rise in the Google ratings. In fact, PubSub puts out a list of ranked PR blogs. One day I managed to earn a ranking of #6 (right ahead of Naked Conversations) thanks to two or three links from some pretty influential bloggers. It felt good, but didn't lead to much. It didn't change my daily readers much at all, though did provide me with a few additional browsers.

But the best example, for me, is the blog of Brian Stuy, a man who runs a business helping people who have adopted children from China to track down some additional information about their child's birth families and foster mothers. My family recently adopted a daughter from China and is now part of this community. In this group he is relatively well known. His blog posts are long, well researched and also provide some good first-person journalism. I encourage you to reach his post about finding birth-mothers of children adopted by Americans.

But he doesn't get many links in. The traffic is good, but not great, certainly not as large as his comment traffic would suggest. Issues from his blog are often discussed on related online discussion boards, something not taken into account in any kind of search rankings.

In fact, it takes a bit of work on the search engines to find him. Yes, I'm sure I will get comments and emails about his need for search engine optimization, but the fact is, the people he reaches are not particularly tech savvy. So while this is a good way to reach them, it's not like they're all keeping blogs of their own. That may change, but it's not like that today.

Recently I returned to my home town to meet up with a bunch of high school friends. Being steeped in technology myself, I forget that there are many people out there who check email once a day, maybe once a week, and who only turn on their computer when it's necessary. These aren't poor or old people, these are people in their 30s who live in affluent communities like Westport, Conn.

My point? Links are only one way to judge a blog, making the "currency" of links only marginally valuable. How many people does the blog touch? Is it a community worth reaching? Does it spark debate? These are weightier issues and those that are more difficult to answer.

Around the same time I was writing this post, Shel Israel was writing a post regarding a comment he received from Richard Edelman. Edelman acknowledges that Israel is correct and that he should "join the conversation," something he pledges to do in 2006. While good news, this doesn't change the overall problem that links are only one piece of a much larger picture.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Interesting Google Book Search Happening

Something interesting happened to me on my way to a Google Book Search: I was prompted for my login.

I recently picked up my copy of the Wallace Stevens: The Collected Poems and read the poem "Winter Bells." Wanting to know more, I started out on the main Google page, but didn't come up with what I was looking for, so I figured I'd give Google Book Search a try.

One book had restricted content, but when I clicked on another a note came up asking me to log in. I did without even thinking, but a second later I wondered why. I don't need to log in to read any other searches I find from Google.

I'm not sure if this was related to the specific book I selected, whether it's something the publisher requested, or if it's standard practice. I've looked through the site but can't find any relevant information. If anyone has more information I'd be interested in finding out.

A few minutes after writing the above I answered my own question when I ended up in a FAQ that I didn't see before:

Why do I have to log in to see certain pages?

Because many of the books in Google Book Search are still under copyright, we limit the amount of a book that a user can see. In order to enforce these limits, we make some pages available only after you log in to an existing Google Account (such as a Gmail account) or create a new one. If you prefer not to log in but still want to see a few pages, click the "view an unrestricted page" link. Remember, the aim of Google Book Search is to help you discover books, not read them cover to cover, so you may not be able to see every page you're interested in.
Interesting. I don't know if this was part of the original plan or something added after the controversy.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

What Really Matters

I'm not a big fan of the New York Yankees, but I'll give them props for one thing: treating their employees right.

I'm sure there are people within the Yankee organization who will say bad things about their bosses, but let's just look at this from the PR perspective. The big news out of the New York (and Boston) sports scene is the signing of Johnny Damon, the long-haired, bearded and all around fun-to-watch former center fielder for the Boston Red Sox. He has now signed with the Yankees for more money than the Sox would have paid him.

But here's the interesting part: this wasn't all about money. In fact, Damon says he was offered a longer contract worth more per year from another team. So why take less money to play for the Yankees?

You could say it's the team's storied history or its numerous World Series championships, though Boston has a pretty cool history and Damon now has his ring.

No, it's none of that, at least not publicly. According to Damon: "I'm here because [Yankee GM] Brian Cashman was aggressive and George Steinbrenner wanted me.''

It's that simple, he felt wanted. His new teammates called and lobbied him, treated him like a star, and that treatment paid off in evangelism.

But let's not leave the Sox out in the cold here. Johnny's a pretty classy guy and was treated well by the Red Sox over the years. He has not bad mouthed his former team (as others have done) and simply states facts.

Yes, most companies aren't as well known as the Sox or the Yankees, but treating employees (and customers and partners) well and with respect is as much a PR move as it is just good business.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

More on the Little Green Machine

Kerry Howley over at Reason has a very critical piece about the $100 laptop I've written about on this blog. In a very critical piece she does a pretty good job of describing its weaknesses, including the fact that the $100 laptop is only available in bulk purchases of 1 million units.

Over on Emergent Chaos, Adam Shostack points out that $100 is a pretty hefty sum for many smaller and poorer countries, including several in which such a figure exceeds 10 percent of GDP.

But Howley's article directed me to Linspire's Michael Robertson who makes an interesting point on the topic:

Recently, Linspire did some research in several developing PC markets. We traveled around the globe to see how poor people are using PCs. The results were astounding. We saw homes without running water with a very capable PC in one corner that the whole family would use. This wasn't a low-end PC, but a middle-of-the-road machine that the family used for surfing the Internet, playing games, watching movies, listening to music and educating their children.

To buy the computer, the family would take out a loan for $250-$400 and often assemble their own computer (or have it assembled by friends). They did not buy the cheapest computer available to them, but instead insist on getting a fully functioning computer.
It's the same point made by Intel, but this one seems to be backed up by a bit more insight. I'd love to know more about this research.

I'm also wondering if we're looking at the wrong solution. One of my clients points out that it all starts with low-cost, high-volume manufacturing, areas such as apparel. These jobs give people money and encourage the building of an infrastructure (roads, communications, ports, etc) and that leads to the next level of jobs. As they earn more education also becomes important, and a generation later a different level of manufacturing takes hold.

Should we instead, be focusing on bringing manufacturing jobs to these countries and encouraging a must slower progression? Of course, political stability is important before even starting such an endeavor.

Certainly more complex problems than dropping in a million laptops.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Visibility Begins at Home

Alice Marshall, through her blog, directed me to an amusing press release today. The dateline made me laugh.

But then I tried to find out information about the company. When I go to a company Web site, I like to read a bit about it, details like who the founders are, where they're located, what it is they do, who is backing them. This is especially true when the company asks me to download software. How do I know who it's really from?

This site does none of that. It does have a little disclaimer saying that it doesn't have spyware, but to believe that you first have to trust the company itself. I have no evidence to use to trust it.

Yet, ironically, this company deals in a technology that, today, is used primarily to read blogs. Yes, I know that in the future RSS will be so much more, but right now it's about blogs.

Get with the program.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Myth of Control

There's a myth in public relations that you can completely control your message. Yes, it's true you can do your best to make sure your messages are out there and you want to make sure that if you, as the company spokesperson, are speaking, it is within the messages that you have laid out.

But complete control does not exist.

No one "controls" the message better than the current Presidential administration. The George W. Bush White House is known for keeping a strong hand on what information gets out and how it is presented. You can make your own arguments about what this means, I'm not going to get into a political discussion here, but laying out daily "talking points" for members of the party and having the ability to stay "on message" on such issues as Iraq, the War on Terror and even the economy in this modern news environment has been impressive.

But here's where it all falls apart: anonymous sources. Many have probably read my opinions about them before and about how I, as the reader, want to get a sense of who is actually doing the talking.

The December 19 issue of Newsweek contains a very unflattering story about President Bush called "Bush in the Bubble" that paints him as somewhat out-of-touch with what is going on in the rest of the government, if not the world. Written primarily by Evan Thomas and Richard Wolffe, but also reported by Holly Bailey, Daniel Klaidman, Eleanor Clift, Michael Hirsh and John Barry, the story contains no less than 11 anonymous sources to only seven who were directly interviewed and named. This is my own count and in no way scientific, I also have no insight into how the reporting was done or over what period of time.

Most sources are identified by their basic position as a staffer, friend or even "a former senior member of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad." These are pretty specific, which I appreciated.

According to the piece "virtually all White House officials (in this story and in general) refused to be identified for fear of antagonizing the president". In fact, the reporters seemed to run out of ways to characterize this fear, waiving off one identification by noting the subject's "fear of giving offense".

So, why do I note this? Two reasons. First, it shows how good reporting by a professional organization is still necessary as a check on the government. How a key elected leader sees the world is important for the public to know and understand. A blogger working on his or her own would not necessarily have the time, money or staff (note the large number of contributors) to create such a piece.

Second, it shows how no group can truly control the message in this modern day. Even without Newsweek breathing down your neck, any organization that tries to completely control the message by shutting down or quieting dissent will only find that dissent in the public anonymously. If the President and his top aides cannot keep their own staff quiet, how can the CEO of a small company?

Even with all this apparent fear, these staffers still spoke to reporters for a prominent publication. And I guarantee they KNEW to whom they were speaking. I'm confident these staffers, friends and officials were not tricked into saying things against the President, since they knew enough to conceal their identity.

You can do your best to work with reporters, present them with your story and make sure they have all the materials they need to properly represent your company and your messages, but in at the moment when the fingers hit the keyboard, only the reporter knows what shows up on the screen. The same holds true for bloggers, who may be your customers, employees and partners. Secrecy and forced silence may seem like an enticing policy for a while, but it always risks falling apart.

Is that a risk you are willing to take?

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Watching TV Across the Divide

TV is now a necessity for many people. Think about where we all turned for information during 9/11 or the images sent to us in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In today's society, even with the vast amounts of information sent over the Web, we need TV (and radio) for its immediacy in delivering information.

But when it's not feeding us necessary information the flashing box in the corner is feeding us ads. So I've been thinking how much money I hand over the TV industry just so they can feed me those ads.

Back when my wife and I were first married we bought a TV with a bit of our wedding money. It cost about $350 at the Bon Ton in Binghamton, N.Y. and has lasted about 10 years now. It still sits in my living room, hooked up to a small stereo system that includes a bit of surroundsound, a DVD player that cost us about $100 and a now-hardly-used VCR. We also have DirecTV with one of the more basic packages, costing us about $50 a month--I have DirecTV just so I can get the New York Jets games up here in New England. I debate about that expense every year.

Now the FCC has announced that in a few years we'll all need to switch to HDTV systems in order to watch even broadcast TV. Any HDTV that you would put in your living room will probably run you about $800 on the low end. Most people are spending more than $1000 on these things. That's a lot of money when you consider that you can buy a traditional TV set, no matter how small, for less than $100.

And this is just for the transmissions pulled from the air.

Then there is the DVR, the revolution started by TiVo and ReplayTV that basically makes it easier to watch TV when you want instead of when it's scheduled.

My wife and I haven't yet invested in TiVo. Frankly, we see it as just another expense to throw at our TV. Is it really such an important part of our lives that we need to have all this programming available whenever we want? I'm sure we'll get it at some point, but for now the money can go elsewhere.

Still, the DVR is a growing trend, one that Nielson has now recognized, much to the chagrin of traditional broadcast and cable properties. Nielson plans to report numbers for the day of broadcast, one day later and one over the week following the initial broadcast. For now advertisers will balk since DVR viewers are seen as less-likely to watch ads. But over time product placement people will probably embrace the numbers. In fact, you will probably hear shows touting how they're reaching a more "upscale audience" thanks to DVR. In other words, "poor people may watch us, but more rich people are watching us more because they have technology that poor people can't afford."

This isn't really new. Right now you hear how bloggers are a more "influential" or "upscale" audience. In the 50s you heard the same thing said about the viewing public, thought today we call it the "golden age of television." This notion will change over time as the price of technology falls and reaches the less affluent.

But for now it means that to gain the very basic information people need, many will need to pony up cash they may not have.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Godsend or Gadget

A few weeks ago I wrote about the $100 laptop unveiled by the folks at MIT. It turns out that the great minds at the Design Contiuum had a hand in designing it--they're located up the street from me and are responsible for some beautiful products including the Swiffer.

Regardless, today Intel Chairman Craig Barrett called it a "gadget." This isn't that surprising, as the device wouldn't use Intel chips and wouldn't run Microsoft software.

Miguel de Icaza has long said that emerging economies who make deals with Microsoft are selling their own soul. His argument is that people on the poor end of the spectrum need access to technology in order to advance, and being locked into an expensive and closed system from Microsoft limits that access. He would prefer these countries use open source software, which is cheaper and encourages involvement by those using it. Meaning, people are more likely to start learning to code to make the software do what they need it to do.

To be fair, de Icaza has a stake in this as he's one of the leaders of the open source movement and also founded Ximian, which early in its evolution specialized in open source desktops.

The machines, as designed, rely on Linux and other open source systems. Nicholas Negroponte pointed out that by using simpler software the machines don't need to be as complex as the computers we use every day and can still be as useful.

Barrett apparently doesn't think so. According to Reuters:

But Barrett said similar schemes in the past elsewhere in the world had failed and users would not be satisfied with the new machine's limited range of programs.

"It turns out what people are looking for is something is something that has the full functionality of a PC," he said. "Reprogrammable to run all the applications of a grown up PC... not dependent on servers in the sky to deliver content and capability to them, not dependent for hand cranks for power."

For their part, Intel and Microsoft are working toward similar goals and you can make your own judgments as to who has more altruistic goals. Regardless, I like what I've seen so far from the folks at MIT and I'm looking forward to reading more about these devices in the future.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Pulitzer to Recognize Some Online Journalism

The Pulitzer committee voted to recognize some online content in its prizes. Specifically, the content must be connected in some way to a print publication. The Pulitzer Web site has most of the information, including a PDF of the new rule.

There is some carping about the fact that these awards will be tied to print journalism. Most agree that it's a step, though not a big one. Jeff Jarvis calls it a "wimpy step."

In the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) Salon Editor in Chief Joan Walsh offers up the following:

"They have to figure out a way to honor the very best journalism‚… and not merely protect the newspaper industry, which is kind of what this decision looks like," said Joan Walsh, editor-in-chief of Salon, a 10-year-old online publication. "Over time, they are going to have to confront some definitional issues, no question about it. If they want to follow their readers, they should start by being more creative about their decisions."
This would actually be a fundamental shift in what the Pulitzers are. Right now there are no broadcast Pulitzers, the closest is the Columbia DuPont Awards, which are also awarded by Columbia University, though less well known. So the Pulitzers do not represent the best in journalism, only the best in PRINT journalism. This decision actually recognizes the fact that print publications are doing more work on the Web.

A few years ago Sreenath Sreenivasen, current dean of the J-school, helped launch the Online Journalism Awards, which aimed to be the online equivalent of the Pulitzer Prizes. I haven't heard much buzz about them in the past few years, so I'm not sure how much traction they received.

Regardless, the Pulitzer board recognized what it needed to recognize: that it's own constituency is doing good work that doesn't end up in print. As for awarding journalism that only appears online, that's a different decision altogether.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

So, is Anonymous Your Real Name?

A client once came to me about a comment on his blog that he felt used offensive language. He wasn't sure if he should remove it or just let it stand, as it came from a reader and made a good point.

My advice was simple: "you are the Editor in Chief of your own blog. If you feel it's offensive, you can edit it." Of course, it's not that simple. Each corporate blogger should develop a code of ethics when starting on this endeavor. In this case he was able to edit the comment, but also email the author of the comment and let that person know it had happened and why.

As a corporate blogger you don't want to sanitize your blog and get rid of all the negative comments, but if you're a CEO and the blog is tied to your own company, you also don't want to be foolish either. This balance needs to be set and stated from the start, in an open and plain manner.

I thought about this when I read Mark Jurkowitz's blog today. In a post about the dismissal of Todd Gross as chief meteorologist of 7 News here in Boston (full disclosure: I worked with Todd in the 90s when I was a morning producer at 7 News) he noted how an anonymous poster put up some negative comments about Todd. Mark points out:

If I were writing a story about Gross and had spoken to the source making the accusations, I'd a) have to use my judgment about the source's credibility and motives and b) then convince my editors to go along with such an anonymous attack on Gross. But here in the blogosphere, it's just unvetted information that may actually be on the money or just plain mean-sprited. There's no way of knowing. And there's no easy solution.
This is similar to the argument I've made before about anonymous sources in traditional journalism. Without more information, we as readers cannot make our own decision. In this case Mark turned into a "reader" of his own blog.

In the comments area Mark was called on just that point by someone who actually identified himself:
And yet you (as author and editor of this blog) choose to let this anonymous slander stand instead of removing it as a responsible editor should.

That makes YOU responsible for the comment.
Mark responded by removing the comment, which was the right thing to do. But I'm happy he let us into his thought process.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Ethicist in the Boardroom?

During a discussion with Phil Libin a while back he suggested that companies should have an ethicist on board. More specifically, he suggested an outside ethics consultant to help keep them on track.

It certainly seems like an intriguing concept given the recent business history that has brought us to such legislation as Sarbanes Oxley. But while that law, and others like it, focus on the financial obligations of a public company, who's concentrating on making sure all companies, public and private, treat their customers, employees and partners with respect?

Google likes to say that one of its core values is to "do no evil," but as I've suggested before, "evil" is subjective. In Saturday's Boston Globe, Robert Kuttner points out that Google collects a lot of information about its users, information that could easily be turned against us. Let's assume that the government needs that information for a criminal prosecution, is it good to give it over or is it good to protect it? Which part would be less evil? What if we're talking about a terrorism investigation, does that change the equation?

Google collects this information for its own business reasons, but is that good as in, "good for the shareholders" or is it evil as in "infringing on privacy"? It certainly lets Google become a more useful service, but how long should it hold onto that information? And what other purposes can they use it for? Not easy questions to be sure.

Also, once a conflict comes up, what is the right response? Is it a corporate business issue or just a communications issue?

In a discussion about Sony's DRM problems Shel Holtz, in a "For Immediate Release" podcast, suggested that if a communicator had a spot in Sony's executive suite, it's possible that the company may not have tried to spy on its customers.

I only partially agree. Sony's executives needed someone, but that person needed more skills than just communications. Sony's executives needed an ethical consultant who understands technology, it's possibilities, marketing, communications and a bit about modern society. Someone who can keep an outside perspective but still offer advice. But also one that has a strong understanding of who Sony serves most of all: the shareholders.

I think it's Adam Curry who says "there are no secrets, only information you don't yet know." Interesting saying, but when a company is beholden to both its shareholders and its customers (yes, I know there is overlap) then sometimes you need a corporate secret or two, and sometimes secrets should, in fact, be information.

The need for such a consultant will only grow as communication technologies continue to advance. The barriers between customers and companies continue to come down, leaving the companies directly exposed to their consumers.

Really what we're talking about, in a sense, is a corporate ombudsman. I've always been amused by the phrase "customer representative" because a person in that role doesn't represent the customer to anyone, they just represent the company to the customer. Really they're a corporate representative, but that doesn't sound nearly as good. Turn the job around--we need a customer's voice within the company.

But will CEOs accept the advice of such an ombudsman or ethicist?

Saturday, December 03, 2005

The Rats Nest

A colleague of mine started working on a proposal this week that included blog outreach. So he came to me asking for advice about what blogs to target and how to search out new ones.

I find that most PR people are looking for simple answers. When it comes to media we have some pretty basic lists that hit most of the big groups, then use MediaMap to fill in blanks. The lists we present aren't a be-all-and-end-all lists, but offer a good solid starting point.

Blogs are more complex, since they come and go, some have credibility and some don't, yet all show up on Google searches.

So to accomplish this task we started with a few sites we knew, then punched terms into Google's Blogsearch engine, and looked for links in Technorati. We also spent some time on Blogpulse and clicked through blogrolls.

A few hours later he showed up back in my office saying "My God! This is a Rat's Nest!" He's right, this isn't an easy process and it's up to each team to decide whether it's worth the time investment. Frankly, I prefer the term "maze," but that's just me.

Later another colleague asked me about a podcast he wanted to pitch. I told him what I new, but cautioned him not to send just a generic pitch, that he had to listen to the podcast and then craft something specific.

"That's what we should be doing for all reporters," he said. "But who has time?"

Back when I started at my current company each person worked on only three accounts, most of which had teams of five or more people. These clients paid a lot of money and there were a lot of publications, since this was at the height of the dot com bubble. They also received a lot of covearge for their cash.

But over the last few years teams have gotten smaller (as have fees) and the number of print publications diminished as well. Yet, our jobs have become more difficult as it's become more difficult to get into the publications that are left. News holes are smaller and journalists, burned by fly-by-night dot coms, are must core skeptical.

Oh, and we now have four, five or six clients per person. So our workload has increased, fees have fallen and the job has gotten tougher, meaning we have less time to research but more demands.

So here come blogs, which demand that you pay attention, engage in conversation and know about the blog. This is nothing new. Read through the bio on any MediaMap entry and you'll see a reporter scolding PR people to "read and understand the publication before pitching." Good advice. And the best PR people do just that.

Still, you can't do it for everyone. You may carefully research a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe or New York Times, as the reach and prestige are pretty high, but just throw a pitch at some of the smaller publications. It's not that you don't care, but you have to balance client need with the time you have to spend. Basic calculations. Of course, some clients may consider the Boston Business Journal to be more important and influential to their audience than the Times, which changes your equation a bit.

Then there are the bloggers, who are territorial about their own little piece of cyberturf, speak to smaller audiences, but are just as important to add to the PR mix, and you have a much more complex picture.

Just careful you don't get lost in the maze.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Found Something Strange Today

I opened my paper version of the Boston Globe to find a very thin classified section stuffed into the Sidekick. Just eight pages of real estate listings and a few jobs.

Granted it's the Friday paper, so it tends to be a smaller classified section anyway. But the fact that it was in the younger-leaning Sidekick caught my eye. Maybe an attempt to get people to notice it? Become more relevant?

Or maybe it was just a trick of layout and priting press placement. Either way, worth watching.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Escaping Through the Back Door

That image keeps coming to mind as I think about journalists and their reaction to the blogosphere. You keep hearing top dogs at big papers lamenting the loss of readers to the online world or the loss of journalistic credibility to "bloggers in pajamas."

But while they're guarding the front door, the revenue keeps slipping out the back. Today the Pew Internet Project is out with a study about how classified advertising is keeps moving to the Internet, specifically to Craigslist. I know I've used Craigslist in the past when I trying to sell something easily and would never THINK of buying an ad in the Boston Globe. In the past I've given away a washing machine and sold a mountable microwave and an Adams Trail-A-Bike. I also bought a beautiful oak desk/armoire. I haven't touched the Globe classifieds since the late 90s.

Moving to online classifieds isn't about younger kids, it's about GenX. According to the study, 26 percent of people between the ages of 29 and 40 sell things online. That's more than the 18 to 28 group (17 percent) and users over 40 (13 percent).

But Craigslist itself better watch out, because bigger changes are afoot. Google has launched Google Base, which is one such classified service, and now Microsoft is next with its service currently called Freemont. Charlene Li notes that Microsoft's is especially interesting because it includes the ability to exchange goods with a circle of friends. Kind of like a social networking tool with goods.

So newspapers better figure out a way to lock the back door, or at least look for a new revenue stream.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Define "Open"

During the discussion about unnamed sources a few weeks back I brought up the idea that creating further protections for journalists just makes the process less transparent and that has a negative impact on how journalism is viewed by the public.

Media consumers, I argued, want more transparancy, not less. Shelley Murphy had talked at length about how she hated giving more definition to her unidentified sources. I can see her point, as she's trying to protect her sources. But speaking for the readers, I think it's important to have as much definition as possible in order to decide whether to trust what's in print.

Charlie Kravetz responded by simply pointing out that a shield law just puts in place many of the protections that have already existed thanks to the courts. Fair enough. I don't agree, but it's a good answer.

The problem came as he continued the conversation, talking directly to NPR Reporter Richard Knox about how that organization has shown its openness by reading listener letters on the air, even when those are fairly critical.

If this is how the media define openness, then they have a problem. Just reading a sampling of critical letters is a start, but it's not truly open. A news organization needs to listen to its customers, and then respond to them. Not just from on high, with an ombudsman (which should be a standard part of any newsroom) but all the way down to the reporter level.

The whole thing reminded me of a story that I've heard Nat Friedman tell. Nat founded a former client of mine called Ximian, an open source company which was later sold to Novell. While at MIT, Nat spent a summer doing an internship at Microsoft and through that had a chance to talk with Bill Gates. They were discussing open source and the Apache server, which was growing in popularity.

Gates couldn't understand why developers would need access to the source code. He offered that if it's functionality that people wanted then Microsoft should just add that functionality to its servers. Nat came away feeling that Gates just didn't "get it," that the openness of the code WAS the draw. While many of the developers and users may never take advantage of the code, they wanted the option to peak under the hood and make changes and adjustments, should they feel the need. I've rarely, if ever, looked under the hood of my car, but I certainly wouldn't purchase one that didn't let me in.

Microsoft's armor is much thicker than big media's, but open source has been successfully chipping away at that causing the software giant big headaches. Big Media better learn these lessons fast, or their headaches will be much larger than they are already.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The School Paper Evolves

It seems that I'm not the only person thinking about how the traditional school paper can benefit from the blog interface.

A middle school in Watertown just launched its newspaper blog. I'm curious to see how this develops and whether its a supplement to the traditional paper or a replacement for it.

There is also the OldeSchoolNews in Colorado that looks interesting as well.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Union Leader on the Shield

Today's New Hampshire Union Leader came out against the national shield law. While few people I've spoken with seem to think this will pass, the fact that it's even out there in its current form is somewhat disturbing. I keep hoping newspapers and other journalists will begin to look at the flaws in this legislation, rather than just trying to focus on the purported need for it.

The Leader apparently agrees with me, saying:

Furthermore, Lugar's law would require that Congress define "journalist." That would violate the spirit of the First Amendment, which was intended to protect all citizens, not just those who made their living with ink and paper. It also could lead to the licensing of journalists, which is a wholly unacceptable expansion of government power over the press.

Here come the HBS Guys

Harvard Business School asks "Does Your Company Belong in the Blogosphere?" The article isn't significant, in fact, it's a little behind the times. It holds up the GM Fastlane Blog as a prime example of how to handle a corporate blog.

I obviously disagree.

However, it is siginificant on one thing: it's there at all. This means a bunch of newly minted HBS grads are probably going to try to figure out how to make money on blogs. These guys also liked Dot Coms.

Blogging's PR Problem

While entertaining guests last night friends told us about how their son is taking part in a very highly regarded school paper at the local middle school. I asked about whether the paper has started moving into more interactive media such as blogging.

They haven't.

But the response surprised me. The parent, who also happens to be in the media industry, once working for a wire service and now handling PR and marketing for a prominent local hospital, said that the problem with blogs is that it doesn't teach kids about editing.

Many blogs, including this one, exist without editors. But that doesn't mean all of them do or even should. This is the classic genre vs. medium debate. Blogging is a medium, not a genre.

I believe that blogging can be used to help teach students about journalism. It enables students to get their stories out without forcing them to deal with the significant cost pressures associated with creating a printed product.

That said, I still think the students need to learn the basics of journalism, including multiple sources, proper editing, AP Style, etc.

The problem for the blogosphere is helping people understand the possibilities of this medium, not its limitations.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The Education of the American Media Consumer

Growing up in the New York metro area, I regularly heard commercials for Syms clothing stores where Marcy Syms would claim "An Educated Consumer is Our Best Customer." The company continues to live by the same slogan.

But that's not so true in media. Everyone thinks they're an educated consumer, but in fact they're not. People seem to want more insight into how TV is made, how else can you explain the constant tours that go on through TV newsrooms? People line up to tour NBC, CNN, CBS and even WHDH here in Boston (I remember watching the tour groups come through), but would anyone line up to go through an H&R Block office? How about a tour through my own PR firm?

Not likely.

That's what makes this supposed controversy about the "X" over the Vice President's face during a speech so amusing. A number of conspiracy buffs are out there saying how this is CNN's way of disparaging the current administration.

No, it's a technical glitch. It happens all the time. I see "slates" come up on channel 7 on a regular basis, and I often see the wrong video flash up on the screen even during national news broadcasts. Some glitches are small and you only see if them if you've worked in the industry. Other's are obvious. To CNN's credit, they did try to educate viewers as to what happened and why.

Back in the days of a slower news cycle when you had all day to polish and shine your show to a high gloss, all with highly skilled workers, glitches were more rare. But with a faster news cycle and more people, some of whom are relatively new, mistakes happen. Just this morning I heard a story on WBUR in which a scratch track on one of the pre-produced stories obviously got on the air. Not a conspiracy, just someone not paying close enough attention.

If you're a truly educated consumer then you should understand when you see a mistake and when there's a concerted effort to distort the news.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

PR Protection?

As I'm reading and thinking about the Massachusetts Shield Bill I'm starting to believe that it offers protection for public relations and investor relations.

Technically, our jobs are about collecting information in order to disseminate that information. We have clients tell us things all the time that may or may not be "public" and that we must hold under wraps. Also, we're constantly told that in the case of litigation, our emails and other notes may be subpoenaed.

During the discussion last week, First Amendment Lawyer Robert Bertsche pointed out that in many cases divorce lawyers come to journalists asking for information to help their clients. He gave the example of a magazine that develops a list of fast growing companies, many of them private, and how that last always brings out divorce lawyers who say their client's spouse is claiming poverty but in the magazine, and they want financial information to make the case. Of course, the magazine always says "no."

This struck me as quite interesting since it's not a criminal matter, which is what most journalists fear, but a civil matter.

But what if PR people could contest handing over their notes, emails and other documents in a corporate case? What if we could tell the lawyers "sorry, we're protected under the shield"? Certainly our clients would feel a little freer to share information with us knowing that it would be, potentially, protected. We may gain more insight into our clients' operations.

This is obviously not the intent of this bill, but if it becomes law I'd be curious to see how far some creative lawyers can push it.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Cranking Across the Digital Divide

While American journalists spent much of the past week navel gazing and worrying about what it means when Bob Woodward gets embroiled in the Valerie Plame mess, they spent precious little time noticing what may be the biggest story in communications: efforts to cross the digital divide.

In Tunisia, people from around the world gathered for The World Summit on the Information Society. It's bold effort was to cross the digital divide and bring Internet communications where they had never been before. But in an ironic twist, the Tunisian government shut some people out, including the head of Reporters without Borders, and turned others off. The conference ended with some toothless speeches promising more progress but offered up little by way of true action or funding to get anything done.

Lots of talk, little accomplished. But credit where credit is due. At least there was talk.

Back in my neighborhood, MIT unveiled a PC that can change everything. A $100 laptop designed for children's fingers, complete with a crank to help it run even when and where there is no power. It has a wireless connection device so the laptops themselves can become their own network, it's rugged and has a screen that can go from color to black and white to be easier to read.

Why can this change everything? Because it enables communications, and that is more subversive to a dictatorship or corrupt government than any weapon. If the US truly wants to help the world understand and embrace democracy, it should be investing heavily in communications and devices such as these.

But a laptop alone isn't enough, it must come with education so children not only learn what the technology is but how to use it. They must gain the math and science skills they need to truly enter the tech economy. This as true in the US as it is in Africa.

The Red Herring, meanwhile, is running a story this week on the untapped telecom market in Africa. I also have a client talking about Africa as the next China. That is, Africa is starting to earn its stripes as a source for apparel manufacturing, shipping directly to retailers in the US. This is the first step in a long journey that the US and Japan have traveled already. It starts with high-volume, low margin goods that offer better pay for the people. They can then earn greater education and move to the next step of manufacturing, such as automotive and electronics, eventually building a tech-based economy.

And it all starts with communications so they can reach out and talk to each other and become part of the global marketplace.

And it all starts with a crank. This story is bigger than Woodward.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Google: Hey, we're digital!

Google changed the name of its "Google Print" program today, now calling it "Google Book Search."

According to a blog post by Product Manager Jen Grant "Why the change? Well, one factor was all the comments we got about how excited people were that Google Print would help them print out their documents, or web pages they visit -- which of course it won't."

Considering the amount of publicity this project had I can't imagine that many people made that mistake. But maybe I don't give people enough credit for creativity.

In a nod to the fact that Google is, in fact, in the midst of lawsuits over the program, Grant goes on to say "No, we don't think that this new name will change what some folks think about this program. But we do believe it will help a lot of people understand better what we're doing."

Yes, Book Search does define things a little more, but I wonder if it's more of an attempt to distance themselves from becoming Google Publisher.

It seems that marketing is ahead of technology, however, since the site remains

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

A good journalist shield, but is it worth it?

Massachusetts is currently chewing on a shield bill I actually like.

While debating Dan Kennedy by email, he noted that I fell into a trap by asking the question "who is a journalist" as opposed to "what is journalism."

"I think it makes much more sense to define 'journalism,'" he wrote. "Lisa Williams [of] is not a journalist, but she's producing journalism."

I wasn't quite sure what he meant, as I couldn't imagine the courts trying to define what, exactly, qualified as journalism. But the law currently proposed in Massachusetts comes closest. Dan has the text as a pdf.

(1) COVERED PERSON- The term `covered person' means a person
(A) engages in the gathering of news or information; and
(B) has the intent, at the beginning of the process of gathering
news or information, to disseminate the news or information to the
(2) NEWS OR INFORMATION- The term `news or information' means
written, oral, pictorial, photographic, or electronically recorded
information or communication concerning local, national, or worldwide
events, or other matters.
(3) NEWS MEDIA- The term `the news media' means--
(A) a newspaper;
(B) a magazine;
(C) a journal or other periodical;
(D) radio;
(E) television;
(F) any means of disseminating news or information gathered by
press associations, news agencies, or wire services (including
dissemination to the news media described in subparagraphs (A)
through (E)); or
(G) any printed, photographic, mechanical, or electronic means of
disseminating news or information to the public.
There are quite a few interesting definitions in this. Not the least of which is 1B. I like that it talks about whether you had the "intent" of disseminating news or information to the public. So basically, if you asked questions and collected data with the intent of telling others in some public way, then you have, in fact, practiced journalism. It doesn't matter if you are Brazenberg's "lonely pamphleteer" or David Boeri at Newcenter 5 (one of the most creative writers on local TV), your protection is the same.

Frankly, this may also protect PR people, but I don't want to get into that now.

Tuesday night at a roundtable on the subject at Northeastern University I heard some interesting things. But what worries me is the reason that journalists are supporting this law: fear. I heard over and over again panelists such as Shelley Murphy of the Boston Globe and Charlie Kravetz of NECN talk about the changing climate of distrust people have for the media and how it's become easier for judges and lawyers to come after reporters to ask for their information. This is entirely a defensive measure.

"The lack of regard of how the public holds journalists reflects in the courts," Kravetz noted. As the person who spearheaded the group that proposed the bill he also led the discussion.

As Bill Kirtz, the lone dissenter on the dias, pointed out many times, the first amendment should be enough to protect journalists. He went on to say that such a law, or lack thereof, doesn't affect the quality of journalism and that investigative reporting hasn't suffered since Branzenberg struck down the reporter's privalege. He concluded with a noncommital waving of the hand, saying "it's not going to hurt, so it's OK."

Even as I like how this law defines journalism, I'm still torn on its necessity. On the one hand the positive reporting that is only possible when a source is willing to talk with protection is important to the freedom of the nation. On the other hand, the shield often is in direct conflict with the Sixth Amendment, meaning that justice itself could suffer. Yes, there is the note from English jurist William Blackstone that states: "Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer," but while we say that, do we really believe it?

The liberal in me says "yes," but there's this nagging conservative that wants to see the guilty pay for their crimes.

I also worry about altered hindsight. We hear how the days of yore were better for journalism and how reporters were freer to report on stories that mattered. But were they? Or are we just remembering things wrong? I know that the papers were merciless on John Adams, those that were loyal to Thomas Jefferson anyway. Call them the Fox News of their day. Fair and balanced certainly didn't exist. And Ed Murrow still had to host "Person to Person" even as he reported on "See it Now." Which had the higher ratings? If memory serves it was the fluff show. Also, lest we forget, his most notable journalistic triumph came with known sources, not hidden ones.

My issue with anonymous sources remains transparency. People today demand more, not less. People want to know where journalists get their information and whether they can trust it. They are unwilling to simply take a reporter's word that it's true. I brought this idea up during the roundtable and I'll post separately on what was said.

The fact is, real reporters take their craft seriously. There are checks and balances and often they don't want to use anonymous sources, but find they are forced to rely on them. REAL journalists, are what stand between the government and the people, shining lights into dark corners to prevent officials from becoming drunk with power. They are the true check on the full system. People, however, are emerging as the full check on journalism itself.

Elizabeth Ritvo
, a first amendment lawyer and partner at Brown Rudnick who also represents the Boston Herald, gave the following questions that she likes reporters to ask before relying on an anonymous source:
  • Are there other sources?
  • If someone disputes the facts, where are you?
  • what is your experience with the source?
  • What could you say that will show you were reliable, even if you didn't reveal the source?
  • Where do you draw the line?
Murphy made the strongest case for the shield with one of the first things she said: "In 20 years of reporting it has never been more difficult than it is now [to get someone to be a source]." In other words, people are scared. Of those on the panel, her work reporting on organized crime makes her the most experienced in this area.

What I started seeing in this battle is journalism's fear of government. On the one hand are the judges and government officials hiding behind such legislation as the Patriot Act, screaming "yes, we have secrets, but tell us what you know, your secrecy is costing justice!" On the other hand are journalists screaming "yes, we have secrets, but tell us what you know, your secrecy is costing us freedom!" It's as if two gods are throwing thunderbolts, forgetting the people down below who must dodge the gods' wrath.

Yet, it is the people who will decide the end to this battle by one day choosing to believe in neither of them.

And perhaps that is the biggest loss of all.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Podcasting Benefits

One of the most interesting podcasts on my iPod is the one from LensWork Magazine. I've read the publication somewhat infrequently over the years and came across the show by searching for photography podcasts on iTunes.

The publication itself is known for its careful printing and in-depth articles. A whole different publication from the tips-oriented Popular Photography (which happens to have a good podcast and some wonderful forums as well).

Photography is my main hobby, as I love how everyone can have a camera, but only a few people truly know what they're doing with it. Also, just snapping a picture isn't enough, it's what you do later that makes it go from simple picture to "art."

This podcast is from Editor Brooks Jensen and each short piece is infused with his observations as an experienced photographer. Frankly, there is probably more that he can do with it, such as putting examples of the work he discusses up on his blog. But overall it's a great example of how to produce complementary content using a different form of media.

But what struck me yesterday was that I realized I had a desire to know more and wanted to subscribe to the publication. That's right, I want to spend money to have the old school ink-on-paper publication in my hands.

I'm now negotiating with my wife about our magazine budget.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Don't Blog Just to Blog

My wife is a lawyer and part of a newsgroup that includes a number of other solo practitioners. Many have discussed whether blogging would be a good idea for their marketing.

One lawyer, a blogger herself, piped up and asked the others if she could convince them that blogging has financial benefits, would they do it? Conversely, if she couldn't convince them of it, would they avoid it? She has actually seen some financial benefit from blogging.

Lawyers aren't very good marketers and, in my experience, often aren't interested in outsourcing marketing to someone who actually knows what they're doing. They also, in general, don't like to accept advice, at least not those who run their own firms. Larger firms are a whole different story.

That said, these are the wrong questions. Blogging is a tool, one of many. Take a walk into the tool section of Home Depot and you'll find different hammers, saws, levels and a host of other tools for different jobs. Each has a purpose, some specific some general. But if you want to build a house, you're going to need a combination of them.

The same rule applies to marketing. The right tools for the right job will go a long way.

To make this very simple, a lawyer, or any company, needs to ask two questions: "who is my audience?" and "how do I reach that audience?" Now that you have asked those questions, look for the right tools.

Blogging may be one way to do it, but it's certainly not the only way, nor is it for every lawyer. If you are focused on criminal defense in a tight geographic area, a much better marketing move is to have an office across from an active courthouse. Many lawyers have already done this, but it's effective. A sign in the window is often enough to grab a few clients.

If you want to focus on a niche like women's divorce issues in Massachusetts with a focus on an upscale audience, then perhaps a blog would work since part of your marketing should be a thought-leadership message.

If it's the right tool and the right message, the financial benefits will follow. But don't rely on blogging alone.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

French Bloggers and the Riots

You will often hear journalists in America and other free nations lament the treatment of journalists in some more oppressive countries. Reporters Without Borders, for example, speaks out regularly on behalf of reporters who try to find the truth, even when putting their own lives, and those of their families, at risk.

But I wonder if this commitment to free speech around the world trickles down to bloggers. The French Government arrested two bloggers today for what is seen as their roles in the Paris riots. The charge being "inciting harm to people and property over the internet" seems particularly troubling to me.

I have not read their blogs, as I don't speak French, and I can't judge whether they took part in other actions that may or may not be illegal under French law. But if they are in jail only because they wrote things that the government finds inflammatory, then that is just wrong. Should the government start to crack down on everyone with a computer, for fear they'll spread thoughts that are determined to be against the best interest of the country? Haven't we been down this road before?

This is why I'm not a fan of the federal shield law as it is currently written. Because it specifically ignores bloggers, it creates a "second class" of journalists, sanctioned by the federal government. Yes, I know this technically applies to only specific situations and limited circumstances. But the concept just leaves me feeling a bit nervous. I'd rather the law be inclusive, like the one proposed in Massachusetts (I'll post more on that later).

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

iTunes-ing of TV

If you want to watch your shows for free, watch the commercials. If you want to watch your shows later with no commercials, pay a buck.

That's what the TV networks are saying with this new distribution idea of selling TV shows after the first broadcast. Of course, if you have a TiVo you don't really need the buck a show to watch it later, but who knows how much longer that's going to work as it is.

Regardless, Forrester has it right when it points out that this is the end of scheduled television. In fact, this was the idea behind TiVo and other DVRs all along, that time no longer matters.

But I think one other thing is missing in this: soon geography won't matter either. Until now, geography bound broadcast television. Yes, we have cable and satellite, but when it comes to true broadcast, rules and regulations are in place to make sure we see certain things: local news, local sports, local weather, etc. But over the last 20 or 30 years, the business was such that local TV stations, once brimming with self-produced children's shows, news, variety programming and even sitcoms, handed over that production power to the networks.

I'm hoping that soon local stations will be able to tap into the same distribution network that the broadcast networks are just learning to use. Maybe even with branded content distributed via RSS. Maybe the world will be filled with stations like WGBH here in Boston, which produces a ton of PBS fare. Maybe the old WCVB will come back, offering innovative shows like Jaberwocky and Park Street Under.

More likely, we'll just have an easier way to buy porn.

99 cents for Jenna Jameson anyone?

Do Lines Still Exist?

About a year ago I got into an online argument with a friend of a friend about whether Saddam Hussein had any weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). I contented that none had been found, but this other person kept telling me they had.

I asked her for a link to a credible news source with evidence that there had, in fact, been evidence of this. What she sent me was a link to a right-wing blog which contained a long and well-crafted post that pointed to pictures of some trucks. The author looked, point-by-point at the trucks noting how he believed they were used to produce some kind of WMDs. The author hadn't seen the trucks first-hand, but only the pictures.

This, my foil told me, was a credible source. I contended it wasn't, but realized that I didn't have a good reason why not. It certainly seemed credible, just as credible as any other. My basic argument came down to the fact that if this was real evidence, and if evidence existed, it would certainly appear in a source like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal or Washington Post.

It also started me wondering about how to define a credible source. I've talked quite a bit about trust on this blog, but trust means different things to different people. It also leads to a fragmentation of the news.

During a speech at Brandeis by a woman who used to work for CNN in an Israeli bureau (sorry, can't remember her name), she tried to make the argument that the news reporters don't try to be pro or anti Israel, but then, a few minutes later, noted that she has become more conservative as she's grown older and found herself watching and agreeing with Fox news, pretty much abandoned her old employer. Basically, she's only listening to news that leans toward her way of thinking. I'm guilty of this myself, to a degree, by specifically avoiding Fox News, as it's too conservative for my taste.

Then there is this, today, from Reuters reporter Barry Garron about the recent West Wing episode that ran live, as if it were a true presidential debate:

In some ways, though, the biggest winner was the viewer, particularly those who have seen real presidential debates where rules are negotiated and statements are carefully crafted to stay on point, get out the message and drive home emotions through words that have been carefully tested in focus groups. This episode, though scripted, seemed more real than the actual debates. It showed what a real debate might be if candidates ever decided to risk being themselves and confronting the issues and each other. Odd as it may seem, it gives viewers a basis for comparing actual presidential debates and what is possible.

The episode, with its use of the NBC News logo and the appearance of real-life newsman Forrest Sawyer as moderator, also raised the question of the propriety of blending elements of network news with entertainment. In general, it's not a good idea to blur the two.
So here is the blurring of news and entertainment in a way that makes entertainment seem more real--a scripted show that seemed less scripted than an actual debate. We also have the blurring of media in which some sources are seen as credible, regardless of history. And we have the blurring of opinion and news, which has been going on for some time.

This puts much more pressure on the news consumer to understand the "facts" that are fed to us, but I'm not sure that most people are given these tools. I once wrote a story for a publication called Fresh Cup about a local tea shop. I went in to talk with the owner after it came out and she kept calling it an "ad," even though it was, in fact, an article. She never paid anything for it, I wrote it independently as a reporter.

If she can't distinguish between an ad and an article, how can we ask her to distinguish between fact and fiction? Have we reached the point of simply too much information?

Monday, November 07, 2005

Catching Up and the Future of TV

I haven't had a chance to write in a few days, but I have a lot of ideas that will be coming out over the next few days. This includes a coming post on the shield law, especially as Massachusetts works to enact one of its own (one that appears quite good, actually). But not just now.

In a true blending of media, Yahoo and TiVo today announced a content deal. While Yahoo will provide some content, including TV listings and other such things, the deal does not include video.

We all know that a TiVo box is basically a computer with a big hard drive and some software that records TV. More generically, it's a computer that saves content, only that content tends to come from cable or sattelite rather than from the Internet. Still, the box does have a little-used Internet connection, the feature that Yahoo will be using.

But when TiVo gets interesting to me is when it can take vidoe via RSS from the Internet. The Yahoo deal is a step in this direction.

Why does that become intereting? Well, think about this. Imagine you have a TiVo box and you tell it that you like Star Wars. The way it's set up today the box will feed you the movies and documentaries that are on TV. As George Lucas comes out with the Star Wars cartoons and TV series, those will also show up. But if it's connected to the Internet, suddenly your box will also be filled with fan films, of which there are hundreds, if not thousands. Suddenly, anyone with a camera and some time can create something in the basement, put it on a blog like this one, and reach a massive audience.

What's more, when you turn on your TiVo, the fan films will be co-mingled with the Lucas-produced content. Yes, they're all on an even playing field.

Not scared enough by that? Ok, let's try this.

NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, the WB and UPN spend a lot of money developing programming for specific audiences. They are, in fact, creating a visual brand. You know what you're going to get when you turn on Fox, NBC or the WB.

They see their airtime as precious and produce content that will sell. Of course, there are a lot of great shows that never see the light of day. Maybe they just stink (though soome of those do manage to get on the air), maybe they're just too sophisticated for the audience. Regardless, they're cast, produced and edited, but never seen. So there is talent out there that is not getting its airtime.

What if the producers released it just as the Star Wars fan films do? What if your TiVo, in watching your viewing habits, realizes that you like relationship-based sitcoms: Friends, Mad About You, Will and Grace, etc. Then it finds other sitcoms to feed you, those not necessarily on network television but just hanging around on a Web site. If they're co-mingled and the "brand" of the network no longer matters, how much is ad time on NBC really worth?

I see blogging, podcasting and video blogging as a step toward this eventual reality.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Trusting Dan

If you live within earshot of Boston you can't ignore the furor over Theo Epstein and the role that Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy apparently played in the whole mess.

A quick recap goes like this: the Red Sox were close to a deal with their boy-wonder GM when a column appeared in Sunday's Globe giving out details that Epstein realized came from his boss, Larry Lucchino. That set of a chain of events that led to him tossing in his red socks and walking out onto Yawkey Way for the last time as a Sox employee. There' s a lot of he-said-she-said in all this. If you're really interested in the story you should check out some other blogs.

So, what does this have to do with issues I'm writing about? In a word: trust.

The New York Times Company, the parent of the Boston Globe, owns a portion of the Red Sox. Frankly, a small part. Still, it's enough to have people making accusations, like that Lucchino called in some favors to the Globe to get their top columnist to write something for his side.

Is this true? Probably not. But it doesn't matter. In an age when newspapers are struggling to maintain readers and relevance, anything that erodes public trust is dangerous. And that's just what happens when a city's primary publication invests in a business that is so central to the city.

What I can't understand is that while the Globe would never consider making a significant investment in Gillette (now part of Proctor & Gamble) or in John Hancock Insurance, owners were willing to invest in the Red Sox.

Maybe it has something to do with the way we view sports. Not as a business, but just as entertainment.

Even so, I'm curious as to how this plays out over time. The New York Times has already experimented with charging for columnists, as has the Globe's cross-town rival The Boston Herald. What if the Globe wants to consider this kind of move. Will people pay money to read columns by writers they no longer trust?

I'd venture to say that they wouldn't.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

National Shield Law?

Journalist are wringing their hands over the Lewis "Scooter" Libby indictment, worried that journalists such as Tim Russert, Matt Cooper, Robert Novak and Judith Miller will be paraded before a jury and forced to testify against their own witness. They worry that this leads us further down the path of the media becoming an arm of government, a frightening fact that the shield law (either written or law through court cases) is meant to avoid.

But a fact is lost in this: without the leak itself there is no crime. This is not a case of a journalist being called before a court because he uncovered some corruption within the government that a prosecutor couldn't prove. In this case, the leak of a CIA agent's name is, in itself, illegal.

Dan Kennedy puts it best when he says:

This has always been a lousy case for anyone who thinks there ought to be at least a limited reporter's privilege. Washington reporters, compromised by the ways of Washington, claimed a reporter's privilege not to protect a whistleblower or to expose government corruption (as Taricani did), but, rather, to maintain their promise of anonymity to a source or sources who may have outed an undercover CIA agent and thus undermined national security. I understand why they had to do that, but there's nevertheless something unclean about it.
Now it's important to note that the indictment is about obstruction of justice, not about the leak. It's about the lies that prevent the government from finding out who, in fact, made the leak. But the leak is central and that is what makes this case special and why it will not lead us down the dark path of journalists as an arm of government.

Careful readers already know my stance on the shield law. I still believe that in the new media landscape it's next to impossible to write an appropriate shield law and, I believe, it's unnecessary. A source has many reason for coming forward, they are not always altruistic. Those forces will continue to be at work.

Kennedy believes that instead of trying to define who is a journalist but "I think it makes much more sense to define "journalism." Lisa Williams is not a journalist, but she's producing journalism. (But then what do we do with all those journalists who are *not* producing journalism?)" he said in an email.

I'm not entirely sure I agree, as it becomes a semantic argument. Should the court consider the relative value of each article in question based on a set of given criteria? Why is it up to the court to decide that?

And what about he simple issue that the first amendment is granted to the full population, not to a protected class?

One other thing keeps coming to my mind. While journalists talk and talk about the shield law, they're not sending investigators in to examine the evidence that brought this country into Iraq. More than anything, this should be the central issue, not the protection of a few reporters.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Who is the Little Guy Now?

Back in 1994 I remember reading in the Boston Globe, an interview with Mitt Romney's wife. This was during his Senate run against incumbent Ted Kennedy. It was also a time when I, and many like me, couldn't find work. The term "under employment" was thrown around a lot, and while we know now that the tech sector was the verge of a major upswing, at that point in time a lot seemed bleak.

So Ann Romney starts talking about her early life with Mitt and how they "struggled" because he had to sell off some of his stock, and that the carpeting in their apartment didn't match. A later debate between the two secured in my head the following thought: how can this candidate be so out of touch that he makes a Kennedy look like the "everyman"?

I had that same feeling today when I read that Microsoft plans to start an online library project similar to Google's, but it's going to do so by working with the Open Content Alliance. This is the same day that Google CEO Eric Schmidt dismissed the lawsuits from authors and publishers over Google Print as "routine."

So Microsoft, the company feared for its predatory practices that seemingly put Netscape out of business, is suddenly on the side of the "little guy"? Talk about a PR nightmare!

The issue here comes down to trust. As I've said before, Google's basic idea is "trust us, we promise to do no evil." But evil depends on perspective, and it seems that Google's forgotten that.

In July, Patricia Seybold, CEO of the analyst firm bearing her name, wrote a report called "In Google We Trust?" in which she cautioned companies about jumping into bed with the search giant. "Never before, in the seven years that we've been holding our semi-annual visionaries' meetings, has a single technology suppler been the focal point for so much of the group's discussion," she wrote. That struck me as pretty amazing, considering the role that Microsoft plays in so many organizations.

In the report she encourages companies to have some kind of Google strategy, whether that is working with the company directly or just recognizing the role that Google searches play in driving business.

One group that does work directly with Google is Penn State Press, the publishing arm of Penn State University. In fact, Tony Sanfilippo, director of sales and marketing, is a key case study for the Google Print program, singing its praises as helping drive a print-on-demand program the publisher uses to reduce inventory and boost sales.

But that doesn't mean Sanfilippo is completely happy with Google. He's criticized them openly, including an open letter to the company printed in the September 26 issue of Publisher's Weekly, in which he called for many of the same things I called for in my previous post (I hadn't read his letter until after I wrote the post). Here's a brief excerpt:

If Google is already planning to scan our books and add them to their search results, why couldn't they offer our press a high-resolution copy, in addition to the file they are already offering the university library from which they obtained it? With books that are out of print, that would allow publishers to offer the title through print-on-demand, and Google to rank it among its search results, with those glorious "buy the book" links.
In an email to me the other day, Sanfilippo acknowledged that he has not heard an official response from Google, this even as he's a customer reference for the company. Being a tech PR guy, I know how hard it is to get customer references, and they all must be treated very well. At the very least Google owes him a response.

Sanfilippo points out that from his perspective, in the non-profit university press sector, Google can very easily hurt the business. "The libraries included in the project are among our best customers. University libraries buy most, if not all of what university presses publish. These libraries have all bought or subscribed to our digital content in the past. Now they won't need to anymore. We're talking about tens of thousands in lost revenues," he told me.

Then there is the fact that digital files don't exist for much of the backlist, including out of print books that are still under copyright.

But here's where things get interesting, and I'm not sure of Google's intentions. Once Google has the digital file, can it eventually get copyright? Or does it just plan to be in business long past the point at which the book moves into the public domain?

All that said, Sanfilippo points out that he still loves Google Print for publishers, as that is an opt-in program with strict limitations, not an opt-out program over which they have no control over their copyrighted material.

There are many publishing houses that make a lot of money printing books in the public domain, which means they are more in the "packaging" business. So what happens when people don't need to buy the packaged book but can still get the content? Or maybe Google can print it for them, as I've suggested before?

"I think Google may be shooting itself in the foot," Sanfilippo continued in his email. "By ignoring the concerns of publishers, Google may in the long term betray the trust they need, if they really are considering content distribution. Either way, they most definitely seem to be publishing, the only question is will they be doing it legally or illegally."

Yes, there is that "trust" word again. How much will it matter in the future? If people can get the information from Google (as I do daily) will it matter if anyone actually "trusts" the company?

Kevin Werbach actually has an interesting perspective, in which he points out that the lawsuit, if successful, may bring the Internet to a halt. It's worth a read.

By the way, in a related piece of news, Google gave a glimpse of Google Base, which moves into classified ads. Yes, those same ads that were once ruled by newspapers, now by Craigslist and eBay, but may end up in Google's hands. But when Google has the books and the content and the classifieds and the news... how does any other content provider make money?

I also wonder if the guys in Redmond look south and see a younger version of themselves, and if they look toward IBM and find themselves looking in the mirror.

Monday, October 24, 2005

How to Save the Traditional Newsroom

In the last post I said I had no ideas about how to fix newspapers. Well, now I do, thanks in large part to a brainstorming IM session with my co-worker John Moran.

I think John Cass is on the right track when he points to hyperlocal journalism as a key element in fixing newspapers, but I think it's only a start. There are a number of hyperlocal sites out there (I've talked a bit about but can these help make money?

The real problem, as I see it, is that newspapers had that role as community source but lost it.
Frankly, I'm not sure they ever knew they had it, but it's what gave them power.

Often you hear journalists talk about their role as storyteller at the proverbial campfire. The image is of ancient humans sitting around at night, not long after feasting on their latest kill, telling tales of the hunt. One person leads telling everyone what happened that day, all other tribe members rapt with attention.

Great image, but wrong. The campfire is a circle not a stage. It's not just one story being told but many. People are talking to each other, some are calling out their own stories. It's an organized cacophony.

But all this times newspapers looked at themselves as the source for information. The one place local residents turned for news. And with older technologies, like newsprint, TV or radio, they were right.

So, what do they have now? Let's just take the example of the New York Times. As far as I'm concerned the paper's biggest asset is trust. People trust the information in it. Yes, you hear a lot of grumbling about inaccuracies in the Times, but for the most part this is where America turns when it truly wants information about the world.

This is also why the cases of Jayson Blair and Judith Miller hit so hard, they struck at the very trust that we, the readers, hold dear.

So, how would I fix it? First, I'd put all online content behind the pay firewall except for breaking news. Yes, you heard me right. I'd make people pay for content. In a move similar to what they've already done with select content, I'd make it so regular print subscribers easily get passwords so they can log in as well.

The argument that people won't pay for content is bunk. They will. How many people pay for HBO? I have DirecTV just so I can get Jets games on Sundays here in New England. Then there is cable penetration, which is very high in this country.

What would Times readers get for their money? It has to be more than just news, they have to become part of a community.

Readers should be allowed to post hyper-local content. Since registration will probably contain a certain amount of geographical information on each subscriber, a reader in Hackensack, New Jersey should automatically receive content that comes from other readers in their area.

However, a community is more than just about geography, it's also about likes and dislikes.

This is where things get very interesting. People who buy their way in must be allowed to comment on stories, not just in letters to the editor or in forums (though, these should still exist) but in comments attached directly to the story. What's more, they should be able to create their own spaces within the New York Times site, being able to focus the news as they see fit, a place where people can "clip" stories or even have searches on terms that are important to them. But here's the kicker: that should be public, this way other others can follow the various editions of the paper. Leaders would arise, just as they have in the blogosphere.

Along the way the Times would be collecting information on its readers, and then feeding content to the readers based on their interest. This isn't Earth-shattering technology, Google does it daily by feeding ads based on what's written in a blog or even in our emails.

And yes, I know that this kind of idea is called a blog or wiki, but I don't want to be bound by those titles. Newspaper sites must find ways to harness the power laid out before them, while levering the trust they earned by delivering us the news for the last century.

Once they have this community, they may earn back the classified ads or other revenue-producing concepts that could save them from financial ruin.

There's obviously more to explore here, like how to take lessons learned by gamers to make massive amounts of information easier to absorb.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Keeping Readers, Losing Community

The media industry is buzzing about cuts at the Boston Globe and the New York Times. These are nothing new, as the whole industry seems to be in a financial tailspin, even as ownership posts regular revenue gains.

Dan Kennedy has a great post today making the case that the Boston Globe has held onto its readership, it's just that the readership shifted from reading the printed form to the online version.

In the grand scheme of things, this is what was predicted years ago and what publishing companies thought they wanted: readers without having to spend money on newsprint or production. So why all the sour faces?

Because they can't make money this way. It boggles the mind, but with the same readership spread over two medium, traditional newspapers just can't figure out how to make a go of it. This is especially troublesome when you consider that most newspapers admit that the daily 50 cents or $1 you pay at the newsstand covers only print-production costs while advertising makes up the bulk of revenue.

What pundits fail to note is the steep decline in classified advertising. It used to be that newspapers were our only consistent community source for information, so it made sense to advertise that old couch, used car, house or yourself in the pay-per-letter space in the back pages.

But walk through any office in any major city and ask 20 somethings where they found their apartment and I guarantee they'll tell you "Craigslist."Ask them where they looked for a job and the answer will be "Monster." Ask them about the massive REM poster on the wall and they'll tell you "eBay." These are things that used to be pretty good profit centers for newspapers. Think about it, a whole page, paid for by the letter. Compare that to a massive display ad, which brought in just a few thousand dollars, or a page of news, which cost the paper more.

The problem is not that the newspapers lost readers, it's that they lost their role of being central to the community. But then again, the Internet changed how we think of a community, as some are geographic while others are based on interest. So how can newspapers regain this ground?

Honestly, I have no idea.

My Issue with Sources

There is a story that's getting some good play today in the Boston news regarding a European vacation that several state representatives left on last night, even as the legislature was trying to dig through key pieces of legislation.

The story on the front page of the Boston Globe "City and Region" section (below the fold) and written by Frank Phillips and Michael Levsenson points out that the trip includes six legislators, including key members of the leadership, as well as a state lobbyist, House clerk and others.

Interesting story, but as I read further I started to realize why this became such a big deal. The headline is "Legislators' trip could delay work in House," suggesting that these six members are so key as to shut things down. While that fact is mentioned in the lead paragraph, the key support for this statement is on the jump page:

Still, the trip stirred grumbling within the House ranks, where some members, who did not want to be quoted by name, felt the trip had come at the worst time....
With this trip, "they've shut the House down," said one frustrated member. "It's stunning. Short of the budget, this is the busiest time of the year."
What are the political beefs this person (or persons) speaking has with the legislators in question? Is this a political friend or foe? What sorts of state-funded projects may have been cut from this person's home region because of moves by the House leadership?

Without the information of who this source is, I the reader, am not able to make this determination.

Is this a real story, or is this just political back biting? Frankly, without more information, I just can't be sure. I'm left to trust the Boston Globe that it's something worthy of its prominent placement.

In the new media world, I'd like more information by which to make this determination.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Google Suit and the Long Tail

It's in the news again, the author's guild is suing Google for scanning books as part of the Google Print project.

There are several anecdotes floating around, like the fact that Google needs to scan a full book to make search itself more accurate, and that it's goal is to have nearly all of the Earth's information digitized and searchable at some point in the future. I've heard stories about authors and editors of hundreds of books being told they have to fill out a form for each book they don't want scanned, which is certainly a cumbersome and difficult job.

But why aren't authors embracing the idea of having their books digitized, and simply ask that Google make the search information available to other companies? Or what about requiring Google to present the digitized version to the copyright holder to do with as they see fit?

I still believe that the author's will eventually benefit from this project thanks to a possible print-on-demand system. This is the long tail in progress, and as John Cass pointed out, it may be something that Amazon should get involved with.

But I also understand that Google's basic mantra in all this is basically "trust is, we promise to do no evil," and I'd like to believe that. But I also can't help noticing that when you type "Chuck Tanowitz" into the search engine my blog and other older items come up ahead of my Typepad blog, and the other blog as much more information. I'm sure Google has a reason for this, but it makes me wonder.

So my point is, you may not trust Google, but rather than stopping them authors should find a way for the company to share its work. Isn't that what the Web is all about anyway?