Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The Public Wall

One of the enduring images in the aftermath of 9/11 was the pictures of the missing posted on walls around New York City. It's such a powerful image that fictional shows like Battlestar Gallactica have picked it up to set a context for the amount of suffering endured by the characters.

But New Orleans is so devastated that there is no wall, no communal place to post images of the missing. That's where the blogosphere and the Internet come in. I came across this site that shows pictures of loved ones that are currently among the missing. This is an offshoot of the Katrina Aftermath blog that is inviting people to post their stories by using email and voice.

Also, the NOLA Web site that is a primary source for local information is letting people post their survival stories.

While TV is great at communicating the devastation, the Internet excels at bringing people together.

Katrina's Media Waves

I'm hearing a lot of chatter about the power of blogs surrounding Katrina. They're offering us a terrifyingly close view of what is going on along the devastated Gulf Coast. I'm actually amazed at how information can still be distributed, considering that the infrastructure is nearly nonexistent.

But it's television that is truly flexing its muscle here. While blogs are offering us individual stories and helping reach out one person at a time, TV is making us aware of the breadth of the devastation.

TV reporters are practiced at this, they know how to frame the damage in a way that makes sense, they know about the helicopter shots and what questions to ask. It's a matter of experience.

I read many of the reports from all sorts of news organizations and blogs throughout the day, but it's when I get home at night and turn on CNN that the images drive home what is happening.

Part of that is perspective. People who live in an area know what is supposed to be there, so when they take a photograph it's not just of a damaged house, but of a house that is in their head. They don't just photograph damage, they photograph a memory. A journalist just in from Atlanta has no such memory and can help frame the picture in a way that makes more sense to those of us sitting in our living rooms on the other side of the continent.

My point is, these media work in concert, each complementing the other. Read the blogs, get the personal stories, but don't forget about TV.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

The World Shall Know

That was Pulitzer's mantra. It's the saying emblazoned across one of my favorite sweatshirts, and it's on a mug I received while a student at Columbia.

"Shine the light into the darkest corners," we were told, that is what a journalist does. And many of my classmates are doing wonderful work in places like Iraq, China, Los Angeles, New York and Washington, DC.

The Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University was founded with the idea that journalists should be trained with the same care and intensity as doctors and lawyers.

But while the notion is altruistic, and the Pulitzer Prizes honor the best the craft has to offer, the fact is that Pulitzer made his money doing what most serious journalists would call "bottom feeding." This is no different from today. While working in TV we had to balance our desire for ratings with our notions of what people really needed to hear. Sure, they want to see stories about Brad and Jen, but they need to hear about the changes in the tax law. As the song goes, a spoonful of sugar....

The other problem is that you need a license to practice medicine or law, but the first amendment guarantees freedom of speech to everyone, so everyone can speak and report. In other words, everyone can be a journalist. Welcome to the 21st century.

Still, the idea is sound. News and information is essential to a society that governs itself with a democratic process. Should we trust that to just anyone who may have any of a number of influences? Should we trust someone who has a limited background on the topic and who may have a strong bias?

A basic idea we were taught concerned ethics. One of my favorite professors, Sandy Padwe, who spent years working for Sports Illustrated, used to tell us not to eat the food that publicists would lay out for us. His reason? It clouds judgment. It's a big problem, for example, in sports reporting where you often hear beat reporters talking about which teams give the best spreads. You know that if you submit that story ripping a sports program, you're probably never getting that great crab dip again. Or worse, can a company that is so nice to us really be that mean to its employees?

To prove his point he handed us all a brown paper bag and told us to bring our own food.

The message was clear: keep money and journalism separate. Don't let the corporations affect how you report, you must remain independent.

It's great in theory, and I tried to live by it, but when you're earning $18K at your first job with $120,000 in loans staring you in the face, a free meal is pretty enticing.

But what happens now that journalism is being paid for by corporations? Does the sheer volume of information sources make up for the shift?

In Pulitzer's day New York had just a handful of information sources, all newspapers. In later years radio and TV joined the mix, but the number of sources remained small, so the voices remained loud. But if you have so many voices, and each diminished in volume, does it matter that some have an obvious corporate bias?

And, dare I say, does it make for better journalism? Take the field of science, for example. While much basic research goes on in the universities, major advances like the microchip come from corporations. It's corporations that support artists in this country. I know many artists who do what they want on the weekends producing beautiful sculptures, paintings and photographs, but make their living as graphic artists or corporate photographers, putting together brochures, Web site and other marketing material.

Is journalism headed down the same path? With just a handful of people making a living by doing it full time, with the rest working in some other job?

Frankly, I'm not sure but it's a question worth exploring.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Blazing New Ground? Maybe

During the Blog Business Summit, I heard Robert Scoble describe some aspects of blogging and had a sudden case of deja vu. It was journalism school all over again!

He, among others, talked about ethics, writing style, developing and maintaining an audience, all as if they were new concepts.

Yes, we have all heard the phrase "citizen journalist," and the power of the individual to reach the mass audience has never been greater than it is today.

This goes to the discussion of breaking down barriers. Publishing is now so cheap that the barrier to entry that companies like Hearst and the New York Times Company have lived on for so long is gone.

But it also means that instead of the journalist being trained and paid by journalistic organizations (and the skill being a primary source of income), they are untrained and paid by a corporation. In part I'm talking about the business bloggers, but also the personal bloggers and podcasters for whom this is a labor of love.

But it also eliminates the concept of objectivity, sort of. Robert Scoble mentioned that at times he has disagreed with his employer and blogged about it, but how far can he push that issue? That, to me, remains an open question. He described a "membrane" that he could push against. The more support he has internally the harder he can push against the membrane. It may snap back, but his supporters could hold him up. Interesting analogy.

Blogging is just part of the puzzle. The barrier to entry is also is coming down with radio and television. This is going to fundamentally change how people get their information, how they interact with it and how PR people help their clients get messages out. Everyone now has the ability to self publish.

It will also change who pays for the information that consumers receive, which raises the question: in whose best interest is it?

Friday, August 26, 2005

RSS and the Future of Communications

I heard an interesting discussion from Microsoft on the future of RSS while at the Blog Business Summit, what they are calling Web feeds.

At its heart, RSS is a way to send information. While Microsoft calls it “Web Feeds,” Google calls it “Web Clips” and others with a more technical bent call it XML. It doesn’t matter; it’s basically the same thing.

During his discussion Dean Hachamovitch, who heads the IE team at Microsoft, summed up the modern use if the Internet as moving from browsing to search and is now evolving into subscriptions. One does not replace the other, but builds on it and offers a new way to interact with and receive information.

Pulling from an old example, radio didn't replace newspapers, TV didn't replace radio and the Internet didn't replace TV. But each new technology forced the other technology to change and evolve.

How powerful is it to subscribe to something? Most publications sell copies on the newsstand, but they truly make their money on subscriptions. Many trade publications don’t even bother trying to sell you a subscription but just give it away, provided you meet the right criteria, so they can sell more expensive ads. Putting the magazine in the hands of the right people is far more important than selling it and requiring people to come find it.

So, what does this mean for the online world? Microsoft is building RSS technology into Windows Vista, making it available to every application that you would launch. The example Dean used was TCP/IP. No one really thinks about it, but it's the same underlying technology that makes IM and VoIP systems work.

There are many existing tools, like Bloglines, that let you subscribe and then see when something is updated. Since most bloggers don’t update on a regular basis, RSS enables people to be notified only when someone has something interesting to say.

But for a great demonstration of how this can change things go and download the latest version of Google Desktop Search. The toolbar has a section called “Web Clips” that automatically captures RSS feeds as you browse. So if you visit the New York Times, it will drop that into the feed. Visit this blog and it’ll drop that in too. The result is a customized news feed that changes as the information comes in. Some may complain that this is too busy and it offers too much information, but for me it’s perfect.

But that’s not all. The system gives you a headline and an origin, but it commingles everything. On mine the headlines from the New York Times flow in with those from ESPN and the latest post from Jeneane Sessum. As far as Google is concerned all posts are of equal importance. It’s up to me to determine which I want to read and what importance I place in the information I receive.

Jeneane, of course, is at the top of my list.

What I want to know is where is all this going? OK, so we get news feeds today, but how can we use this techology in the future to get informaton away from the computer screen and out into real life where we need it?

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Customers, Relationships, Friendships

My friend Mike Sansone has a great story on his blog about Panera Bread. He is apparently there a lot, enough so that the employees know him and miss him when he's not around.

It's a great example of a relationship and how this affects customer retention. Yes, he started going to Panera for the food, but he kept going because the people are nice. Age old story and something that should be recognized as a basic tenet of business.

Relationships aren't established in an instant, they take time. That's partly what this online media revolution is all about: building one-to-one relationships even when you can't speak face-to-face. Blogs, for example, are personal. You feel as if you have insight into what a person is thinking by just reading one. You can't get that through a press release or an article in a trade journal.

But they also maintain relationships. I know a woman who I see maybe twice a year; more a "friend of a friend" than anything. But she reads my family blog and told me recently that she cried on the day we got out daughter, just from reading my posts. Here is someone on the outskirts of my life who stays in contact with me, just enough, to maintain a relationship. Despite hardly ever seeing her, she knows enough to engage me in conversation on the few times we do meet. Imagine having that kind of relationship when you visit a prospect who you haven't seen since the last industry trade show.

A few years ago I attended a printing trade show with my father and he introduced a customer as a "friend." I remember thinking to myself "but he's a customer, how can he also be a friend?"

I quickly realized that my father was right, this man was (and is) a friend. My father is a smart man.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Snake Oil or Experience?

Robert MacMillan doesn't know what he has. It's a skill.

Robert can write. Not only can he write, but he gets paid to do it from a pretty big organization called Post Newsweek. Not a bad gig if you can get it.

But not everyone can get it. Frankly, not everyone should, since not everyone is a good writer. But even good writers don't have great exposure--like, say, a column that is emailed out to thousands of eager readers each day. Some people need help in coming up with ideas and turning them into lively copy. They also need help navigating the maze of promotion and distribution.

So I'm not so sure Robert knows what he's talking about when he writes of people trying to sell blogging services:

It's pathetic -- as well as amusing -- to watch representatives of multimillion-dollar corporations shell out their hard-earned cash to buy what amounts to bottles of freshly packaged air. The concepts behind blogging are not difficult to understand, nor is it difficult to throw one onto the Internet. I'd be ashamed to charge for my services so I'll offer them for free. Want a blog? Go read some. Do what they do. There's your Blog Business Summit.
Does every CEO need some kind of Editor in Chief to help create and run a blog? Of course not. But many do. Just because a columnist from the Washington Post knows how to write and feed an audience doesn't mean that everyone has that ability.

What makes you a blogger?

Does having a blog make you a blogger?

On the surface of it anyone would say "yes." But let me rephrase the question. Does having Microsoft Word on your computer make you a writer? Does having a digital camera make you a good photographer?

Sure, you can fire off the occasional good picture and those snapshots from your last vacation look great, but are you up there with Eisenstaedt? Do the pictures you took on your tour of the national parks look anything like Adams'? Are you good enough to have a byline in the New York Times? Can you write the Great American Novel?

Of course you'd answer "no" to these questions. So then why do people believe that having a blog address makes them a blogger? Because for now, it does. It just doesn't make them a good blogger.

This is part of what we discussed at the Blog Business Summit, that a blogger is part writer, part marketer, part designer, maybe even a little crazy. But to me it's more than that.

A writer must know how to spin a good yarn, let a bit of personality come through, and have a thick skin. If it's a business blogger, that person must understand enough about marketing to ensure that the corporate message is getting across, but not smacking people over the head.

A blog can easily fall victim to becoming just piece of marketing collateral, but it should be much more than that. When done correctly it can be a place for debate, a place to extend the corporate vision and a place to test the waters.

But I fear that a lot of executives are going to try it out without understanding how to measure success or without having the right guidance or tools, then they'll turn to their Corporate Communications people and dismiss the exercise as a waste of time.

I just hope people take the time to do it right the first time, know their limitations and ask for help. They don't have to be Hemingway or Faulkner, but understanding how to make the story work is certainly a requirement for success.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Where Worlds Collide

Life is always more interesting at the junctions and that's where we are today.

Old media, dominated by companies with big budgets and high production value, are running headlong into the new media, people with nothing more than a home computer and an Internet connection who have the power to reach the world.

Don Hewitt, when asked to explain the success of his show 60 Minutes, would lean in like a child and say "tell me a story." His point: it's that basic. Tell a good story and people will listen.

I'm a storyteller. I started out in journalism and then moved to public relations. When people asked how I made that transition, my answer was simple: "I told stories before and I'm telling them now, not much has changed."

In this new world, where the proverbial "blogger in his pajamas" is going up against CBS, it's the stories that will win, and the people who can tell them the best will get noticed.

As for me, it doesn't matter if those stories are about my children or about the collision of worlds. I just want to tell them.