Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Future of Journalism

If you want to see the future of journalism, look no further than Brian Stuy. Brian runs Research-china.org in which he researches information for parents of children adopted from China to find out a bit more information. Items such as photos of finding places, foster parents, etc.

In his travels he has uncovered quite a bit of information and has become an information source for many such parents (including myself).

His posts sometimes elicit anger, sometimes compassion and we all know his bias, but he also shows his readers the cards, showing his figures and thought process, then letting others also add their own view to the conversation.

A recent post done in resonse to an idiotic comment in Parade Magazine is a good case in point. He finds the figures to back up his assertions, not jut relying on knee-jerk reactions.

I'm not saying he is the ONLY future of journalism, but certainly an interesting example of how the field is changing. It will no longer be about uninterested observers trying to provide dispassionate reporting, an idea that is constantly lambasted. Instead, it will be about people who care immensely providing information and commentary on issues important to them.

Do Some Evil?

Google has come under fire recently for its decision to offer up a censored version of its site in China. As everyone is probably aware, China is probably the most enticing market in the world for its sheer size, but also one of the most difficult to access. Many people in the west have lost fortunes trying to make one in China, dating all the way back to Marco Polo.

So here is Google, with it's "don't do evil" creed and it's asked by the Chinese to offer up scrubbed search results. Many in the US have come down on the company for this, saying that it's just wrong.

As for my take, a company needs to do what's right for the company, and each nation has its own rules. We may not agree with those rules, but you have to balance the decision to be in that market with the rules for working within it. Imagine being an oil company executive forced to do business with nations that have policies that churn the stomach. But you go where the oil is as a matter of business.

I actually wonder if the same people angry with Google have stopped using oil for the same reason. Good luck to you.

Anyway, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said that they created a sort of evil scale:

"We concluded that although we weren't wild about the restrictions, it was even worse to not try to serve those users at all," Schmidt said. "We actually did an evil scale and decided not to serve at all was worse evil," he said, referring to the company's famous "don't be evil" creed.
This is the problem with flip statements like "don't be evil," as evil is relative. I just wonder what the scale looked like and wonder if they're starting to find the need for an ethics advisor at the board level.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Revisiting the Ethics Issue

Way back in December I posted on the idea of an ethics consultant, and that elicited a lot of discussion, some online some off. I spent some time thinking more on the idea and wanted to catalog some of those thoughts. (In the blogging world we expect fast answers and immediate gratification, but in the real world my brain needs to absorb and consider information.)

My brother is a pretty smart guy with a strong business background. He's more of a numbers person and works deep in management theory, so I put this question in front of him and he gave me quite a bit to chew on. First, he asked how to make such a position operational? Do you really want to run all decisions through an ethics person (or department) in addition to all the other people already involved? What would this do to a company's ability to be competitive?

He also pointed out that many companies have ethical codes that act as the basis of their professional conduct. Violate those codes and you'll be out looking for a new job. He posits that the ethical lapses such as those at Enron and Tyco are by "bad seeds." That is, the majority of American business leaders do, in fact, act ethically and we only hear about the bad ones. An extension of that thinking is that Sarbanes-Oxley is overkill, but that's another discussion.

Making this position operational in a large organization is certainly difficult, but if it's a board-level person this would only deal with decisions made that high up in the company. Yes, I know, everyone wants a seat at the table. Plenty of communications professionals out there say that a communications person, at the same seat, would be of far more value and provide a similar kind of service. That is "if you make this move it's going to be a PR nightmare." Which begs the question: are ethics and PR the same thing?

But back to my brother's questions. On his last one I can't entirely agree. Once a person reaches the top of a company, whether that is the CEO or any other board position, they are at the pinnacle of their career. By that I mean they have worked their way up through the ranks, been promoted and rewarded, and developed their personal code of ethics along the way. They built on what worked and discarded what failed, just as we all do. So what does the behavior at the top tell us about the ladder on the way up?

Adam Shostack seemed to be grappling with the same question when he wrote:

Ethics comes from within. How you were raised, and how you view the world. A consultant is unlikely to be asked the right questions about the right problems. So to make good use of an ethics consultant, you almost have to pay them to roam the halls looking for trouble. What ethical consultant could take that sort of assignment in good conscience?

What's more, ethics comes from leadership, and specifically, leaders who make hard decisions in ethical ways. Outsourcing ethics may send the message that ethics is something for someone else to worry about.
I agree with him about outsourcing, this probably should be an internal person, a sort of ombudsman inside the company. Rob Sama wrote an interesting piece that attempts to define ethics as different from morality, but comes to the same conclusion about where a person would have to sit.

That said, Brad Feld has a great idea. He's a VC from the west coast who tries to instill a sense of community in his portfolio companies by encouraging them to donate money to charitable causes from the very beginning.

A former colleague, Rich Polt, started a PR firm on this very idea. He looks for companies that have a degree of community service built into their DNA.

Then there is Google, which still professes to "do no evil," and recent actions seem to suggest it's trying to do just that. But as I noted before, evil for one company is good for another.

Adam is right, ethics comes from within. So who is raising tomorrow's top CEOs?

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Watching a Medium Mature

I remember first learning about Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly back in high school. In fact, a few weeks later, when I saw Friendly on one of his PBS roundtables I decided that Columbia Journalism School is where I wanted to be, and it's where I ended up.

I met Friendly late in life after a stroke had taken some of his quick thinking, but at over 6 feet tall he was still an imposing figure. But always... excuse the pun... friendly.

In college I took a few classes that helped put the McCarthy shows into perspective and I watched all of them. But that was all a long time ago, before I worked in TV and had the experience of writing copy on a daily basis.

While watching Good Night and Good Luck a few weeks ago, I was struck at how amazing Murrow's writing was. He called up images and used complex sentence structures that you just couldn't use today.

This is from the end of the McCarthy broadcast, in which the See It Now crew used McCarthy's own words to let him hang himself:

No one familiar with the history of this country can deny that congressional committees are useful. It is necessary to investigate before legislating, but the line between investigating and persecuting is a very fine one and the junior Senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly. His primary achievement has been in confusing the public mind, as between internal and the external threats of Communism. We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men -- not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular.
Could you get away with writing that today? I doubt it. In the age of the 20 second story and snappy writing, beauty like this gets lost. Of course, part of the reason the writing from the "Golden Age of Television" could be so complex is simple: only the wealthy owned TVs. The wealthy tend to be better educated. It's the same reason that HBO is praised with putting on "smarter" shows today, it doesn't need to cater to the "lowest common demoninator." In the modern journalism world in which advertisers pay for the number of people in front of the TV, writing must appeal to the greatest number of people possible.

A few weeks ago the Boston Globe ran a piece called "The Vanishing Anchorman" about the fact that the traditional male anchor is disappearing from Boston TV screens. I'd argue that it's not that big of a deal, we're just losing the "middle aged white guy" in an era that such a demongraphic isn't indicitive of who is watching television.

But what of the great writing? I taught at local college back in the mid 90s, one prized for turning out journalism students, and found that most couldn't write worth their soul They were far more interested in looking good on camera than how the copy sounded. I'd get questions about hair, makeup and clothing, but little about how to best prestent the story. The worst part? The school is great at getting its students jobs. Style over substance.

We are now in the 500 channel universe and you'd think that you clould create a niche for people who want solid writing. Maybe there is, but is it watchable? Are we simply trained to want simple, digestable copy and reject great works?


During my time at the Blog Business Summit I heard a lot of people talk about how blogging reaches influencers and decision makers. Others will tell you that blogs and podcasts reach a very small segment of the overall audience. All this is true, but only for today. This medium will mature and change as more people come online and take part in the conversation. It will be both a blessing and a curse.

You will be able to find pockets of thought and writing, but weeding through the crap will become more difficult. When that happens the wealthy, educated crowd will move onto the next thing.

Don't believe me? Find yourself a 60-year-old, white anchorman and ask him.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Support for Being Open.... Sort of

Back when I first heard the term "blog" my big reaction was "so?" I groped for a reason that this was different from what I'd done when I put up a Web site in 1998 to talk about the progression of my still-in-utero first child. I wrote weekly about my feelings, my wife's health, her growing belly, etc. (The original site is long since gone, but a family "blog" now exists.)

There were some differences. In this new "blogging" world I didn't need to worry about HTML code (though it makes some things easier) , and with a "blog" I could let other people comment as opposed to just getting emails. Are those small differences or major? I'm certainly more apt to write when I don't need to code, but that's about it. The term is hot, the tools are good, so I go along with it.

But as you may have already read, I'm not a big fan of the word and I think at a certain point, just about everything starts to look like what we now call a "blog." Then it's going to be about creating and commenting on content, not about the form it takes. That's why I like the term "Open Communications." It won't matter if it's video, audio or written text, and whether it's TiVo'd, downloaded, broadcast or sent via satellite. It'll just be content that also enables people to be part of the conversation.

Shel Holtz doesn't agree, as he noted in a quick comment on episode #101 of the podcast For Immediate Release, and neither do a few other people, though Stephen Turcotte does.

Over at AdAge.com, Simon Dumenco contends that bloggers are just writers with a cooler name. The whole article is worth a read, but I like two key points:

OK, you might argue, blogging is aesthetically a different beast -- it’s instantaneous media. (Well, since the dawn of the 24-hour news cycle, pretty much all media has had to learn how to be instantaneous.) It’s unpolished. (The best blogs I read are as sophisticated as anything old-school media publishes.) It’s voice-y. (The best old-school media I read tends to be voice-y.) It’s about opinion, not reporting. (The best reporting to come out of MacWorld in San Francisco last week was published on blogs.) It’s, well, often sloppy and reckless (and Judy Miller wasn’t?).


Ultimately, it comes down to this: In the very near future, there are only going to be two types of media people: those who can reliably work and publish (or broadcast) incredibly fast, and those ... who can’t.

That last point is perhaps the most important. We do/will all have voices that are searchable and accessible, some are worth listening to, others are not. It's up to the news consumer to determine who is trustworthy and who isn't.

What's more, new tools will emerge to help sort through all of this and, in my opinion, this "filter" is going to become a key component of it all. As Windows Vista comes out with its built-in RSS readers, information will flow like a utility.

How to make money in this new environment is anyone's guess, and the noise will be deafening. But think about it as a big party. Small groups start to gather in the kitchen, the living room, the bedrooms (ok... REALLY small groups in the bedrooms) and even on the front lawn. As a whole the party is just a lot of noise, but taken piece by piece it's a series of conversations.

The trick for businesses will be to find the right conversations and be part of them.

How Would You Judge This?

I'm a Brandeis grad. In fact, my wife and I donate a bit of money each year. Nothing major, but just a bit to let the school know we care. We loved going there and only live a mile or so away, so we can still visit.

So when the Jack Abramoff story broke, it was with dismay that I read how he also attended Brandeis, though admittedly, he is an anomaly. Most people come out of that school pretty liberal, it's hard to keep a conservative bent. To this day, when planning a function, I instinctively plan to offer both Kosher and vegetarian alternatives for everyone attending.

This past Sunday The Boston Globe did a huge feature about how Abramoff honed his skills way back during his time at Brandeis, ending the story with a quote he gave to the alumni magazine in which he said he "learned a whole lot" while at the school.

You can be forgiven if you come out of the story thinking that Brandeis played a significant role in his life. I think Abramoff had a different impression because today's Justice, the student-run newspaper (for which I wrote, back in the day), has a story noting that Abramoff, despite all his millions, donated a mere $50 to the school over the last quarter century.

In true Brandeis fashion there is some serious discussion in the story given to donating the $50 to charity.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Gathering Irony

The most coveted spot in today's Boston Globe goes to Gather.com. The front page, top left corner contains an article about this Boston-based startup that promises to act as a marketplace for bloggers.

As it's messaging goes, kind of like an eBay for writers.

It's an interesting concept and I'm interested to see where it goes. But what most fascinates me is how I heard about it. Not from a podcast like For Immediate Release, or any of the dozens of blogs I read, but from the old "Dead Trees" newspaper.

The reason for this is pretty simple: a key backer is Jim Manzi, former CEO of Lotus and a local legend. Even if I spent hours on the phone with Robert Weisman talking about one of my client startups (especially one that can't show much by way of traction) it wouldn't get this kind of treatment.

But why would a blog-like site do traditional some pre-launch media relations? They already have writers, but when I did a quick Technorati search, there just wasn't that much out there yet. I'm not feeling the buzz. I just find the irony in that somewhat interesting.

Perhaps they engage a bit more in some Open Communications.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Coal: Our Hands are Dirty Too

My wife grew up in Wilkes-Barre, Penn., a city built on coal. I've spent enough time there and talked with enough people to realize, first hand, that the coal companies have never been the best of neighbors.

One of the first things you see after coming out of the hills on the Cross Valley Expressway (Wilkes-Barre is in the Wyoming Valley) is two large, black piles of coal waste. This culm is basically black nothing, an ecological disaster pulled from the Pennsylvania hills that just sits there with no purpose and no hope. The piles act as a gateway to this city that was forgotten by those with money once the coal ran out. It happens that the piles are diminishing, as some discovered useful coal within the culm, but they will never entirely disappear.

Just ask anyone and they'll also tell you about the Knox Mine disaster in 1959 in which 12 died. Frankly, the area was on the decline by the time this happened, but miners dug far beyond where they were supposed to go, all on company orders, and ended up knocking a hole in the Susquehanna River. It trained like a large toilet until it was plugged with, among other things, train cars.

So I wasn't suprised when I first heard that the mining company took a long time to even acknowledge the Sago Mine disaster on the corporate Web site. They have since corrected the problem, but the slow reaction (if true... I can't confirm how long it took) hurts.

But here is the rub. According to statistics on the Department of Energy Web site, as of 2003 more than 50 percent of the electricity generated in the US comes from coal. Which means that coal--that dirty, grimy substance for which we send men underground to earn a hard living--powers the Internet.

So when you read more about the Sago Mine disaster in West Virginia, don't fool yourself into thinking "that's not my problem."

On the Receiving End

As a producer in a TV newsroom, I didn't get a lot of pitches. I worked the overnight shift for a while, then worked as a writer during the day. Most of the pitches came in through the assignment desk and didn't get to me.

That was just fine. I got my share as a freelancer, but nothing too crazy.

But in the last few days I've started to see more and more come through my inbox. I couldn't figure out why. Then I realized: I must be in MediaMap! A quick search and yup, there I am. This is interesting in a "turnabout is fair play" kind of way. As a blogger, I'm open to being "pitched," but I'd like it to be relevant.

To be fair, my description isn't huge and I didn't fill out the form Bacon's sent me a while back, so lazy PR professionals can be forgiven for not fully understanding what, exactly, my blog is all about. I'm described as discussing "Public Relations and Marketing, Media and Weblogs."

But my blog isn't hard to find, in fact, the link is right there. Just click on it. If this basic step has been done then why have I received a pitch about customer satisfaction with e-tailers? This one addressed to the known quantity of "First_Name". Yes, it's bad.

Another invited me to the launch of a fashion magazine where I may be able to meet a supermodel. I must say, it's enticing. But I don't live in NY and don't have any kind of travel budget. Actually, I don't have a budget at all. Frankly, why would I write about a fashion publication. Is there some way it's taking advantage of new media? Not that I've found yet, though I may have to do an up-close-and-personal interview the supermodel to complete my research.

One thing did occur to me: how about some help for these harried PR pros from the folks at Bacon's? Why not just use the RSS feed to show the last three or four posts from a given blog right there on the page? It shouldn't be too difficult to do, as the feeds are public and just need to be put in just as they put in the other information.

At least then a person would know, without doing all that extra clicking "work" that I don't write about fashion. Not an end all answer, but then again, neither is Bacon's.

Frankly, a rule of thumb for pitching any blogger should be, if you can't post a relevant comment on the site, it's probably not one you want to pitch. If you can, then you're probably part of the conversation.

Just be open.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Why We Should Stop "Blogging" and Just be "Open"

Yes, I know, everyone hates it. Frankly, I don't mind it for a venue like this one, a totally text-based, online site that is updated regularly (or semi-regularly) with simple publishing tools. But I don't like the term as all-encompassing for such things as podcasts, video blogs (or video podcasts, or whatever you want to call them) or a myriad of other ways of individuals expressing themselves in the broader electronic word.

Newsweek had a story last week about the talent behind the successful SNL rap film "Chronic(WHAT)les of Narnia." (Quick side note: I loved this film. During a family trip to my in-laws of Christmas I showed it to my wife and my father-in-law. I sat there cracking up, with the two of them looking at me like I'm insane.)

Long before Andy Samberg was rapping about a certain kids film on SNL, he and his friends were making and posting short pieces to their own Web site. This isn't some know-nothing with a video camera, this is a guy with a film education from NYU, the same school that turned out Spike Lee. This is among the best film schools in the country, but Samberg didn't go to Hollywood when he got out, instead he went to the Web.

Still he didn't give up on traditional media. He pitched a show to Fox (later posting the ditched pilot on the site) and worked for the now-cancelled ABC show Spin City.

What I like about this story is how he, and others like him, flit between the two worlds. They create interesting content, where it ends up is irrelevant. Would you call this "blogging"? I certainly wouldn't, but it falls under the same broad category. I prefer to call this "self-produced content." Yes, a mouthful I know.

During a recent lunch conversation with John Cass, he and I argued over the term "blogger relations." Personally, I think it's a lousy term. He believes it's the hot term of 2006.

I'd like to suggest another: Open Communications. I'm thinking about this in the same vein as Open Source, that is, a way for everyone to contribute to the conversation. It's a way of simply better expressing what is going on today, and giving a label for corporations to attach to this to differentiate it from traditional PR, media relations and advertising.

At a certain point all of this becomes one and all falls under the general "communications" umbrella, but we're not there yet.

For now, it's all about being Open.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Speak into the Microphone

The New York Times has a great piece today on how blogs are forcing a change in how reporters use interviews. It talks about how some organizations--upset about how they were portrayed in a particular story or how their quotes were used out of context--are fighting back by posting full transcripts. It also mentions how reporters are now posting source material as a matter of course.

It's a good piece, but also a bit of a cautionary tale for PR people. Most of my clients are smaller companies that fight for ink; very different than a major player like Google that is in a much better position to dictate its terms.

For clients like mine the article has this:

Posting of original material may be somewhat less common in the corporate world than among individuals representing themselves. Steven Rubenstein, president of Rubenstein Communications, the New York public relations firm, said that posting raw material was "another tool in the tool chest" and that if a corporate client had been damaged, "you'll certainly want to get something out that's Google-able."

But, he said, a corporation must also consider whether publishing such material would alienate an influential beat reporter as well as an entire news outlet and possibly reporters for other outlets. "You have to balance the incident over the long-term relationship," he said. "But you can get your side out in a benign way. It doesn't have to be antagonistic."

We in PR spend a lot of time working to court favor with reporters so they'll take our clients seriously. If a client lashes out at that reporter you can bet the next time a relevant story comes up, it's going to be much more difficult to earn a mention. I'm sure we all have stories of clients calling us, angry, and wanting to find out "what we can do" about a particular reporter or story. The trick is to use this new weapon wisely and not to have a quick trigger finger.

The ability for anyone to be a publisher means that everyone is always on the record. During media training, we regularly tell our clients stories of post-interview, off-hand comments made on the way to the elevator that ended up in articles. When talking to a reporter you never use the phrase "off the record," because you rarely are.

I had a journalism professor who taught us ways to get information back ON the record if a subject said to keep it off. It can be done. If you want it off the record, don't say it.

It also means that everything is fair game. As a PR person I tend to be behind the scenes. In fact, most reporters would probably prefer not to tell their readers that I'm even part of the process. They run interviews with my clients and don't normally say "I got a call from a PR person and then decided to interview his/her client."

But a blogger or podcaster is a different story. I recently pitched my client to the Bluebox Podcast and found my pitch read as a reader comment.

Not my intention but I am, in fact, speaking into the microphone with every call and email.