All it Takes Is a Little Imagination

Lots of news about Twitter this week, including several stories about using the social media channel to target print media outlets.

One battle is Ashton Kutcher v. Village Voice. A more disturbing story that broke in U.K. newspapers – about the News of the World (NOTW) hacking the phone account of murdered 13-year-old Milly Dowler – has turned into an all-out war against the tabloid, using Twitter to encourage advertisers to boycott this Fleet Street staple.

The background is thisNOTW is accused of hacking into the mobile phone account of the young teen, who went missing in 2002; listening to voicemail messages left by distraught family and friends; then deleting voicemails when the mailbox was full so that more messages could be left on the system. When relatives of the missing girl discovered that voicemails had been deleted, they thought they had reason to believe she might still be alive and gave hopeful interviews to NOTW.

News of the phone hackings ultimately got out – there are further allegations, involving hacked accounts of other victims of tragedies – and writer Melissa Harrison at the Guardian newspaper began a campaign to make NOTW’s advertisers uncomfortable enough to withdraw their support for a tabloid that might endorse this kind of unprofessional conduct. You can read her description of the response that followed here.

Harrison’s article frankly discusses the importance and some of the difficulties of a free press in a democratic society – the downside being the risk of immoral behavior creeping in to the newsgathering process.

Social media hasn’t been free of some of these downsides (and it could be argued that the technological acumen that gave us cell phones and hacking also conjured up innovations like Twitter). But, Harrison adds, “it’s times like this when Twitter really comes into its own.”

“As a truly democratic forum, everyone can get involved and have their say, and it’s easy to share information and ideas,” Harrison writes. “And because it’s all so public, it’s very hard for companies to ignore public pressure or hide behind rhetoric. For every 5,000 tweets with a funny cat photo there’s a moment like this, when Twitter remembers what it can really do.”

Tabloids are an easy target for disapprobation. So is Twitter. People buy and read tabloids and use social media for all sorts of reasons. As Harrison notes in her article, it’s easy to dismiss some of the awful things that appear in tabloids with the statement that “they only print it because people want to read it.”

While that may be true of celebrity gossip, I think it’s more nuanced when it comes to stories of missing children. This is just my opinion, but I think it may be that most readers seek out stories like this because of fear, not titillation. They are looking for clues, differently from the official investigators, but just as diligently, about the level of danger in their neighborhoods and that their children might be exposed to. They are weighing the information available to them to decide what to do, how to protect their families, and how to talk to their children about some of the terrible things that happen in this world.

Instead of helping, the tabloid failed its readers, misjudging what they were capable of. From the evidence of Melissa Harrison’s Twitter campaign, all it might have taken was a little imagination on the part of NOTW editors and writers to figure out how to channel the concern for a missing child into something far more valuable and lasting, perhaps a campaign that stirred readers to form neighborhood watch groups or reach out to and support the families of victims or find new ways to protect children when they walk home from school.

Gate-crashing: Writing PR that Reads Like Reporting

Yesterday’s post about practice writing was weighted toward creative writing (not that professional communications can’t be creative, but, in this case, I was talking about fictional creative writing). Today, let’s look at it in the context of PR and corporate writers.

On the first day of work as a young PR professional, I was handed a clipboard with a three-inch stack of press releases penned by my predecessor. They were a helpful starting place: a guide to the way the institution positioned itself, branding language, boilerplate, the annual cycle of announcements, events and new hires.

BTW, in those days, that clipboard was the official storage file for press releases, so I wound up retyping things that I found useful, like boilerplate, into a computer for safe keeping – practice writing of the organization’s best practices.

Today, you’ll find company press releases on almost every corporate website, which makes it easy to see – and practice – your competitors’ best practices, especially those examples of releases that you know earned those other guys valuable media coverage.

But, if you’re going to be a great PR writer, learning the ins and outs of press release-writing doesn’t come solely from practice writing of press releases. The best practice is to study and copy the kind of writing done by the media outlets where you’re hoping to secure coverage. So, if that’s the industry trades, you’re going to be writing in a completely different, and more highly technical, style than a press release going to network and cable broadcast news organizations. Just like pitch letters, you may want to think about writing more than one press release per subject, each with its own targeted type of writing.

Study – and copy – your target media outlets’ writing for:

  • Style – is it newsy, technical, folksy, humorous, stodgy? Do columnists or bloggers have writing styles that vary from the rest of the publication or website?
  • Language – the nuances, catch phrases, technical terminology of the industry.
  • Substance – what facts or new information are revealed in stories, how are trends and thought pieces backed up by data? What is the publication’s commitment to reporting, digging for details?
  • Length – how long is the typical story about the subject of your press release? If their coverage of new business leaders runs to two grafs, how much of your two-page release will they be using?
  • Color – do they typically use quotes, statistics, sidebars? If you can provide similar items that match theirs, you may pick up additional coverage.

Keep on reading and copying your target media. It’s where you’ll pick up story ideas, learn who covers what subjects, discover which reporters have pet peeves and interests, and develop a style that reads less like PR and more like the story about your company or organization that you want to see online, on TV and in print.

The Pirate Code

I’m reading a wonderful book by Jake Silverstein, Nothing Happened and Then It Did, whose subtitle, “A chronicle in fact and fiction,” took on new meaning after reading about the author’s seemingly fact-based adventures as a reporter in Marfa, Texas, and competing to become The Greatest Poet in the World at a casino in Reno, when a chapter on hunting for the lost bounty of the Pirate Lafitte resolved with a sizable addition to Silverstein’s bank account.

I’m about half-way through, and curious as heck to see where this journey will take me.

From the book, it appears Silverstein was not sure reporting was all that it was cracked up to be and decided to leave his newspaper job for New Orleans. “Maybe I lacked the necessary professional ferocity,” he writes. “Maybe journalism required a piratical mind-set, like Lafitte’s, a willingness to pillage and deceive and do anything whatsoever to get the story.”

It’s an interesting idea, perhaps even a stereotype – this dogged pursuit of fact-based stories, depicted in books and films such as All the President’s MenFear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail and “Absence of Malice.”

Back in the day when I was a reporter, there were times when a tough shell and a bag of tricks helped, whether it was reporting on the city’s blind spot when it came to the growing homeless population or dealing with nursing-home strike-breakers who felt no remorse at driving through a line of health-care workers attempting to blockade an entrance. But, these were small-town stories.

In the summer of 1980, I had the opportunity to cover the Democratic National Convention in New York City, along with reporters from all the major broadcast networks and print outlets. It was a boisterous free-for-all, made contentious by a three-day floor fight over delegates between Sen. Edward Kennedy and President Jimmy Carter, who was running for reelection.

As state delegations met, and interest groups convened, we reporters were like a rugby scrum elbowing for position – and first soundbytes – outside caucus rooms, waiting for the locked doors to open and a spokeperson to emerge. “Who’re you voting for?” was a constant refrain, hanging in the air over the delegates’ heads like the ever-present cigarette smoke. (You see, in those days, it was still legal to smoke indoors. In New York City, it’s possible it was required that you do so.)

Outside the women’s caucus, Bella Abzug took to kicking reporters in the shins to get them out of her way. And, as the African-American caucus ended, there was such a crush of reporters that a cameraman standing near me lost his balance and fell against another, bloodying him with his equipment. I’m not sure whether the ensuing fistfight was the result of the injury or a lost shot, but the person we were all wildly pursuing was Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, a distinguished man who, at 62, required assistance to walk.

As the saying goes, It was one of those moments. Does reportorial ferocity in pursuit of a story outweigh the need to be respectful of a man walking with a cane and holding on to the arm of an assistant?

I don’t know if the same thought crossed the minds of my fellow reporters in that mosh pit, but they decided to press inward upon Mayor Young, while I stepped out of the ring and didn’t get the story.

Listening to the scheduled speakers for the rest of the evening, wandering about Madison Square Garden, I wrestled with my decision. After all, what was I here for if not to get the story?

Here’s where Jake Silverstein’s book – with it’s blend of fact and fiction – reminded me of that night. If this was fiction, a “Brady Bunch” episode or something, the senior politician would’ve parted the crowd, refusing to talk to the unruly reporters and whisked me off to a private caucus room for an exclusive on the vote. The nonfiction version? I go home without a story and become a hardened journalist, ready to fight for every lead, source and soundbyte.

What really happened?

I can tell you that in later years as a reporter, when I did something similar, there was no serendipity. I returned to the newsroom empty-handed and got chewed out by editors. But, on this night, as I headed for the exit, I ran into Mayor Young, alone with the young man assisting him, slowly making their way through the convention hall, unrecognized and unmolested. A polite request for an interview was accepted. Any chance of an exclusive on the caucus vote had long been lost, but I was allowed to ask a wide range of questions, enough to prepare a feature-length story that no one else got.

Writing that inspired me this week:

“The immense unpeopled grasslands flecked with ancient plants diminish notions of human community…I can confirm that it is not unusual, in such situations, for the curtain between the real and the imaginary to lift. Alone on the plain, a man tells himself stories about who he is that draw from both domains. Fact and fabrication are opposites only when there is a society to verify or deny; for a man in isolation – and who is not? – the two share a greater taxonomy.”
~ Jake Silverstein, Nothing Happened and Then It Did: A Chronicle in Fact and Fiction

Leading by Example: Why PR Bloggers Should Act Like Reporters

An appeal for higher standards – fact-checking, source verification and the like – among blog writers appeared in this piece on this morning.

Author Jeremy Pepper notes that just because many bloggers are writing “opinion pieces” doesn’t exempt them from using some basic tools of the reporting trade. He exhorts PR writers, in his call for journalistic standards on blogs, to lead the way:

“We’re that bridge for media and bloggers to our clients and companies, and we can engage and help out there,” Pepper writes, adding parenthetically: “That is why Facebook, Twitter and other forms of electronic media and communications have become so valuable.”

I would add that this is when social media becomes valuable: when it applies standards and is open and honest with its consumers about its content, where it came from, and how it’s disseminated.

This article contains links to some thought-provoking sidebars that you may find interesting (or off-topic) and, since I’m calling this blog No Bad Language, I feel obligated to advise it also includes one bit of coarse language that makes it potentially unsuitable for younger readers.

The Value of Quality: The Great Paywall Debate

Arianna Huffington examined the paywall debate and established her own beachhead – and, incidentally, Huffington Post’s, as well – on the side that favors free content, in a recent editorial, “On Change, Disruptive Innovation, and the Problem with Paywalls.”

“We definitely won’t be erecting any paywalls at HuffPost,” she announced, perhaps prematurely, since the new media site only just moved in with its new business partner, AOL, and the fruit of what’s kindly been called a merger (despite AOL buying Huffington Post outright) has yet to appear on the vine. It remains to be seen if AOL will want to erect a farmstand to sell HuffPost’s produce.

And the debate over paid content? At the Changing Media Summit (which inspired Huffington’s post), The Times of London’s Paul Hayes, commenting on the paper’s decision to use a paywall, said, “We believe in the quality of our journalism to such an extent that it’s worth paying for.”

Huffington pounces on this – “The implication being, of course, that those who don’t put their content behind a paywall don’t value their content.” – while confusing the difference between “quality” and “value.” For example, an audience may be willing to pay (value) for content created by journalists trained to a particular level of skill and with an understanding of the tenets of their profession (quality).

I agree with Huffington when she says that the idea that blogging “is only for shallow, uninformed bloggers, and that online legacy journalism is the only domain for ‘deep analysis’ feels about as old as the Tower of London.”

I make no claims that blogs don’t or can’t uphold the same journalistic professionalism as pay-based media. The medium is certainly capable and so are many of its practitioners. But, here again, she’s confusing the argument. “Deep analysis” is a type of content; its home is on the editorial pages. “Journalism” is something else again, and opinion, subjectivity and a less-than-thorough review of the facts are strived against in the sections of media channels dealing with news. Blogs, like Huffington Post, are often, though not always, aggregators of news and events, and their contribution, in the form of original content, tends to be opinion, and they are not always clear about the difference between aggregation and origination.

There’s a lot of hand-clapping in Huffington’s editorial about “blurring the line” – between Old Guard journalism and blog-writing, between being a reporter and being a reader – content blending into one big pot of information soup stirred by a collaborative of cooks.

She quotes Frank Rose, author of The Art of Immersion: “We are ceasing to be consumers of mass media; we are becoming participants in social media – a far more fluid environment in which we simultaneously act as producers, consumers, curators, and commentators, sharing our thoughts and perceptions with people we know and with people we don’t.”

This immersive nature of the Internet “makes the idea of paywalls and walled gardens all the more unproductive,” Huffington concludes. “They go against the fundamental nature of the medium – and fundamental natures have a way of winning out.”

Hard to disagree there – this is an altogether different medium than TV, and the masses will vote on this with their Facebook “Likes.” However, chalking up the thinking around paywalls and new media platforms to Ludditism is in its own way an easy bit of prejudice.

It’s pretty simple to say “blogging is great” when you’re pointing to a few good news blogs, rather than the entire panoply of content offered on the platform. The majority of blogs out there in the Ethernet are conveying information that is highly opinionated, highly personal and intended for smaller groups of people than the widely read news and opinion providers Huffington is referencing.

We neither expect these blogs to be updated regularly nor do we write in when they make mistakes with spelling or grammar or fail to attribute quotes or cite sources for information. This is not how I, or many others, would feel about a commercial blog, with or without a paywall.

To argue that we’re entitled to free information on the Internet flies in the face not of the value of that information, but of the quality. Sure, it’s been helpful to be able to reference The New York Times on the Internet whenever I’ve wanted; now, depending on the article, I may have to pay for the privilege of peering behind their paywall. In the past, one either had to buy a copy of the paper or go to the library to look up an article or reference for free. If I want the kind of quality journalism that comes from objective, researched, well-edited reportage that doesn’t blur the lines between fact and opinion, I understand when I plunk down my $1.29 at the newsstand, or hand over my credit card digits online, that I’m supporting not an Old Guard institution that signifies my Luddite thinking, but the salaries of people whose years of training and experience have ripened into expertise as reporters and editors. And that is something worth paying for.

If one is calling for the best of all possible worlds, then, in my humble understanding of the notion, unpaid and paid options should be available to audiences who can choose based on their needs and interests, on the quality of the content, and the value they assign to it.