Monthly Archives: March 2008

When protesters are outside, Twitter beats local newspaper site

A little past 9 a.m. today, a long fleet of truckers roared down the central business area of Harrisburg, all incessantly honking their horns. Some had signs taped outside their windows, revealing that they were protesting gas prices at the Capitol.

Interesting story, as anyone who lives or has an office downtown surely has heard them.

So let’s compare “coverage” from Twitter users and the local newspaper’s Web site, shall we?

Dani_PA Dani_PA PA truckers “convoying” to Capitol today to protest gas prices.Gas is too expensive, so they’re spending mucho $$ to drive w/o pay? (9:10 a.m.)

Daniel Victor bydanielvictor Trucks blaring horns on 2nd Street in protest of gas prices. Normally I’d be amused but they woke me up. Was looking fwd to sleeping in.

Daniel Victor bydanielvictor Thought it was a Three Mile Island alarm or some other apocalypse notification system.

Aaron Gotwalt gotwalt Hundreds of tractor trailers driving by the office honking their horns to protest gas prices. It’s like a hangover simulator.

Larry Marburger lmarburger I’m sure a horn-blaring truck convoy will lower the price of gas. Thank you, Harrisburg.

Greg Newman 20seven @bydanielvictor Is it that crazy downtown?

Daniel Victor bydanielvictor @20seven A bit quieter now, but still hard to hear my TV. Pennlive says they’re going to Capitol:

Greg Newman 20seven @bydanielvictor yeah, all inlets to harrisburg are supposed to be backed up, plus a overturned TT on 81 north on or at the bridge

Dani_PA Dani_PA I HATE PA TRUCKERS AND THEIR HORNS. Nonstop for 30 min. Doesn’t Harrisburg have a noise violation policy? Why aren’t they getting ticketed!

Maurice Reeves MauriceReeves @Dani_PA LOL. you must be hearing the rally at the State Capitol building. I’m glad I’m not in Harrisburg right now.

Now let’s compare that all with what readers would find at the local newspaper’s Web site at 9:55 a.m.:

Traffic around The Capital Complex could be complex this morning when 75 truckers bring their rigs without trailers into downtown Harrisburg for a 10 a.m. rally. (emphasis added)

The newspaper’s update has more details, of course. But I italicized “could be complex” because it’s predictive, where as Twitter is immediately reactive.

Twitter showed me a variety of sources, and I laughed out loud at the “hangover simulator” comment.

Twitter allowed @20seven to ask a witness — whether or not I’m a reporter, I’m sure, was irrelevant — about what’s happening right now.

Twitter allowed me to link to our newspaper’s Web site for details.

And Twitter allowed @20seven to tell me, and any of his other followers, about traffic details I wouldn’t know about any other way.

Now I’m not criticizing my newspaper’s handling of it. In fact, it shows we’ve come a long way in that a morning newspaper can tell people why there are a bunch of horns blaring outside their window at 9 a.m.

The newspaper’s Web site did as well as it could under how we currently operate. Problem is, this experience on Twitter shows how the supposed immediacy of blogging just won’t be immediate enough as more people find their way to services like Twitter.

Twitter Twial: Day Twwwo


Robin Hood: Oh, Marian, if only ’twere me.
Maid Marian: Oh, if ’twere you, ‘twould be… twerrific.

Eventually I’ll get tired of making bad jokes about Twitter’s name. Promise.

Just two days into my Twitter Twial, I have:

  • Been followed by 21 people
  • Found 39 people to follow, including 14 locals I’ve never met
  • Had conversations with five of those locals
  • Answered a local’s question about an Obama rally by pointing him to one of the blogs on my newspaper’s Web site
  • Discovered that a local blogger was at my favorite bar the same time I was
  • Found one of the bloggers at a popular Penn State blog who I’ve previously interviewed
  • Found a local teacher who’s using Twitter in the classroom and would be glad to tell me about it for a story
  • Found someone I’ve been friends with since elementary school
  • Seen a huge increase in traffic to my blog. In just two days, Twitter has now sent more traffic than any other blog out there.

And I’m working on another Twitter-related project that I’ll unveil soon.

We’ll chalk up Days 1 and 2 to the “Better than expected” column.

My one-month Twitter Twial

twitter-logo.jpgIf you read other journalism blogs, it’s Twitter this Twitter that. Twitter Twitter Twitter. Twitter will cure cancer. Twitter will save the world. Twitter is the now, Twitter is the future, Twitter will replace oxygen.

There’s a near-consensus out there, coming from a lot of people who I highly respect. People I align myself with on virtually every Web-related issue.

That’s why it feels so strange to disagree so strongly on this single issue.

I’ve just never bought the Twitter talk. I’ve never agreed that it would be at all useful for my reporting. I’ve never believed it would have any application to my social life.

But how can I ignore all those reliable voices when I’ve never tried it?

With that in mind, yesterday I began my Twitter Twial.

For one month, I’m going all-out. I started following all my favorite j-bloggers (and in return got a few followers who’ve likely never heard of me). I searched for locals. I searched for friends. I added a link to my Twitter page in my Facebook profile, and the Contact page on this blog.

I installed the Twitbin add-on to my Firefox browser at work and at home. I added a Twitter widget to display my latest Tweets on the blog here. I will feed links to my blog posts into Tweets. I’ve Twittered several times a day. I’ve had conversations there.

I’m going to give it my all for a full month. I’m going to keep an open mind for a full month. Then I’ll revisit this post and see if I’ve changed my mind about my two main skepticisms:

1) There just aren’t enough local users to help my reporting. The lack of net-savvy users in my area isn’t in my imagination. Twitterlocal found exactly one Tweet from my paper’s circulation area in the past 24 hours. And that came from someone I had already found through her blog. (A search on the Twitter site itself turns up slightly better results, but not much better.)

In my coverage area of Hershey, Pa., there isn’t a single active user.

And I’m not the only one complaining about the lack of bloggers/social media users in the area — two of the few we have, Brian Polensky and Jersey Mike — beat me to it.

If there aren’t enough people to learn from, there isn’t much of a point in me being there. I’m not going to insult or annoy the local users I do add by using my account as a link dump.

2) There just aren’t enough users to improve my social life. The only “real person” — that is, someone I’ve met in real life — with an account is a fellow reporter who shares my Twitter skepticism but is also curious about it. I asked all my friends, via my Facebook status, if anyone else was on it. No response, and searching through my friends didn’t turn any users up. So using the site to improve relationships with current friends seems pretty out of the question.

Last night, seeing Digidave ask via a Tweet if anyone was up for a 9 p.m. Taco Bell run helped me understand why it’d be such a great tool for him, and why I may never get to that point. (If only you lived in Harrisburg, Dave — I’m always up for a TB run.)

As it stands, Twitter strikes me as a great idea that only works in certain areas. Admittedly, Meranda Watling — probably my favorite blogger because I can better relate to the size of her paper and town than most of the other bloggers out there — makes me think twice about that claim.

That’s why I’m really giving this a serious try. I’m very willing to be proven wrong on this.

How many reporters would readers miss?

missyou.jpgKeep your hand down, Steve Boriss. I know your answer is “zero.”

This question struck me when I read the fond adieu that the blogger at Left of Centre wrote to Adam Smeltz, a Centre Daily Times reporter and long-time friend of mine who recently accepted a job at the Cherry Hill Courier-Post. The anonymous blogger, who otherwise doesn’t hesitate to criticize other reporters and the paper as a whole, planted this one on Adam:

I wish Adam the best of luck. He has done a great job at the CDT cutting through the Old Main bullshit, despite an editorial policy at the paper which often seems to take its cue from (the university president). … His departure will be a setback to those of us who came to depend on his reporting to see behind the Blue Curtain.

Every day, plenty of reporters leave their newspapers or switch beats.

How often do the communities they cover notice? Or care?

And how often would the community care enough to write positive, farewell blog posts about it?

I can only hope my readers would say the same of me when I leave my beat someday, and it has nothing to do with ego. If I don’t get that farewell, it probably means I didn’t write enough stories that the community really valued.

It means I either fell short of, or unceremoniously met, their expectations for the newspaper. And knowing how low those expectations are right now, that’s nothing to be proud of.

So, to the reporters reading this: If you left tomorrow, would anyone miss you, or would they expect more of the same under a different name?

How do journalists grow social networking in a small(er) town?

twitter.jpgA lot of the most spirited arguments for social media are often made in places where there’s already a tech-savvy audience built in.

Yet in a place like Harrisburg, Pa., which is home to the country’s 86th-biggest newspaper and the No. 41 television market, there are a total of nine people on Twitter who have updated their status in the past six days. A local TV station has taken the initiative to faithfully feed its headlines to Twitter, and for its efforts has been rewarded with just 20 followers.

And if you search for my coverage area — the town of Hershey, Pa. — there isn’t a single tweet from the town in the past six days.

The blogging landscape, despite a dedicated few who are doing their best to prop it up, is similarly small.

As a “traditional journalist” who embraces new media as a keystone of journalism’s future, I’ve wrestled with the question: Is it partly my own responsibility to promote new media in the area? And how would I go about doing that?

To an extent I’m doing it, but maybe not enough. I encourage better blogging practices and better blogger relations in my newsroom, of course. As part of the project, I started The Hershey Home to get people who aren’t on Facebook or MySpace to participate in the online discussion.

But individual reporters can only chip away at the problem — it would take an organization-wide commitment to really make a difference. It would require serious — not token — linking to local blogs. A significant effort to use Twitter as a distribution tool. A real two-way presence on Facebook, instead of using it just to solicit sources on regional home pages.

If newspaper organizations could somehow boost the use of social media in their own areas, it would no doubt have long-term benefits for both the communities and the newspaper organizations themselves. Outside the big cities, there are a lot of newspapers that ought to be thinking about how to do that.

Newspapers need to better explain the ‘Why’ in investigative reporting

There was a great piece of investigative reporting the other day by Dena Pauling in the Centre Daily Times, my hometown newspaper and former employer. It revealed mold problems in a local high school, and how the school’s administration failed to notify the public about it. It also prints the outright denials by school officials — which strangely changed once the reporter presented evidence and made them talk about it on the record.

It’s a perfect example of why journalists are here: To hold public leaders accountable, to encourage public disclosure, to bring significant untold stories to light. It’s why the fourth estate exists, and why it’s so important for newspapers to survive.

So why is the public’s response in the Web site’s comments section so overwhelmingly negative?

It’s a problem I see in nearly every investigative report I see, whether in my own newspaper or in the New York Times (coughMcCaincough).

Newspapers rarely tell their readers WHY these stories are important. We typically hope readers will connect the dots in the way that we’ve connected the dots, but quite often that doesn’t happen.

We shouldn’t be explaining why investigative stories are important in the wink-wink, nudge-nudge way we usually do. I’m talking a breakout box that spells it out exactly.

It would say this: You need to know that a possible health problem was covered up by your administration, because it calls into question what else they’re keeping quiet about.

You rarely see anything that direct, but every significant story needs it. Don’t hope that the facts will lead readers to that conclusion, because they often don’t get there. When we don’t explain why the story is important, it’s too easy for readers to assume sensationalism and the always-popular “selling papers.”

It was disheartening to see that response from the readers, because this is the kind of story that they ought to be thanking her for. And a public that sees no value in this kind of reporting surely doesn’t see any value in keeping newspapers around.

(UPDATE: Same goes for the series in the Ann Arbor News about academics and athletics at the University of Michigan. Great series that has left a lot of fans focused on the writer, not the content.)

What happens when newspaper reporters with no training try to shoot video

This does.

So our photographer wouldn’t have to try to juggle his still and video cameras, I volunteered to shoot some video. I didn’t say I’d be good at it, I just said I’d try it. I clearly had no idea what I was doing.

My favorite moment came when a friendly videographer there said to me: “You know your tripod goes down another foot-and-a-half, right?” Uhhh, yeah…I knew that.

I’d love to hear any feedback — since I already know it stinks, there’s nothing that could be said that would offend me. I’m just hoping that with enough practice, and much more reading before the next time I shoot video, I’ll eventually learn to stink less. Might as well be trying, at least.

And before you say anything about the lack of audio, I would have offered a voice-over had I known it was going to be put online immediately. I’ll offer to add one on Monday.

(Also — if you want to play a game, go to the front page of Pennlive and try to find the video. Let me know if you make it, and if so, how long it took you.)

Is Mark Cuban reading his blogs in binary?

Really, I won’t dwell too much on Mark Cuban in the future. I only pick on him now because I normally enjoy his blog and he’s written two blog-themed entries lately, and he sounds eerily like a lot of misguided journalists in writing them.

So normally I’ll leave him alone, but his follow-up to his previous much-discussed post needs to be picked apart, too. And I’m in a snarky mood, so I’m going to channel Ken Tremendous and go Fire Joe Morgan style on this one.

Whaddayasay, Mark?

Much is being made of my decision to ban bloggers from the locker room. To me its pretty amusing. In particular I find it amusing that there is a presumption that if a blogger works for a big company, they must be better. The logic extends to the conclusion that if only I would evaluate the different blogs and make a qualitative selection, then big newspaper bloggers would be chosen as among the best. Let me just say, that should I go that direction, that I find quite a few individual bloggers to be far better than those earning a salary to blog . In fact, some of those blogs are written anonymously.

Let’s rename “newspaper bloggers” to “journalists hired by news organizations with long-established credibility.” Then you can realize that it’s none of your business to decide in which medium we’ll report.

Which leads to my firm belief that newspapers having “bloggers” is easily one of the many bad decisions that newspapers have made over the past 10 years.

This should be fun. Oh boy, he’s about to say something in bold. I bet this is the money shot:

Never, ever, ever consider something that any literate human being with Internet access can create in under 5 minutes to be a product or service that can in any way differentiate your business.

I just drew a picture of some mountains. Metropolitan Museum of Art, you’re screwed.

Then I made myself a sandwich. All restaurants within 20 miles of me immediately closed down.

A blog is a blog is a blog is a blog.

No it isn’t.

If I worked for the NY Times, or any other media company with any level of brand equity, I would have done everything possible to define the section of our website that offers ongoing as anything other than a blog. I would make up a name. Call it say…..RealTime Reporting.

And the motto could be: “Journalists: We’re so much better than you. We’re going to do the same thing the rest of you lowlifes do, but we won’t lower ourselves to your level by calling it the same thing.”

RealTime Yankees: Catch in depth, up to the minute reports on the Yankees as only the NY Times world re known staff of Sports Writers can bring up

RealTime City Hall: The NY Times has more journalists covering the action at City Hall than anyone else. Catch in depth, up to the minute reports on NYC politics as as only the NY Times can.

Brand it RealTime. Brand it anything. Make sure you market it as having the characteristics unique to your staff that NO ONE ELSE on the net can bring.

I’ll almost sort of agree with that. There are plenty of newspaper blogs out there that have truly unique content, but they don’t do a good job of showing why it’s unique, or marketing itself as such. I’ve seen way too many newspaper Web sites where the staff blogs are jumbled together with the community blogs. Credibility is the most precious commodity a newspaper reporter has in any medium, and it ought to be fully leveraged.

So now we’re on the same page, Mark. It’d take something really stupid for me to start critcizing you again…what’s that you say?

If I were marketing for them, I would be doing everything I could to send the message that “The NY Times does not have blogs, we have Real Time Reports from the most qualified reporters in the world. Like blogs we post continuously , 24x7x365 to keep you up to speed, unlike blogs, we have the highest level of journalistic standards that we adhere to. A copy of which is available at…..” You get the picture.

“Journalists: It’s ridiculous how much better than you we are. We talk, you listen, and you’re gonna freaking like it. We wouldn’t even let you read us if we could figure out how to make money without you.”

I would also market it as an extension of the print version. All the news that cant fit in print. In the sports world, I think this is where main stream media really has dropped the ball. There is no shortage of speculation and opinions on the net. There is an incredible lack of depth when it comes to game and team coverage.

Having a blog with depth = good. Having a depository for all the crap that wouldn’t be interesting in the paper but for some reason would be interesting online = bad.

When I see content branded as a blog, I’m probably not going there unless its via a link from some other source. If I happen to find my way to a given blog multiple times, Im probably going to subscribe to the RSS feed. Even the, I don’t ever consider a blog an authoritative source. I don’t ever expect that all sources were confirmed and facts were check. Regardless of who hosts it. That’s not a good thing for newspapers.

And here we get to the core of Cuban’s fundamental misunderstanding of blogging.

Blogging is a medium. There is no inherent set of rules, or lack thereof, in blogging. Blog A is very different from Blog B and Blog C. You just can’t make any kind of assumption about blogs as a whole.

Cuban seems to be reading blogs as though they’re written in binary; apparently, they all look pretty much the same to him. He has apparently not taken the time to evaluate how one could be more credible than another — a skill all the more important when you’re reading blogs.

Ooooh, a final burst of boldface:

They still have a chance to assign some level of authority to what they produce for their websites and calling it a blog is a huge mistake.

Separating newspaper Web sites from where the rest of the conversation is happening on the Web would be a much bigger mistake. Not embracing the overwhelmingly dominant medium for conversation on the Web would be a huge mistake.

A better idea would be to lend what newspapers do well — credibility, accuracy, unceasingly high standards — to the medium that the people have chosen.

Sorry Mark Cuban: A blogger is not a blogger is not a blogger

Mark Cuban’s consistently thought-provoking Blog Maverick had a doozy yesterday.

He wrote about the situation that arose when he realized that one of the Dallas Morning News writers who was covering the team was — gasp! — a blogger. When he discovered this, he tried to revoke his credentials:

Not because I don’t want this blogger in the locker room doing interviews. What I didn’t like was that the Morning News was getting a competitive advantage simply because they were the Dallas Morning News. I am of the opinion that a blogger for one of the local newspapers is no better or worse than the blogger from the local high school, from the local huge Mavs fan, from an out of town blogger. I want to treat them all the same.

Later adding:

(I)t comes down to something very simple. A blogger is a blogger is a blogger and there are millions of us. . The name on your check, if you get a check, is irrelevant. BlogMaverick, Belo,, we is what we is, and as long as there is limited space in our locker room, we is going to be outside in the Press Interview room getting comments.

It’s a fascinating topic, and worth reading the entire post.

At first I found myself agreeing with him. Then I started to disagree. Then I was thoroughly confused.

I still don’t know what I think Mark Cuban should do about the bloggers in the locker room. What I do know, though, is that Mark is wrong about blogging.

And he sounds like a lot of mistaken journalists in his opinion of them.

NBA teams let newspaper reporters into their locker rooms because they have the highest reach, not because they have an affinity for paper. It’s all about eyeballs, not the medium.

So let’s strip away the medium and put bloggers and newspaper reporters in the same bag. They’re all just collecting information. Now can you say that an “information gatherer” is an “information gatherer” is an “information gatherer?” Of course not. From a business perspective, the Mavs would be insane to give press credentials to Johnny Highschool Blogger, with a readership of a few dozen, over the Dallas Morning News, with a readership of several hundred thousand.

If you were to remove newspaper reporters from that discussion, why would you use the same logic with the remaining bloggers? Why should Johnny Highschool get the same access as a popular Mavs blogger who has built a steady readership over several years?

People treat information sources like a democracy, and page views are the votes. The mindset that all blogs are created equal is insulting — and it’s shared by a lot of people in journalism. It’s that attitude that prevents journalists from seeing the value in blogs, and why we need to understand them to see why we’re losing so many votes.

Why I’m beatblogging: It helps the print product, too

As one of the 13 reporters in Jay Rosen and David Cohn‘s project, I’ve read a lot of response to the concept.

The Journalism Iconoclast is behind the concept, calling you an idiot if you’re a sports reporter who isn’t on the train.

In a comment on one of Cohn’s posts on Wired Journalists, Maurreen Skowran wrote: “The beats that aren’t local or regional have potential, but they are the minority.”

I strongly disagree. I set up a social network — the Hershey Home — based on a small, local beat. And frankly, I don’t see why any small-town reporter who possesses the necessary computer skills wouldn’t do that same, no matter how many stories you have to write per week.

Here’s the point most often missed: Successful beatblogging saves, not costs, reporters their time. In a fraction of the time and effort, it accomplishes all these goals that any reporter would share:

  • It can drastically increase your quantity of sources
  • It can drastically increase the diversity of your sources
  • It can positively develop your relationship with sources
  • It allows you to stay in constant contact with those sources without picking up the phone and calling them individually
  • It encourages those sources to share story ideas or current happenings
  • It can lead you into background or context to your stories you wouldn’t otherwise know about

Along with these additional benefits that the new-media types love:

  • It encourages a sense of community
  • It gets information to people in the form that they choose
  • It allows for a depth that the print product can’t achieve
  • It makes the news a conversation instead of a declaration

Now if that all were to come at the expense of the print product, we could have a cost/benefit discussion. But it simply doesn’t. A reporter can spend 15-20 minutes per day leading the discussion, then sit back and let the community do everything else for you. They’re happy to be participating, you’re happy to hear from them.

I had 30 residents sign up for my network within two weeks. It’s had its difficulties, which David Cohn is dutifully reporting on, but it’s also early.

There are many different methods to beatblogging, and I’ll have plenty more to say about it. But I strongly believe this project will make my print product better — to me, the new media benefits are actually secondary.