A Few New Online Tools

October 19, 2010 by  
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Three years ago, I attended the first “60 Sites in 60 Minutes” session at the Society of Professional Journalists Convention & National Journalism Conference to hear about upcoming tech tools and useful websites. I remember the speakers asking who was using Twitter and about three people raised their hands (I wasn’t one of them). This year, they asked the same question and just about everyone in the packed room raised their hands – a good indication of how quickly social media has grown.

Of the 60 sites, I was familiar with many of them, but found a few new ones I wanted to share. Credit for these finds goes to the speakers: Ron Sylvester, a reporter at the Wichita Eagle, and Jeff Cutler, a freelance journalist in Boston.

Check these out and let me know if you’ve used them and what you think:

Dipity and Timetoast – These sites allow you to create timelines that you can share on the web. I can see this working well for journalists who want to create a timeline for a big story or for PR folks who want to create a timeline for a client (maybe as part of a media kit).

JayCut – Perfect for video editing on the fly, this is an online video editing tool (think Picnik but for video).

Kosmix – This tool helps organize the incredible volume of social media info. Pick a topic and let Kosmix do the searching and organizing.

Seesmic – A desktop application (and mobile app) that combines multiple services: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and even YouTube.

Storify – Gather up your favorite tweets, blog posts, videos and photos and combine them in a story you can embed on your website.

TweetWorks – A Twitter app that makes it easy to follow threaded conversations, join/create groups on any topic and have private conversations with multiple people at a time.

TwitTip – A host of resources on how to make the most of Twitter.

VisibleTweets – Random, but cool. Type in a topic and this tool find related tweets and pops them up on the screen one by one in a neat, fly-in PowerPoint kind of way.

Yammer – I’d previously read about this collaboration tool, but haven’t tried it out. It’s basically a private social network for your company that works a bit like Twitter, but you can create communities for partners outside your business, share files and create groups or small teams within your organization.

Journalism Isn’t Dead!

October 11, 2010 by  
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Hyper-local, social media, networked news – these were the phrases that kept popping up during the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Convention & National Journalism Convention last week in Las Vegas.

I’ve been attending these SPJ conventions for more than a decade, and you can almost track the changes in the industry by the conference topics. A few years ago it was much more about interviewing skills, crafting stories, mining public records and investigative reporting techniques.

All those topics are still important, but the focus has shifted to reflect the flood of technology – whether it’s social media or learning to use a video camera. It’s crowd-sourcing stories via Twitter and researching criminals’ Facebook pages. It’s journalism startups that bring another local voice to a community where the presence of two daily newspapers is a thing of the past. And it’s about remaining relevant in a profession that looks very different. I actually sat in on one presentation called “Crap! My Paper Closed!”

A couple of years ago, I’ll admit the conference was a bit depressing. Journalists all over the country – myself included – had lost their jobs due to cutbacks or closures. We bemoaned the changes and wondered what the future held.

I’ll admit this year’s convention felt more upbeat. It reinforced the belief – better yet, the reality – that journalism isn’t dead. The platforms may change, but the need for solid reporting and good writing remains. Sure, anyone can be a “publisher” thanks to the Internet, but not everyone has the skills to spend two years investigating wrongdoing, following a person through an emotional journey or dedicating long hours to the pursuit of a story.

Orwell vs Social Media

August 3, 2010 by  
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George Orwell“Modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.”
George Orwell – Politics and the English Language

(Opening a blog post with an Orwell quote? Pretentious, moi?! Well, I suppose, perhaps, but stick with me, there’s some swearing coming up.)

I’m not a great writer. I understand that. The vast majority of people writing blogs are not great writers, and that’s perfectly fine. But what really irks me are those blog writers who, rather than attempt to write clearly, deliberately write in that buzzword-heavy, cliche-ridden, business speak that is so prevalent on corporate blogs.

And especially on social media blogs.

In the essay quoted above, Orwell rewrites a well know verse from Ecclesiastes in modern English, so that:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.


Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

The point being that bad writing is not only uglier, but also more vague.

If Steve Rubel writes in AdAge that people “engage with a unit of media” he hasn’t done anything to help clarify what he is trying to say. It has a ring of scientific evaluation, but in fact it divorces the meaning from the words in order to suggest that there is a Great Big Idea hidden behind them. But he actually just means “read a book or watch a movie”.

Language like this doesn’t express new ideas. It can’t. The use of stock-phrases keeps us locked into patterns of thinking like a train unable to move from its tracks. I had someone DM me on Twitter that they were following me “because they found my content compelling”. That wasn’t a phrase they conjured up themselves, it was a phrase they had learned. A bad habit. A cliche designed to suggest a more rigourous thought than simply saying “I like what you say”. The irony* is, it has the opposite effect.

Nothing makes your content less compelling than using words like ‘compelling content’.

(*that is irony, right? Since I learned that Alanis Morissette was all wrong about what irony is I get so confused)

Now I understand that this isn’t a new thought either, but it has been on my mind lately. And then I came across this site yesterday - What the F#&* is My Social Media “Strategy”? (See? I told you there was going to be swearing).

Inspired by ‘What the F#&* Should I Make for Dinner?‘, WTFIMSMS parodies the social media world’s art of saying nothing in as complicated a way as possible, by giving you a random nonsense sentence to sum up your goals. For instance, I just clicked and got:

Activate audience by giving them compelling social experiences, encouraging advocacy

Great stuff! So I thought we could play a wee game here. Which of the following are from WTFIMSMS, and which are from actual Social Media/Marketing professionals. Ready?

“Humanise the brand by driving the audience conversations”

“(Help) to humanize the interaction with our community while maintaining brand identity and growing a centralized community.”

“Convert every one of your store associates into well-informed product experts by providing an interactive, course-based social platform/community that educates, engages, and rewards them, while showing them how they stack up against their co-workers.”

“(create) user-centric approach to social media design, implementation, and strategy that accounts for how different kinds of users engage with social media, and how sites and application design and execution lead to emergent social practices.”

OK, you get the idea. Obviously (?) the first is from WTFIMSMS, while the others are real. You get the point.

I’m sure there is plenty of hypocricy in me writing this. I’m sure there have been times when I’ve been as guilty as the worst offender. I honestly don’t mean to attack anyone in particular here. I just think it’s about time that we all slowed down a little and thought about what we are really trying to say, and how we can best do that.

And if that means quoting Orwell and getting all pretentious up in here, well, then that’s just what I’ll have to do.

Just Give that Assignment to the Computer

July 21, 2010 by  
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As a long-time journalist, an article in Bloomberg Businessweek a couple of months back gave me pause. In fact, I found it truly disturbing. It was about a new piece of technology called Narrative Science that takes data-intensive information and turns out a news story.

The example was sports stories; stats are e-mailed to Narrative Science where a computer pops out an article in just a few minutes. The Big Ten Network is using the service as is Fox Cable for its baseball and softball coverage on its website.

As if journalists weren’t concerned enough about their jobs, now they have to worry they will be replaced by computers. “There’s no human author and no human editing,” Narrative Science CEO Stuart Frankel is quoted as saying.

And if you don’t have human authors and editors, you don’t have paychecks to hand out every two weeks. Sure, it’s a significant financial savings, but at what cost? Articles won’t have the context and perspective a human can bring. They won’t have the historical information and analytical eye that trained and experienced journalists provide. It’s a good bet the writing won’t be as polished and will probably be filled with clichés and unimaginative writing.

To bring this a little closer to home, from a public relations perspective, it’s a little tough to suggest a story idea or source to a computer.

Using a computer to generate short online stats-driven stories for the website and saving the meatier pieces for the journalists would certainly be a slightly better option, yet it still takes away jobs from interns and young reporters who often cut their teeth on these sorts of assignments.

Granted, widespread use of technology like Narrative Science may be many years in the future, but whether it’s five or 50, it’s unfortunate something like this would even be considered. It’s clear more and more people assume the skills of reporting, writing and interviewing are something anyone – even a computer – can do.

Selling Out the Front Page

March 16, 2010 by  
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It’s no secret newspapers have fallen on tough times. With more people turning to the Internet for their news and a recession that put advertising sales in the tank, newspapers are struggling. But that’s no reason to comprise journalism ethics and values.

In the more than 10 years I spent in newsrooms across this country, there’s always been a distinct line between editorial and advertising – “separation of church and state” as it’s often called. Unfortunately, that line is blurring as newspapers look for any way they can to make up lost revenue.

A perfect example of this was splashed across the front page of the Los Angeles Times on March 5. The LA Times worked with The Walt Disney Co. to create a fake front page promoting Disney’s new “Alice in Wonderland” movie. A large photo of Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter covered a fake front page with the real front page pushed back to Page 2.

This incident makes my stomach churn. What it says to me is that advertising is more important than the news. It says news should take a back seat – in this case second page – to the almighty dollar.

I’m sure the PR professionals for Disney and the movie loved this concept. It was great exposure for the movie and the controversy surrounding it simply created more buzz about the film. But any self-respecting public relations professional – particularly those of us whose roots are in journalism – should value the sanctity of editorial content. There’s a reason you can’t buy coverage like a front page news story. At least that’s the way it used to be. This incident shows us apparently you can buy the front page.

Some may argue newspapers have to do what they can to survive.  Some may suggest that these sorts of promotions will keep more journalists from losing their jobs. That may be true, but at what cost? And do these journalists really want to work for a newspaper that values money over news? Newspapers should think twice before selling the front page – and PR folks should think twice before asking them to.

January Social Media Star: Meghan Miller

January 21, 2010 by  
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The television news business is ever changing. The industry has gone from news on only three networks to 24-hour news channels to the reach and speed of the Internet and social media. Meghan Miller, the Web producer for WMBF News, the NBC affiliate in Myrtle Beach, saw the power and importance of social media in TV news early on, and has been using it ever since to keep a step ahead.

We picked Meghan as January’s social media star, because she’s on the front lines of journalism embracing all that social media can do for this industry. She “gets” it where so many media outlets continue to struggle.

Meghan started the WMBF Facebook page in August 2008 with only 10 fans, but has grown the page to over 10,000! Daily, she manages multiple social media accounts for WMBF, including Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and, one you may not have heard about, Bubbletweet. Here is what Meghan had to say about social media:

What was the first social media technology you used?
Facebook. Over the years, it’s slowly become the No. 1 way I can keep a personal connection with my family and friends back in my hometown of York, Pa.

What is your favorite social media tool?
Definitely Twitter. Believe it or not, I was actually against getting a Twitter account, because I didn’t see the point in posting to the world what I was doing 24/7. Now it’s one of the first things I check on my Blackberry when I wake up – to see who’s doing what and what topics are making news in the Web world.

How have you used social media for your business/company and how has it benefited?
In all honesty, it’s one of the most important tools I use as both a journalist and as a Web producer. Social networking takes news to a whole new extreme – it allows us to see who’s doing what, what issues are important to our viewers, and really allows us to make those important connections with those who keep close tabs on our news product.

Our Facebook fan page has just exceeded 10,000 fans – many of which were gained in 2009. That’s an outlet where we can interact with our fans with a “Question of the Day” and post controversial news stories that we know will draw a response from the public. It also allows us to strengthen the push-pull from social networking sites to WMBFNews.com.

Twitter is another – I can’t tell you how many news stories we’ve broken because of Twitter and how many relationships we’ve built with legislators, community leaders, businesses and organizations because of the exchange of a few tweets. If we can’t pull any news stories off of Twitter, it at least helps us get our brains pumping to come up with new, fresh news content for our shows.
On the flip side, we can keep better track of our competition this way.

How have you seen TV news change since you started in the profession with regard to social media?
It has exploded! I can remember when we had 20 fans on our WMBF News Facebook Fan Page and 100 friends on our MySpace page. We’ve been nursing our social networking sites since we first launched in August 2008 and now depend on it for comments on controversial stories that really affect our viewers or our market drivers. Now, you’ll see a “Facebook Question of the Day” on each of our newscasts – and a big push to become a fan of WMBF News either on Twitter or Facebook.

What role do you see social media playing in TV news in the future?
I see it as a way to gather news stories, build the WMBF News brand, draw people into our product, interact with the community and share breaking news when it happens, as it happens.

How much time would you say you spend a day engaging social media?
Ha – it feels like 24 hours a day! It’s hard to gauge because my TweetDeck is always open, I’m always fiddling with UberTwitter on my phone when I’m away from my desk and always checking out Facebook. It’s a part of the job!

How do you incorporate it into your day so it’s not a time waster?
It’s hard! I make sure that when I’m at work – that’s what I’m on Twitter or Facebook for – just work. When I go on dinner break, am heading out to do a story or am on my own time, that’s when I hop on my personal Facebook and Twitter accounts.

What’s your best tip for using social media for business?
Use it as just another tool to better your product and your overall image. Don’t ignore the fact that your viewers or clients are interacting with you on a “virtual” level – it’s the perfect time to draw people in! Engage, interact and don’t ignore!

Is there a social media tool/technique that you think is underutilized that you would like people to know about?
This is where I plug BubbleTweet, I do believe! I think BubbleTweet is an AWESOME alternative to Tweets if you have a webcam. It’s been a cool way to take people behind the scenes during a newscast, break news stories on a more personal and visual level and to show people that the news is more than just TV.

Where can people find you online and via social media?

Who’s Reading Social Media? Journalists

July 7, 2008 by  
Filed under All, PR, social media

One of the biggest reasons I hear from clients for not engaging the latest technologies on the Web is “it’s just the kids who are using these things.” While I’ll save the age debate for another day (I promise, it’s not just “the kids” who are using social media tools), the point I want to make today is about a very important audience who IS using these tools for their job.

Who is it? Journalists. For those of us in public relations or those of us trying to secure media coverage, there’s no one we want to reach more than journalists. And, wow, can first getting a journalist’s attention, and then communicating with them, be a fine art (that’s why you ALWAYS need a PR pro on your side, but I’m not biased or anything…).

One way to get in front of them besides blasting them with press releases and phone calls is on the Web. A recent study of 180 reporters and editors across multiple industries found that those interviewed said the the blogosphere is having an impact on the speed, tone and editorial direction of their reporting.

That’s right. Journalists are looking to bloggers, YouTube and more for story ideas. Because Internet media can post news almost instantly, they are generally ahead of the game and a place where journalists can check in to see what’s going on, what’s being talked about and more. It’s becoming more and more common to see major bloggers, who are well respected, being quoted in traditional news stories. Twitter has become a major spot for breaking news. For example, the instant Tim Russert died it was all over Twitter.

So, even if you think it’s just “the kids” reading these blogs, watching YouTube and “tweeting,” remember, one of those kids just might be a reporter at the Wall Street Journal researching his next story. And imagine if that blog post he or she is reading is about your company.