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November 22 2010

20:39

NPR, PBS Try to Tame Controversy, Embrace Tech at PubCamp

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The Public Media 2.0 series on MediaShift is sponsored by American University's Center for Social Media (CSM) through a grant from the Ford Foundation. Learn more about CSM's research on emerging public media trends and standards at futureofpublicmedia.net.

The last few months have been a bumpy stretch for public media. Due to controversial editorial decisions at both NPR and PBS, these organizations have gone from just covering the news to being the focus of it as well.



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NPR has faced withering criticism from the right for its seemingly abrupt firing of news analyst Juan Williams. The local Mississippi Public Broadcasting received similar criticism from the left after it dropped the popular national show Fresh Air from its line-up due to what it viewed as inappropriate sexually explicit conversation. And PBS came under fire for cutting controversial comments Tina Fey made about Tea Party-favorite Sarah Palin from its broadcast of the Mark Twain Prize ceremony, supposedly due to time constraints.

While each of these firestorms was put out by the institution that created the controversy, the second annual National Public Media Camp, which wrapped up last night at American University (AU) in Washington, D.C., provided an opportunity for representatives from all three organizations to share their experiences and -- more importantly -- the lessons learned. Not surprisingly, the session entitled "How to handle an online revolt" was one of the many highlights of a packed weekend of diverse discussions.

NPR social media strategist Andy Carvin's talk about the Williams incident combined his first-hand knowledge of managing a social media disaster with that of Thomas Broadus" from the Mississippi radio communications team and PBS' director of digital communications Kevin Dando. Broadus's former boss, who has since resigned, provided a casebook study of how to not respond to an angry Internet: ignoring the web at your own peril.

Carvin thanked his lucky stars that he had the good fortune to hire a comment moderating firm only weeks before NPR's home page was hit by more than 10,000 comments a day in the immediate aftermath of Williams' dismissal. Dando, whose preemptive plan to host Tina Fey's full speech online muted the conservative outcry, told the audience that even PBS.org got angry (and confused) comments denouncing the television service for firing Juan Williams (even though that was really done by NPR not PBS).

"When you have an online conflagration, you're probably better off letting users vent," Jon Gordon, the social media director of Minnesota Public Radio, observed after the discussion. "And it's interesting to hear, that is the independent conclusion reached by all three of those people who talked about online revolts. To me, that was the value of that session."

How it Worked

"The goal of PubCamp," said Carvin, "is to create an informal but high energy environment where members of the public with certain skills to bear can come and work with public media staff to find ways to collaborate with each other."

PubCamp organizers Carvin, PBS product manager Jonathan Coffman, iStrategyLabs founder Peter Corbett, and MediaShift corespondent Jessica Clark employed a freewheeling, unconference format to facilitate this interaction. Each morning, all of the station managers, fundraisers, and web developers -- as well as the larger group of public media enthusiasts in attendance from non-profits, the press, and tech community -- gathered in the large conference room provided by AU and shared ideas for sessions and discussions over coffee and bagels.

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"The entire success or failure of the event is based on what attendees are willing to propose in that first hour," Carvin explained. "That puts enough pressure on the people who come to put some thought into it and to do something constructive and interesting."

The 160 or so participants, some of whom came from as far away as Brazil and Japan, were not lacking for ideas. Out of this participatory process came informational sessions like "Metadata best practices," big idea talks like "How does public media respond to the culture wars?" as well as technical discussions about the Android mobile platform in "Collaborating with Google."

While nominally led by the person or team who proposed the topic, sessions were similarly reliant on the input of the attendees. For example, Jon Gordon of Minnesota Public Radio, guided a talk about effective use of social media on Saturday afternoon.

"I proposed that session not because I really had the answer but because I have questions to ask of the community here," said Gordon, who took over as the social media and mobile news editor at MPR earlier this year. There was enough interest that a second social media discussion was staged on Sunday morning.

Gordon attended his first public media unconference in St. Paul in 2008. This community engagement and brainstorming event, as well as another staged by Santa Cruz public radio station KUSP, helped inspire the first National PubCamp and a dozen other local PubCamps last year.

How it Succeeded

5195429417_ccb3e50097_m.jpgMany first-time attendees found the unconference process somewhat bewildering, but everyone I spoke with seemed happy with the discussion it produced.

E-Democracy.org executive director Steven Clift, another Minnesotan who was among the third of conference-goers who were not public media employees, made the trip primarily "to meet the people in the online side of public media," he said.

Clift also used his first PubCamp experience to discuss a pet issue he's passionate about: improving the quality of online news commenting by reducing user anonymity. "Local newspapers are fundamentally undermining their democratic mission -- and their brands -- by hosting poor quality commenting," he said.

NPR mobile operations manager Jeremy Pennycook was excited to meet Michael Frederick, a software engineer at Google who NPR CEO Vivian Schiller described as "a celebrity" in her welcome speech at the opening plenary.

"It's always great to develop relationships with people who are in your field but aren't doing what you're doing," Pennycook said. "It's my job to go between people like Michael Frederick who are knee deep in code and people who are content producers or making decisions about media at the executive level."

Although Frederick's primary job is programming Google Docs, he used the 20 percent of time his company sets aside for creative ventures to work with Pennycook and build the much beloved NPR Android mobile app.

How it Aims to Change Public Media

Carvin hopes future PubCamps will lay the groundwork for more open source collaborations like the one between Pennycook and Frederick. Carvin said he hopes PubCamp becomes a "movement," and noted that his primary complaint about the first full year of the organization was that it had not produced more technical advances.

"One thing that I wanted to see happen at more of at the PubCamps we did this summer was more people writing code," he said.

To foster innovation at the national PubCamp, the organizers set up a separate room stocked with food and plenty of coffee for developers. The "Dev Lounge" produced one tangible result: A WordPress plug-in that will allow users to edit, excerpt, or fully republish NPR stories. Two other projects -- an SMS polling platform and a trackback system for quotes -- were also in the works.

But the most lasting result may be the connections formed in the Dev Lounge -- and indeed within the PubCamp as a whole. At the closing plenary, the coders announced they were forming a Google Group to float new ideas and keep in touch. As Amy Wielunski, a membership manager working on fundraising for dual licensed PBS/NPR station WSKG in Binghamton, N.Y., pointed out, "just the fact that we're having these conversations is a huge step forward."

"Why would I have ever had a reason to interact with Andy Carvin before?" asked Wielunski, who spoke up at the online revolt session about how the Juan Williams incident had affected membership contributions at her station.

"I wouldn't," she said.

*****

What did you think of the National PubCamp? If you weren't able to attend, what did you think of the event coverage on Twitter and NPR? Would you attend a future PubCamp? Leave your thoughts in the comments section.

Photo of Jay Rosen by Julia Schrenkler via Flickr

Corbin Hiar is the DC-based associate editor at MediaShift and climate blogger for UN Dispatch and the Huffington Post. He is a regular contributor to More Intelligent Life, an online arts and culture publication of the Economist Group, and has also written about environmental issues on Economist.com and the website of the New Republic. Before Corbin moved to the Capital to join the Ben Bagdikian Fellowship Program at Mother Jones, he worked a web internship at the Nation in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @CorbinHiar

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October 22 2010

16:00

Using the power of publishing to influence: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s entry into the news biz

On the front page of today’s New York Times is a story on the prodigious corporate funding of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the tax-exempt group that supports business-friendly policies and has been an aggressive spender in recent (and upcoming) elections. The story, by Eric Lipton, Mike McIntire, and Don Van Natta Jr., focuses on the secrecy surrounding donors to the Chamber, which the group is not required by law to report.

But money isn’t the only area where associations can be kept quiet. For the past several years, the Chamber has also invested in its own publishing platform, running a network of local publications (print and online) that focus on legal issues in areas where business interests have been critical of the decisions of local courts. It also runs an online-only national publication called Legal Newsline.

“We’re beginning to see advocacy groups, nonprofit groups, mission-directed groups, not always evil by any means, having a particular truth that they see and a particular lens through which they look at news and they want to report news through that lens,” Jan Schaffer told me. She’s executive director of J-Lab at American University, and she pointed to Kaiser Health News, owned by the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Foreign Affairs, owned by the Council on Foreign Relations, as examples.

But there’s a big difference between the sites Schaffer mentioned — which happily promote their nonprofit parents — and the Chamber’s sites, which are published by a subsidiary called the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform. Nowhere on the main pages of the Chamber sites is the Institute or Chamber mentioned. In 2008, the most recent year available, the Institute spent $41 million (pdf) on various activities pushing for the cause of tort reform. At the same time, the Institute’s reporters are covering civil cases with large settlements and other tort reform-related news — and working for news outlets set up in some of the nation’s most tort-friendly jurisdictions.

Local publications in allegedly business-unfriendly jurisdictions

Along with the national site, the Chamber-affiliated local publications are all set in areas where plaintiffs’ attorneys have had success with class-action suits and other litigation. There’s little else that would connect the states of Louisiana and West Virginia and the areas around East St. Louis, Illinois (Madison and St. Clair counties) and Beaumont, Texas. To give an idea of the flavor of the publications, here’s the about page for the Louisiana site, the Louisiana Record:

To be sure, whether one agrees or disagrees with the happenings at our courthouses, no one should believe that what happens at them is the norm. This year, Louisiana’s courts were ranked among the most unfair in the nation, according to a survey (Harris Interactive) of top corporate lawyers and business executives.

Many accomplished local plaintiffs’ attorneys and erstwhile activists would argue that, in fact, they are the great leaders of their time, holding that Louisiana has it right and everyone else has it wrong.

On the flipside, many who drive this country’s economic engine — small businessmen, medical professionals and corporate executives — argue the opposite. They hold that plaintiffs’ attorneys use frivolous lawsuits to game the system and pillage private property. If every state were like ours, they say, America would be out of business.

At The Louisiana Record, we hope to provide an objective view of the playing field as well as an active forum for both sides of the argument so that all of us can decide for ourselves.

Similar phrasing appears at the West Virginia, Madison, and Southeast Texas sites. (The Madison site says a “welcome mat to class action filings and lottery-like awards have helped create a ‘judicial hellhole’ reputation.”)

The mention of a Harris Interactive survey refers to the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform’s annual State Liability Systems Ranking Study, which gave low marks to the jurisdictions where the Chamber publications are based.

Chamber says it does not interfere editorially

The publisher of the sites, Brian Timpone, says the Chamber is no different than any other parent company. “The Chamber is like most media owners — it stays out of editorial operations,” Timpone told me over email. “That was the deal upon which we agreed when I started the first Record in 2004 (I was a community newspaper publisher then) and it remains the deal today. Myself and my editorial team have full editorial control. There is no direction from ownership — thematic or otherwise.”

Timpone called his disclosure policy — explaining who owns the publication when the Chamber is specifically mentioned in the story — fair. He said in an email that that is when it is the best time to tell readers because it is “communicated in a useful, proper context.”

When asked for comment, a Chamber spokesperson said in a statement that it “has great respect for the norms of professional journalism. Our professional publisher, editors and reporters have strong journalistic backgrounds and skills, and operate under the highest professional standards and conduct.” The Chamber statement said it is not involved in the day-to-day of the operations, and is hands off when it comes to editorial control.

Legal Newsline has the look and feel of a trade publication, the kind read by members of the legal community, lawmakers, and traditional reporters looking for story ideas. Several journalists I spoke with said they thought the Chamber should be more upfront about its connection, even if the journalists working for them publish accurate stories.

“I think they should just put on the site that they’re the U.S. Chamber of Commerce,” Mary Jacoby, the editor-in-chief of a legal publication called Main Justice, told me. (I wrote about Main Justice in May.) Jacoby is particularly irked because story subjects on the Chamber’s sites sometimes overlap with hers, which covers the Justice Department. Several of her reporters linked to Legal Newsline in their stories before she was aware that the site wasn’t an independent trade publication. “It’s news, it’s true that they have real news and they have real reporters, but they’re writing it from an agenda and trying to underline certain ideas that they have,” she said.

The importance of disclosure

For example, the current top story at the Southeast Texas Record is “With retirement announced, tort reform groups praise Judge Jack’s impact.” An excerpt:

[Retiring U.S. District Judge Janis Graham] Jack’s 2005 decision also “laid a corner stone for future investigations of abuse of the civil justice system,” according to Darren McKinney, spokesperson for the American Tort Reform Association.

“We here at ATRA…are admiring of Judge Jack’s impact in Texas, which has long been known to be a judicial hellhole,” McKinney said. “Her decision reverberated throughout the nation.”

ATRA is the group that publishes an annual list of “Judicial Hellholes,” which it describes as “America’s most unfair jurisdictions.” Each of the areas covered by the Chamber publications is mentioned in the executive summary of the list — West Virginia as a “Hellhole,” Madison County, Ill., and the Gulf Coast of Texas on a Hellhole “Watch List,” and Louisiana’s Orleans and Jefferson parishes as “other areas to watch.”

The Southeast Texas Record story also features approving quotes from Texans for Lawsuit Reform and Texans Against Lawsuit Abuse, two groups that share the Chamber’s perspective on tort reform. But because the story does not mention the Chamber specifically, it carries no disclosure.

On the web, disclosure is perhaps even more important than in print. Readers aren’t necessarily making an active choice to consume information on Legal Newsline; as with any site on the web, visitors often arrive via search or a link from a mainstream source. USA Today, for example, has linked to articles on the site on its automatically aggregated topic pages. USA Today’s online editor Chet Czarniak said he’d take a look at the Chamber sites to see if the reader needs more of a heads up. “It’s been a while since we’ve done a full review” of the sources used in the topic pages, Czarniak said. “I think frankly, I’m now curious about the sites we have out there.”

This isn’t the first time the disclosure policy has come into question. In 2007, the Southeast Texas Record came under fire from plaintiff attorneys who said the print edition, which is distributed at the local courthouse, was a dubious attempt to influence jurors.

Nonprofit journalism is booming, at the local and national level. When our Jim Barnett was trying to suss out what makes a nonprofit news outlet “legit” in his eyes, he cited financial transparency as a key element. Looking at the front page of one of the Chamber’s publications, that transparency is sometimes hard to see.

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